US (1972) Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Of all the classic films that regularly feature as close the top as possible in the Greatest Film Ever lists that I’m coming to far too late in my film buff life, The Godfather (and its sequels – although I am aware the third is the least well received) has to rank as one of the heaviest hitters. I genuinely feared that if I failed to enjoy or at least appreciate this film I would wake up with a horse’s head in my bed tomorrow – and I can’t imagine the fact I don’t own a horse would be a problem either!
The story, from the novel by Mario Puzo, as we all know (or should know) tells of the shady blood soaked mafia life of the Corleone family, headed by the titular Godfather Don Vito, an Oscar winning role for the legendary Marlon Brando. It’s an iconic performance which has not only provided the template for every mafia boss in cinema since but also is the basis of a thousand bad impressions and spoofs in its wake. Similarly it ranks highly among the most quotable films too, including the deliciously ambiguous “an offer he couldn’t refuse” accompanied by the aforementioned horse’s head in the bed scene, another moment fondly recreated and lampooned.
There is a lot going on to fully recap but as so much of it is largely well know already I’ll try to be brief. Set in late 1940’s New York, on the day of his daughter’s wedding, where a mafia Godfather can’t refuse a request, Vito is asked to consider joining a new drug racket by Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), who already has the backing of the Tattaglia Family, rivals to the Corleones. Vito refuses upsetting the Tattaglias who attempt to assassinate Vito. While he recuperates eldest son Santino aka Sonny (James Caan) takes over the family business and immediately plans his revenge. Youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) who Vito didn’t want involved in the family business is drawn into Sonny’s plans and by the end of the film (huge but obvious spoiler), he becomes the next Godfather.
What happens in between has become the stuff of legend and is frankly a superbly crafted, often violent but fully engaging drama with one of the richest cast of characters created for one story. It’s easy to see why so many of the key scenes are now highly regarded as classic often imitated to within an inch of their lives. Michael’s restaurant scene, Sonny beating up his sister’s abusive boyfriend in the street, Vito playing with his grandson in the tomato garden and the fabulous montage of the christening taking place while a series of bloody revenge hits are carried out, the last is visual poetry.
If it isn’t the varied members of the Corleone family themselves then it is the heaving crowd of supporting characters who become indelibly etched into our memories; from the Corelone’s trusted lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to the various people they encounter, help or despatch along the way – including Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) and singer Johnny Fontane (legendary real life crooner Al Martino, who had the first ever UK no 1 single, trivia fans).
While this was the film that catapulted both Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino into the spotlight, making her big screen debut here is Woody Allen’s favourite muse Diane Keaton who plays Kay Adams, Michael’s long suffering girlfriend and eventual second wife. An infrequent role one assumes she becomes a more prominent player in the second part seeing as she is now Mrs. Godfather. There are a host of future big names in the cast (Caan, Duvall, Talia Shire aka Adrian from the Rocky films) and recognisable faces whose name you want remember, all of whom commit themselves completely to bring the script alive with complete authenticity and conviction.
What stands out about this story is not so much the extreme violence and the tit-for-tat revenge murders that occur but how everything is actually about the family unit. It’s probably easy to forget this but the majority of the characters, while reacting on emotion, do so because their families have been either disrespected (in their eyes) or their safety and protection is required. Vito even says quite didactically that a real man is one who is devoted with his family. Whatever faults the mafia have their motives are less about usurping other families and their territories – at least not without asking first – but about going about their business and keeping it respectful….until someone refuse the offer they’ve been made that is…
It seems rather futile to carry on simply heaping praise on this film or justifying why its Oscar wins were so richly deserved (a feat the sequel would repeat two years later), since there are many other reviews, essays, books and theses that can better express this then I can. Much like many other classics I’ve been slow in discovering, I am glad I can now cross this of my list while also feeling confident that I understand its beatified status among classic films.
Should you be reading this and have yet to see The Godfather then I can say with confidence that you can believe the hype. It’s over 40 years old but it hasn’t aged a jot and still engages, entertains, shocks and carries a clout like no other film. I await my viewing of part two with bated breath and nervous excitement.