Director-Frances Ford Coppola
Starring-Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan
Top 100 Films-#10
Scott’s Review #196
Reviewed November 24, 2014
The Godfather is one of the most identifiable and brilliant film masterpieces of all time. It is so ingrained in pop-culture and film history and was such a blueprint of 1970’s cinema that its legend deservedly lives on. The film has not aged poorly nor been soured by over-exposure. It is as much a marvel today as it must have been when originally released in theaters in 1972.
The film revolves around the Corleone family- a mob family living in New York. They are high powered, wealthy, and influential with politicians and law enforcement alike. They are the cream of the crop of the organized crime families. The patriarch of the family is known as “The Godfather”, real name Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. The eldest son is hot-headed Sonny, played by James Caan. Middle son Fredo, played by John Cazale, is dim-witted and immature and clearly the weak link of the family. Finally, the youngest son is the central character in the film. Michael, played by a very youthful Al Pacino, has just returned home from World War II, a decorated and Ivy League educated hero. Throughout the film Michael wrestles with either steering the Corleone family business towards the straight and narrow or continuing the death, blood, and corruption that currently encompasses the family. Rounding out the Corleone family is Tom Hagen, an Irish surrogate son of sorts, who serves as the family attorney. Connie- the temperamental and emotional sister, and Mama Corleone, the passive wife of Don’s complete the main family. The various supporting characters are immense, from family friends, relatives, corrupt mob figures, and characters introduced when Michael lives in Italy.
The brilliance of The Godfather is clearly the richness of the enormous amount of characters on the canvas and the structure and pacing of the film. Even small characters are vital to the film and every scene is important and effortlessly paced so that they neither seem rushed nor drag, and the film is immeasurably character driven. My favorite character is Michael Corleone as he is the most troubled and complex. Pacino plays him to the hilt as, initially, a nice guy trying to do the right thing, going against the grain, and non-traditional- he proposes to a waspy woman who has no Italian heritage. When events develop in a particular way, Michael suddenly becomes the leader of the family, despite being the youngest son, and the complexities of the character deepen from this point. Specifically, the revenge killing sequence is brilliant as the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat through a car ride, a meal in a restaurant, a men’s room scene, until finally, all hell breaks loose, all the while Michael is conflicted, unsure, and intense. Has he veered too far from being a nice guy? Can he salvage the family business without being ruthless? Michael faces a battle of good vs. evil. The scenes are brilliantly structured- the grand opening scene alone is beautiful as the audience is introduced to the entire family- cheerfully dancing and frolicking during a bright and sunny outdoor wedding (Connie’s) at the Corleone estate, while inside a dark interior study, a man begs Don Corleone to help avenge his raped and beaten daughter by having her attackers killed. Several scenes in The Godfather are my personal favorites- the aforementioned restaurant scene, where Michael is faced with a dilemma involving a corrupt policeman and a high powered figure, one can feel the tension in this extended scene. The scene in a Hollywood mansion where poor, innocent, horse Khartoum meets his fate in the most gruesome way imaginable. Later, Michael’s beautiful Italian wife, Apollonia, has an explosive send-off. Towards the end of the film, the improvised tomato garden scene with an elderly Don Corleone playing with his young grandson. Finally, the brutal scene involving Corleone son Sonny at the toll booth is mesmerizing, brutal, and flawlessly executed.
The lack of any strong female characters and the way in which women are treated (either beaten or passively following their husbands) is bothersome, but unfortunately, circa 1940’s mafia, this is the way things were. One could make the argument that Kay Adams, played by Diane Keaton, is the strongest female character as she questions the Corleone family’s motives and attempts to keep Michael honest and trustworthy. She has little in common with the other female characters. Lines such as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Don’t forget the cannolis” are unforgettable and quote-worthy.
The finale of the film is breathtaking- a combination of bloody kills mixed in with a peaceful scene of Michael accepting the honor of becoming his nephew’s godfather. As he pledges his devotion to God and denounces Satan, the murders he orchestrated are simultaneously being executed. The character, while complex, suddenly becomes a hypocrite. Some view Michael as strictly a hero whose choices should not be questioned or analyzed- other’s view Michael as not a hero, but rather a complex, tortured, bad guy. One simply must watch The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as companion pieces, as Part I is slightly more straightforward and easier to follow than the more complex and layered sequel.
The Godfather is storytelling and film making at its absolute best and continues to influence films to this day.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Francis Ford Coppola, Best Actor-Marlon Brando (won), Best Supporting Actor-James Caan, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing