Long before I established The Screened Word, I posted my reviews on Facebook, even if at first, I did so as part of my lollygagging on social media. In one of my reviews, I looked at Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the original novel. You know me; sometimes, it’s in my nature to dive into the book before checking out the movie. You can check out my review here, but I remember this being one of the most enthralling reading experiences I ever felt. It wasn’t just because of the ingenious way Puzo told the epic story but because of the way the novel took its time to dwell on so many of its characters. They included the Corleone family, Michael’s in-laws in Sicily, and even those who had connections to the family. The Godfather felt like one of the most marvelous books that I ever read, or that was ever written, so having known about the legacy of the films at the same time, it made me more excited to scope out the movies with my acquired familiarity at the ready.
Well, here I am, ready to discuss the classic cinematic phenomenon, The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. So, what are my thoughts on it?
Just in case, let’s start on the story. As I said, the movie highlighted the ins and outs of the Mafia lifestyles as demonstrated through the activities of the Corleone family. They were one of five established - and also competing - crime families in New York City, so it inevitably would’ve guaranteed some suspicion and methods from other criminal groups to rise in power even against the Corleones. The head of the Corleone family, or the Don, was Vito Corleone, and he established the crime family’s business himself and fathered his children, Sonny, Fredo, Connie, and the youngest, Michael. Previously, Michael returned home after serving in World War II, and since then, He arguably felt like he was living in the shadows of his older siblings. Then, one day, some gunmen emerged and shot down Vito, expecting him to be dead. However, as shaken as the Corleones became over it, Vito came to only be in critical condition. So, to avoid any possible intrusions on his father’s life, Michael went over to the hospital in which Vito rested, only to discover that none of his assigned bodyguards were around to protect him, so he quickly decided to move Vito to a safer room in the hospital.
After a brief huddle shortly afterwards with Police Chief McCluskey and discovering the man responsible for the bodyguards’ disappearance, Sollozzo, Michael invited them to a dinner with him for a secretive opportunity to whack them in the name of the Corleone family. After being successful, the family personally encouraged him to vacate for at least a year in Sicily, where some of the Corleone family’s foreign associates lived. Michael quickly got settled there and even found himself a new wife. Meanwhile, the Corleone family had other problems to deal with back in New York, including Connie being reduced to a human punching bag courtesy of her husband, Carlo, and even Sonny’s death. Once Vito had fully recovered, he caught on to his son’s death, mourned him, and personally enacted a peace treaty with the other five crime family heads of New York City to cease any possibilities of bloodshed borne out of competition. Vito also asked for Michael to return home from Sicily in response to Sonny’s death; coincidentally but also discouragingly, this occurred after Michael dealt with his wife’s sudden death. So then, once the entire Corleone family had reunited, Vito personally advised Michael about the responsibilities that he would’ve had to take in the name of the Corleone family and prepared to hand the reins over to him. So, while Michael got set to do good by his father and set some examples, he also had some other ideas as he attained the new role of Godfather of the Corleone family.
Long story short, life in the Mafia ain’t pretty.
Now, before I get into my thoughts on the movie, let me bring this up regarding the movie’s production history. It was fraught with difficulties and encountered multiple obstacles that would’ve shut down the movie’s production. Marlon Brando even expressed hesitance over the movie’s potential, saying:
What are they getting so excited about? It’s only another gangster picture.
Well, despite the significant hurdles it went through, the gambles that went into this movie paid off, and then some. This film revolutionized the movie industry and went on to be on par with such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, plus Toy Story and Titanic after it.
One of the main reasons for this? Well, I think that this movie was one of the first to have focused entirely on the activities of a crime family. Sure, there were plenty of gangster films before it that showed bits and pieces of how a crime family did their thing. Still, the Godfather was famous primarily for portraying the family with so many layers and complexities to them. The members of the Corleone family, though involved in activities generally frowned upon by society, were portrayed as three-dimensional people with dilemmas and struggles of their own, to a point where you’d find yourself sympathizing with them despite the acknowledgment that they’re doing wrong things.
