A crime family, one of the five that runs New York post World War II, negotiates the fall of its patriarch, the aging Don Corelone (Marlon Brando), and the transfer of power to the son who was supposed to the family’s representative in the legitimate world, Michael (Al Pacino). Francis Ford Coppola takes Mario Puzo’s potboiler and creates a rich, operatic, and layered crime saga. As the film opens, it depicts the family’s strong ties to the old world of loyalty and blood with the marriage of the Don’s daughter (Talia Shire). Coppola used the wedding to economically introduce the hierarchy of the family: hot-headed oldest son Sonny (James Caan), sensitive and simple middle son (John Cazale), the adopted chief advisor son, Tom (Robert Duvall) and Michael, who introduces his love Kay (Diane Keaton) to his family, all the while explaining that he is not them. What follows is the inevitable slow decline of the family as Michael is corrupted and deformed.
The casting is flawless and given the later body of work of the players, it may be the strongest ensemble in film history. Brando won best actor, and Pacino, Caan and Duvall were nominated for best supporting actor. Other character actors are brilliant in smaller but integral roles, like Richard Castellana and Abe Vigoda as the Don’s chief lieutenants; Al Letieri as a rival who tries to get the Don to bankroll him in the future of drugs; Sterling Hayden as a crooked NYC police captain who serves as Letieri’s guard; and John Marley as the Hollywood mogul and Alex Rocco as the Vegas founder who won’t bend to the desire of the Corleone family until they are made offers that cannot be refused.
Perhaps the best of the bunch is Cazale as the weak, disturbed Freddo. Cazale died of lung cancer after only five films, but what a career: The Godfather, The Godfather II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, and his last film, The Deer Hunter. If you have not seen it, I strongly recommend the documentary on Cazale, I Knew it Was You.
Mob stories are difficult to resist. The allure of the criminal life, with its excess, dizzying violence and the seductive freedom to do whatever one pleases without retribution, makes for captivating viewing. The Ray Liotta character in Goodfellas is emblematic of the theme; he was intoxicated by the life and ended up being just an every day schmo, a schlub. The Sopranos melded soap opera and commentary on the modern that, while overpraised, was consistently sharp and engaging.
The Godfather, however, works as both Shakespearian tragedy and pulp. While providing a seamless criminal power struggle and family drama, Coppola articulates the creeping rot. The degradation comes in many forms , but Pacino’s haunting performance exhibits it best in Michael. He starts as a fresh face, canny but determined to be separate. It is Michael who bucked the family by enlisting and becoming a hero in World War II, fighting “for strangers”, as Sonny sneers. Yet, by the end of the film, Michael has adopted Sonny’s insularity and perverted it to achieve unspeakable ends. As he does so, Pacino almost becomes physically transformed, as if he is being poisoned slowly by an internal disease. It’s an incredible performance, so utterly different from the excess of what would come later in Scarface and Scent of a Woman.
The look of the film is also remarkable. Gordon Willis’s cinematography is nostalgic and classic. Willis shoots in a darker hue as the story becomes more ominous and sinister. Martin Scorsese has called it a trick so influential that “every director of photography over the last 40 years owes [Willis] the greatest debt for changing the style completely.” The art direction is also noteworthy. Whether it is an art deco bar that serves as the meeting ground where an enforcer is offed or the sumptuous estate of a problematic Hollywood mogul, every setting feels timeless. Coppola is also crafty, shooting old New York tightly (his budget was not huge). Nonetheless, iconic wide shots (a Long Island expressway and causeway, a Times Square street) make up for the lack of sweep.
The film is no. 2 on AFI’s top 100. It should be no. 3, after The Godfather, Part II.