Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Screenplays by Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo; based upon the novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo. Produced by Albert S. Ruddy [Part I], Francis Ford Coppola [Part II]. Music by Nino Rota. Photographed by Gordon Willis. Edited by William Reynolds, Peter Zinner [Part I]; Barry Malkin, Richard Marks, Peter Zinner [Part II]. Productions designed by Dean Tavoularis. Starring Marlon Brando, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, John Cazale, Robert deNiro, Robert Duvall, Michael V. Gazzo, Diane Keaton, Al Letteri, Lenny Montana, Al Pacino, Talia Shire, G.D. Spradlin, Lee Strasberg, Abe Vigoda.
Some movies pass through our lives. Others lodge inside the cracks and stay there. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II, are special films, not just because of their acting, or direction, or storytelling, but because of the way they posit, establish, and maintain a singular, sweeping worldview. Many movies tell inside stories about the mafia, and they usually center on questions of morality. What does society say is moral? What does it say is immoral? These narratives are informed by what we, as viewers, consider to be wrong. But The Godfather movies are alien to such compunctions. They do not dismiss them so much as stand firmly outside them. Certainly no reasonable citizen would argue that the mafia is not an evil organization, and yet The Godfather creates a closed system where reasonable citizenry is silent. The rules do not apply. We sympathize with the family because it is our family. And in this world other mafia families are evil, because they are not like ours. They are against us.
The key to understanding this approach is not an original critical observation of The Godfather, but bears repeating: throughout the film, we get a window into the life of gangsters that is as inclusive as it is selective. We are invited to sit in on meetings in well-furnished offices between powerful and desperate men. We begin to understand the tactics that will determine warfare between New York mafia families. We get to know the people involved. We see meals, and tender family meetings. Desperation. Scraps of joy. Triumph. What we do not get to see, pointedly, is the fruits of this labor. We see no shakedowns from racketeers, no gambling debts gone bad. No prostitution rings, no extortion in action. Murders, when they occur, are fiercely contextualized so that we consider them just. These other things no doubt happen regularly in the world of The Godfather, even within the world of the Corleones, but the movie does not deal with those things, because its key story is about power, not crime. Crime is of course the method in which such men attain power, but that’s beside the issue.
Is the strategy here then a cheap dodge? No. It is a reflection that a movie, when properly balanced, can allow us to lend empathy to anyone and anything. If someone is always the hero of his own story, then if you tell that story and not someone else’s, you truly have something. While the characters of The Godfather are capable of real evil: they have done, are doing it, will do it again—we like them on some level, because we understand their actions, the pressure their under, and their lives. With the right material and the right author, we put our reservations on hold because we feel comfortable giving ourselves to another perspective, without worrying about whether we will find our way back when it’s over.
It’s truly ingenious, the way the first Godfather, by way of setting the scene, raises and dismisses our notions of conventional decency. The screenplay (together by Coppola and author Mario Puzo) is brilliant the way it builds. Consider the strategic approach of its opening scene. Think about its first lines, spoken in a darkened room to a panel of dangerous men: “I believe in America.” Notice how the speaker, Bonasera (Salvatore Cositto), painfully recounts his broken faith in the system, telling the story of how his daughters’ rapist was let go by the police with a slap on the wrist. The man he is speaking to is Don Corelone (Marlon Brando), and Corleone’s response: “Why didn’t you come to me first?” is so simple and yet so subversive, so oddly warm, and so deviously designed to burrow into our brain. The message is clear: the American system of law is a failure. For protection, one must go to the Godfather. Period. We’re convinced.
Such a strategy alone would be eventually ineffective, however, if it wasn’t mingled with The Godfather’s secret weapon, which is, oddly, nobility. Brando’s portrayal of Corleone is oft-imitated, not only because it is so distinctive (those jowls, the slurring of speech, the small-but-theatrical hand gestures) but because Don Corleone is in many ways admirable. He loves his family, and shows shame when his business dealings erupt in violence. He tries his hardest to teach his sons good values, and has a special pride in his heart for Michael (Al Pacino), who is a war hero and respectable man. And his fall comes not through greed, but through conservatism: he dislikes the growing market of narcotics, seeing it as a bad ethical match for his empire. And notice the exchange right when Bonasera requests his daughter’s rapist be murdered: “That I cannot do.” Why? “That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.” Mob retribution is something we normally see as senseless and without restraint, but Don Corleone insists on operating within a system. A twisted system, yes, but a system nonetheless.
