To see The Godfather again is to step back in time into a cerebral world dominated by men, crime, villainy, and violence. Where the woman’s place is to smile and not ask about the family business. And the family business is about illegal activity. So, what we have here are essentially villains, inhabiting a patriarchal society envisioned by themselves. They are crooks. Corrupt gangsters and Mafia bosses. We, as the audience, love this sort of stuff. Gangsters and crime make thrilling drama. But what makes The Godfather such an enduring gangster movie, above every other of the genre before and since, are its characters, and the deftness of its plot.
We view the Corleone family from the inside, so that villains become antiheroes. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo invite us to be one of the Corleones, and by being one of them, we see all their faults as obstacles to be overcome. We might even see them as necessary evils. We begin to sympathise, because don’t we all sympathise with members of our family, however estranged or weird they might be? Ask yourself when watching The Godfather: Do I feel joy or sadness when Vito gets shot while buying fruits from the humble street vendor? This invitation to the family is executed perfectly during the movie’s opening act, which is a long and patient wedding sequence spliced together with talk of revenge, executions and betrayal.
The wedding introduces us, very naturally, to all the key players who will last till the very end. Their introductions are weaved into the dialogue, and the dialogue flows so easily that we are not overwhelmed by the enormous cast the story needs to release. Each character even has the room to come complete with brief backstories; the words chosen by Puzo and Coppola are so precise that no line is wasted — these backstories underpin each and every character for the duration of the film, so observing and listening is crucial.
But we meet Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) first, in his office, before any other major player, and much of what he says in this room underpins not only his character but also the entire film. Here is where the business end of The Godfather is conducted. By Sicilian custom, the Godfather must, on a day of familial celebration, accept any reasonable request made by relatives and close friends. The first is from Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), the undertaker, who seeks vengeance for his daughter’s rapists and attackers. “I went to the police, like a good American”, he says, which, yes, is the right thing to do. “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”, Vito laments. “If you’d come to me in friendship, this scum who ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day”. Vito’s words are so solid and sincere that he almost resembles Christ on the cross, promising paradise to the faithful criminal. The office becomes a place of verbal violence; no physical act is carried out here, but the Corleones discuss murder so fluently that any eavesdropper would be deeply inclined to ring the cops anyway. And yet, we take the side of the gangsters. The first half an hour or so opens The Godfather’s doors and shows us who is who and what they do. It is a bravado act. We absorb all the essential information without even realising it’s being fed to us. And then we are ready for the plot to begin proper.
The Godfather’s key scene comes during a business meeting between the Corleones and Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a big time narcotics business man. Sollozzo aims to bring heroin to New York, and he’s already backed by the Tattaglia family, one of the five major crime families in the city. Now he needs the Corleones and their strong influence in the government. If Sollozzo can receive assured legal protection, the Corleones will be guaranteed 30% of profits. Watch how Coppola sets up this crucial scene. In a scene prior, Vito discusses the deal with his eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), and his adopted son, Tom (Robert Duvall). Sonny says there’s a lot of money in drugs; this cements his position on the take. Tom, always more level-headed, foresees danger for the family, and for all the five heads. Drugs are a perilous business. Prostitution, gambling, alcohol; they are virtuous by comparison.
Vito enters the meeting and declines Sollozzo’s request, much to Sonny’s disappointment. Sonny has a key outburst in this scene that if avoided, might have prevented the rest of the movie from taking place. They are ominous words, and Sollozzo is sharp to pick up on them. Coppola builds up the world of the Mafia so efficiently that even though the meeting ends gently we are not convinced of peace. True enough, as Vito makes to leave the meeting, he is gunned down at the fruit vendor.
The Godfather comes alive with its characters, who are painted with vigorous colours. No one is under-utilised, ill-treated. For what it’s worth, they are intelligent people, unbound by the plot. Instead, they react to it, sometimes falsely, sometimes not. Sonny usually responds incorrectly, an error that proves fateful. Tom is usually correct, a testament to his strength of foresight, which is why we feel great compassion for him when Michael later strips him of certain titles. Michael (Al Pacino) becomes the focus. The youngest son, a war hero, an all-round good boy. Coppola stages Michael in two ominously prophetic scenes. One takes place on the steps of the hospital where enemy mobsters are coming to finish off the wounded Vito. The other during Michael’s thorough description of his plan to dispose of Sollozzo and the twisted police captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden).
Michael poses on the hospital stairs with the florist; they are meant to look like guardians. The florist tries to light his cigarette, but can’t because his hands have gone into convulsions. Michael helps him and realises that his own hands are unmoved. Watch how Pacino admires them as if they are encrusted with diamonds. Why is he so calm? Think back to his older brother Fredo fumbling with his revolver as his father was being shot. Fredo’s no gangster. Michael never thought he was either — “That’s my family. It’s not me” — but maybe now he realises he’s cut out for the job. A good gangster might be able to look into bad business and salvage something profitable. He might even be able to talk himself out of tight situations. But a good gangster is nobody if he cannot remain calm under pressure.
Michael then approaches Sonny and Tom with a plan to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. Observe this scene. What he says is not important. Look at the framing and Pacino’s posture in the chair. He looks like Vito, like the Godfather. The gaze of Coppola’s camera sits on Pacino and tracks in admirably from a wide to a mid. Even as Sonny speaks off screen, the shot remains on Michael. Mind you, this is happening while Vito is still alive, but the way Coppola films it suggests very strongly that all of Vito’s power has transcended Sonny and Fredo to come to rest with Michael.
Just as The Godfather opens with a bravado act, it closes with a climax of sheer poetry in which Michael adopts both meanings of the Godfather title in one seamless string of scenes. This is Coppola at his artistic best, misleading the audience into thinking Michael’s life is about to end, then swiftly turning the tide. All his opposition is taken out with one stroke, and the gruesome murders play as stark juxtaposition to the baptism of Michael’s nephew. An even deeper analysis suggests confidently that Michael’s unrestrained cleansing of his enemies doubles as his own baptism, becoming the Corleone family’s new Don. It is a climax of narrative, character and dramatic perfection.
Coppola has gone on to enjoy success with his subsequent Godfather movies, and with Apocalypse Now (1979), a movie about the Vietnam War that is beloved by almost everyone except me. But The Godfather is his magnum opus. It is an absolutely majestic film, not just about gangsters, but about the lives of gangsters, and how easily an audience can be swayed merely by the way the lives of dangerous people are told. Michael spirals ever downward into villainy in The Godfather Part II (1974), but at least here, for now, he is still Vito’s baby. The world for the Corleones is only going to get darker.