Like Casablanca, Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather has become more than just a movie, it has become a part of our culture. Its characters have become as recognizable as the clerk at the supermarket. When we watch the movie, we don’t see Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan or Robert Duvall. We see Don Corleone, Michael, Sonny and Tom Hagen. Its language (“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”) has become a part of our vocabulary. It redefined the gangster genre, and has continued to serve as the standard ever since.
The movie opens with the line: “I believe in America” and The Godfather is an American story. That line is spoken by an undertaker, who has come to ask The Godfather, Don Corleone (Brando) to murder the two men who brutally beat his daughter. He has come on the wedding day of the Godfather’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), because he knows that no Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day.
The wedding presents the perfect opportunity for Coppola to not only introduce all of the main characters, but also to give the audience an idea of how these people relate to each other in the Corleone family hierarchy. First there is Sonny (Caan), the hot-tempered, women-chasing, oldest son of the Corleone family who will one day inherit the family business from his father. Secondly there is Fredo (John Cazale), the middle son. Fredo is neither the smartest, nor the toughest of the Corleone boys and therefore he tends to get lost in the hierarchy. The Godfather’s “adopted” son is Tom Hagen (Duvall), a lawyer who serves as the Don’s advisor.
Finally, there is Michael (Pacino), the youngest son and the only member of the Corleone family not interested in the family business. Michael is a war hero, who has just returned home and is planning to marry the WASPy Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). Brando may have won the Oscar for Best Actor, while Pacino was only nominated in the supporting category, but make no mistake; this is just as much Pacino’s movie as Brando’s.
Michael’s time would come when his father’s refusal to back a drug kingpin named Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) results in his fatal shooting. Michael says his last goodbye to Kay, visits his father’s bedside and tells him: “I’m with you now.” It becomes clear that Michael was born to take over the family business, when he realizes that his hands are steady, while awaiting his father’s assassins.
Michael’s fate would be sealed when he guns down Sollozzo and his corrupt police captain bodyguard McClusky (Sterling Hayden). The scene at the restaurant has deservedly become one of the film’s most memorable moments. You will notice that although Michael and Sollozzo are speaking Italian, there are no subtitles. None are needed, because everything we need to know about the situation is expressed in the acting. Watch Pacino’s eyes after he returns from the bathroom. None of the now famous Pacino overacting needed here, his eyes tell it all.
Coppola adds some suspense to the scene by having Michael do everything his advisors told him not to do. He was supposed to come out of the bathroom with gun blazing, but instead, he returned to his table and sat back down. As we hear the increasing rumbling and screeching of the train overhead, the tension grabs us by the throat.
Michael is forced to live undercover in Sicily until things can be straightened up back home. He meets and falls in love with the beautiful Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), whom he marries, only to have her become an innocent victim of the mafia war.
Meanwhile, Sonny has “gone to the mattresses” and declared war against the other mafia families, ultimately resulting in his brutal assassination at the toll booth. Informed of the news, Don Corleone sheds tears for his dead son. The Godfather is not a heartless mob boss, but a family man, through and through. Not wanting the same thing to happen to Michael, the Godfather calls a meeting, establishing peace so that his son may return home safely. Taking over his father’s operations, Michael knows that the Corleone family is losing its power and there is only one way to get it back: to settle all family business.
The Godfather is a masterpiece down to the smallest details, for instance, Brando’s use of the cat as a prop in the opening scene. The story goes that the cat was found wandering around the set and Brando just picked it up and started petting it. That simple decision added an extra element to the scene and rarely since do you see a movie mafia boss without a cat in his lap.
Also effective is the make-up used on Pacino’s face to show the bruise from McClusky’s punch. So many movies have shown someone getting hit in the face, and the bruise quickly goes away. The make-up people on The Godfather do an excellent job of not only making the bruise look real, but gradually healing it as the film goes along.
The acting in the film is first-rate. Brando’s Godfather has become so legendary that you cannot even think of a mafia boss without resorting to the image of Don Corleone. James Caan gives a brutal, flashy performance, while Robert Duvall gives an effectively subtle performance. Duvall, Caan and Pacino were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but the three performances canceled each other out and the award went instead to Joel Grey for Cabaret.
Often forgotten about is John Cazale, who gives a genuinely effective performance as the forgotten Corleone, Fredo, and he would carry more emotional weight in the second film. Cazale would star in only five films before his untimely death (Godfather 1&2, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter) all of them earning Best Picture nominations, with three winning the award.
The Godfather is truly a landmark Hollywood film despite its many production problems. The fact that Coppola was under the gun for the entire production and that the studio heads were not at all happy with the casting of Pacino, the film proved flawless. Many critics believe it serves as a link between old Hollywood and new Hollywood. One thing is for sure: it is definitely an offer you can’t refuse. I give it an A+.