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.

14 thoughts on “The Godfather (1972)”

  1. A great review of a great film, Declan. It must be daunting to write about such a gladiator of a film, but you’ve done it! Let me ask you: how much do you think story matters? How good is the Godfather if it had a mediocre screenplay, for example? I’ve been struggling this issue for a while now, and while I do appreciate narrative form, sometimes great writing doesn’t have a ton to do with the film’s narrative form and, then, do I care for it? What do you think?

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    1. Thanks Pedro, it was indeed a little daunting to tackle a film that has already been analysed to death but glad you enjoyed it! That’s a great question you put forward. The way I think of it, film form can come from any number of elements – repeated musical motifs (the main theme of The Godfather for instance), a consistent editing choice (the long dissolves), a recurring symbol (the oranges), and of course, a great screenplay, which itself can be broken up even further into plot structure, dialogue, character, etc. The Godfather has so many formal strengths going for it outside its screenplay like those I mentioned above that I don’t think it would be a failure if its great writing was to be taken away from it (unless its replacement was straight up awful), but it wouldn’t be nearly as potent. The form would still be there, but you would also be missing out on perhaps the greatest pure narrative put to film, which is a huge formal strength. Without that you might have a good film, but probably not a top 20 of all time achievement. What do you think?

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      1. I think a film is, first, a visual experience, and should be analyzed as such. However, things get tricky when I try to factor in the screenplay and the acting, for example. How much do things outside of the visuals matter? I think there’s an argument that Suspiria might just be more visually accomplished than The Godfather, but since the latter’s screenplay is so much better, does it make it that much better of a film? And does dialogue, plot structure, character (like you say) matter? Is a film with five-star dialogue better than a film with four-star visuals? I wish I could ignore everything else and just see how a film looks, but I have to take other things into consideration, and that’s where I have some trouble. I believe you’ve probably went through this (if you’re still not going through it), and, well, did you come out with a clear answer or are you always changing how you evaluate films?

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      2. All great points. I usually weigh up style and form fairly equally, but there is often overlap between the two and it’s not like it is an exact science that can be boiled down to numbers. I’m always trying to fine tune the way I evaluate film, so I don’t think I have all the answers, but I do have a huge desire to keep searching for them. Every time I discover a new director or film that does something just a little bit differently from what I’ve seen before, it often reframes the way I see cinema as a whole, even if it is just slightly. It can make me rethink my opinions on previous films I have already seen, or keep my eyes open for certain elements in those I haven’t seen yet. Considering I still have a lot of big blind spots with some fairly significant films, I still think I’ve got a lot of learning to do. Reading also helps a lot, especially in terms of figuring out a more precise balance. David Bordwell is great at breaking it down. But of course, reading is always supplementary to actually watching film.

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      3. For a good example of a film with masterpiece level visuals but which is lacking a bit formally, I would go to Lars von Trier’s Europa. I’m due a revisit so may revise my opinion but I had it an HR last time I watched it, maybe pushing MS. It certainly has some strong motifs there so it isn’t a complete failure formally, but I think it would benefit from something holding its wild experiments together a little more.

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      4. I think it’s a bit easier with beautiful films that lack formal cohesion, the real issue for me is films like Chinatown, that have one of the greatest screenplays of all time, but are surpassed by many in terms of visual style. How can I argue that cinema is a visual art form if I’m saying Chinatown is better than Suspiria?

        I’ve read a bit of David Bordwell’s Film Art: An Introduction and found it revelatory. What he has on narrative form really changed the game for me, but (and I haven’t read the entire book) he doesn’t talk about what exactly makes a film good or bad, or how much each aspect of a film is worth – probably because there are idiotic questions, but still, I have them.

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      5. I often use a similar argument that cinema is a visual artform for people who downplay its importance, but at the same time I don’t think that is all there is to it. If you took the most beautiful shots from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia etc and strung them together I don’t think you would have anything that is as great as any of those films as a whole. That’s why I think cohesion is important – cinema is a time-based artform as much as it is a visual one that moves and changes with each frame, so I think the way it progresses and holds each piece together is an important part of the equation. A feeling can be captured in a single shot, but I believe the way that feeling can change (or remain the same) over time is also an essential part of cinema. I’m still sorting through these ideas myself so I don’t think I have all the answers, but this is just me drawing on my own experiences which could very well shift over time.

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      6. I agree completely, cohesion is extremely important. I guess my issue is that I don’t know what to use as a ruler (like, say, ambition or complexity). Do you have something like that, that you use to compare films, a ruler? Or is it 100% a case-by-case basis?

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      7. It’s definitely harder to pinpoint than style, since it’s a little more intangible. Repetition and variation is a big one. Back to the Future is a good one to look at for this sort of thing, in that virtually everything in the setup is paid off on later when he travels to the past. That’s really tight storytelling, and even if it doesn’t have the visual flair of many other films, there is ambition in how little time is wasted in matching up lines of dialogue to later reveals. Same thing in Groundhog Day that is purely based on the notion of theme and variation. Most good films do have a solid setup and payoff, and is kind of the bare minimum in my opinion. But repeating that so many times within a single narrative might make it particularly stand out.

        As for something even bigger and bolder with massive formal ambitions, Magnolia is a great example. There is the broad multilinear narrative structure, but even within that there is a complex web of connections between characters who possess similar traits. Or you can look at Nashville which is a tapestry of running threads and characters that all interact with each other in complex patterns. There is a scale there that relates to ambition, tightness, and complexity, but just like how style encompasses camera movement, angles, production design, etc, form isn’t just one thing.

        Another way it can be harder to pin down is that sometimes I do watch a film pull off a formal trick I have never seen before, like recently in Mon Oncle d’Amerique. My review went up recently so I won’t go into too much detail, but in an example like that I was still blown away by the complex interaction of every narrative thread or cutaway, even if it wasn’t particularly stylistic. So while there might be a familiar scale of ambition and complexity, I try not to stick too closely to it since I still often find myself surprised by completely original approaches.

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      8. This is great. Thank you, Declan, really, for spending your time with this. I would like to ask, since we’re on the topic: do you think the reputation of a film matters? I asked this recently on The Cinema Archives, but Drake didn’t really answer it, and there I mentioned The 400 Blows, which doesn’t feel like a top 60 film of all time without the push of having essentially started the French New Wave – but that might just be me missing something in the film’s form or style.

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      9. You’re welcome, I love having these discussions that force me to figure out my own ideas and feelings about things I had brushed over before. As for reputation, no, I don’t believe it really does matter. It has been a couple of years since I have seen The 400 Blows and I think my ability to evaluate film has improved since, but I did have it down as a masterpiece then. I recall some excellent location shooting, long takes, and of course that fantastic final frame, but I would welcome a challenge to it belonging in the top 60. I might have to revisit it again to be sure, but for now I might side with you on sinking it a little lower, though not by too much.

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      10. I did watch it recently and gave it five stars (MP), but Drake has it at #53 of all time, I believe, and I simply can’t see that right now. The final shot is fantastic and is almost enough to bump the film up an entire grade, but I don’t think it puts it in the top 60. Still, that’s minor and just one example.

        About our discussion, I think I should be looking more at an overall ambition and complexity than simply visual beauty (though that does come first). Hopefully that will make my evaluations better.

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      11. Yeah, it is very much a process of learning what matters and by how much. Mistakes are made in the process but that’s how we keep improving. I still have some awful takes on Letterboxd from years ago that I haven’t yet rectified, but I also try to take the time to revisit those films I might have once thought were weak, and I love it when I discover a masterpiece I hadn’t given credit to. Complexity is definitely worth valuing, but at the same time I try to draw a line between thematic complexity vs formal complexity, which can be tricky.

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      12. Oh, yeah, me too – about the awful takes on Letterboxd. It really is a process, and none of us have all the answers, but it’s fun sharing what we do know. Thanks again.

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