When Paramount decided to make a film of Mario Puzo’s pulpy novel about a Mafia family, the subject matter was considered déclassé at best, the domain of such grimy quickies as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). But the success of the novel (something like 2 million copies sold in the first two years after publication) convinced ambitious Paramount boss Robert Evans to give The Godfather the A-list treatment. After the usual dance of overtures to other filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich, Sergio Leone), Francis Ford Coppola was hired as director and as Puzo’s cowriter on an script about the ascension of crime boss Michael Corelone. Gobs of plot from the novel were cut (and later repurposed for the first sequel), notably patriarch Vito Corleone’s backstory. Getting the movie cast was an ordeal, especially because Paramount hated Al Pacino for Michael even more than they hated Marlon Brando for Vito. The studio pitched such unlikely alternates as Ryan O’Neal for the son and Danny Thomas for the father.
Making the film was fractious for all involved, with Coppola and Pacino constantly at risk of termination—the director was targeted for overspending, the actor for underplaying. Yet behind-the-scenes disharmony wasn’t enough to inhibit the creative process, because The Godfather represents a career high for everyone involved. As entertaining as it is intelligent and soulful, the picture comfortably ranks among American cinema’s true masterpieces. Working with famed cinematographer Gordon Willis, nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” for his moody lighting style, Coppola created a unique look that evoked vintage sepia-toned photographs. Drawing on his own Italian-American heritage, Coppola blended his cast into a tight unit, thereby creating a sense of familial connection that counterbalances the film’s violent storyline.
As for the narrative itself, that should be familiar to all ’70s-cinema fans, so here’s a brief sketch for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure. As aging Mafia boss Vito Corleone struggles to maintain old codes of conduct during the changing times of the World War II era, his three sons follow different paths. Heir apparent Sonny (James Caan) is a hothead who advocates violence, ne’er-do-well Fredo (John Cazale) evinces cowardice, and golden boy Michael (Pacino) avoids the family business until circumstances force him to embrace his destiny. Standing to the side of the action is lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), an outsider who’s nearly a fourth son to Vito, and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), Michael’s WASP fiancée.
The genius of The Godfather is that internal friction causes as much trouble for the Corleones as external forces, so the film becomes a meditation on betrayal, disappointment, family, honor, and countless other epic themes. The acting is amazing, from the stars to the perfectly selected bit players whom Coppola employs to imbue every scene with gritty flavor. And although it’s essentially Pacino’s movie, no one actor dominates, since The Godfather is an egalitarian ensemble piece. It also features more classic scenes than nearly any other single movie, from the canoli to the horse’s head and beyond. It’s not enough to describe The Godfather as one of the essential films of the ’70s, because The Godfather is one of the essential films of all time.
Astonishingly, Coppola and co. nearly topped themselves with the sequel. Both ’70s Godfather films won Oscars as Best Picture, a feat that’s unlikely to ever be repeated. In fact, many fans argue that The Godfather, Part II is the rare sequel to surpass its predecessor, though I don’t share that opinion. Make no mistake, The Godfather, Part II is remarkable in both ambition and execution, with artistic and technical aspects either matching or exceeding those of the original film. Moreover, the film’s painful storyline about a battle between brothers cuts as deeply as the first picture’s depiction of a father trying and failing to save his favorite son from a life of crime. So when I offer my opinion that The Godfather, Part II is incrementally inferior to The Godfather, it’s with the caveat that nearly all films, even great ones, are inferior to The Godfather.
As has been analyzed and celebrated by countless people before me, the big play that Coppola made in The Godfather Part II was telling two stories at once. In present-day scenes, hapless Fredo makes a series of foolish decisions, forcing Michael to exercise his authority over the family in heartbreaking ways. Meanwhile, in operatic flashbacks, Robert De Niro plays the younger version of Brando’s character from the first film. As such, The Godfather, Part II parallels the formation of the Corleone family with its ultimate damnation, brilliantly illustrating how the fateful choices that Vito made as a young man triggered a chain of events continuing through generations. For my taste, the nettlesome flaw of The Godfather, Part II stems from directorial self-indulgence, which would eventually become a major problem in Coppola’s career. As gorgeous and poetic as they are, the De Niro scenes linger a bit too long, since it feels as if Coppola fell in love with every artistic composition and balletic camera move that he and Willis created together. Even the presence of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg in a crucial supporting role feels a bit precious, as if The Godfather, Part II is overly aware of its own significance as a compendium of extraordinary performance techniques. That said, we should all be so lucky as to suffer from an embarrassment of riches, and the highest points of The Godfather, Part II (“I know it was you, Fredo”) are breathtaking.
Regarding the subject of the much-maligned cash-grab threequel The Godfather, Part III (1990), I choose to pretend there are only two movies about the Corleone family. FYI, compendium releases bearing titles including The Godfather Saga and The Godfather: A Novel for Television put all the scenes from the first two pictures, alongside previously unseen footage, into chronological order. Yet another version, The Godfather Trilogy: 1901–1980, integrates the third film and its attendant deleted scenes. The running time on that version is a whopping 583 minutes.
The Godfather: OUTTA SIGHT
The Godfather, Part II: OUTTA SIGHT