Friday, January 28, 2011

The Godfather (1972)

USA, 175 minutes
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Nino Rota
Editors: William Reynolds, Peter Zinner
Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Al Martino, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Salvatore Corsitto, Alex Rocco, Simonetta Stefanelli

I had some idea how contentious director Francis Ford Coppola can be, but I never understood until recently what a supremely embattled production this debut foray into the Mario Puzo material came to be. It was budgeted at under $3 million dollars, a paltry sum even then; bringing on the 31-year-old mostly unknown Coppola to make it was probably just more of the producers' efforts to conserve costs. (In a foreshadowing of the rest of his career, Coppola managed to end up spending over $6 million, although that's still not much—he has compared shooting some parts of it to a makeshift, on-the-fly UCLA film school project.)

Most of the fights centered on the casting. At the time, arguably the only "hot" actor associated was James Caan. Marlon Brando was in the most severe doldrums of his career, with a reputation for troublesomeness on set, and the rest—Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton—were largely unknowns, certainly in Hollywood. Abe Vigoda was someone with almost no experience who showed up at an open casting call. But the problems were hardly confined to casting.

Shooting schedules, running time, the idiosyncratic look of Gordon Willis's inky-dark photography, the luminous Nino Rota score, the performances (inevitably), the choice to shoot on location in Italy, the screen time devoted to "action" (the studio heads thought there was never enough), and back again, exhaustingly, to the casting battles (the studio heads clung for a long time to the idea that Caan should be the Godfather, or anyone but Brando). All of this complicated by the fact that Puzo's novel actually became a bestseller after production of the movie had begun, which meant the stakes involved kept climbing for everyone even as shooting moved forward. In the end, Coppola got most of the principal photography done in a mind-blowing 62 days—that's not much time, if I need to tell you.

The cognitive dissonance obviously proceeds from the final result, which garnered not only a healthy piece of Academy Award attention (winning in the picture, screenplay, and actor categories, with eight other nominations in tow)—I point this out only as an indication of its acceptance in its own time, as Oscars are rarely a measure of quality—but has since grown a critical reputation as a tremendously important film, spawned a sequel that has absolutely rivaled it for accolades (and eventually a third that didn't even come close), and invented the modern Italian-American gangster drama as we understand it even today, one that vies for the kind of lasting popularity once enjoyed only by westerns.

As long as I'm on the point, I will also take a paragraph to recklessly predict that if, in critical circles, Citizen Kane is ever knocked off its semi-permanent perch at the top, this is the movie that will do it—most likely powered by matching it with its sequel (a view I don't take, to me they are separate movies ... nor, for that matter, do I consider the sequel superior, but we will get to that). From its opening, a strange face looming out of darkness to say, "I believe in America," to its scenes of grotesque violence under the figurative shadow of American icons such as the Statue of Liberty and Las Vegas strip, to its profound yet deft meditations on power and wealth and corruption and familial ties, it is quintessentially American to its core, which means it broadly represents enduring fascinations and deeply universal aspects of the human experience itself. It is huge in terms of both its reach and its grasp.

But The Godfather never feels over-packed with ponderous load, as it so easily could, nor the least bit rushed, with corners cut, as its surprising production history indicates that it might. Instead, the story and the manner in which it is told are warm and rich and bursting with life and poignance, moving with a stately pace. The sweep of the story is epic, proceeding from an extravagant wedding sequence as expertly handled as it is vivid, setting everything of importance here in motion all at once, to the business of the family and the conflicts of the story. It is absolutely fearless about what it is and what it is doing. The wallop of it derives directly from the story and the details used to tell it.

For example, just one example, Vito Corleone, who as the film opens is the titular Godfather (played by Marlon Brando), is gunned down in one nice sequence on a New York street, the opening salvo of a gang war. But he survives the attack. The focus then moves to the hospital where he is held, his life still in danger. His youngest son Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino), a World War II hero who has fostered a careful distance from his family and their business, goes there for an evening visit but finds his father left unprotected, the guards missing and no policemen on duty. The hospital is filmed almost like a haunted house, with long empty corridors, glowing sickly green and yellow, spooky and mostly silent but with strange echoing noises of footsteps and doors opening and closing. Already the violence of these lives is deeply and organically embedded into our perception of the action, and the stakes are sky high.

And here is where the most critical character shift of the whole movie, the single point that drives everything else swirling around it, first occurs, as Michael leans over the mostly unconscious form of his father in his hospital bed, holding his hand, and says softly, "I'm with you now." Next the tension will be ratcheted up even further when Michael elects to assassinate his father's chief tormenters in an elaborate set piece that forms one of the most indelible and rightly celebrated sequences in the movie. (And one Coppola is pleased to tell us in the DVD commentary that the studio heads of the time tended to sniff at.)

In short, this is sure-handed moviemaking that's just about as good as it gets, all dressed up in the garb of a gangster movie but with deep family dynamics and tensions propelling the narrative. It occupies its nearly three hours with confidence and aplomb, lean and muscular with few indulgences yet rarely cutting away too soon from even the smallest details that advance its themes. Even when it threatens to become ham-handed and obvious, as in the baptism scene near the end (trivialists note: the baby is Sofia Coppola), it never entirely boils over because it always seems to understand exactly what it's about and what it can and can't do. It's all the more amazing given the production history.


  1. If you thought the movie was great wait till you read the book. The Godfather is a brilliantly written story detailing the accounts of the mafia society and the Corleone family stationed in New York. The novel takes place in New York, Long Island, Sicily, and Las Vegas throughout the 1900's. We are shown how a mafia family is run and the influence they have on the American society. The novel begins in one generation and continues on throughout the next generation of the Corleone Family.

    Although the novel is quite similar to part 1 and 2 of the renowned Godfather series, they do have their own differences. A lot of scenes in the novel are not in the movie and the movie contains some scenes that are not in the novel. So don't be discouraged or afraid to read the novel if you've seen the movie because even though they are similar they are also different. The novel contains well crafted characters and provides a much more clearer and detailed account then the movies on the characters of Johnny Fontane, Lucy Mancini, Albert Neri and many other minor characters. In this novel, the author Mario Puzo uses a unique storytelling technique that makes The Godfather such a good read. He tells the story from many characters point of view and transfers from past to present and vice versa. The plot is intricately designed so that all the events are connected to and related to each other. The technique that famous movie director Quentin Tarentino uses is quite like the technique that Mario Puzo uses to tell this story.

  2. Thanks for your comments on the Puzo novel. I read it and enjoyed it some time back, but you're making me think I might like to revisit it.