The Godfather ★★★★★

Part of Buddy the Elf, What's Your Favorite Color?

“Do you renounce Satan?” “I do renounce him.” “And all his works?” “I do renounce them.” “And all his promises?” “I do renounce them.”

In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love—500 years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.

In America, they had the criminal underground. Decades of organized crime punctuated by violence. Victimless crimes—so long as the victims were kept out of sight and thus out of mind. And what did that produce? A fortune. For the heads of the five families, yes, but also for the undertaker. Death is, was, and always will be lucrative. No wonder the undertaker believes in America.

From the outset, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather immerses its audience in a world of darkness. The iconic theme—haunting, vaguely ethnic, vaguely mournful—segues to a blackened room—minimal lighting, dark wood paneling, spotty amber pools of illumination. It is a world of back-room bargaining and illicit dealings, but it is also a world of family and ritual and tradition. Power and the American dream and the legacy one leaves for one’s children and the lengths to which one will go to preserve one's family—they are age-old themes, the subject of countless artistic works. But Coppola weaves them together so deftly, his nearly three-hour film flies by in an instant. The grand, Shakespearean motifs are subsumed by a rich, detailed portrait of a specific way of life for a specific set of characters, granting those motifs inestimably more weight.

Structure is key to Coppola’s sprawling epic. While he and co-screenwriter Mario Puzo survey a decade in the Corleone family’s life, covering disparate events in disparate locales, they are deceptively discursive but are careful never to become shambolic. Instead, they design The Godfather as a series of short films, perfectly constructed miniatures that add up to even more than the sum of their exquisite parts.

But these pieces are not like the gears of the insipid cuckoo clock. As with his Italian forebears, Coppola made his masterpiece amid the constant threat of destruction. The studio, Paramount, had a standby director on hand for Coppola’s imminent firing. Paramount did not want the film set in New York, did not want it set in the postwar period, did not want Marlon Brando, did not want Al Pacino, did not appreciate Gordon Willis’ stunning cinematography. Everything upon which Coppola insisted, they hated. Warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. And yet they produced the Renaissance—the highest-grossing picture of all-time for a spell, and one of the towering works of American cinema. If great art can only come from great suffering, then Coppola must have suffered indeed, yielding a textured, spellbinding film of novelistic depth and breadth.

Consider the opening scene. Connie Corleone (Talia Shire), the only daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Brando), is getting married. It is a grand celebration, and one steeped in tradition, with the Don bound to grant any reasonable request. And so we meet the undertaker, Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who seeks vengeance on the boys who attacked his daughter. It is a riveting opening, a soliloquy begun in tight close-up, pulling back ever so slowly to reveal the listener, the Don. As Don Vito plays idly with a cat in his lap, we get a sense of who he is—calm, reasonable, thoughtful, but accepting of violence as a cost of doing business—and of the sphere in which he operates—one in which supplication is the price of admission. The Don may be a kind and reasonable gangster, but he is a gangster nonetheless.

As Coppola’s camera roams throughout the wedding celebration, chronicling the party, the food, the dancing, the laughing outside, and the goings-on, the favors being granted, the barrage of negotiations inside, we are given a sense of all of the major players and their roles within this universe. Sonny (James Caan), the eldest son, is a hothead and a womanizer—a big dick with a big dick. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the family’s adopted foundling, is quiet and reserved and logical. The Don’s caporegimes, Clemenza (Richard Castellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), are a Laurel and Hardy pair—the former a fat and gregarious galoot, the latter much milder and more observant. Fredo (John Cazale), the middle son, is the proverbial fifth wheel, dim and powerless. Paulie (John Martino), one of the family's underlings, is young and impressionable and susceptible to being bought as he eyes the cash in Connie’s purse. Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), a Corleone enforcer, is a sweet, slow-witted oaf, loyal to a fault but awkward. And youngest son Michael (Pacino) is on the straight and narrow, a war hero, reluctant to be involved with his family. He is the smart one, the one with a legitimate future, the one who—with his bright and bubbly girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton)—does not belong in this world.

