Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Written by Mario Puzo and Coppola, 175 minutes, Rated R.
By our guest blogger, Rob Stammitti
Equal parts Shakespearean tragedy and crime drama, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" has gone down in these past few decades as one of the undeniable masterpieces of film, ranking highly on most lists of the best films of all time and frequenly cited as the beginning of an entirely new era for filmmaking upon its release in 1972. It single-handedly introduced the world to Coppola, lead actors Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall, and is quite possibly the prototypical modern gangster film, both in its overall style and its unique and deft characterization. Also its overall cultural significance cannot be denied--Marlon Brando's iconic portrayal of Don Corleone is by far one of the most recognizable and famous performances in cinema history.
But you can babble on about its fame and influence all day long. The real question is, why is it so acclaimed? What about "The Godfather" makes it the masterpiece it is often deemed?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what element of "The Godfather" so distinctly resonates with audiences. The performances, to be sure, are spectacular, among the best from each respective star.
Marlon Brando portrays Vito Corleone, a Sicilian New York mob boss respected and feared moreso than nearly any other. Following his daughter's wedding, the old Don Corleone attends a meeting with multiple gang leaders throughout New York City. When asked to assist in a drug-trafficking scheme, Corleone refuses, deeming it too risky a venture because of his attempts to remain friendly with the city's political leaders. The Don is soon shot in an assassination attempt and survives, and the Corleone family ultimately finds itself caught in conflict with multiple crime families and the corrupt police force.
Among all of the commotion, we are introduced to Corleone's several children--Sonny (James Caan), the quick-tempered and vengeful eldest son; Michael (Al Pacino), the youngest son and the only son of the family not involved in the crime syndicate; Tom (Robert Duvall), Corleone's adopted son and the syndicate's lawyer; Fredo (John Cazale), the weak middle son who has managed to earn very little respect from his family; and Connie (Talia Shire), Corleone's only daughter.
It's not a particularly complex plot, especially compared to the politically charged and multiple-timelined sequel, and this may be one of the many reasons it is so highly regarded by audiences and critics alike. It speaks levels about honor, responsibility, morality and family, and the fair amount of time we spend with the Corleone family makes their conflicts, failures and successes all the more palatable. Also, where other well-known and widely-praised gangster films like Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino" have us view the gangster world from an outsider's point-of-view, we view "The Godfather" entirely from the poin-of-view of the family. We can accept that the things they do may be criminal and often reprehensible, but by witnessing their motivations, and even their everyday activities, it makes everything they do that much more interesting and oddly relatable.
Coppola, who had previously been known primarily for his low-budget '60s films and his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Franklin J. Schaffner's biopic "Patton," brings a sort of intimate and exquisite style to his direction that had hardly been seen in the crime genre before, and it's his direction that really makes you feel less as if you're watching a film about crime and more a film simply about a family. He doesn't allow any sort of excessive stylization to overcome the drama, even during sequences that are really quite violent (the film was one of many in the late '60s and early '70s that marked a major turnaround in the allowance of violence in mainstream cinema).
Oddly enough, the overall story arc the family goes through is not unlike many portrayed in literature and film for as long as the art forms existed (Orson Welles' sophomore film "The Magnificent Ambersons" is one such well-known feature that follows a large family from its roots to its ultimate downfall), but I think what "The Godfather" does that transcends such typical subject matter is that it captures an entire mindset of a certain era in America's history--like films such as "Scarface" did years later, "The Godfather" gives us a brief glimpse of the dark side of the American Dream, where a life built on the distinctly American capitalistic ideals could lead to tragedy and bloodshed. The '70s were a very pessimistic and rebellious time in American film and American society in general, and "The Godfather" very simply represents many of these failed and disappointing ideals.
But here's the real kicker--"The Godfather," in all its social context, thematic depth and technical mastery, is just incredibly entertaining. With the plot so easy to follow and the characters so quickly introduced and developed, there is a lot of room for thrills, romance and even some laughs. It would be a pretty dreary state of affairs were it not for the film's frequent but never obnoxious or out-of-place sense of humor. Some of the film's greatest sequences--Michael's confrontation with Sterling Hayden's corrupt police chief, the opening scene with Don Corleone sitting behind his desk fulfilling the requests of his guests with a purring cat on his lap, the racehorse's head in Jack Woltz's bed--are so iconic because of Coppola's deft use of even the most simple dialogue to convey immense tension.
The film would hardly be a success without the splendid cast--director Stanley Kubrick once called it the best cast ever put together. Obviously, Marlon Brando has received significant acclaim for his performance, probably his best known after the rather lengthy run of less-appreciated work throughout the '60s. Despite finding it a bit overrated, like many of his later performances, it's still something quite special and unlike any portrayal of a patriarch before or since.
Al Pacino's breakthrough performance is also one of his best, with his transition from nice-guy to corrupted mobster seeming all the more natural and interesting due to his fine work. James Caan has yet to top his stellar performance as Sonny, and John Cazale, who made his debut with this film and only went on to make four more before his untimely death in 1978, is at his best here as the fragile black sheep Fredo. Diane Keaton, who starred in the film the same year she started her healthy and long-lasting collaborative relationship with Woody Allen, shows great dramatic range here as Michael's fiancee and eventual wife, Kay.
However you take it, it's hard not to love "The Godfather." You can hardly find a fault in it's three-hour runtime, and even if you do it's so overwhelmed by brilliant direction, acting, writing, and music (did I mention the score is among the best of all time?) that it will be completely forgivable. Francis Ford Coppola modern work may not be so critically revered, but he is sure to never be forgotten for this work, which defined a decade, a mindset, a director, a genre, and an entire ensemble of actors in one fell swoop.
View the DVD trailer for "The Godfather" restoration below. What are your thoughts?