I’m not saying that Don Corleone is truly a good man by our normal standards. I’m saying that the story of The Godfather makes him appear to be a good man, by cleverly hiding from view what makes him, perhaps, a bad one. Later on we’ll receive more backstory for Vito, and our suspicions are confirmed that to become a mafia don, one must be prepared to kill. But even then such decisions are couched within the concerns of how a man will provide for his family. A key line of dialogue that appears again and again in The Godfather and its sequels is the notion that sudden violence is “business, not personal,” and while that seems like a soulless justification, it does get at the heart of the concerns of the different characters. In most cases they harbor no ill will towards the persons about to be killed, but their being alive is bad for business, and business is the lifeblood of a man’s prosperity. It’s like a nightmare version of our American Dream, and one that in our hearts most of us can relate to. CEO’s make similar decisions all the time, only with companies instead of people. So, then, people.
The key institution that informs the story of The Godfather is that of family. It’s no coincidence that the first scene, in the dark office, takes place within the context of a backyard wedding. Nor is it any coincidence that here the Sicilian tradition of a man not being able to refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day is referenced. The subtext: “Family is why we do what we do.” During the course of the lengthy opening sequence, the characters are brought on stage with a deliberation matching Puzo and Coppola’s overall method: the blushing bride, Connie (Talia Shire). Sonny (James Caan), the hothead son who retreats to a backroom for a quickie with his mistress. Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), who is a vicious man but is first seen rehearsing for his upcoming meeting with The Godfather, so nervous is he. Clemenza (Richard Castellano), who looks like your standard wiseguy but is established as he is breathless and fragile from celebration. Tessio (Abe Vigoda), a Mob enforcer, is first seen dancing with a little girl, her feet perched on his polished shoes. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Vito’s “son” and consigilere (Mob lawyer, essentially) is first seen watching and thinking, as he always is. And then there is Michael, who is just visiting and stands apart from the family, and tells his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) a horrific story of Corleone brutality, and then wraps it up with the hardly comforting statement: “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”
Not really, as it turns out. It is Michael who chooses to become part of the family’s business when an assassination attempt leaves the Don hospitalized. It is Michael who cleverly figures that another attempt is coming and so hides his father in another part of the hospital. And it is Michael who proposes the idea of killing the villainous Sollozzo (Al Letteri) and his corrupt cop lackey, in two marvelous sequences: the first is the actual brainstorming, in which Michael’s voice is so powerful he actually takes command of the camera, which suddenly zooms towards him. The second, more visceral sequence occurs in a meeting at an Italian diner where Michael agitates under the words of Sollozzo—which in a neat touch are not translated, because the scene is told through Michael’s point of view, and Michael doesn’t care what is being said. Then he kills him.
Next comes one of the most lyrical and moving sequences, where Michael lives in Italian exile and falls in love with a girl, Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)—somehow the affair retains a delicate nature even though it is brokered by Michael’s strong-arming of a bar owner (in a nice scene). The relationship with Appollonia may seem on the surface pointless given how things develop with her in the film, and especially since Michael eventually returns and rekindles his relationship with Kay, but I think It’s entirely useful. Again we are directed toward’s Coppola’s theme of family: the alienated Michael starts one only after his official entrance into the Corleone syndicate, and although Michael’s family is soon robbed from him, the beautiful Italian sequence provides a mythic import, as Michael essentially is born again and then dies (and not helped by the matter is the concurrent death of Sonny). When he comes back home, he is a broken, cold man, and all too eager to pick up the reigns of the family empire.
The final passages of the film come fast and furious: Michael ascends to Godfather as Don Corleone steps down and begins making ruthless decisions, not least of which involves Moe Green (Alex Rocco) and his own weasely brother, Fredo (John Cazale). He deals with traitors in his midst coolly, like a computer making a final calculation. The death and funeral of Vito becomes the breaking point where outright war is declared between the families, but all through respectful smiles. In a virtuoso climactic sequence, Michael oversees the death of all the other Mafia dons while standing at his nephew’s baptism, becoming a Godfather in both senses of the word at once. And In one startling moment, Michael comforts his brother-in-law into admitting his full culpability for many deaths, obtains some key information, and then watches his murder dispassionately. Unfazed. Then he lies not only to his sister about it, but also Kay, shutting her out of his world forever (in the movie’s iconic final shot).
The Godfather Part II, however, is a different animal. Some argue that it is better than the original. Some say it’s not as good. I find such distinctions largely pointless, because in many respects it is exactly what it claims to be: the second half of The Godfather. Not only does the structure support this reading (the film alternates between prequel and sequel scenes that essentially sandwich the first film), but the escalation of Michael’s nature is seamless when transitioning between Part I and Part II. No wonder that Coppola once reedited these movies saga for television viewing, and put the scenes in chronological viewing. There’s just no disconnect. In fact, at times it’s difficult to discuss both films individually at all.
