“The Godfather” simply put, is one of the greatest films of all time. The script is thee best I’ve ever read. The direction is flawless. The acting may very well have the best ensemble cast in any movie I’ve ever seen or will ever see. It’s also one of the most precise and intricate films I’ve ever come across as writer, Mario Puzo brings out some of the most hidden and guarded secrets of the underground world ever captured on film. Watching “The Godfather,” is like watching cinematic art. Francis Ford Coppola’s direction is what brings this film, that’s so ambitious and so grand, down to earth with precision direction as he handles each and every scene with such care. The film starts with a black screen and an opening monologue from an undertaker. As the man starts talking about honor, family, respect, and justice we are pulled right in on his luminous eyes as he stands in near darkness. He begs for justice since the American system has failed him. He goes to Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) for justice. Don Vito is the man of power. He’s the one who pulls all the strings and watches his puppets dance from behind the stage and out of sight; untouchable, or so we think. Some of the greatest moments in the film- and very intentional to show the distinguishable difference between Michael and Vito- are of Vito crying over his son, Sonny’s (James Caan), death. When Michael learns of the news, he has little reaction. Two of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the film are from the cause of a loved one that has died long before he should have, and they come from Brando. As Vito stands over the body of his son he nearly breaks down. There is clash of feelings between the two men that are never conflicting, but compared.
The film opens during the wedding of Don Vito’ daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), and we see just how strong the bond of family really is. You have the family dancing with each other, drinking, laughing, and sitting next to each other to show how close they are, then we see some of the outsiders such as the Barzini family, and surprisingly Michael (Al Pacino) along with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) on the outskirts without much interaction. Michael seems almost out of place as if he is the adopted son and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is more apart of the family than he is. His opening words are to Kay, and they include, “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.”
We get the feeling that Michael’s nearly ashamed of the stigma that goes along with his last name: This is what makes Al Pacino’ role- significantly- the hardest performance in the entire film to portray. He’s the one doing all the heavy lifting as he has to go from outsider and completely against the family’s actions and businesses to, by films end, head of the family. Brando has the teary eyed moments that actors live for, but Michael is too cold for that. Never for a second as he gradually comes to power do we think this turn is ridiculous or laughable, and in lesser hands it very easily could have been.
The final act of the film is loaded with plot points as decisions are made left and right as the film becomes visually and emotionally captivating. As the film draws to an end, Michael has gained half of the power of the family and makes most of the decisions. He’s treated, not with respect, but as an outsider, too high ranking for his experience. The Corleone family is on the brink of disaster and losing everything, yet we never get that feeling. We see the two leader’s confidence and we keep our confidence in them, even if the other family members doubt their decisions. Michael goes to Las Vegas and makes Moe Greene an offer he can’t refuse. Then he refuses. This is Pacino’ shinning moment in the film. There’s no screaming or the hoopla that goes along with his name. After he treats Moe Greene like utter garbage, Fredo (John Cazale) get’s upset and starts barking at him. Coppola is perfectly on his game here, too, as we watch from Fredo’s height, looking down on Michael who sits in a chair as he coldly looks up with his radiating eyes, that have so much going on behind them, and simply says, “Fredo, don’t ever take sides with anyone against family again. Ever.”
That’s some serious foreshadowing for the second film, and only after watching the second film can you go back and appreciate what Pacino and Coppola pulled off in this scene; Cazale too. We have no idea how serious Michael is. These are some of the stepping stones that make Michael’s change believable. He’s not quite his father- Vito has a soft spot for his children (admittedly so)- as he’s capable of turning on anyone and using the line, “It’s strictly business” when it comes to family issues. Michael’s sister, Connie, calls him a “cold hearted bastard” at the end of the film. It’s hard to find better superlatives than that, yet we still love him. The interesting thing about Pacino’ performance is that he doesn’t sugarcoat it. He doesn’t try to make the audience love him. He plays the character as the character should be played. That’s the sign of great writing; great acting; and great directing since we could have very easily seen someone try to make him likable. This crew just presents the character with all his flaws and let’s us decide if we love him or hate him. Its films like “The Godfather,” that made me wish I had amnesia, so I could feel the same heart pounding moments over and over again.