40 for 40 – #21. The Godfather
#21 is quite simply, one of the greatest films of all time.
Perhaps more influential than any other in Hollywood history, it’s a movie etched in the memories of all who’ve seen it. Mesmerising, beautiful and incredibly re-watchable, it’s a must-see film for audiences of any generation.
Just watch out for the oranges…
#21. The Godfather (1972) Marlon Brandon, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Back in the day, movies didn’t come much bigger than this.
Released in 1972 and directed by master filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather became a once-in-a-generation film that 99.9% of people agree is nothing short of outstanding.
Based on the best-selling novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather may not have been the first gangster film, but it is undeniably the most influential. Without this movie, other great works centred on organised crime or the ‘Mafia’ like Goodfellas, The Untouchables and television’s The Sopranos may never have been made. They certainly wouldn’t have been as good.
The 1970s was an interesting time for movies. A decade that was quite possibly the best all-round era for blending wonderful storytelling with groundbreaking film-making. Wedged between the idealistic sixties and the materialistic eighties, movies of the seventies were less often obliged to adhere to the standard good vs. evil routine, more inclined to delve into character-driven narratives instead of plot-obsessed or ‘standard’ A to B to C storylines.
Characters were often presented as real people. Warts and all. Rarely are the antagonists of seventies films perfect people with angelic ethical codes. They have character flaws, selfish motivations, lustful weaknesses and most importantly, varying degrees of morality. Popeye Doyle, Randle McMurphy, Travis Bickle and Harry Callahan are perhaps the seventies’ biggest anti-heroes, loved by audiences across the globe.
Coppola played a huge role in this then-Hollywood-trend. Thanks to him, The Godfather isn’t afraid to take chances by including Italian traditions (and yes, stereotypes), yet still manages to portray its characters as well-written, complex people, not just live-action caricatures. Each character is carefully refined, with a variety of nuances and often-understated motivations. By doing so, Coppola creates a number of psychologically-interesting and multifaceted protagonists and antagonists, ranging from downright villains to misunderstood heroes, sympathetic underlings and overly-ambitious bullies.
Coppola also uses a number of figurative tools to craft the story. One example is the opening scenes with Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his various meetings with those seeking favours on his daughter’s wedding day, a day (as we’re told) that no Sicilian can refuse any request asked of him.
These opening scenes not only establish Vito as the dominant head of ‘the business’, his political pull and underworld power, but also symbolise the entire Corleone Family with one of cinema’s greatest on-screen metaphors.
Outside, where the wedding celebrations are occurring, everything is loud, colourful and cheerful. Yet inside, everything is quiet, clouded by shadow and sinister. Just like Vito: Openly warm and loving, yet secretly dark and dangerous on the inside.
Coppola also isn’t afraid to let a scene breathe, with long, wide shots that allow us to watch his characters sit and think in silence. There is no choppy editing or unnecessary cuts / close-ups, just a well-told story unfolding before our eyes. It’s a subtle technique mostly lost in today’s CGI / explosion filled, quip-heavy blockbusters.
The wedding scenes also perfectly sets up the characters by introducing them quickly-yet-succinctly, almost as though the viewer is also a guest, rapidly meeting a variety of strangers, one after the other.
Obviously, Godfather and Family head, Vito. His loyal surrogate son, lawyer and consigliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), feisty and lascivious first-born, Sonny (James Caan) and Michael (Al Pacino), the quiet and sensitive young war hero.
We also meet well-meaning-but-naive, Fredo (John Cazale) and Michael’s ‘girlfriend’, idealistic and slightly-fearful Kay (Diana Keaton).
Continuing the themes mentioned before, Kay is usually dressed in bright colours in contrast to the dark, ‘shades of grey’ surrounding the Corleone Family and their associates.
Coppola also employs, of all things, oranges, as his harbinger of doom. Oranges appear throughout the movie whenever death is near, such as the meeting of the heads of the Five Families, who don’t survive to see the credits. Oranges also appear moments before Vito’s shooting in the street and his eventual death while skylarking with his grandson.
Speaking of Vito, his introduction to the film also helps establish his ‘code of honour’. While somewhat duty-bound to oblige any request made on his daughter’s wedding day, he remains true to himself and his own set of (albeit-twisted) values. His mantra of ‘favours now for favours later’ sows the seeds for more than one plot point elaborated upon later in the movie.
