Before ‘The Godfather’ came out in 1972, the gangster genre, chiefly associated with Jimmy Cagney and the film noir style of the forties and fifties, had been in something of a decline. It was, therefore, a brave move for Francis Ford Coppola to attempt a three-hour epic based upon the family life of a Mafia don.
The film opens in the immediate post-war period with the wedding of the daughter of Don Vito Corleone. Scenes of the wedding are intercut with scenes showing Don Vito himself in his study, granting favours and dispensing a crude form of justice as though he were an absolute monarch. We soon learn, however, that times are changing, even in the world of organised crime. Don Vito’s empire has been based upon gambling, illicit liquor sales and prostitution. Other Mafia families, however, are eager for the profits to be made from drugs, and Corleone receives a proposal from a drug dealer named Sollozzo that the Corleone clan should join him in exploiting the narcotics market. Corleone refuses, ostensibly for business reasons, but it is made clear that his real objections to narcotics derive from his personal code of honour. Sollozzo, offended, orders an attempt to be made on Corleone’s life. This fails, but Corleone is left seriously injured.
The focus now shifts to the younger generation. Don Vito has three sons, Santino (‘Sonny’), Fredo and Michael, and an adopted son, Tom Hagen. These four have contrasting characters. Sonny is hot-headed and impetuous, Fredo weak, Tom cautious and moderate. Michael, the youngest, loves his family, but initially wants to play no part in their criminal enterprises. Recently returned from the war, his ambitions are to qualify as a lawyer and to settle down in a respectable life with his Anglo-Saxon wife-to-be, Kay. The attempt on his father’s life, however, persuades Michael that his first loyalty is to the family, and he agrees to be part of a revenge attack on Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey the corrupt policeman who is on his payroll. There follows a brutal cycle of revenge, as each killing is avenged by another murder.
The film’s emphasis on family ties, honour and vengeance recall the revengers’ tragedies of the Shakespearean and Jacobean theatre. Coppola does seem to be aiming for a Shakespearean grandeur. Don Vito, the ageing monarch whose powers slip away is reminiscent of King Lear, Michael, a good man corrupted by power, of Macbeth (a comparison which will become even more apt in the later episodes of the trilogy). There is also something of Hamlet in Michael and Sonny’s resolve to avenge their father. Such an ambitious film requires acting of a very high order if it is to seem credible, but Coppola was able to draw upon some of the best performances of the seventies. To my mind, this was Marlon Brando’s last great role (I have never cared much for ‘Apocalypse Now’ and loathed ‘Last Tango in Paris’), but it was one that he made the most of. His Don Vito is both terrifying and pitiable, part dictator and part lonely old man. His rasping voice (the result of an earlier bullet wound in the throat) conveys both menace and physical weakness. Don Vito may be a bad man, but he is also in a way a magnificent one, and his passing marks the end of an era.
If the film was notable for the last of the great Brando, it also saw the birth of a new star. Except perhaps for ‘The Godfather Part II’, I have never seen Al Pacino give a better performance than he did here, as he portrayed Michael’s passage from a ‘civilian’ (as his brother calls him) to a warlord, from an innocent young idealist to a ruthless killer. Given the length of time that Pacino is on screen, I am surprised that he was only nominated for Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor. It would be interesting to speculate who might have won if he and Brando had been in competition for the award. I am even more surprised that Pacino did not win as Best Supporting Actor; Joel Grey’s role in ‘Cabaret’ (which did win) is more showy and a technical tour de force, but it lacks the emotional depth of Pacino’s performance. I also greatly admired James Caan’s role as the hot-headed Sonny.
This is not a perfect film; it has flaws, both artistic and ethical. Artistically, there are places where it tends to drag, particularly after the killings of Sollozzo and McCluskey, and even more so after the killing of Sonny, although it recovers at the ending, which is a highly effective piece of cinema.
Ethically, I felt that the film tended to take the characters’ world view too much at face value. Don Vito may be a dictator, but he is in his own eyes a benevolent dictator, a man of honour who lives by his own moral code. As others such as Roger Ebert have pointed out, this is a film which views a closed society from the inside; the only outsider is Kay, and her role is a relatively minor one. As a result, we do not get to see the damage that organised crime does to the fabric of society, and the Mafia’s own view of itself is never openly challenged. That is not to say, however, that the film is totally amoral. We do see that an ethos of taking revenge can spiral out of control and lead to unforeseen consequences, to the innocent as well as the guilty. This is particularly true of the scenes where Michael takes refuge in Sicily after killing Sollozzo. The dead man’s associates track him down, and a bomb meant for him instead kills his innocent young Italian wife Apollonia.
Although there may be no overt condemnation of the moral position of the Mafia, there is implied criticism of its bloodier deeds. All the characters, whatever the crimes of which they may be guilty, are careful to pay lip-service to the Catholic Church and its rituals. Throughout the film (indeed, throughout the trilogy as a whole) the traditional ceremonies of the Church form a backdrop to various criminal activities. (‘The Godfather’ begins with a wedding and ends with a baptism). It seemed to me that Coppola was using these scenes to make an ironic contrast between the values of organised crime and those of Christianity, especially at the end of the film. Michael, already a ‘godfather’ in the metaphorical sense of a Mafia boss, becomes one in the literal sense of a baptismal sponsor. Shots of him taking vows on behalf of his godchild to reject the works of the devil are intercut with shots of his enemies being gunned down on his orders.
Despite my reservations about this film, and although I personally would not have ranked it as my all-time favourite, there can be no denying that it is a film of great power and a milestone in the history of the cinema. 8/10