Godfather, The (1972)
Release Date: March 24th, 1972 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Francis Ford Coppola Actors: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, John Cazale
he Godfather” is appropriately considered one of the greatest of all films, winning innumerable accolades, including the Best Picture Oscar of 1972. Its influence on filmmaking is no less than positively vital, changing the way America would perceive gangster flicks and crime drama for decades to come. Far beyond mere mobster exploitation, “The Godfather” uses its three-hour runtime to develop characters so unique, complex, and vivid that almost every one of them is universally recognized and quoted – it isn’t until “Part III” that there are any flaws in the scripting (and acting) whatsoever. Countless scenarios, dialogue, and viewpoints were introduced into pop culture with this groundbreaking historical masterpiece; ironically enough, the original idea was to make a short, low-budget mafia actioner.
The setting is 1945, New York. As is tradition, the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), cannot refuse any requests asked of him on the day of his daughter’s wedding. As the grandiose event ensues, guests line up to speak with the considerably influential man for favors ranging from vengeance to getting a big time movie producer to cast Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), Corleone’s godson, in a career-rejuvenating picture. After the wedding, the Don assigns his men to carry out the tasks, starting with sending Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the family lawyer and adopted son, to California to deliver a message (“an offer he can’t refuse”) to the studio exec, which winds up involving his prized $600,000 horse in a very famous, very gruesome scene. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the youngest son, isn’t a part of the family’s various criminal enterprises, instead opting to be an Ivy League college kid and war hero. He has returned home for the wedding and now dates Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), a pleasant woman unfamiliar with the Corleones’ way of life.
Meanwhile, underhanded Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) has just come to town and wants a million dollars to start up his narcotics business. Another powerful organized crime family, the Tattaglias, are already involved to provide protection. When Corleone respectfully refuses, Sollozzo becomes enraged and quickly orders strikes against the godfather and his men. Don Corleone is gunned down near his office, just barely escaping with his life. Tom is captured and forced to act as a negotiator to prevent Santino “Sonny” Corleone (James Caan), Vito’s eldest son, from retaliating. After Michael visits his father in the hospital, he discovers that crooked police captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), in the pocket of Sollozzo, has arrested all of the Don’s bodyguards to prepare for another attack on the incapacitated elder to finish the job.
“It’s not personal Sonny. It’s all business,” asserts Mike as he convinces his brother to let him assassinate Sollozzo and the dirty captain, as the idea of further negotiating gives way to revenge and the stifling of an opportunity for the five organized crime families of New York to unite against the Corleones. But there’s a lot of money in the white powder – drugs are the things of the future. Tom realizes the potential power and the cops and politicians that could be bought (political influence and legal protection), but Sonny, in charge while Vito recovers, remains hotheaded. Mike is shipped off to Sicily to hide until things in America calm down, and while the cops crack down on the majority of the illegal operations in the city, putting stresses on all the syndicates, Vito remains unhappy that Michael, the son he had higher hopes for, has had to begrime his hands in the family’s illicit affairs.
One of Coppola’s major focuses is on the importance of friends and family – boasting a stark disparity with Frank Capra’s favored theme. One exemplifies affluence and sway, the other happiness and satisfaction, yet both filmmakers have achieved prominence as illustrators of American life, even if they employ attitudes and tones of complete oppositeness. Several subplots exist to accentuate this concept, including Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) and her abusive husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), and Michael’s marriage to a Sicilian woman, Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), during his stay in Italy. Later, the emphasis switches to the hypocrisy and futility of how the Corleones are raised to treat family, especially when Sonny continues to visit his mistress and the business begins to encroach on Michael’s ability to remain diplomatic or loving, primarily with Kay. His transformation upon his return from Europe is phenomenal, demonstrating Pacino’s sensational acting skills – which would earn him four consecutive Academy Award nominations, starting in 1972.
As enormous henchman Luca Brasi ominously suits up in a bulletproof vest for an enforcer mission, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays in the background – the first of many artistic contrasts magnificently edited together for emphatic effect. The best takes place near the conclusion, when Michael agrees to be the godfather of Connie’s child: a religious, moving ceremony plays out simultaneously as the new don’s order of bloody carnage is carried out against his enemies. These innovative sequences help to cleverly pace this lengthy epic, which manages the unusual feat of never offering up a dull moment. “The Godfather” also features unforgettable music (a solemn, noirish tune composed by Nino Rota), inspired supporting performances (it would receive three Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations), a fitting style of darkened cinematography, precise direction, thrilling violence, and tragic drama, which rounds out a solid piece of enduring entertainment that deserves every bit of its extensive, celebrated reputation.
– Mike Massie