I also believe The Godfather pushed the envelope regarding how violent it can be, not just as a gangster movie but as a movie in general. Now, films like Bonnie and Clyde raised the bar in cinematic violence before The Godfather did. But, The Godfather pushed it even further by making the most gruesome murders and violence imaginable a regular thing among the crime families. For instance, look at how Sonny met his grizzly end at the Jones Beach Causeway when the Barzini hitmen ambushed him. And need we forget the Corleones’ retaliation against movie mogul Jack Woltz by beheading his prize horse?
Come to think of it, it may even have had a role in how sexually explicit movies can be, too. Shortly after rewatching The Godfather, my father told me that he remembered seeing it in theaters when it first came out in 1972. He told me that when Michael’s Sicilian wife, Apollonia, started undressing in front of Michael and her bare breasts were shown for a decent amount of time, this was looked at as a scandalous moment at the time. Even Romeo and Juliet, which came out a few years before The Godfather, had a glimpse of Juliet’s bare breasts, but that was for a split second. Here, it went on a bit longer, and this was part of an on-screen sex scene, something arguably unheard of before then.
No doubt about it, the Godfather had become a landmark on so many levels. So much so that it unsurprisingly came to be used in film classes across the country. I should know because long before I read the book, I remember being treated with my classmates to a scene from The Godfather as part of a film study session in college. I don’t know which class this came from - I’m sure I’ll remember sometime - but it was about Michael and his dinner with McCluskey and Sollozzo before gunning them down and killing them. One of the discussions on the scene was the use of sound in this scene. The primary example was when the passerby train noises grew significantly louder in the bathroom and at the table, hinting that the restaurant was super close to the railways in New York. Now, I see that it could also apply to the sounds going on in Michael’s head when he’s preparing himself for his first whacking job. So, if The Godfather was such a landmark movie that it was shown in film classes across the nation since then, then it had done something right.
But there’s so much more to this movie that helped make it stand out, even to me.
For starters, the movie maintained many of the core components of the story that I relished in the book. Part of that may be because Mario Puro co-wrote the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola, and it shows. He helped strengthen the movie’s focus on the levels of personality and generational conflicts apparent through the Corleones. So, whenever they came up in conversations, conflicts, or violent showdowns, you can feel the logical reasoning behind why things were done the way they were and why the people did what they did.
One of the story’s greatest strengths was its cautionary aspects of the Mafia lifestyle and how dangerous or internally damaging that can be. It showed how organized crime was a way of life, that murder was a regular thing, and that even the slightest betrayal could’ve meant imminent death. This was an intriguing topic to think of when focusing on Vito and Michael. Vito had his ways of dealing with business either for his family or his associates, and he generally did it with cunning methods and a sense of craftiness to them. And, on some occasions, like in the aftermath of Sonny’s death, he attempted to seek out peaceful negotiations with the heads of the other Mafia families. So, Vito was not always dangerous to his fellow man, as he was smart and attempted to find common ground while also dealing with those who betrayed him as astutely as possible. Whereas Michael? He initially didn’t want to be part of his family’s criminal lineage. But through a series of attempts on his father’s life, on his life, and intertwinements with enemies from all corners, he steadily concocted ways of dealing with them to a point where he grew in experience, willpower, and brainpower until he finally became the next Godfather of the Corleones. However, his ideas of being Don Corleone stemmed more out of tragedy and started being built more around power and the wellbeing of his family. When he sought out traitors to the Corleones, even his family members weren’t out of the loop. For example, as he came to tie up all his family’s loose ends at the end of the movie, he whacked Marco, Connie’s husband, after discovering he had affiliations with Barzini, whom Vito warned Michael was a traitor. His other hits along this lineup included Barzini himself, plus Phillip Tattaglia, Moe Greene, Stracci, and Cuneo. And even though it ensured the safety and stability of the Corleone family, Connie’s and Kay’s reactions suggested that it came at a massive, massive cost; it made him and his family rise in power but ironically made him sink within the family totem pole.
That’s one element of the movie I’m starting to respect significantly about The Godfather: the emotional strings it pulls on you. When you see Carlo beating Connie repeatedly, you want to see him get what was coming to him. However, once it did come, whether it concerned Connie or not, it instead came like a dagger to the heart. I dealt with other films that attempted emotional manipulations on me despite my logical ways of reacting to it, and sometimes, it came in bad taste. But here, its ways of convincing me of what’s right or wrong came forth with admirably satisfactory results.
