US Release Date: 03-11-1972
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
- Marlon Brando, as
- Don Vito Corleone
- Al Pacino, as
- Michael Corleone
- Diane Keaton, as
- Kay Adams Corleone
- Robert Duvall, as
- Tom Hagen
- James Caan, as
- Sonny Corleone
- John Cazale, as
- Fredo Corleone
- Talia Shire, as
- Connie Corleone Rizzi
- Sterling Hayden, as
- Police Captain McCluskey
- Abe Vigoda, as
- Sal Tessio
- Richard S. Castellano, as
- John Marley as
- Jack Woltz
Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
How do you write a review about the greatest movie ever made? What can you say that hasn't been said a million times before, in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet? Is there a cliché that hasn't been used, or a compliment that hasn't been paid? Is there anything original left to say about The Godfather?
The Godfather. The story of a Mafia family dynasty and the transfer of power from father to son. The movie that made stars of James Caan, Robert Duval, Diane Keaton, and Al Pacino. The movie that proved to the world that Marlon Brando was no has been. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it also made a star of its director, Francis Ford Coppola.
What makes this movie so good? It is the perfect culmination of a great script (based on the excellent novel of the same name), a genius director working at his best, and a perfect cast. All these reasons are what inspire the clichés, such as; compelling, gripping, and intense. The story is that of a royal family. Brando plays the King, or in this case the Godfather. His princes are Michael, Sonny, and Fredo. There are rival families also vying for power. And when the King is shot down, confined to his bed, it is up to the Princes to rule his kingdom in his absence and try to hold the family together at the same time.
These are all ruthless people. They are killers, and criminals guilty of every conceivable crime, and yet you root for them throughout the movie. Despite all of it, these are very likable characters.
There are many underlying themes going on in this movie. Two of the most important are control, and of course; family.
To the Corleones, nothing is as important as family. The Godfather is a Mafia chief, but the words mob, or gang are never used. He is the head of the Family. He doesn't demand cash for his services, only loyalty and friendship. If you are loyal to him, you are part of his family. It has nothing to do with blood or even marriage. Carlo marries the Godfather's daughter, but he is not family. Johnny Fontaine is loyal, he is family. Tom Hagen is the adopted son, but he is family. Family is everything.
Control is what the Godfather seeks. Hence the puppet strings on the book cover and the movie poster. The Godfather will never be a puppet dancing on a string. He must hold the strings. He doesn't approve of lack of control. Thus, his love of Sonny, but lack of respect for his lack of control over his anger. Fredo also fails on this front, having no control over his lust for women. Only, the youngest son, Michael, seems to have the sense of control that the Godfather sees as all-important. Control over events, surroundings, your desires, and others, with the Godfather sitting in the center of the whirlwind, holding all the strings.
It is the ultimate clashing of these two themes that drive the underlying tension of the movie. The Godfather values family and control. What happens when the one thing he can't control, is his family? His family is his one blind spot. He can't control whom his daughter marries, or Sonny's anger, or Fredo's ineptness, or Michael's decisions. He completely overlooks his godson's faults. He makes his adopted son, his chief advisor, even though he lacks the killer instinct to hold that office. In the end, it is his family that brings him down. It is even his own son who fails to protect him, when he is shot in the street.
There are so many things that could be said about this movie. That this was the movie that gave us the modern version of the Mob family. A version which really hasn't changed, nearly thirty years later. So many classic lines, “I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse. It's not personal. This is business." The vernacular that passed into our language, “He sleeps with the fishes. Go to the mattresses. Made his bones."
Every scene in this movie is a classic, but there is one that always stands out in my mind. Michael (Al Pacino) stands guard outside the hospital where is father is lying after being shot. Next to him, is a friend, Enzo the Baker. Michael knows there are men coming to kill his father. A long, black car pulls up, two men peer out of it at them. Michael reaches for a non-existent gun inside his jacket, and the car drives off. Enzo removes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and tries to light one, but his hands are shaking too much. Michael takes the lighter and does it for him. As he snaps the lighter shut, he glances at his hands. They are rock steady. And Michael will never be the same.
The whole scene is shot without dialogue, but so much is said in that one simple shot of Michael looking at his hands. Until that moment he was not with the family. From then on, he will never be apart from it. He controlled his fear. And that says it all.
Al Pacino in The Godfather.
One element of the iconic status of this film apart from the many reasons Scott stated above, (all of which I agree with by the way), is that it sits poised perfectly between old Hollywood and new. The way The Godfather is shot, as well as the period look of it, are representative of the golden age of cinema. Even the casting of Marlon Brando reflects a sentimental nostalgia. However the brutal violence, the attitude of the characters and the realism in how the subject matter is shown are definitely products of the new era of film making that was happening in the early seventies. You can categorize movies as either pre-Godfather or post-Godfather.
The chilling moment when the horse's head is discovered in the movie producer's bed is by far the most famous scene in the movie. It is still powerful and shocking even after many viewings. My favorite scene however, is Vito's death among the tomato vines with his toddler grandson as lone witness. It is incredibly realistic and how poignant that this man who led a life of brutality should die in such an innocent manner. It is because of moments like this that we care so deeply about these ruthless individuals.
So though it is a tired cliché by now to rank The Godfather, along with Citizen Kane and Casablanca, as the greatest American movie of all time, it is also accurate to do so. It is definitive and timeless.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Although The Godfather is a great movie on many levels, the real genius of it is Brando's performance as Don Corleone. My favorite scenes that demonstrate this almost play like bookends to the movie, or at least bookends to the character of Don Corleone.
The first scene is when Bonasera asks The Godfather to kill some men who abused his daughter. Don Corleone sits there casually stroking a cat as Bonasera nervously asks for his help, but Don Corleone does not make it easy on him. "We've known each other for many years but this is the first time you've ever come to me for counsel or for help. I can't remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is Godmother to your only child. But, let's be frank here. You never wanted my friendship and you were afraid to be in my debt." This is great dialogue as we learn many things here. Bonasera is scared shitless of Don Corleone, but he is desperate. We also learn that Don Corleone sees business through the mask of family and friendship. He continues, "Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you to treat me so disrespectfully. If you had come to me in friendship then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then they would become my enemies. And then, they would fear you." Brando expertly walks a tight rope playing Don Corleone as both a sadistic mobster and a concerned friend. He scolds Bonasera at the same time he becomes his hero. This is Don Corleone in his element. This is the Godfather pulling the strings of his world.
Later in the movie Brando calls in his favor to Bonasera. He shows up at his mortuary with the bullet ridden body of his son, Sonny. "Look how they massacred my boy..." Brando cries to him as he pulls back the sheet covering his dead son. Bonasera reacts in shock, but he knows he must do what is asked of him. Sonny was a hot tempered bastard. He had affairs on his wife. His lack of self control often got him into trouble. Don Corleone knew this to be true, "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again!" He once told him after an important meeting. But this is his son laying there dead on the slab, and your heart goes out to Don Corleone. This is the Godfather dealing with a problem outside his control. This is the Godfather acting less like a mob boss, and more like a father.
Marlon Brando makes a human being out of a what is essentialy a monster. Don Corleone has people killed or tortured when he sees fit. However, we are allowed to see his weaknesses as well as his love for his family, and thus we can relate to him, and feel pity. Sure The Godfather is a great novel, and Coppola does an amazing job directing, but this movie is made perfect by the incredible performance of Marlon Brando.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1972)