In many respects, The Godfather Part II exists as a hollow echo of the original film. That is not a criticism, but a acknowledgement of artistic intent. Just like the original begins with a backyard wedding celebration, Part II opens with a party at Lake Tahoe, in honor of Michael’s son’s first communion. Just like in the first film, the party scene is intercut with scenes from the don’s office, but while Vito’s meetings were paternal, Michael’s are cold and angry, even when dealing with his own family. A miserable Connie now begs her brother for money to feed her third marriage, while the trusted family member Frank Pentangelli (Michael V. Gazzo) is appalled at Michael for valuing a business decision over blood. And then there is Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), who we grow to dislike not simply because he hates the Corleones, but because he is corrupt and racist. Again, note how Coppola and Puzo carefully reinforce their insular world.
But if the original film is an establishing of the comforting patriarchy of The Godfather, then the second is a vicious deconstruction. While the first film takes pains to romanticize Vito as a giant amongst thugs, Michael is broken down into—essentially, a husk of a man. Perhaps that informs the decision Coppola makes to open up the film’s world and allow inside the elements that were carefully guarded against in the first film: we see prostitutes in the brothel that Fredo operates (and Sen. Geary frequents, that hypocrite). We see more violence, and it is ugly. We get fallout from Michael’s uiltimate actions in Part I. In the climax of a stunning opening, an attempt is made on Michael’s life, in his very bedroom, something that would no doubt gall the families we meet in Part I. The world has changed, perhaps even due to Michael’s influence.
This sets up the backbone of the present story in Godfather Part II, which details Michael’s attempt to piece together who tried to have him killed. The suspects are many, and in a tour-de-force of Machiavellian plotting, he plays an extended game, lying to all of them, guessing intentions. He plays so close to the vest that half the time even we don’t know what he’s thinking. This quality makes the second film more inscrutable than the first movie, but also more rewarding upon reviewing. Note the beautiful way a key piece of information is set up that calls into question Michael’s brother Fredo. It’s not really underlined. Instead we are invited to follow the discussions, to think along with Michael, and to share his shock when he pieces things together in one cutaway that only reads as an expression of shock to those who have been following along. So cold and remote has become Michael Corleone.
It’s not that we blame Michael for acting the way he does, as it’s clear that he must adapt in order to survive. But we do pity Michael, because in doing so he fails to follow in his father’s footsteps. Don Vito, though a gangster was one that we would be forgiven for thinking of us as compassionate. Sensitive, even. He had big plans for Michael—legitimate plans, and when those were dashed he fell into despair. Family first. Michael, in his pursuit of new business, loses sight of Vito’s good judgment, reneges on his own promise to legitimize the Corleone family, and grows so obsessed with eliminating those who could possibly hurt him that he turns on his own family: Connie, Fredo. Even Tom Hagen, who is gradually shut out of more and more meetings as the series progresses, is suspected. And Kay is held mostly in reserve until a powerful final few scenes with her that describe the trajectory of Michael’s very soul in grisly detail.
This cold tragedy is contrasted in Godfather II with flashbacks that tell the story of Young Vito (Robert De Niro), who arrives in America after the rest of his family is murdered by a Sicilian don, and finds himself soon drawn into the world of organized crime by his neighbor, Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and his dire financial straits. In one spellbinding sequence he executes an elderly don and moves in on his territory by scampering across rooftops and ambushing the man outside his apartment. The old New York scenes in Part II are so good you wish there were much more of them. As much as they add additional dramatic punch by informing Michael’s journey, after all these years I still can’t help but feel there’s a separate and perhaps even better film still to be found within this material. If there’s a problem within Godfather II (and if you feel comfortable calling it a legitimate problem), it is that there is a bit too much of everything, also not enough.
The flashback scenes are compelling and add much to the narrative, but in the end this is all about Michael. How odd, that a story about the downfall of a man who operates a criminal empire should affect us so much, but it does, because we can relate to Michael’s love of his family and we cringe when that last bastion of civility is stolen from him – first by others, and then by himself, through greed, corruption and evil. At the film’s close, Michael stares into the abyss, and when we see his eyes so empty, we pity a good man who has become a bitter monster. It’s awful and heartbreaking and really quite delicious.