What appears to be an informal, unstructured slice of life serves as invisible, carefully choreographed table setting. Small details, never underlined, establish the personalities and the relationships. Sonny smashes a camera and tosses money on the ground—he is volatile and reckless, and the family is rich. The Don refuses to take the family wedding picture until Michael arrives—family is important above all else, and Michael is the favorite. It is sublime storytelling of the sort rarely achieved, such that by the wedding’s end, we feel we know the Corleones and have known them for some time.

It would be a remarkable one-time feat, yet Coppola manages to reproduce it throughout the film with his succession of short stories. Any of these scenes, so beautifully shot and richly developed, could be plucked from the film and work on its own. Tom flying to California to confront Jack Woltz (John Marley), a movie mogul denying the Don’s godson, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), a part in a big upcoming picture. The confrontation at the movie studio, the languid tour around Woltz’s estate (including the stables), Woltz’s ultimate refusal to bend to the Don’s wishes over a grudge styled as romantic but much more about objectification and ownership. And finally, the dissolves from the courtyard to the house to Woltz’s bedroom, revealing the price of his intractability. The scene begins with California sunshine and swanky music, setting it apart from the Mafia netherworld of New York—but the swinging tunes give way to the famous Godfather theme as Woltz discovers what is underneath his bedsheets. It is a violation that in some ways makes no logical sense (unless perhaps Woltz was drugged), but its logistical plausibility is of little consequence. It is a profoundly unsettling intrusion, and one that demonstrates the Corleones’ power (and the lengths to which they will go to bring that power to bear), while directing their ire at a man who could charitably be described as unsavory.

This romanticized point of view is crucial to The Godfather’s success, which is concerned with the goings-on within this family and this business as a metaphor for capitalism and the American dream in all its avaricious, destructive glory. The Corleones, we learn, are involved in the traditional mob trades (unions, gambling, prostitution), and have politicians and police on their payroll for protection. The Don is opposed to entry into the drug trade, proposed by Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and backed by the Tattaglia family, because it is a dirty business, unlike the harmless vices of betting and women. With its insularity, The Godfather establishes Don Vito as noble and principled, a man of character. Eschewing the men brought to financial ruin by their heedless gambling and the women trapped in a cycle of abuse and degradation, The Godfather can pretend that the Corleones are operating honorably in a dishonorable world. It is a lie we all tell ourselves, and with ease, as we too eschew those victims whose suffering we would rather not acknowledge.

Coppola and Puzo do not wholly avoid the violent implications of their Mafia setting. They simply confine them to situations in which the Corleones have the relative moral high ground. It is a neat comment on the dog-eat-dog nature of the capitalist machine, with its Darwinian emphasis on winners and losers—winners being declared right because they are the winners and therefore able to write the rules in their favor. In the moment, rooting for Michael to kill Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is easy—the former is a drug-running, murdering sleazeball, the latter a corrupt, morally bankrupt cop. Afterward, as we consider how many murders the Corleones have authorized and how many cops they have corrupted, our cheering turns sour. The stereotypically American pursuit of happiness needs boundaries lest it devolve into the pursuit of power at all costs.

It is that pursuit—coupled with the (also stereotypically American) conviction that his actions are right because he intends them to be so—that turns Michael from the smart, soft-spoken individual at Connie’s wedding into an ice-blooded monster over the course of the ensuing decade. And again, Coppola’s mini-films illustrate this gloriously. After setting up Sollozzo’s innate dirtiness—his darkened office by the Christmas tree lot is like a hollowed-out, dingier version of the Don’s study—and having Clemenza take care of Paulie near some fields of grass with the Statue of Liberty in the background (a bit of symbolism that could be overbearing but somehow is not)—Coppola shows the family’s pivot from Don Vito to Michael in a handful of key sequences. First is Michael’s trip to the hospital to visit his ailing father, a trip that turns into a mission to thwart a second assassination attempt on the Don. Coppola follows this with Michael’s quiet speech to his family that he will take a meeting and avenge the wrongs committed by Sollozzo and McCluskey, and then with the meeting itself, with its violence-punctuated tension.

