The Godfather is the iconic mafia film. It brings you into the Corlone family so perfectly that even if you don’t feel like you are a member about halfway through the film, you understand the family dynamic and the characters very well. They aren’t sympathetic per se, but they are understandable because for the three hours of the film you’ve been brought up in the same conditions they were.
The film begins with a wedding, on which the Godfather (Marlon Brando) cannot refuse any reasonable request and with this in mind is listening to the plea of a man who wants revenge for his daughter’s attack. This is one of the only times in the movie where we get a sense of why Don Corlone started all of this in the first place, and it is more fully examined in Part II. The American system of justice failed this man, and he can only turn to the Godfather for help. The Don points out that he was foolish to have trusted in it in the first place, and agrees to help him in exchange for his loyalty.
This is how the Godfather operates. He collects people like this to sustain his empire. He has enough support within the established political system to act outside of the law to accomplish this type of “justice” and also help people in a more constructive way. The very same day he promises to obtain citizenship for a Italian about to be sent back home without his fiance. There doesn’t seem to be much harm in that. The Corleones get into trouble with another request asked on a different day though. Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo is a drug dealer looking to set up a business in New York City and offers to give the family a part of the profits in exchange for their protection and some start-up cash. Though the consigliere (lawyer/advisor) Tom Hagen (Rober Duvall) and the eldest son and heir apparent Sonny (James Caan) both want him to go for it, the Don refuses on moral grounds.
His refusal costs him. Sollozzo goes after the Corleones, kidnapping Tom Hagen and attempting to assassinate the Don. It’s not so easy to displace the Godfather though; “they hit him with five shots and he’s still alive.” Sollozzo tells Tom that he still has to convince Sonny to take the deal, which was his objective in kidnapping him in the first place. It still applies because even though he’s alive, the Don’s not going to be making decisions for awhile so the control passes to Sonny for the time being. It really is better for everybody if he deals with Sollozzo, but Sonny’s so pissed off that there’s no way that’s going to happen. That’s when a solution comes from an unlikely source.
Micheal Corleone (Al Pacino) is the youngest son and the only one with a college education. He’s just back from serving in World War II, a conflict the rest of the family stayed out of. His life choices have clearly distanced himself from the family business; he’s dating Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) a wasp schoolteacher from New Hampshire with an innocent curiosity about the inner workings of the family. Micheal is nearly as reluctant to explain it to her as he is to join in, but just as surely as he succumbs to the explanation he succumbs to the actual wrongdoing. Sollozzo wants to meet with Michael; everybody knows he’s as close to a neutral party as can be, but they don’t know what his father’s near death experience has done to him. Michael agrees to meet with Sollozzo, who brings with him his bodyguard: a crooked cop (Sterling Hayden) who punched in Michael’s face earlier.
Micheal kills them both, in one of the best murder scenes ever. It is all planned out earlier, so the tension in this scene is momentous. When Mike goes to retrieve the gun that was planted there earlier there is a moment when he can’t quite find it that always worrys me a bit. Right before he shoots them he has such a conflicted expression; I wonder if it is representative of a moral dilemma or just trying to get the timing right and not being sure when to strike. Though it doesn’t go exactly to plan, he brings it off well enough. He then has to flee to Sicily to avoid the ensuing war between the five families and any police retribution.
He hangs out in Sicily for awhile, visiting the town his father came from and also getting married to a Sicilian woman named Apollonia. Yeah, bet you didn’t see that coming. It seems totally arbitrary for him to marry this chick, but all in all I wish it had worked out. Though they initially weren’t going on much, the short time they are together seems to go pretty well. I still feel like this marriage would have worked out for everybody way better than his marriage to Kay (which happens when he comes back; Apollonia dies from a car bomb that was meant for Michael). Of course, that would have deprived me of one of the best scenes in Part II, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Kay hasn’t been raised in the mafia culture; even if she understands what’s expected of her she can never fully accept it and it’s just going to be another conflict for this already crumbling family. So even though I’m normally against love and/or marriage at first sight, I was fine with it in this movie because when you’re watching The Godfather you just accept how they do things. When in Rome, I guess (or Sicily for that matter).
Michael is eventually able to come home through the death of Sonny and a subsequent truce negotiated by the Don. This negotiation scene is another one of my favorites from this film. It’s a great look at the politics of the five families, and also it’s pretty much the last time you see the Don taking control of the situation and fixing everything. He really has a commanding presence and it’s especially obvious in this scene. He’s survived five bullets and his son’s death to make peace with these guys. He does, and Michael is able to come home. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because peace has been made there is no danger, because there is. Immediately after this conference the Godfather knows who was at the bottom of all of this, once again displaying his immense wisdom.
After Michael gets back he marries Kay and takes over the family business, which of course he had told her wanted no part in. He tells her he’s going to turn it legitimate, but I honestly have no idea how she bought that. I suppose she doesn’t have as much information as we do, but still. He sounds different and acts different, why didn’t Kay see that? Every time I watch this film I always mentally yell at Kay to stay away from Michael but she never does. Alas. This brings me to my absolute favorite scene in this movie, which is the scene where the Don is imparting wisdom and telling Micheal how he never though that he would be the one to succeed him. This is the other meaningful scene in terms of the motivation for the mafia: self empowerment. It doesn’t seem greedy here, just a right. Again, when you put this in context with Part II it makes more sense, but it’s also a touching scene between Michael and his father. You get the sense that the Don is slipping a bit here, and when Michael tells him not to worry I always get a little choked up. He dies in the next scene, so when you know that’s coming it’s even more moving.
In the film’s last moments we see Michael descend into the world of the mafia, brutally ordering the deaths of several people. Some of them are “family members” who betrayed them, others are outright enemies or people who are just getting in the way. These executions are intercut with Michael becoming the godfather of his nephew. He is becoming a godfather in more than one sense of the word, which is pretty ironic. Now that I come to think of it, the Don got shot either on Christmas or around it, so Coppola uses the ironic religious context more than once. It’s definitely more obvious in this murder montage though. Michael’s descent only gets more obvious and tragic in the very last scene, which like the rest of the film, is undeniably great.
It’s hard for me to say exactly what the best part of The Godfather is. The acting is really good, only some of the supporting people aren’t so great but they’re so minor that it doesn’t really hurt the film that much. The way they capture the time period is also very effective and there are many fedoras, so I’m a big fan. Even though the film is just short of three hours and is paced quite slow, it never gets tiring. I’ve also read the book (which is also really good) and this is one of the best adaptations I’ve come across. They leave some things out, but not the important stuff. The score is also fantastic, very haunting and very Italian.
The Godfather was nominated for eight academy awards, but only won three. I was pretty surprised at that actually. It was nominated for best actor (Brando), best picture, best adapted screenplay, three supporting actors (Pacino, Caan, and Duvall), costumes, directing, editing, original score, and sound; it won the first three. It was withdrawn from the original score competition because it was not original enough, using material from a different film score in a new way. Brando famously did not accept his award as a protest against misrepresentation of Native Americans in cinema. I had heard that story before, but one I had not heard was that Pacino did not show up either. It turned out not to matter because he didn’t win anyway, but he was protesting against being considered a supporting actor when he was actually playing the main character. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brando and he did awesome in this film, but I kind of see what Pacino’s getting at. The Godfather is about how Michael becomes the Godfather and he IS the main character. Oh well. I’m also very astounded that Coppola didn’t win best director. At least the Academy got the best picture part right.
“I never wanted this for you… But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars