The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola | 2hr 55min

Did Francis Ford Coppola realise in 1972 what he was putting out into the world? Surely there was a sense that he was creating something that would be critically successful, but the reverence for The Godfather has become so much of its own beast that he himself has admitted to feeling dwarfed by his creation. To praise this any further would be to contribute to the discourse that has tragically sapped his stamina as a director, but regardless – it remains one of the greatest pure narratives put to film in its sheer economy, and that it manages this while unravelling such a dense and sprawling story speaks to the monumental ambition that underlies its cinematic execution.

Though The Godfather is based on the Mario Puzo novel of the same name, it is often Greek mythological conventions which feel more baked into its structure, with archetypes of sons replacing fathers, an overseas journey leading back home, and fatal flaws spelling out the end for several characters. In transposing such classical storytelling traditions onto a 1940s Italian American crime family, Coppola effectively creates an epic poem for the twentieth century, captivated by the details of an underworld established by men who did not find the equality or justice they were promised when they first immigrated to New York. Perhaps this complex interaction of dreams and values is most pointed in the scene of Paulie’s assassination that sees him driven out to a wheat field and shot in the back of the head, with Coppola’s wide shot catching the Statue of Liberty quietly rising up over the horizon like a silent witness to the mafia’s crimes. 

The first truly shocking murder of the film, with the Statue of Liberty framed as a tiny figure in the distance.

Even the very first words of the film set up these thematic aspirations, with Sicilian undertaker Bonasera’s immortal line, “I believe in America.” Though he is a minor character, he is our way into the world of the Corleones, coming to Don Vito on his daughter’s wedding day to ask a favour as per cultural tradition. Bonasera is a man who has drifted too far from his roots, though in realising how America’s institutions have failed him, he falls back on the Corleone family’s loyalty and sense of justice, both of which are far more powerful than anything the United States might offer.

Shrouded in darkness and delivering a monologue with hints of repentance, one might initially presume that Bonasera has come to a small chapel to confess his sins to a priest, but even when the actual context becomes evident, Coppola still maintains that air of religious authority and reverence around Vito. These pitch-black backgrounds pierced by pinpoints of lights and faces are typical of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose moniker “The Prince of Darkness” is well-earned by his work here on The Godfather. Perhaps even more shocking though is its visual and tonal contrast to the bright, rambunctious wedding of Connie Corleone that lies right outside, its joyous festivities just as integral to the Corleone empire as their quiet, underhanded dealings. This nearly half-hour long sequence sets the stage for the film’s expansive ensemble of characters, each line and shot serving a purpose right down to Paulie eyeing off a purse of cash, tipping us off about his treacherous, greedy aspirations.

Gordon Willis, “The Prince of Darkness” earning his credentials here with superbly lit interiors and close-ups, turning the room into a quiet space of deep reverence.

Michael Corleone’s place in this family is teased here before we even meet him, with Vito stopping a family photo from going ahead without his son. Just the sight of Michael arriving late with his military uniform and non-Italian girlfriend, Kay, tells us all we need to know about his semi-estrangement. Here is a model of American citizenry, reserved in his interactions and denying involvement in his family’s sordid affairs, though clearly not so ostracised that he has started an entirely new, separate life altogether. The cold-blooded transformation that Al Pacino puts into motion from this point on is simply remarkable. There are a multitude of scenes that could be picked out to exemplify his tour-de-force performance, from Michael’s first murder to his chiding of his brother, Fredo, though it is in the gradual progression from the quietly disconnected man we see at the wedding to the one ascending to the role of Godfather at the end of the film that the full force of his acting achievement lands with its full weight. 

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando battle it out for the best performance of this film. Both are unforgettable.

Arguably the only other actor to outdo Pacino here is Marlon Brando himself, whose mumbling, bulldog-cheeked Vito Corleone stands powerfully above every other character, including those who try to cut him down to size. Though it is only really in the first scene where we see him at his full power before the attempt on his life, his presence and influence hangs over so many others as well, most of all those in which his children struggle beneath the weight of his legacy. Where the hot-headed Sonny lacks the wisdom of his father and the weak-willed Fredo lacks the nerve, we come to realise during Michael’s hospital visit that he alone carries the virtues necessary to lead. While Vito is recovering in bed, Michael uses his wits to fend off further attacks, and as he lights the cigarette of a trusted ally shaking in his boots, Coppola cuts to his perfectly still hands, revealing a cool, keen propensity for handling high-pressure situations. 

At this point in his arc though, he still has a long way to go to attain the same authority as his father. Long dissolves are often Coppola’s tool of choice in visually setting Vito up as the powerful man pulling the strings, with a particularly notable one landing after the scene of a movie producer waking up to find his prized horse’s head in his bed, fading from the exterior of his house to a close-up of the Don himself. There is a weighty implication in the merging of such images, as those shots of his face dominating landscapes and wides vividly turn him into a larger-than-life being. 

Coppola setting himself up as one of the great film editors of the 1970s with these long dissolves, an effective device he will later continue in The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now.

Michael also eventually receives special treatment in the editing room when he takes over the family business, though it is also at this point where Coppola’s style takes a sharp turn. His reign is not defined by graceful long dissolves, flowing gently from one shot to the next, but is rather brought in with a montage, cross-cutting between scenes of violence and religion with one thing in common – the birth of a new Godfather, both to Connie’s newborn son and to a community of Sicilians. 

A landmark of cinematic montages. The complex display of parallel cutting here is a masterful balance of wrapping up several lingering plot threads, violently setting Michael up as the new Godfather.

It is here that Nino Rota’s sly, winding waltz of oboes, trumpets, and strings that has defined the Corleone family momentarily takes on an entirely new timbre – that of a deep, resonant church organ, adopting pieces of the main melody and twisting them into something truly ominous. Coppola’s style of depicting murders also dramatically shifts, taking a step back from the shocking bursts of violence which give us only a few seconds of warning, and instead drawing the suspense of multiple assassinations out over several minutes. As Michael confesses his belief in the Catholic Church, renounces Satan, and pledges his duty as Godfather to the baby screaming in the background, so too does he mark his ascent to the role with a vicious massacre of all those who underestimated him, solidifying his power with a single, devastating statement of his dominance.

As questions of keeping personal and business lives separate roil through this deft screenplay, the door that closes between Michael and Kay in Coppola’s final shot effectively severs the two in such a way that Vito certainly never intended. To him, business was inherently personal, inviting family members and friends into his inner circles with trust and generosity, though in Michael’s damning decision to lie to Kay about his work when she asks for the absolute truth, he carries on almost everything from his father’s legacy, save for his passionate Sicilian heart. The Godfather is a story of generations handing power from one to the next, but in the dynamic culture of mid-twentieth century America, these natural cycles are perverted by a new, corporate society, born from the same ancient traditions they inevitably end up destroying.

An ice cold final shot – Michael’s ascension to Godfather severing his personal and business lives for good.

The Godfather is currently available to stream on Stan and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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