If novels have a cinematic counterpart and there is such a thing as The Great American Movie, The Godfather can take the prize with little dispute. It is in many ways the greatest offering America has given to the movies. Its scope is impressive, the storytelling solid, and the acting impeccable. What makes it so powerful is that it is a classical tragedy in the Greek sense. Michael Corleone’s fall into the world of organized crime is an inevitable but heartbreaking conclusion. It is a quintessentially American story involving the saga of immigration, the hope of achieving the American Dream, and the despair when it eludes you.
Casting a mournful spell upon the opening music is a single horn. Significantly, the first spoken words are “I believe in America.” Does the Godfather have faith in America? The answer is both yes and no. It has allowed him to build his empire, but in old age he has come to realize the cost. Don Corleone values loyalty above all else (“Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?”).
The early cinematography establishes the evil and sense of entrapment in the world of organized crime. The Corleone household is almost all darkness, only a few drops of color are allowed to escape. The most significant of these come in the form of oranges, as oranges are markers of looming death in The Godfather. But the authenticity of The Godfather extends beyond its depiction of the underworld. It is a film that understands Italian-American culture very well. Perhaps it took an Italian-American director like Francis Ford Coppola to bring such attention to detail, from the money collection during the wedding to the “Stella Luna” dances and mannerism. But the characters are not stereotypes and The Godfather is more a historical saga and not an exploitation of Italian-Americans.
This makes the work of the non-Italian cast members all the more remarkable. Marlon Brando is amazing as Don Corleone, the aged crime boss and James Caan is excellent as Sonny, the hothead of the Corleone family. As such, it would make Vito sad to see Michael, the good son, become the next Don instead of Sonny, who is so violent that he has already fallen from innocence. In between them is Fredo, the dopey, insecure middle son played by John Cazale, an excellent actor lost much too soon.
The movie ultimately belongs to Michael, however, and Al Pacino is awesome in the part. Then again, an awesome performance from Pacino is a given. His Michael Corleone may be the most enigmatic character in cinema. Why Pacino wasn’t nominated for Best Leading Actor is one of the top blunders the Academy owes an explanation for.
He returns home from the war with a fiancé in hand. Kay (Diane Keaton) is kind of the audience surrogate. Like us, she is an outsider to this world and Michael has to explain the inner workings to her. Look at the way Michael’s eyes glaze over with sadness when he says, “That’s my family, Kay”. At this point he is ashamed of them and wants the family business to become legitimate.
But things are changing fast in the Corleone family. One indication is how little time Vito spends at his daughter’s wedding. This could mean two things. One, the nature of his job keeps him too far away from moments of happiness or, he’s already being phased out of the lavish empire he created.
A clash of generations is emerging. Don Vito doesn’t want to deal in narcotics. He thinks them unethical and he carries his own moral code. Michael isn’t even involved in the early negotiations with the Five Families. He’s an outsider to this world. Sonny, however, thinks the venture is a good idea since it can rake in a lot of dough. He is supposed to be the next Don, so his opinion carries a lot of weight. In between is the Don’s adopted, non-Italian son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). He is an interesting character and we are never quite sure how to take him. Of course, he was involved in the notorious horse-head scene, which isn’t so much a necessity in the plot as a sly “stick-it-to-the-man” shot at sleazy movie executives.
Not all the other mob families share Vito’s moral code and the Don gets shot while buying oranges in an attempted execution by a rival family that wants to deal in drugs. This is the cataclysmic incident that sets the plot forward. There is a nice shot when Michael is on the phone talking to Sonny soon after the shooting. The wall of the phone booth separates him and Kay, we only see a distorted image of her through the frosty pane, symbolizing the rift between them and how Kay (indeed, all women), are outsiders in the world of organized crime.
The rival gang wanted Vito dead so Sonny, who is open to dealing drugs, can become Don, preventing a gang war. But at this point the film sharpens its depiction of organized crime and how much it has consumed the lives of the Corleones. Even after Vito is shot, all they can talk about is business dealings. Michael and Kay grow increasingly silent with each other and Paulie, the sick bodyguard that failed to protect Don Vito, is shot in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The corruption of the American Dream has come full circle.