We see a couple of requests of Vito, but none more iconic than that of crooner-come-actor, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino). Rumours have always speculated that Fontane is meant to symbolise Frank Sinatra – and re-watching the movie, it’s hard to argue against.
Whatever the case, the result of Tony’s favour is an iconic moment from not only this movie but all of cinema history. The bloodied horse head in the bed of studio head, Jack Woltz is eerily unforgettable, and yes, oranges appear in front of Woltz at his dinner with Tom that seals his stallion’s fate.
As Vito Corleone, Brando’s acting is suburb. The opening scene with the playful cat shows a thespian who cannot be distracted or put off by the unpredictability of animals (and later, children).
Vito’s character also services the old saying, ‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons’, as they are in this movie – physically with Sonny and later symbolically with Michael.
Like almost everyone in this film, James Caan produces a wonderful acting performance. Sonny’s aggressive nature is evident immediately upon his entry to the film, when he smashes the camera of the reporters trying to gain a view into the wedding.
Later, Tom desperately tries to maintain order during Vito’s absence, despite Sonny’s warmongering tendencies. It’s a tough scene to watch on repeat viewings, because we know that despite how calm and rational Tom is, he is never going to soothe Sonny’s temper.
Sonny’s anger becomes his major character flaw, wanting nothing more than to execute his enemies at the drop of a hat, without thinking through the consequences. And nothing epitomises Sonny’s demeanour more than when he learns his sister, Connie (Talia Shire), has been physically beaten by her husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo).
Unfortunately, Sonny’s enemies know him too well, choosing this moment to strike on his hot-headed, clouded thinking, ambushing him at the toll station in another iconic scene.
Like Bonnie & Clyde before it, The Godfather changed the way Hollywood showcased violence, paving the way for filmmakers (to this day) to portray cinematic violence in a grim and gritty fashion.
Again, Brando reveals why he was considered one of the best actors of all time when Vito is forced to face the consequences of his criminal lifestyle. He knows his life has led to his family suffering on his behalf, epitomised by the scene where he visits Sonny’s corpse in the morgue.
Vito’s death is yet another iconic scene, expertly acted by Brando. The clever script also helps Brando with its irony: For a man surrounded by violence his whole life, Vito’s demise comes not from an enemy’s bullet, but a sudden heart attack while playing with his grandson.
The whole scene is testament to Brando’s talents, as Vito goes from play-acting to legitimately suffering the throws of death; all while his grandson unwittingly believes everything is a game.
The Godfather’s score is easily one of the best of all time. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more notable piece of music in all of cinema. The signature theme appears throughout the film, mostly accompanying acts of violence or implied underworld activity. It’s haunting, somewhat-frightening at times, but also soft, soothing and seductive, just like the Corleones and their lifestyle.
While the movie initially focuses on Vito, the story is ultimately about Michael. It’s the tragic tale of how an idealistic young man, uninterested and almost disgusted by his family’s business, turns into a merciless, all-out gangster, one even more cold-blooded than those he once rejected.
In my personal opinion, early Pacino was the best Pacino. The soft-spoken and subtle actor from Dog Day Afternoon and Scarecrow. Pre Dick Tracy Pacino, before Scent of a Woman Pacino, when he transformed from a high-pitched, almost nasally-voiced actor, into a gruff ‘Big Daddy’ or ‘Foghorn Leghorn’-styled caricature.
In The Godfather (and especially Part II), Pacino is at his best. There’re no wild eyes. No unnecessary shouting. No odd ticks or movements. Just pure, unadulterated acting.
Michael being so moralistic in the beginning is needed to show his eventual decline into what we know he will become. When Michael reluctantly explains to Kay how his father often makes others ‘offers they can’t refuse’, you can see he’s ashamed of his family, going so far as to separate himself from them when he also tells Kay, “It’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”
Like the aforementioned scenes with Tom and Sonny, Michael’s early introduction is also sad to re-watch, since we know that he will soon become what he hates in the worst way possible.
The movie details Michael’s character change in several steps. Vito’s attempted assassination is the first in turning Michael towards the Family ideal, as is the abduction of Tom.
The second attempt of Vito’s life in the hospital shocks Michael into action, first moving his father into another room to avoid detection, but after that, his confrontation with NYPD Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden) reveals the corrupt nature of the world he tried so desperately to stay away from. It also leads to Michael’s ‘point of no return’ when he agrees to murder McClusky & rival mob boss, Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri) to avenge and protect his father.
