A Selection from My Collection: The Godfather
By Chris Kavan - 07/30/11 at 12:47 PM CT
While some films have a clear division for audiences, there are a select few that garner near-universal acclaim. Francis Ford Coppola's "family" epic The Godfather is one of those films. I watched this film late to the party (in fact, I saw the entire film for the first time right around last December) but I implore you to NOT be like me - don't put off watching this truly remarkable film.
Appearing near the top of just about every "top XXX" movie list, and for good, reason, this is a film where everything comes together. You have a strong cast, a mesmerizing story, an excellent score, dazzling cinematography and the perfect locations. Plus, like all great films, the story behind the movie is every bit as good as the finished project.
I cannot stress enough how perfect this cast turns out. Marlon Brando as the raspy Vito Corleone, James Caan as the hot-headed Sonn Corleon and a fresh-faced Al Pacino as Michael Corleone are the pillars supporting a stellar cast. There are a lot of characters to keep track of throughout the film, but each one is given enough attention that you never have trouble knowing whose who. From Lenny Montana as the hulking Luca Brasi to Al Martino as the smooth crooner Johnny Fontane, each actor and actress brings exactly what is needed to their role, and whether ab-libbing or coming from Mario Puzo's novel, it's an outstanding effort all around.
"Spoilers You Can't Refuse Below"
For a three-hour film, it moves quickly. The film follows the Corleone family as the old-school current Don Vito goes up against a rival family looking to start in on the narcotics trade. They need the Don's influence with politicians and judges in order to proceed, but Vito is unwilling to bargain, seeing drugs as a "dirty" proposition compared to gambling and guns. This starts off a series of escalating confrontations - eventually the Don himself is gunned down, but survives, and the youngest son, war-hero Michael, who has distanced himself from family business, finds himself drawn into this world until he rises up to become the next Don.
This is a violent film. If you count the horse (and why wouldn't you?) there are a total of 18 deaths - shootings, bombings, garroting and one decapitation (the horse - in one of the most famous scenes in the film). This is about the Mafia - things are bound to get a little rough. Yet I think you need this violence to show just how dangerous and serious this business can be. When Michael deals a double execution in a small, Italian resteraunt, you know he means business and that he had finally come to embrace his family's business. When Sonny is ruthlessly gunned down at a toll stop, you know no one is safe in this kind of world. Yet this violence begets violence: in a scene that is dare I say poetic, Michael becomes an actual godfather (as his sister's young son becomes bapitized) while it is intercut with scenes of various executions that Michael has set in motion to place the Corleone famiy back on top.
Yet is you put the violence aside, this is also a film about family and trust. You start the film off at a huge, lavish wedding where, as according to tradition, the Don must accept any given to him, but expect to do a favor in return. While the immediate family may be small and close-knit, the extended family is certainly a sight to behold. It contrasts nicely with the wedding Michael has later in a small Italian village. The film constantly reminds the viewer that family comes first, and those who go against the family find themselves in trouble. Sometimes it results in the head of a $300,000 horse being left in your bed, sometimes is results to bullet to the skull. Even if you show disrespect, it's grounds for if no reprisal, at least a loss of status.
Even if Nino Rota managed to recycle a fair bit of the score, it's still a masterpiece that fits perfectly with the film. Likewise, the overall darkness of the film also fits a story that is a bit dark itself. Starting with that slow pan out as the film begins, the cinematography is likewise just the right look for the film. Using authentic New York locations adds that feel of reality to the film as was filming in Italy during Michael's brief hideout. The movie would not be complete without each element coming together, but like the planets aligning, for once things just come together in perfect harmony.
The Godfather also immediately entered the pop-culture radar with numerous unforgettable quotes, the top being "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." along with "sleeps with the fishes" and "leave the gun, take the canolli's". Plus, just like going to the bathroom is a bad omen in Pulp Fiction, hanging around oranges is a bad idea in The Godfather. Maybe I'll think twice before ordering that next screwdriver. Brando's performance of Vito itself lent itself to parody. The whole cotton-in-the-mouth trick works wonders - along with the hand gestures. It's brilliant, yet so easy to immitate (not get right, just immitate). It's an iconic role to be sure.
The film was optioned a sequel before it was finished and many consider The Godfather Part II to be the greater film. It's hard to say for sure - both films are technically brilliant - from both the acting and filming perspectives. In fact I can tell you the only fault I found in The Godfather: the fight between James Caan (Sonny) and Gianni Russo (Carlo) has some pretty terrible choreography at points. Apparently Caan actually caused bodily harm to Russo because of some bad feelings, but all I saw was a phantom punch and some kicks that were obviously pulled. Yet, it's a minor quibble on my part and can't dent an otherwise perfect film.
If I decide on a "100 Movies You Need to See Before You Die" list, The Godfather would make the cut. It's a classic in every sense of the word, and one that should be experienced by any fan of film. Don't wait around to watch this one like I did, get to it now.