The Godfather (1972) did for gangster movies what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for science fiction. Like Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola re-energized and, to a degree, reinvented a basic Hollywood pulp fiction action-entertainment genre, using it as a vehicle for the high artistic ambitions of a post-New Wave film “auteur.”
Within his narrower focus on 20th century American civilization (as opposed to Kubrick’s philosophical speculations on human evolution), Coppola shapes the story of the Corleone Mafia family into an epic/satiric vision of American business, government, justice, and moral decline. The Godfather’s brilliantly constructed opening sequence, the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, not only establishes the Don’s character, the nature of his organization, the role of family and Sicilian tradition in his world, and the character of his sons (three natural and one adopted), but also establishes the relationship between the Don’s world and “legitimate” society. For instance, the film’s opening words are those of Bonasera, a petitioner for a wedding “favor,” whose voice over a dark screen first asserts the American Dream, “I believe in America. America has made my fortune,” and then turns to disillusioned contradiction: “for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”
Numerous subsequent lines of dialog establish literal or metaphorical connections between the criminal underworld and social institutions. Some of the most memorable ones include: “My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.””Now we have the unions, we have the gambling; and they’re the best things to have. But narcotics is a thing of the future. And if we don’t get a piece of that action, we risk everything we have. I mean not now, but ten years from now.” “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” And most famously of all: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The film’s title refers to two godfathers, the original Don Corleone and his youngest son – and ultimate successor – Michael. Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Corleone, for which he was awarded a Best Actor Academy Award, balances the Don’s subtly counter-pointed functions as beloved, grandfatherly patriarch and fearsome, brutal crime boss. Yet Michael, as the character most centrally and significantly affected by the film’s plot and played with a brilliance equaling Brando’s by a then unknown Al Pacino, is the principal protagonist.
At the wedding, Michael’s centrality is signaled by the Don’s frantic call, “Where’s Michael? We are not taking the picture without Michael!” A World War II hero still in decorated uniform, Michael is meanwhile busy differentiating himself from his family to his girl friend and future second wife, Kay (Diane Keaton). “Luca Brasi held a gun to the band leader’s head,” he relates, “and my father assured him that either his signature or his brains would be on the release. That’s my family Kay. It’s not me.” Michael’s initial disinterest in Mafia activities is reinforced by his adoring father who envisions him as “Senator Corleone” or “Governor Corleone” not as his successor. That role is reserved for his hot-headed eldest son, Sonny (James Caan). But, of course, events conspire to suck Michael in – and to keep sucking him in right through Godfather III – the assassination attempt on his father, Michael’s coolly murderous response, the car bomb meant for him that kills his first wife, the Sicilian beauty Apollonia (aptly named for the god of sun light), the riddled body of his brother Sonny. Inevitably, a morally darkened Michael emerges at the end of the film, one who outdoes his father in guile and ruthlessness and whose final brutal and deceitful acts in Godfather I seal his doom as a Macbeth-like villainous tragic hero.
Shot mainly on location in various New York City locales, The Godfather spans a ten-year post World War II period. A multitude of props, costumes, and pop culture artifacts arranged by the film’s art director, Warren Clyner, and production designer, Dean Tavoularis, lend a rich sense of historical authenticity to the film’s mise en scene. Moreover, the film’s lighting by brilliant cinematographer Gordon (“prince of darkness”) Willis, contributes greatly to both the film’s realism and its thematic symbolism. Compare, for instance, the use of extremely dark, shadowy, color desaturated interior scenes ? especially in the Don’s home office ? with the brightly lit, vivaciously colored outdoor wedding scene or the sun-drenched, romanticized Sicilian landscape.
The Godfather is edited in the classic Hollywood invisible style, subordinating technique to the needs of narrative and visual continuity. But the film is expertly edited nonetheless. In particular one might note the stunning use of multiple parallel editing that occurs in one of the film’s last scenes: the assassination of the other crime family heads, elaborately planned to coincide with Michael’s participation in the baptism of sister Connie’s child. Likewise, The Godfather’s soundtrack is a memorable combination of diegetic period music (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) and a lush, operatic original score composed by one of the greatest film music composers, Nino Rota (a frequent Fellini collaborator as in 8 1/2).
With The Godfather and its even more ambitious sequel, Coppola pushed the classic gangster film in the direction of high art and released it once and for all from the moralistic grip of the Hays Code, which arose in the 1930s in large part as a response to the romanticizing of criminals found in such early examples of the gangster genre as Scarface, Little Cesar, and Public Enemy. Not only did the code regulate the degree and nature of sexual and violent imagery in all films, but it also specifically required that criminals be portrayed as morally repulsive social deviants and that plots involving them be resolved with the implicit or explicit lesson that “crime did not pay.” Fortunately for American popular culture The Godfather radically rewrote the rulebook and paved the way for a generation’s-worth of gangster masterpieces ranging from the Scarface remake to Pulp Fiction to The Sopranos.