By John H. Foote


 “I believe in America…”Bonasera to Don Corleone in The Godfather

The masterful film The Godfather is about so much more than an Italian family and their worldwide Mafia operation. Francis Ford Coppola, the visionary director of the film, saw so much in the film when he read the book and began working on the screenplay with the author Mario Puzo. Coppola saw a perverse study of the American Dream: a young man having arrived in America with nothing and made his fortune in the criminal world. He makes no apologies for the fact his business is murder, gambling, conspiracy – he protected his family, made a good living, protected his friends and took care of the people loyal to him.

Don Vito Corleone is one of the most exciting characters in modern film. An old man in the first film, slightly over 70, he is the Don of the Corleone crime family, which employs hundreds including his sons Sonny and Fredo. His third son, the youngest Michael, wants nothing to do with the family business, choosing to join the marines and got to college after the war. The first time we see the Don in the film is in a dark room where a funeral director has come to ask him to do murder as a personal favour. Bonasera, the funeral director, has always kept the Don at a distance, but after his daughter was beaten and raped, the courts did nothing, so he finally came to the Don on the day of Corleone’s daughter’s wedding. Sicilian custom states no father of the bride can decline a favour asked the day of his daughter’s wedding. But Bonasera has insulted the Don, asking to do murder when his daughter still lives. It ends with Bonasera calling him Godfather and kissing his hand. Told he will owe the Don a favour, but it may never be claimed, but if asked he must do as he is told. He agrees, and the men who hurt his daughter will be beaten within an inch of their lives.

That is the opening to both the book and the film, and Coppola takes his time revealing Don Corleone.

When Coppola was invited to make The Godfather, he was already an Oscar winning writer, having claimed an Oscar for Patton (1970). He was the first of the film school generation that would storm Hollywood and take over the business in the seventies. Paramount felt his Italian heritage would bring a certain flavor to the film that would be much needed, and they were right. They also brought him in because as a young, hungry up and coming director they felt they might control him, and they were dead wrong. Coppola was stubborn, fought for what he wanted, and for the most part got everything he wanted. When casting came up the names being batted around for Don Corleone were Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, Frank Sinatra, and Laurence Olivier. Coppola wanted one actor, Marlon Brando, who at this point in his life was box office poison, considered damaged goods. No one wanted Brando. Tricked into a screen test, which Coppola shot in Brando’s home, Paramount saw the test and Brando was cast at once. Coppola cast around him a group of young, very good actors, all relative unknowns. Al Pacino was cast in the pivotal role of Michael, James Caan as the explosive Sonny, John Cazale as Fredo, and Robert Duvall as the quiet adopted brother Tom Hagen, lawyer to the family. How could Coppola have known these actors would create some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century?

His wars with Paramount were just beginning and at one point Elia Kazan visited the set with an eye for taking over the film. Brando flexed his muscles and made clear if Coppola was fired he too would walk, lawsuit or not.

When The Godfather finally was shown to audiences and critics they were stunned, hailing the film the greatest American film since Citizen Kane. At three hours, the literate, intelligent film explored the lives of the Corleone in the years just after the Second World War as America climbed out of the hole into being a money-making nation again. The Mafia was right there, making untold millions on organized crime. As the most dangerous of the Five Families in New York, the Corleones are by far the most powerful and wealthiest in the City. But when the Don (Brando) turns down a potentially lucrative drug deal, the dangerous Sollozzo has him gunned down in the street hoping to assassinate him. With five bullets in him, the old man lives, and Sollozzo knows unless he can get into the hospital and kill him, he is a dead man. Michael reads about the shooting in the city and immediately comes home to help Sonny (James Caan) the hot-tempered brother now running the family. Through the examination of phone records, they figure out who betrayed the family and the Don, and Sonny orders that person executed.

Sollozzo makes his move at the hospital, but Michael is there visiting and outwits him, moving his father to a different room. After being assaulted by a police captain on Sollozzo’s payroll, Michael returns to Sonny and announced he will kill Sollozzo. Knowing this will draw him into the family business for good, Michael spends time with Clemenza, one of his father’s most loyal men, to learn how to kill in public. Taken to a restaurant in the Bronx, the police Captain who hit Michael, McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), Sollozzo and Michael sit around a small table talking business. As planned Michael rises, shoots Sollozzo in the head, finishes the Captain and walks out. He is then on a ship to Sicily for more than a year in hiding.

