The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
Among the most enduringly popular of all American films, The Godfather is an encapsulation of many things about U.S. cinema in the ’70s that were great — it is uncompromising, enveloping, and vast in ways it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood production coming close to now — but also the things about it that were hideous: the claustrophobic self-importance, the lack of restraint, the showy performances that engulf and overshadow the storytelling. Its breadth of influence is unquestionable, but it’s up for debate whether that’s been a net positive for the art of film (if only because it’s probably the reason Scarface exists).
The project landed into Francis Coppola’s lap as a director for hire; it was an opportunity to make a mainstream film with a chance for major success and the possibility of launching Coppola’s career in the wake of his acclaimed thesis film You’re a Big Boy Now and considerable time working under the aegis of Roger Corman. One is reminded somewhat of Stanley Kubrick’s strange experience making Spartacus, but whereas Kubrick disowned and rarely spoke of Spartacus until a few years before his death, Coppola’s ambivalence about The Godfather has seldom been openly expressed, not least because of the stature it holds in the film world. But there’s no mistaking, when you listen to him talk about his follow-up, The Conversation, that he had more investment in that picture and feels that it’s the stronger achievement. He is entirely correct; the comparatively conservative The Godfather was there to pay the bills for years to come.
As you know, The Godfather is about organized crime, though you won’t hear it toss around obvious terms like “Mafia”; that’s because the same Mafia ties the film pretends to high and mightily expose prevented the producers from ever actually stating the thing their story is about, just one of many reasons to draw suspicions upon Albert S. Ruddy and Paramount’s real intentions here. This adaptation of a novel by a man who admitted considerable distance from his subject matter isn’t really an illumination of an underworld, it’s a fetishizing — complete and shameless — of power itself; the irony goes deeper than you’d ever dream, down to the character of a singer strong-armed into an acting role being portrayed by Al Martino, who was in fact strong-armed into the role by his Mob ties. The traditionalist structure has Respected mob boss Vito (mumbling, incoherent, useless Marlon Brando) Corleone violently asserting his wanking greatness over all those around him, the business slowly taken over by his initially pure and uncrooked son Michael (Al Pacino), who gradually becomes cotton-candy corrupted because Coppola, Puzo and the producers think that’s deep.
Really though, the characterization is only here as a needlessly intricate thing to hang all the bloodbathing and machismo on. The real story is: the Mafia does this and that. People die, they get replaced, they have a family life that is sometimes intertwined with the murderous business, sometimes is kept separate from it. When death or sorrow or transformation occur, it is with no discernible feeling or attachment that we register it. We don’t come to understand or relate to these people; we only gawk at them. Maybe it’s sheer escapism, but it’s not involvement on any meaningful level, so it only works in the most cerebral and popcorn-passive way.
All the stylish hobnobbing of overgrown boys in nice cars acting out and getting killed isn’t aided by the overstating of everything upon which Coppola thinks the narrative hinges. This is at least in part because the film isn’t built to sustain its length; few story points aren’t excessively underlined, an epidemic of no decisionmaking. Things are shown, then told, and vice versa. And in all that time, the director can never justify why we should really be bothered to care about the fact that deep down a ruthless criminal truly loves and holds a special bond with his family. This would be remedied to some extent in the enormously superior The Godfather Part II but the portions of the story presented here are all flabby pseudo-Gone with the Wind melodramatics, overwrought and self-consciously “epic.”
Given this cast, it’s little surprise that the performances run a broad gamut. Despite Brando’s top billing, Pacino is really the central character and this is one of his more agreeably subtle turns on film; he never launches into the kind of overdrive frustratingly exhibited later, such as in Scent of a Woman. Until roughly the point that he decides it’s a good idea to assassinate a drug kingpin and a police captain in the name of turnabout, he even sells his character, Michael, as a reasonable and sympathetic figure. Brando is of course a cartoon; there are clearly the types of people who consider him among the greatest performers in screen history. Those of us mystified by that distinction will find little to change our minds here, as Brando’s Don Corleone is mostly a tragicomic figure — filling his mouth with orange peels, breathing heavily, stroking a cat, pretending to be intimidating and in control, it’s just another day in Method class. James Caan’s reasonable enough work is sabotaged by the writing of his particularly one-dimensional character, hotheaded ill-fated Sonny Corleone; the film is stolen by Robert Duvall as the Corleones’ personal attorney, a character to whom the best actor in the film devotes himself steadfastedly. It’s a kick to see Sterling Hayden and John Cazale pop in too, but not nearly enough is done with either.
