Director: Francis Ford Coppola
There is little to say about The Godfather that hasn’t been said much before. Since its release in 1972, it has gone down as one of the most loved, revered and quoted films of all time. And for good reason. It is one of those rare films which gets everything just…right.
Adapted from Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel (with the author himself co-scripting the film along with Coppola), The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone family – the largest of the five crime families based on New York. Presided over by ‘Don’ Vito Corleone – or the Godfather to those who rely on him – the film (as does the book – more or less) with the wedding of the Don’s only daughter – Connie, to a local crook Carlo Rizzi. Throughout the ceremony, the Don is visited by a number of Italian-Americans in need from his help, ranging from helping a baker’s apprentice being able to stay in the country to marry the baker’s daughter, to a funeral director seeking ‘justice’ on the two boys who savaged his young daughter. The scene serves to introduce the Don, his business and the importance of his family – consisting of three sons, the hot-headed Sonny, the soft but well-meaning Fredo, and the elusive youngest, Michael. With them is his adopted son, lawyer and family Consigliere Tom Hagen. Michael, a youthful soldier fresh out of World War Two, begins as an outsider – unimpressed with his family and the business they operate, describing in detail some of his father’s business tactics to his girlfriend, Kay Adams. The now-legendary horse’s head scene ends this particular sequence, and the story morphs into the attempts by the other crime families, headed by a dubious hoodlum named Solozzo, to convince the Corleone family to enter the narcotics trade. When Vito declines, mob war ensues. The story then follows the progress of the family and the eventual development of Michael Corleone from the role of holistic outsider to the reluctant saviour of the family and, eventually, a crime boss to rival even his father. The story takes place over a period of nearly a decade (but admittedly it is not always clearly time-framed).
The film is, quite simply, a demonstration of how you can adapt a book for the big screen without losing much from the original source. Very few plot points are changed, and whilst certain ‘fat’ had to be trimmed from the book, none of the trimmings take away from the story – no doubt thanks, at least in part, to the fact that Puzo was adapting his own work.
By all accounts (not lease of all Coppola’s own), the film was a nightmare to make. A relentlessly interfering studio nearly ended up costing Coppola his job and, if they had had their way, the cast as we know it probably wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Brando (then considered a liability, both in terms of his work ethic and his box-office potential) and Pacino (a young, unknown newcomer) wouldn’t have made it, and thus the two central characters would have ended up completely different, and no doubt the film wouldn’t have become the cornerstone of cinema that it now has. But maybe the tensions, for all the problems they no doubt caused, were also what helped make the film the masterpiece it now is. Sometimes art and work is best created under pressure, and where an artist has to solely rely on their own belief and determination, in the face of all opposition. It’s the story of the success of the underdog.
Certainly, time has proved Coppola correct on all accounts. The cast is, without exception, perfect. Each of the Corleone family is a unique and memorable individual (although Fredo doesn’t really come into his own until Part 2), and so each actor has to match this. Aside from Brando, Coppola recruited a cast of youthful and relatively unknown actors, avoiding the ‘all star cast’ approach which, while a box office draw, is not the most effective way towards artistic success. It was a bold move, which paid off. Brando created a thoroughly individual take on the role of the Don which goes even beyond the way he was portrayed within the original material – in almost every way, he looks exactly like the sort of doting Italian grandfather you would expect to see roaming the streets of old Italian towns.
Previously an unknown, Al Pacino found himself launched into stardom thanks to his portrayal of Michael – and marked the start of a number of critically lauded appearances within quick succession (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and, perhaps most notably of all, The Godfather Part 2) He plays the role of the detached outsider convincingly, dressed up as the true American hero in his army uniform for the initial wedding sequence. His performance is flawless throughout, and matches Brando for screen time and, quite simply, significance in terms of driving the movie forwards (something he seemed to acknowledge himself by reportedly being offended at only winning the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ role in the many awards that the film was afforded).
Plenty could be said for the rest of the cast (and it has…) – James Caan is perfect as Sonny Corleone, catching the passion, ambition and irrationality of the character, and Dianne Keaton captures the essence of the Kay Adams character splendidly, acting as the film’s only real moral compass. My personal favourite of the supporting cast though has to be Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen – reserved, intelligent and ruthlessly efficient in carrying out the whims of the family (arranging for a horse’s head to be cut off and placed in a man’s bed as he sleeps isn’t exactly easy, you know…). Duvall essentially plays him as a ruthless businessman – albeit one who is as much a part of the family as the three sons themselves.
The film features a range of secondary characters, ranging from family members such as Tessio, Al Neri, and Clemenza, to a range of ruthless adversaries – Moe Green, the other heads of the ‘Five Families’ (Tattaglia, Barzini, Stracci, Cuneo), Solozzo, the police chief…the story is rich in plot and all these characters, even those who only get a few appearances, are carefully cast and perfectly played. Truly, there isn’t a role miscast here.
The script is a thing of beauty – memorable and highly quotable dialogue crafts a story emphasising the importance of family to those who are bund by a life of crime, you can really tell that these people, for all their faults, are human and love each other in a way many would be jealous of. Coppola make a point of building up these scenes which show the family bonding – from the opening wedding scene to Michael and Vito talking their plans for the future in their garden over wine, he also makes a point of not showing us exactly what sort of criminal acts the family gets up to. We know the family is involved in gambling, prostitution, extortion and plenty of other acts, but we never actually see it. To do show would weaken the sense of attachment the audience develops for the family. The only criminal acts we see the family commit is when the family is itself under attack –including the ruthless ‘Baptism and Murder’ sequence at the climax. That itself is arguably another display of Coppola’s boldness in making the film – to show the casinos and the brothels and even the drugs would have probably been a ‘safer bet’ to draw in audiences – plenty of action to keep people interested. But in avoiding this and focusing on the family, it gives the film a deepness which few others can match.
The music is as hummable as the script is quotable. Put together by Italian composer Nino Rota, the music is simple and consists of a few minor pieces, led mainly by a sinister, solo trumpet player, which is placed within the film with brilliant effect and serves to lift the mood of every scene it appears in. The very final scene in particular is the best example of this – the score seeming to kick in at the precise time that Michael waves goodbye to his innocence and final chance at redemption, before the door is (quite literally) shut for good.
All things put together, the true hero of The Godfather is Francis Ford Coppola. For all the obstacles thrown in his way, he crafted a movie of truly unrivalled brilliance. While he can’t take the credit for writing the story, acting the parts or playing the music, it was his brilliance and his own artistic talent which pulled these different strings and threads together into a masterpiece of filmmaking. What’s more, he probably helped to give an invaluable boost to mob movies as a whole – no longer confined to the 1930s and 1940s, he brought the mobsters back to the big screen in a big way. Crime drama wouldn’t be the same without him.