Meanwhile the Don comes home and it falls to Sonny and Tom to tell their father that it was Michael who avenged him. Knowing his youngest son wanted no part of the business, this breaks the old man’s heart, but he accepts it. The war continues between the families and, lured into a trap, Sonny is viciously assassinated at a toll booth, his body riddled with bullets. The favour Bonasera promised will now be collected as the Don and Tom arrive with Sonny’s massacred body. Almost breaking down the Don asks him to use all of his skills to fix his beloved, saying “See how they massacred my boy”

This ends the war, as the Don gathers the heads of the families from across America to a meeting in which all grudges are ended. The Don says, “as long as he lives, no vengeance will be acted upon.” With Michael now home, he is groomed to take over for the Don, becoming the head of the family. Counselled day and night by his father, Michael marries Kay (Diane Keaton) and starts a family. When the Don is felled by a heart attack, Michael’s plans to move to Las Vegas and get into the gambling empire are stalled. He finds a traitor in his midst, a once loyal soldier who had been with the Don from the beginning and executes him. Tom Hagen (Duvall) and Clemenza (Richard Castellano) proved to be excellent counsellors for Michael, but he and his father had planned something extraordinary all along.

Standing godfather to his sister Connie’s son, intercut with the baptism are the murders of the heads of the five families of New York. Each one is murdered, all for their part in backing Barzini and Sollozzo’s move against the Don. As promised, like a rattlesnake’s warning “as long as I live…”, and now they are all dead. Killed too for his part in setting up Sonny is Carlo, husband of Connie. The Corleone family solidify their power before heading to Vegas, the single most powerful family in all of America. Like a business take over, their coup elevates them and makes Michael both feared and widely respected.

Where to start?

The performances within the film are superb, best of all Pacino who evolves from naïve, idealistic young war hero to a cold-blooded killer. His presence becomes chilling, his eyes the dead eyes of a killer shark. Without saying a word, Pacino becomes terrifying and as ruthless as his father. Brando is equally brilliant, in 30 minutes of screen time, he suggests a man very comfortable with his power, used to having his orders followed to the letter. He inhabits the role in every way, speaking in a rasping voice that suggested a bullet in the throat, and he’s convincing – at 45 he captured the essence of 70 plus year old man. It had been a long time since Brando had shone so bright on screen and critics welcomed him back. James Caan, explosive and sensual as the deadly Sonny; Robert Duvall, quiet, loyal, ever watchful lawyer to the Don; Diane Keaton, who loves and marries Michael; Talia Shire, Michael’s sister; and John Cazale, considered weak, were all superb in the film, making The Godfather one of the greatest ensembles put together for an American film.

Very quickly the film took off with audiences and lines formed around the block. Within six months of its release The Godfather was the highest money-making film of all time, surpassing The Sound of Music (1965).

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards it seemed like a shoo-in to win most of them, but Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) jumped in to steal the thunder, winning eight including Best Director. Coppola had won the DGA Award as Best Director making it a surprise he lost the Oscar. He did, however, win for his screenplay, shared with Mario Puzo, Brando won Best Actor (which he refused to accept) and the film won Best Picture. The 10 nominations were no surprise, but the fact Cabaret also had 10 and won eight was a complete shock. The Godfather had nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Brando), Director, Supporting Actor (Caan, Duvall, Pacino), Screenplay Adaptation, Costume Design, Sound and Film Editing. It certainly deserved Best Cinematography, and I think Coppola’s achievement was greater than Fosse’s for Cabaret, but that is certainly an arguable point. From the Golden Globes The Godfather received awards for Best Picture (Drama), Best Actor (Brando) and Best Director, and Robert Duvall won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle. In a bold and correct move, Al Pacino won Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics.

The legacy of the picture is astonishing, to this day, almost 50 years later, it is still hailed as one of the greatest American films ever made, rich in narrative and subtext. Thinking of the film, the score – haunting, quietly forceful comes to mind – the first image we see of Don Corleone, sitting with a cat in his lap, playing with it like he might his prey, possessed by the look of a bulldog. The movie producer having declined to help Corleone, waking to find the head of his prized horse in his bed. The shooting of the Don. Michael killing the two criminals in the restaurant, now forever linked to organized crime. Sonny’s merciless beating of his brother in law for hitting Connie, his sister, followed by Sonny being slaughtered at the toll booth. The Don taking his son’s body to the undertaker, nearly breaking at the sight of the body, the Don and Michael discussing their plans in the garden, the Don’s sad regret that Michael has been pulled into the family business, Michael’s revenge on those who killed his brother and shot his father, and that final scene of Clemenza kissing the hand of Michael and calling him Don Corleone as his wife watches, knowing he has become his father. Each scene beautifully directed and shot with dark precision.

What I find astounding is that Coppola told the story of the Corleones without apology for what they were. They had risen from humble beginnings, to a position of great power and wealth, the Corleone name meant something, but their business just happened to be crime. One of the greatest cuts in the film is away from the man screaming in his bed, his decapitated horse head beside him, to a shot of Vito Corleone, quietly speaking with Tom, who saw to the deed. We know in a heartbeat that this kindly old grandfather who loves his wife and sons, all of his family and extended family, is capable of terrible acts of violence. He orders men to be killed, because it is business, never personal, and that is the life they chose.

Unfolding like a grand opera, it remains as stunning as it was back in the seventies. Incredibly the sequel was somehow better. It is the first of three Coppola directed films that round out the top three of the seventies.

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