The Godfather can’t be entirely recommended on a technical basis either. While it’s certainly a competently produced, slick, and well-paced film (it goes by surprisingly quickly, at 177 minutes), there is really nothing much to say about Coppola’s technique here — especially given the clumsiness of most of the longer sequences (the wedding, the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Vito, and especially the baffling interlude that places Pacino in Sicily for what feels like half a century). Positive memories of it seem to hinge on Gordon Willis’ claustrophobically dark photography, which is an impressive stunt that retains its novelty but can’t salvage the sheer ugliness of the film’s world and its over-reliance on excess. The strongest scenes are those that owe a clear debt to the crime dramas of the 1930s; the shooting of the Don offers a sudden injection of excitement Coppola wouldn’t find again until his next project.
In the last decade or so the ’70s have been romanticized as a golden age of U.S. filmmaking, which is surprising when it appears to me that many things date the work of that period. We forgot, in essence, that restraint is a powerful tool itself, maybe the most powerful of all. A lot of the movies from the ’70s that I detest, like Martin Scorsese’s infuriating “classic” Taxi Driver, come to my mind with a sense of condescension and contempt for the audience, punishing them for their humanity; The Godfather has no such problem. It worships its audience, but it’s basically — note the Corman training — a B-movie. They come to see gangsters murdering people and they get it. Which, again, is fine. But how much better could The Godfather have been if it explored, even slightly, the world outside the family and the parallel universe of New York’s network of crime syndicates? The impact their actions and crimes had on a larger world? As it is, this is pure escapist celebration of the baddies — which is harmless enough, but begs the question of why this of all films becomes the standard by which we measure our cinematic sense of characterization and storytelling depth? The film is goofball entertainment that neither deserves nor stands up to such scrutiny.
While the movie may not “glamorize” violence (and I’m not so sure it doesn’t), it certainly doesn’t illuminate the world it depicts. The thesis of “decent boy turns evil and all-powerful” is scarcely elaborated on beyond its superficial applications, no great complication, just point A to point B, giving us all a feeling of self-congratulation. It’s like Chinatown if Jack got the girl. The Godfather isn’t brave enough to be much of a challenge — at least Part II would find time to apply some level of criticism and commentary to how the Corleones’ saga relates to the broader, more important story of American capitalism. None of that here.
The most apt comparison for The Godfather may, in fact, be George Lucas’ Star Wars. The problem with modern mythology is it succumbs very easily to the romantic, absent of a core. These movies are a bit like frosting with no cake, not because they’re “pure” entertainment, but because they beg to be taken seriously and to bring us along for a thrill ride without any real justification for the emotions they expect us to have. This is uglier than Star Wars because its vices are much less wholesome. While The Godfather is at least initially an elegant and interesting movie that entertains passably, once Al Pacino begins his pointless side trip through the marriage-in-Sicily subplot, the second half dives immediately over the edge. It wallows in cartoonish human misery and excess, it sheds blood without complication, and it features people flailing about and throwing things and slamming one another with trash cans. It is watching a bunch of malcontents ruin their own lives and everyone else’s. While its value as schlock is clear, it’s also disgusting and, worse yet, boring.
The Godfather‘s most irksome element is its inability to hide its creepy hatred of women; this is a “guy’s guy” movie. What’s worse is that its misogyny seems less deliberate than just a lazy choice to avoid having to write more. Its female characters are pure cardboard, even Diane Keaton’s “you’re not really going to be a Mafia guy, are you, honey?” flake. There’s the matronly mother, a bystander as far as we know, but what do we really know? There’s Talia Shire as a screeching cliché, taking so much apropos-of-nothing abuse you’d think this was a Scorsese picture. And of course there’s the Sicilian woman serving briefly as Al Pacino’s wife, played with some amusing levity by Simonetta Stefanelli, whose primary narrative purpose is to get blown up. These ladies are there strictly to dote on, cry about, and bitch at the male characters, and occasionally take their shirts off, which is probably the least insulting thing they are required to do in the film, and surely the most human.
For this movie to be as popular and acclaimed as it is, I imagine people must relate to it, but all I feel is numb; of course there’s plenty to admire — the film includes so much stuff, how could there not be? (There’s something sublime, for example, about that bleak final shot of the door closing in Diane Keaton’s face.) But it’s about as far from my idea of what constitutes a worthwhile time a the movies as you can get. Everyone should see it, and you won’t be bored at all; you’ll even enjoy yourself some of the time. Just have that cold shower ready afterward.
[Expanded from a review posted elsewhere in 2006. Film was screened anew for this project.]