As Coppola slowly pushes in on Michael sitting in a chair in his father’s study, we see what we think is the beginning of a transformation. Michael looks for all the world like the new Don, insisting that he is keeping business and personal separate while conflating them to the point of complete overlap, and calmly maintaining that termination with extreme prejudice is the answer to all of the family's problems. Yet we soon come to realize that this is not the beginning of anything other than Michael’s ruin—Michael is in that instant fully transformed, having unleashed the diabolical tyrant that his father had preferred he keep hidden. And so Michael will go to Louis’ Italian Restaurant and refuse to turn the other cheek—a perfectly constructed vignette, complete with unsubtitled Italian dialogue pushing the viewer to focus on Michael’s mental state and facial expressions, the mounting suspense of whether he will pull the trigger as promised. As with all of Coppola’s short subjects, it is a masterpiece to itself that also acts as a brick in a much larger edifice.

One could go on and on. About the big moments—Sonny’s ill-fated trip to a toll-booth; Michael’s first marriage to Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli); the Don’s death amid the tomato plants while playing with his grandson. And about the small details—the open fire hydrant when Sonny beats up Carlo (Gianni Russo), indicating both the changing of seasons and the low-rent areas in which Carlo chooses to socialize; the oranges, seen first when the Don’s life is threatened and called back moments before his ultimate demise; the deliberate facelessness of Sonny’s assassins, giving a sense that the entire world has united against him. Neither the forest nor the trees are lost on Coppola, and it shows in every frame.

Credit must also go, of course, to Coppola’s collaborators. His performers, one of the finest groups ever assembled, show the brilliance of both great acting and great casting. Brando is impeccable as the Don, so unforced and at ease in his sense of power that he needn’t wield it showily. He projects the wisdom and comfort in making harsh decisions that comes from years of experience, but also a softer side and a deep affection for his family, as in his grief over Sonny’s death and his playfulness with his grandson. Equally good is Pacino in his breakout role, showing a range and depth of feeling absent from his later, shoutier performances. But in truth everyone could be singled out for their brilliance—wonderful actors playing roles to which they are perfectly suited. Castellano and Vigoda simply are Clemenza and Tessio—there is little need to flesh out their backgrounds, for the actors are their backgrounds made flesh. The same can be said for Hayden, for Martino, for Alex Rocco as Moe Greene, the Corleones’ rebellious associate in Las Vegas. A world as sprawling as The Godfather’s leaves little time, even in such a lengthy film, for detailed exposition. Coppola’s brilliant cast obviates the need for such an exhausting endeavor.

Capturing Coppola’s story and his remarkable performers is Willis’ groundbreaking cinematography. His dark, rich imagery, with yellowed pools of light and deep shadows, converts what could simply be another period gangster picture into a moving oil painting. Each frame is breathtaking in its detail, but the darkness subtly reinforces the hermetic seal around the Corleones’ environment, letting in neither light nor air nor the outside world. It is a step removed from sepia-toned nostalgia, but a crucial step—it romanticizes without cloying, in keeping with Coppola’s themes.

As Coppola brings his film to a close some ten years after it began, he takes his story full circle. Michael travels to Las Vegas in preparation for relocating the family there and building a casino-based empire. His arrival mirrors almost exactly Tom’s visit to Woltz in Los Angeles, complete with jazzy music and an old-fashioned plane landing. The sense of foreboding is strong, laced with the knowledge of what happened the last time we saw the family migrate West. But before the family can finally make their move, Michael must be christened godfather to Connie’s baby. As Michael renounces Satan and his works, his minions settle all family business in a swift, harrowing symphony of retribution. Another ritual surrounding Connie, another darkened space where timeless rites are carried out inside while other matters occur outside. Coppola offers no talking head explaining the events—he simply cuts between them and trusts the audience to keep pace. Juxtaposing life with death, sanctification with assassination, he perfectly encapsulates the Corleones’ world, just as he had done in the beginning. A world no less violent than the earlier one in which the Don jovially assigned maimings and threats as a means to his business’ end—but one made less romantic by Michael’s sociopathic lack of empathy.

And through it all runs the undertaker, death’s tradesman. At Connie’s wedding, at Sonny’s funeral, at the Don’s graveside, he serves as a constant reminder of the continuity within this closed-off world, and of the centrality of death therein. Through terror, he—like those around him—has made his fortune. He believes in America. It has made him an offer he cannot refuse.

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