Michael immediately falls into his father’s (and brother’s) shoes when discussing and organising the murders of McClusky & Sollozo. So much so, even Sonny is visibly concerned by the proposal.
The restaurant scene is a perfect character study, detailing the thoughts and motivations of a good man willing to do bad things for what he sees as a noble cause. Michael steadies himself in the bathroom before deciding to go through with the deed, and even seemingly has second thoughts, highlighted by the raucous sounds of trains echoing through his ears.
But there’s no turning back. Michael knows this and commits to his family, gunning down Sollozo & McClusky in a move that will forever change everything about him.
This is the initial turning point for the character. Even Vito is alarmed at what his son is becoming. His dour face when he learns that his innocent (and clearly favoured) son has killed McClusky & Sollozo and begun a life of organised crime, speaks volumes.
Just as we think Michael will sink further down the Mafia hole, he escapes to Sicily and (for a while), returns to his peaceful persona. He meets, falls in love with and marries Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), thinking his past has eluded him and he can be happy away from the family business.
Step two in Michael’s turn is the news of Sonny’s death. It causes Michael to prepare to return to America to rejoin his Family and confront his enemies. However, at the same time, he is taught a lesson in the ways of vengeance through Apollonia’s death in a car explosion meant for him.
Michael now knows that the world is cruel and unfair, robbing him of the peaceful life he craved and forcing him to face the cold, hard reality of life as a Corleone.
Towards the end of the film, Michael has almost turned 180 degrees from the young man we met at his sister’s wedding. His opinion of his father and the Family has completely flipped. Where once he tried to distance himself from them, now, in front of Kay of all people, he makes excuses for them.
Michael even uses his father’s terminology when calling upon the favour owed by Johnny Fontane and casino mogul, Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) when Michael moves the family to Las Vegas, historically a city built purposefully for organised crime.
Where Michael was once quiet and unsure of himself, the Vegas meeting with Greene confirms his new confident and morally flexible outlook on life. He even ‘threatens’ poor Fredo, a storyline that will conclude in the sequel.
The third step towards Michael’s fall is the loss of his father. Vito’s death triggers the remaining heads of the Five Families to strike at what they consider to be a weak Corleone leader. Little do they realise that ‘innocent little’ Michael is now a ruthless mob boss, willing to do whatever it takes to protect his interests and further his agenda.
The juxtaposition of scenes jumping between the holy baptism of Connie’s child, interjected with the murders of Michael’s enemies is brilliant direction by Coppola, signifying Michael’s true ‘baptism’ as Godfather in not only the literal sense, but figuratively as well.
Although, one final act remains to clinch Michael’s cold blooded fall. The murder of Carlo, retribution for his involvement in Sonny’s ambush. This is the final moment that completes Michael’s turn and cements his place as part of the Family, because he takes matters into his own hands, despite the wishes of his own sister.
Kay’s ongoing fears are then confirmed by these final scenes, when Connie confronts Michael about Carlo’s death. As the door shuts between Michael (with his new followers) and Kay, he shuts himself off from her (and to an extent, his humanity).
Kay’s expression says it all. She’s lost him, and we’re left with a man who’s found his calling, yet lost his way at the same time.
If this 40 for 40 was based on pure film quality, and not just my personal favourites, The Godfather would certainly rank a lot higher than #21, I assure you. Only due to feel good re-watch factors, nostalgia and time constraints do I rank twenty films above it.
The story, the acting, directing, character development and all-round excellence makes this film a must-see-movie for everybody, especially those who consider themselves film buffs like me.
Even after 46 years, The Godfather stands the test of time. It holds up just as well now as it did back in the day, perhaps even more so now in the current, box-office focused, franchise obsessed Hollywood of today.
So if you ever come across someone who hasn’t seen this masterpiece, leave the gun, take the cannoli, make them an offer they can’t refuse and show them The Godfather.
And then follow it up with The Godfather Part II for good measure.
But ignore Part III.
That one is better off sleeping with the fishes.
Rating: 5 out of 5 dead horse heads.
Favourite Moment: The Baptism scene.
Honourable Mention: Michael commits his first murder.
Next week: #20 – “They mostly come at night. Mostly…”
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