When we first started this site, Luke and I decided to only review movies that were newer and try to stick with the 21st century without going further back than 1999. Of course we watch dozens of movies each year that go as far back as the Silent Era, so we decided to create a segment of CyniCritics where we don’t necessarily review “older” movies, but instead pick out the best ones and then talk about them from a modern standpoint. Think of it as Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series written by college students. We’re starting with The Godfather, which is probably the best place to start next to Citizen Kane. As always, we appreciate you taking the time to read our work and we like reading yours, so comment with feedback!
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo (screenplay), Mario Puzo (novel)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall
On the surface, The Godfather will always be about America by way of the Italian Mafia. The organization is structured less like the American government and more like a corporation; a captain of industry on top and the chain of command that goes all the way down to soldiers, drivers, and errand boys.
Digging deeper, though, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic should be examined from a more basic, primal standpoint. Because yes, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his three sons (Al Pacino, James Caan, and John Cazale) are part of a massive criminal empire, but this story is told on a very personal level. There’s a reason why we’re allowed to see the inner workings of all the characters. Their traits, most specifically how they react to violence and being wronged, are what bring to light what I think is this movie’s real purpose: to show the fight between human nature and experience and animalistic instinct.
Like the best stories, there are no easy answers to that dilemma. Nature and instinct do not conquer each other. Their battle is more of a dance than a brawl; an endless compromise. Don Corleone uses his wisdom and learned experience to have people killed and make money. He also loves and protects his family, and will use his influence to any end to protect them. Many idolize The Godfather morally rather than cinematically for that very reason.
It’s dialogue is embedded in American pop culture more than almost any other movie, as countless viewers don the raspy voice of Brando and recite lines like “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” But much of what the Don says comes back to the fact that he represents an old viewpoint, one that presumably required a violent separation from the government and society in order to achieve the American Dream.
Gangster movies, notably ones like the 1932 version of Scarface didn’t dip into the pathos of the criminals like this one does. It was all grandstanding macho bullshit, which is what James Caan’s Sonny represents. He is the supposed heir to the criminal empire, but meets a violent end at a tollbooth because his animal instincts get the best of him.
Al Pacino’s Michael is the only real successor to the top when the Don dies because he is a younger version of his father. He has the ability to use his reasoning to get what his instinct and animal craving desires. Fredo (Cazale) is too much of an impish coward and the adopted Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is, well, adopted.
Pacino took the character to new heights in The Godfather Part II, but his calm, contemplative performance here really digs into the cunning hiding beneath Michael’s good soldier diversion. His relationship with Kay (Diane Keaton) is equally important to the understanding of what this movie is saying about men, power, and violence as his relationship with his family is.
With all the time I’ve spent talking about character motivation, you’d think I’ve been talking about a novel. The Godfather was a novel first, and it is a good one. The movie is better, though, and that’s not something you can say very often. It works visually just as well as narratively.
The haunting shot of the fallen Don in his garden is a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s themes and symbols into one gloriously composed frame. Oranges symbolize death in this series, and while he whimsically chases his grandson around his private Garden of Eden, he has an orange peel in his mouth to look like a monster. This scene works on many levels because of Brando’s beautifully realized performance and because the filming of it is perfect. In one instant he is happy, truly happy for the first time in the entire movie; the next, he is dead. In the book, he cries out how beautiful life is as he is dying. In the movie, you can see it on Brando’s face. By losing that cheesy touch, it becomes one of the most poignant moments in movie history.
The Godfather makes room for scenes like this, which is as short an explanation as possible for why it is a classic. Of course, it also contains a ridiculous amount of memorable scenes and moments as well. Mario Puzo created a sprawling, atmospheric world in his book, and he and Coppola have recreated it and then some in this movie.
Michael’s vengeance on the Turkish up-and-comer Sollozzo and the corrupt police chief McCluskey at a quaint Italian restaurant; a movie tycoon waking up to find his prized horse’s head in bed with him; “Leave the gun, take the cannolis.” These are all iconic moments that are perfect in different ways. None of them match the baptism/murder scene toward the end, though. It is filmmaking at its most powerful and effective. Nothing more needs to be said of it.
The 1970s were a great decade for film because of directors like Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, et. al. They marked an important period in the movies where actual auteurs were working at the peak of their powers inside the Hollywood studio system. Coppola’s fight to remain the director of The Godfather is partially responsible for this. The push and pull between an auteur and the studios showcased what American cinema was truly capable of more so than any film since Citizen Kane. For that very reason, both it and The Godfather continue to duke it out on “Best of” lists for the title of “Greatest American Movie of All Time.”
In fact, The Godfather has become such a staple on lists that many in the modern age just assume it’s good and don’t take the time to watch it. It is one of the few movies that you can get swept up in. The fast-paced, tech-fueled society we live in now often doesn’t make time for three-hour Mob epics, and those living in (and loving) the Michael Bay Era of cinema will dismiss the long passages of dialogue as boring. Let them. This movie will endure on the pop cultrual landscape forever. Put simply, The Godfather is one of the most effective pieces of cinematic storytelling ever told.