This was bound to happen, but I found it fascinating to see what parts of the book transitioned into the movie and what others did not make the cut. Now, I will admit, this movie felt slightly more condensed than the book. But in no way did this movie lose any of the epic grandeur and complex, interwoven familial and Mafia-influenced conflicts I greatly admired about the book. For example, one-fifth of the book focused on the aftermath of Johnny Fontaine’s big break in Hollywood with movie deals after being turned down by Jack Woltz. This showed the lifestyle he acquired in Hollywood thanks to his negotiations with the Corleone family and sections of his family dilemmas. It was interesting to peruse through, but its exclusion from the movie was probably for the best; it distracted too much from the Corleones’ story. Another fifth of the book even had a section dedicated to Vito Corleone’s backstory, detailing how he came to America and rose into power upon his settlement in New York...but that’s a critique for another review.
Once I finished the book, I also remember Kay Adams kneeling in church, sitting beside Tom Hagen as she tried to wrap her head around everything that went down ever since Michael’s inception as the next Godfather of the Corleones. But, ultimately, she just relaxed and prayed for Michael. This was interesting because even though she started to second-guess her commitment to Michael and his family organizations, she still loved him to some degree. I understood that this scene was translated into film but was snuck in somewhere in the televised miniseries version of the film, AKA The Godfather Epic. So, who knows how this scene felt in film until I get around to it.
There’s something about the movie’s cinematography that I admired as well. The shots interlaced throughout the film captured the tense scenarios of the criminal lifestyles, made the more beautiful parts of the settings much more stunning, and perfectly captured every emotional complexion apparent in the characters, especially in close-ups. They even helped emphasize the regal splendor of Sicily, the ambiguity of New York City, and the richly ominous tidiness of the Corleone house. Even the shots of Las Vegas were not too shabby, either. They captured the general niceties of life in Las Vegas while emphasizing a sense of foreignness to them.
The colors also helped bring the movie to life. It was no Technicolor splash like with Gone with the Wind, but the use of yellows, grays, and reds in the film heightened its atmosphere and its general mood regardless of what occurred where.
Most of all, I can’t help but notice a slight little tint of yellow throughout the movie. At first hearing, you may think that it would’ve made this movie look washed out, but instead, it added to the movie. It gave the film a very grainy look, and surprisingly, it helped it give off an illusion of being a faded frame picture, not too different from the ones you would generally see of anyone or their families. This felt like just the right shooting style to use for the story of the Corleone family.
The music by Nino Rota greatly enhanced the moodiness, melancholia, and soft aggression of the movie. Parts of it embodied the traditional customs of Italian culture, which gave the film its elegance. However, the music also succeeded in giving off a sinister and eerie undertone, emphasizing the likelihood of something nastier hiding beneath its more dignified and polished surface, like with the Corleones. And the horn themes helped hone the ominous facets of both the Corleone family and the movie.
The performances? As well as the characterizations? My God. Not only are these some of the finest that I have ever seen, but even the most enthusiastic fans and critics of this movie were right to call them some of the finest of all time. And that’s just putting it mildly. Not one character in the film felt uninteresting or dull, and not one single performance felt fake or flawed. On the contrary, they were all just perfect.
I feel like it’d be too redundant to talk about the performances and the characters separately. They’re all fantastic, and they all synced into each other quite thoroughly.
Robert Duvall wholly owned his role as Tom Hagen. Being previously adopted by Vito Corleone and treated like a de facto son, Duvall honeD Hagen’s sense of reasonableness and high-ranking modesty. He took in Vito Corleone’s commands while also taking in those of Michael Corleone with confusion and then with begrudged acceptance, which added to his interest as an extended member of the Corleone family.
Every time she portrayed Connie in the movie, Talia Shire made her look a complete nervous wreck. And whenever she was in a more pleasant mood, she helped give Connie a proper disposition, even for someone from the Corleone family. However, every time she had to put up with Carlo’s beatings or even retaliated against Michael after he murdered him, she looked nearly unhinged. It felt like she was ready to lunge for the attack but was too weak and powerless to do so. It was a terrific performance, and it displayed Connie and her insecurities wonderfully.
