The Godfather (1972) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 175 min.
Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Richard Castellano, Sterling HaydenJohn Marely, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Alex Rocco, Sofia Coppola (cameo)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo (based on his novel)
Review published September 29, 2005
The Godfather is a tough film to review, as it's almost hallowed ground to some fans out there, and many others who might argue that it's the greatest film of all time. I'm not even going to bother getting into any such arguments for or against The Godfather except to say that it isn't just damn good movie-making, it's just damn good storytelling. In fact, one can trace the roots of this kind of storytelling if you go back some ways, back before the Italians to their predecessors, the Romans, and while you're at it, the Greeks. The Godfather is a modern day epic, and, if you'll indulge a personal hyperbole, I would go so far as to compare it to film what "The Iliad" is to literature. Timeless.
Marlon Brando (Superman, The Score) delivers one of filmdom's most memorable performances as Don Vito Corleone, aka the Godfather, who heads one of New York's leading crime families, offering favors to those who ask with respect in return for a favor somewhere down the road. He pulls strings from lowly morticians all the way up to police, judges, and politicians. The good times for his family begin to turn sour when the trafficking of narcotics begins to infiltrate organized crime, which Don Corleone wants nothing to do with. The hit is put out for Vito, who is considered a dinosaur in his ways, but the job is botched and now vengeance pulls the family together in respect and defense of the fallen Don. His sons try to keep the family together, and the business as well, while also seeing to it that those who disrespect the family pay for it with their dear lives.
The Godfather is a resounding success on every level. Although many options were considered in terms of casting, some of them falling through, you can't really argue with the end results, especially with Brando and Pacino (Serpico, The Godfather Part II) for portraying their respective roles with the complexity required. Although Pacino would come to be known as one of the best actors in the business, most memorably when he cuts loose, one can also see how equally fine he is when having to contain himself, and in no other role does he say so much from utter silence as he does as Michael Corleone. You can see the aloofness to the family business in the opening wedding scene, to the resolute vengefulness when Don Vito is gunned down, to the cold-hearted businessman he would later become, and all the while we know these things without having to be told.
Brando plays Don Vito, not as the country's most dangerous criminal, but as a caring family man who does what he does in protection and not out of avarice. The scariest realization comes when we realize we actually have come to care for this man who has murdered and bribed his way to power, and the conflictions within us only serve to bolster what a well-developed and brilliantly portrayed character he is. The rest of the cast is just as fine (well, ok, James Caan (Rollerball, Bottle Rocket) would not have been my choice for Sonny), giving just the right amount of flavor to what could have easily been cookie-cutter parts.
However, the real lion's share of the credit goes to Francis Ford Coppolla (The Rainmaker, Apocalypse Now) for his vision and flawless directorial instincts. Although the film is a long three hours, there is so much detail that it's astonishing how he was able to fit so much in, while also taking time to for poignant moments like the wedding, the baptism, and a moving death, while also ingeniously incorporating them all into the main themes of the film.
I could go on forever on this, so I had better not attempt it. I will say that I especially am impressed with is how Coppola is able to resolve whole side-plots with a mere sentence or gesture. We know Johnny Fontane (Martino) gets his starring role when the Don gets flowers and we know Michael's broken cheekbone has been fixed when Fredo (Cazale, The Deer Hunter) tells him that the doctor had done a fine job. By tying all of these loose ends up without the need for screen-time, Coppola can then more finely key us into the characters and their development as the story progresses. The Godfather is the perfect blueprint on how to tell a story, regardless of genre.
The Godfather is filmmaking at its best, and is recommended for adults seeking an intelligent drama with depth and emotion. Like the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome, this is a tale on the level of the gods and mortals, and we can only but sit and watch as the titans battle for supremacy. Hubris, pathos, justice, and gravitas are all in the mix in Coppola's epic derived from the book by Mario Puzo. It's a story for the ages.
-- Followed by The Godfather: Part II (1974) and The Godfather: Part III (1990)
©2005 Vince Leo