The hospital scene is shot like a horror movie and appropriately so. Visiting his father, Michael doesn’t know if dangers lurk around the corner. But the tragedy begins when Michael tells his unresponsive father, “I’m with you now”. Vito’s smile has a hint of remorse in it, mixed with pride.
Sonny is already acting like the next Don, but Michael is on a crash course and has a brutal fall from innocence when he arranges a barroom meeting with Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the drug kingpin, and McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the crooked police captain in agreement with Sollozzo’s gang. The meeting ends in a shootout in which Michael murders both men and wins the respect of the family.
What’s surprising is how little action there is in the movie. It’s mostly talking and a lot of waiting. Clearly, it was Coppola’s intention to take a more mature and realistic look at mob culture. The scene preceding the shootout finds the men silently eating Chinese food, and then arguing over the logistics of the killing. Coppola makes effective use of sound when building his scenes. The train presaging the bar shooting is parallel to all the thoughts rushing through Michael’s head. As in Leone’s movies, the actual violence is brief and brutal, while the build-up is long.
Michael still believes that he has a shot at life outside of the mob. “I don’t want my father to be bothered anymore,” he says. True, he says this to throw McCluskey and Sollozzo off the track, but he is also still clinging on to the hope of making his family respectable.
Upon his return home, we get a sense of how beloved Don Vito is by men, women, and children. It’s interesting how the gangsters are all family men, with the exception of Don Vito’s son-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo), an abusive creep. They are good with kids and, yet, so brutal outside of the family. Don Vito is no exception. Look at how devastated he looks when he learns that it was Michael who killed Sollozzo. Characterizing this observation is the line “We don’t discuss business at the table”. Indeed, there is a dichotomy of family and work. For mobsters, they are two irreconcilable spheres. There are other lines not crossed. Don Vito is separated from his sons in that he commands respect without violence but, rather, with regality.
But after killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, Michael forms an unusual connection with his father. He not only begins a new life hiding out in Sicily, but becomes the inverse of Vito by returning to the home country, to the place where his family’s legacy of violence originated and continues. Arriving in the town of Corleone, which bares his family name, Michael sees that all of the men have been killed in vendetta wars. Death, however, comes by more crudely in the hills of Sicily as the hoods lack the resources of the New York crime families. Michael, however, begins to think that he can never return home and essentially stars a new life in Sicily, like his father did in America. He can’t escape his roots.
An often overlooked virtue of The Godfather is its treatment of women, especially Kay, Connie, and Apollonia, the young woman Michael marries in Sicily. In different ways, all of them are destroyed by the men around them. Coppola’s gravest indictment of mob culture may well be that a place in which men have so much unchecked power is detrimental to women.
The first significant death in the movie is that of Sonny at the tollbooths. It’s so gruesome that it kills off any romanticism inferred about a life of crime. Don Vito knows he has to terminate the gang war, and for the first time, beyond the talks of respect and family honor, we see just how vulnerable a man he truly is. But the damage is done, as is proven in the masterful scene that follows.
As impressive as the cross-cutting during the baptism juxtaposition with the ordered killings, the focus is truly on Michael as, in a sense, he is the one being baptized, both literally and figuratively. The film closes with the end of an era. Don Corleone spends the last few minutes of his life playing with his grandson, extending hope for the next generation resigned to having lost the battle to save Michael. He failed to find the American Dream in a saga of Shakespearean proportions.
Hollywood had been working toward The Godfather for decades. Gangster movies were one of its pillars since the dawn of the talkies. The Godfather was the final stage of their evolution, expanding and utilizing everything the gangster film had picked up on throughout the years. In its final form, it jump started the second Golden Age of Hollywood and became one of the undisputed masterpieces of the film. Also, in an instance of art imitating life, it made the Coppola family a Hollywood dynasty.
Ultimately, The Godfather is one of the saddest American movies. How else are we to take the ending, but by observing that Don Vito’s final days are strangely poignant, melancholy, and resentful about a poorly spent life?