James Caan perfectly encapsulated every natural aspect of Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone’s character. His political intertwinements suggested that he was the most involved of Don Corleone’s offspring in his father’s family business. But the only thing backtracking him was his tendency to take things too personally. Sonny was quickly at the ready to annihilate whomever he considered enemies to the family, and when he got word about poor Connie being subject to Carlo’s beatings, he launched himself onto Carlo, ready to flat out tear him limb from limb. Caan conveyed these emotional façades with genuine conviction. Even in some scenes where he was being funny or poking fun a bit at Michael, he still made him look like a decent and well-meaning, yet too emotionally involved, young man.
Al Pacino made quite a splash as Michael Corleone. At the beginning of the movie, he started as a regular, average young man ready to lead an everyday life with Kay. But once he expressed some concerns for his family’s wellbeing and committed atrocities for their welfare, he slowly but surely transformed into a cunning, composed, and cold master of his own kingdom. He became preoccupied with what he considered just causes, even though they got him into hot water from within and without, and, in a sense, he demonstrated the long-term consequences of being asked to take over in a family business affiliated with crime, power, and order. By the time Michael murdered Marco, he had said it was because of his affiliations with Barzini, a far cry from Sonny, who was after him to avenge Connie. So, when he said, “it’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business,” he really meant that it’s business. Pacino graced every inner turmoil Michael ever had with stunning results, and by the time Michael took the mantle of Don Corleone, his presence and dominion became nothing short of intimidating. It was little wonder that he became a star and synonymous with the gangster genre after The Godfather.
Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone arguably redefined the general portrayal of the Mafia boss. Before then, they’d usually be identified as intimidating, macho, had rough voices, maybe had a cigar in their mouths, I don’t know. But Marlon Brando gave his character a more mellow, relaxed disposition, coupled with a raspy voice that would’ve sounded nothing like what you’d expect to hear out of a crime boss’ mouth, yet this was a perfect match. Of course, when he was agitated, his voice was such that it was slightly rough and manly, so that’s two sides of Marlon Brando’s acting that helped texturize Vito’s character. But it gets better. The raspy voice stayed with Vito throughout the movie, even as he was getting sick. So, then, it went from being a unique voice OF a crime boss to that of a frail old man who was preparing to hand off his cape of leadership to the next one in line. In the last leg of Vito’s life, Brando even had it where he made him a tender father outside of being the collected Don of the Corleone family. His performance just felt multiflavored, did his character wonders, and set the standards of general mob bosses since. For this reason, Marlon Brando truly earned his Oscar for Best Actor, whether he accepted it or not.
Now, I found Diane Keaton’s performance, especially compared to the rest of the performances in the movie, to be relatively standard, like she was not as into it as the others. But after letting it sit and rewatching her performance in the movie...her ordinariness as an actress ironically worked to her advantage. Kay Adams had parents back in New Hampshire, so she may have come from a regular family before becoming part of the Corleones, a Mafia family. Her performance worked because of how standard it was; it helped make Kay feel more like an outsider.
I especially love this final scene in the movie, where Kay, in despair, confusion, and conflict, looked back at Michael, who had just become Don Corleone, as the door closed on her. Her facial expressions looked and felt as if they were asking Michael from afar:
You did kill him, Michael... didn’t you? What have you become?
In fact, the scenes at the very end where Kay started showing underlying contempt for Michael and his morally ambiguous actions, as well as for the Mafia lifestyles? For me, this was where her performance and character started to gain a little more substance and become much stronger and more fascinating.
Like with Gone with the Wind, every word of praise ever uttered about The Godfather for what a revolutionary breakthrough and a cinematic miracle this is was 100% justified. It redefined the gangster genre, the plethora of writing, performances, music, and characters were some of the best ever to be assembled, and it highlighted the Mafia’s inner workings, on top of the dangers of either seeking power within it or intertwining with it.
Consider this an offer you can’t refuse. Because let’s face it: how can you?
My Rating: A+
Jones, J. M. (2007). The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay. Black Dog & Leventhal.