Historical Circuit: The Godfather (****)


BrandoWritten as a pulp novel, the studio brought in little known director-writer Francis Ford Coppola believing they could control him to make the film they wanted to see, something very different from The Arrangement (1969)…something successful. Paramount had no idea that they had just hired one of the most stubborn and willful young men in the business, who saw his chance to make a film about something different than just the book, but rather a film about the corruption of the America Dream, and family.
Think about it for a minute.
The Corleone family are of Italian descent, Vito having been born in Italy but forced to flee as a child, left alone to be raised by strangers, but who found love, had a family, made the decision to murder and prospered as a criminal, rising to the position of Don of the most powerful Mafia family in New York in the years after the war. He allows his sons to work for him but does not ask of them to do so. There is enormous love between this father and his sons, and they truly love one another. They are a family just as we have families, but their business happens to include murder. He brought to the film an operatic story of a father and his sons and their business, and the tragedy that befalls the youngest son, being drawn into the family business after being a war hero, never wanting to be involved, but doing so to avenge an attempt on his father’s life.Coppola had no interest in the cast Paramount suggested, which included Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Frank Sinatra or Laurence Olivier as the Don, with Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, David Carradine or Martin Sheen as any one of the sons. Coppola had other ideas. He wanted little known Al Pacino for the role of Michael, easily the film’s best part, James Caan as the hot headed Sonny, John Cazale as the weak Fredo, Robert Duvall as the adopted son Tom, and in the coveted role of the Don, he wanted Marlon Brando. Aghast the studio shut the idea down, at which point Coppola threw himself on the floor in the throes of some sort of seizure.Obviously he got his cast, and the rest, as they say is history.
Well almost.
He went through the shoot worried about being fired all the time, with Elia Kazan the most obvious director to step in and finish the film. Finally Brando stepped forward and said in defense of his director, ‘If he goes, I go” and Paramount backed down and allowed him to make the film he wanted to make.
The result was astounding. Not only did Coppola create one of the greatest of American films, he emerged as one of the top directors of the decade, his four films directed in the seventies all among the finest works of that ten year span. In nothing he had directed previously did the gifts he displayed in this film manifest themselves. He did everything right, everything was flawless, and he would actually surpass the work with The Godfather Part II (1974).
There are so many moments in the film that come to mind right away when discussing the picture. The famous wedding scene, patiently executed, allowing us to get to know each of the character’s; the murder of Sollozzo and the police captain in the restaurant by Michael; the attempted murder of the Don and Fredo’s pathetic reaction; Sonny’s attack on Carlo, and then of course, Sonny’s horrifying murder; Michael’s counsel with his father, the many times they sit and speak about the business at hand and how Michael will handle it and the final sequence
where Michael’s enemies are murdered, consolidating his power while he stands godfather to his sister’s child, forever becoming the godfather. There is remarkable intimacy between the characters in the film, in particular the father and his sons, as though they had known one another for years. In many cases they do not even have to speak to get their communication to one another, including Tom Hagen, who is counsel to the Don. While most of the attention surrounding the film went to Brando, the film’s best performance is that of Pacino as we watch him evolve from the idealistic war hero at his sister’s wedding, very much an outside, to the cold blooded and ruthless killer who becomes the Don with his father’s blessing. It is an astounding piece of acting, one that announced him as a major new talent, as good as anyone else out there, and certainly good enough to hold the screen with Brando.
And Brando? Brilliant, as a man who chose a certain road and does not apologize for any of his choices, but rather lives by them and a certain code. He loves his family, and will do anything to protect them, no matter what that means. No where do we sense we are watching a forty seven year old man acting a seventy plus year old man…he is seventy plus, he is Don Corleone, it is utterly brilliant. They talk in acting schools of inhabiting the character, of owning the role, and Brando does precisely that throughout the film. Though on screen only thirty minutes (maybe) in a three hour film, his presence is everywhere in the film.
Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Richard Castellano and Abe Vigoda all deliver brilliant performances in one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled for any film.
The Godfather was criticized in some circles for glorifying the mob and violence, but in my mind it did no such thing. The violence in the film is brutal and swift, and the result is almost always death, which is equally sudden and immediate, changing the lives of the characters involved forever. There is no glory in the deaths within this film; they are ugly and bloody and carried out often in cold blood with direct purpose. How does that glorify?
The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and on Oscar night it seemed as those Cabaret (1972) was going to take home most of the awards, winning Oscar after Oscar. When Bob Fosse won Best Director over Coppola, it seemed that The Godfather would be among the great masterpieces not to win a Best Picture Award. That changed however when the film did indeed win the award, along with Oscars for Brando (which he refused) and Best Screenplay, shared by Coppola and Puzo.
No other American film of the time had the impact on current cinema as The Godfather, from the impact on pop culture, to the quoting of “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” to the second rise in method acting, through the work of Brando and Pacino. An entire generation of movie actors and directors seemed born out of that film, with American cinema never being the same. Here was a film that managed to be a work of art and a work that was extraordinarily popular at the box office. You see there was a time audiences went to see good films, and more, knew they were good and appreciated them as such.