Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (based on the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton
The Godfather’s iconic opening begins with an undertaker pleading to the omnipotent mob boss Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for vengeance. Director Francis Ford Coppola opens with a close up on the man’s face, the rest of the frame blackened, and slowly retreats to the Don’s vantage point who sits across the desk. This is all it takes for Coppola to fully transport us. With an ease of his camera and a widening of his image, we are there. I’ve always thought what made Martin Scorsese’s films so effective was how immersive they were, how brilliantly they placed us in the thick of it. It’s the same for Hollywood’s seminal crime drama. This is as close as we can get to this world, a completely relocating experience. It’s difficult to recall a single character in The Godfather that isn’t complicit in the criminality, whether by association or direct perpetration. It confines us entirely to this humanity, but it’s never restricting. It’s a stranglehold, an immaculate realisation of 1940’s Italian New York and the men that drove its underworld.
For all its enormity and vastity, The Godfather is founded on simple ideologies. It’s a story of family and loyalty and destiny. It’s about the senselessness of eye for eye exchanges and the inheritance of sin down the bloodline. This is why, when the bodies start piling up, each one we feel the magnitude of. Though the film challenges us with a labyrinth of faces, the significance of each life is never understated. Each being has purpose, they’re part of something that is at once bigger than any one soul, but exists only through each individual man.
Head of one of five New York crime families, Vito Corleone has four sons. The heir apparent to the criminal empire is Santino (James Caan), an ill-tempered and trigger happy erratic. Fredo (John Cazale) is the middle son, often lost in the shuffle not due to a lack of detail, but because he is dim and weak. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is an unofficial adoptee of the family. He’s German-Irish, but is level headed and respectful, growing to become the family consigliere. Michael (Al Pacino) is the central most occupation of the narrative. He’s the youngest, but also the brightest. He was a marine in the War and there’s a dignity about him, but, crucially, he’s reluctant to follow his family’s path.
It’s the evolution of Michael from diligent, noble war hero, to callous, consumed criminal that drives the narrative. It is one of the great character odysseys in all of cinema. The first significant play in the drama is when a hit is attempted on Don Vito after he refuses to enter the drug trade. Sonny wants to start a war, Tom wants to keep proceedings strictly business-like, but it’s Michael who synthesises the two. In a scene where the youngest son visits his father in the hospital, he quickly deduces that something isn’t right. He’s brave and collected, methodically moving into action and exhibiting all the immaculate instincts that had made his father so revered.
There is another wonderful moment, an inversion of the opening scene, where Michael volunteers himself for a retaliation hit. It will be the first time he indulges those inherent qualities he’d always wanted to conceal. Michael begins to the side of the frame in a medium shot, but slowly Coppola hones in on him as he hatches his plan. Where previously one man had become transfigured into a much larger society, here, all the complexities of a larger world are channelled into one man. It’s masterful filmmaking, laconic and powerful, setting in motion Michael’s descent as the hostility around him latches like a cancer to his once benevolent hopes.
The dichotomy of Michael and Vito is transfixing, two complete characters brought to life by their performers. What’s so captivating about Vito is the sensitivity underpinning his power. He has an unrivalled presence. He seems to carry the weight of the world upon his fingertips and is a complete authority. He’s an affectionate father though; he champions family and has pride and poise. He works from principle. He rejects the drug trade because it’s a sinister vice. He is resolved, and in many ways, a warming presence. That sense of affection is lost behind Michael’s eyes. He grows to be cold and frighteningly removed from morality. Ironically, the closer Michael inches to filling his father’s shoes, the further he departs from the principled nature that made his father so sympathetic. It is a completely transformative performance, an arc meticulously but efficiently realised.
I don’t want to downplay the other performances. Robert Duvall is also terrific. His is a thoughtful performance. Unlike Michael and Sonny, Tom never strikes us as dangerous, despite his intelligence. There is a humility to him, not unlike that of his adopted father, a deliberate benignity that demarcates him from his brothers. Sonny is the antithesis. James Caan brilliantly captures the mercuriality of the unhinged, hot-headed eldest. You sense his craving for violence in a performance that is at times alarming.
Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (adapting his own novel) have also delivered one of the great screenplays, as finely tuned as any. It truly is a labyrinth of faces and locations that they navigate, but they are amazingly concise and tempered in doing so. Each character is defined with an impeccable clarity and the story itself is magnificently paced. No matter how sprawling and epic the narrative may be, in many ways this feels like a nuts and bolts script. There’s no wasted movement, no moment that isn’t essential. We hang tirelessly on every word and every action.
The Godfather is a rare film with where all the voices are in perfect harmony. Nino Rota’s famed score seems to be taken from the lingering traces of a chilly nightmare, Gordon Willis’s photography is Wellesian in its shadowiness, giving it a gothic enigma. The performances are note perfect and the story is masterfully rendered, but in the end the easiest way to compliment The Godfather is to state how utterly absorbing it is. This is drama at its enveloping best. It is ceaseless entertainment and eternally captivating; simply put, it is immaculate story telling.