The entire story is told with peerless technical skill. The screenplays of both films pick and choose elements from Puzo’s work to bring to the screen and thankfully ignore others. Nino Rota’s music is deservedly legendary. The cinematography by Gordon Willis is breathtaking—even more vibrant in the new restored version now in wide circulation. Willis, who is frequently called “the prince of darkness,” creates a high contrast world that suits the material, finding texture not just in the darkness of the Don’s chamber, or the blinding sunlight of parties, but also dreary scenes on the street. And Michael, who comes from one world but lives in another, is often treated with layered consideration. Note the moment where he confronts Carlo, and his face is half-shadow, half-lit, and yet it never reads like an artificial stylistic flourish. Expressionistic lighting is one thing, but making it fit within the world of a story is another.
I suppose I should say some words about the acting. It is flawless. Brando, of course, is now so imitated and parodied that it’s difficult to really note the specialness of what he does here. We see him prideful but not arrogant, and genuinely caring about his sons in ways that, really, will break your heart (see his reactions to both Sonny’s death and Michael’s plight). Pacino, as Michael, has the trickier job of being so internalized that at times he barely registers. He has a reptilian quality as he ascends to power and then fights to keep it, doubting at every moment who is doing what to whom, and keeping those thoughts to himself. De Niro (who together with Pacino are the only people to win Oscars for playing the same role) not only does a terrific imitation of Brando, but also makes the character his own. And then there are the smaller-but-still-crucial actors like Caan, Cazale, Shire, Duvall—they possess these characters wholesale, even when charting the huge changes that the passage of time does to them. Shire, not usually singled out in reviews of The Godfather shines in the way she eases her transition between the happy bride of the first film and the Connie of Part II– alcoholic, angry, tacky. She’s practically playing a different character but she makes it work.
The only actor that gives me pause in this discuss is Keaton. This is not meant to knock Keaton in general or even her performance in either film (although I think her first line in Part II about the baby inside her is just plain bad). I think both films don’t really have much time to deal with the Kay character, and so we get big gaping question marks about her and Michael’s relationship. What is Michael thinking when, a year or more after returning, he comes back to Kay and proposes marriage? At what point does their relationship sour? What is she thinking at any given moment. Part of this is strategy, to protect the nasty surprise that is sprung on us late in the game, but I still feel Kay is in this story more as a symbol than a character, which is a tough position to put an actor in. As a result, Keaton never finds the tricky way to navigate the character. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not distracting. But we could use a whole lot more of her thoughts to motivate her, and we don’t. Compare the device of the mob wife narrating her own story in Goodfellas, which was revolutionary at the time and now strikes us as quaint.
Coppola, still operating in the same mode within which he brought us The Conversation and Apocalypse Now (and writing the screenplay for Patton), is at the top of his form here: as a storyteller, as an artist. The tales of how these films were made have become the stuff of movie legend (he lived every day under the fear of being fired while making the first film), and although he may have been selected for this material mainly due to his Italian-American heritage and not necessarily his skill, it matters not. It is one of cinema’s great tragedies that the experience of making what could be his best film (Apocalypse Now) essentially destroyed Coppola’s hunger for the intelligent epic. As much as I admire some of his later work, I still cannot help but feel that a great artist has been lost. I should note for the record that as much as Coppola’s 1990 follow-up to his epic, The Godfather Part III is misbegotten, Coppola has gone on record saying he looks at it as less a sequel and more a post-script. In other words, it may not be very good, but not even its creator wants us not to focus on it too much.
As I said before, some movies stay with us. Certainly that is true of The Godfather. It is one of those bedrock American classics that everyone has seen, or at least claims to have seen (I hate that practice, but appreciate the dilemma contained within it). Why does it make such an impact? I think because, regardless of your ethnicity or background, The Godfather is a cautionary tale that speculates and comments upon things we hold dear: the dueling institutions of family and prosperity. We may not be able to instinctively sympathize with bloodthirsty killers, but we are perfectly willing to try If they have motivations we understand, and these characters do. Consider the character of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, who operates under the same principle: he is a violent monster, but he is also cultured and lonely, and somehow he stirs something within us. We forgive him his sins. And, by intentional contrast, we find it so hard to forgive Michael, because by the end he has betrayed his every principle, and thrown his remaining scraps of morality onto the altar of his own narcissism. He is a man with untold millions, and yet what does he really have?
What are the ultimate lessons of The Godfather? Treasure your family. Be as good a man as your circumstances will allow. Keep your friends close and enemies closer. Forgive some betrayals. Don’t push away those who care most. And above all: leave the gun, take the cannoli. What does that really mean in life? Well, when you have that one figured out, you have everything.
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