Saturday, January 28, 2012



The Academy's pick of  THE GODFATHER for best picture of 1972 was such a natural, perfect choice, that it ranks up there with CASABLANCA as one the best choices that they have ever made.  Like CASABLANCA, THE GODFATHER has been remembered as one of the all time great Hollywood movies, one that is still quoted, homaged and parodied to this day.  And also like CASABLANCA, no one involved in the making of the film had any idea that they were making a classic during its production, especially not director Francis Ford Coppola, who came close to being fired by Paramount more than once during the shooting process. 
It's genesis began in 1968 when Paramount executive Robert Evans bought the rights to author Mario Puzo's treatment for the novel before it was published.  When the book was published to great success a year later, the studio put the film into production. After Sergio Leone passed on directing it, Coppola became the eventual choice.  He was also hired to write the script with Puzo, and they quickly went to work, wisely throwing out all the odd tangents the book went off on, keeping the story focused on the Corleone family.  As a director, Coppola had directed six not particularly well known features (most notably  THE RAIN PEOPLE) before being picked, and it has generally been admitted that the studio hired him because he was not well known and they thought he could be easily controlled.  Little did they know what they were in for; once Coppola got his teeth into the project he began to feel very strongly about it, fighting them on nearly every decision they had made, and in all fairness, who could blame him.  When one looks at the often boneheaded ideas that the Paramount execs had for the film, it seems downright miraculous that a classic was created: originally, the story's period settings were going to be thrown out so that it could be made more cheaply in a modern setting. They wanted Robert Redford(!)  for the pivotal role of Micheal Corleone.  They hated the idea of hiring the famously difficult  Marlon Brando to play Vito Corleone, and they didn't want to let Coppola shoot some scenes on location in Italy.  Somehow, the young director was able to win every argument with the studio, first demanding that the film be made as a period piece, then getting them to go along with Brando by shooting a screen test in full makeup at the actor's home; he also hired then unknown actor Al Pacino for the role of Micheal, and eventually got the studio to let him shoot some scenes in Italy.  The shooting process was often chaotic; the studio demands to finish the film  caused Coppola to clash with veteran cinematographer Gordon Willis when Willis took too long to set up his shots.  Amazingly, the studio wasn't even happy with the dailies they were getting. Meanwhile, the at first low budget picture's budget swelled to over six million dollars.  But Coppola soldiered on, and the film eventually became one of the highest grossing ever, bringing in over one hundred and thirty million dollars to the studio.

Marlon Brando

Set in the time right after World War II, the film tells the story of the Corleone crime family, led by the aging Vito "the don" Corleone, aided by his sons Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo (John Cazale) and adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).  His third son, Micheal (Pacino) has spent his whole life avoiding the family business, choosing to enlist in the army instead.  But when an assassination  attempt is made on Vito, Micheal finds himself joining in, eventually killing the men responsible and fleeing to Italy.  While he is gone, Sonny is killed by rival gangsters; shortly after his return the don dies of a heart attack, and Micheal takes over as leader of the family, proving to be even more ruthless than his father was.
Given how difficult the production of the film was, it really is amazing how excellent it is on every level: from Nino Rota's beautiful score to Willis's shadowy cinematography, to the terrific period touches from production designer Dean Tavoularis; even the old age makeup used on Brando, designed by legendary makeup man Dick Smith (who also aged Dustin Hoffman in 1970's LITTLE BIG MAN), is perfect, with Brando's look and raspy voice (based on real life gangster Frank Costello) quickly becoming iconic.    Impressively, Coppola managed to make a gangster film that acknowledged and homaged previous ones (a montage of newspaper headlines moves the story along, a favorite technique from classic Hollywood films) while also being boldly new in its realistic depiction of mob violence.  And the performances!  Even the casting of the smallest roles feel right; in a surprising risk that paid off wonderfully, the film is opened by a monologue given by an undertaker named Bonasera, played by Salvatore Corsitto.  Surprisingly, Corsitto had never acted in a film before, but he perfectly sells the emotion of an honest businessman who finds himself begging to a gangster for "justice".  And he has one of the best opening lines in movie history:"I believe in America." 

Al Pacino

Brando won a best actor award for his work in the film, and while I think his character is more of a supporting one, he is, simply,  great.  I love how he carries himself with a regal bearing, fully aware of his position of power.  He usually moves slowly and considers his actions carefully, although he is capable of sudden movements, as when he angrily slaps his godson Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino). And who can forget the way that he almost playfully chews over the soon to be legendary line "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." One nice thing about this movie is that it shows the famous, older Brando passing the torch along to younger actors who grew up admiring him like Pacino, Caan and Duvall. And they wouldn't disappoint him, from Duvall's soft spoken but ruthless Tom, to Caan's  fast talking, hot headed Sonny, each performance is memorable and solid.  And as for Pacino, I think he should have won the best actor award instead of Brando; the slow corruption of Micheal is really the film's fulcrum, and he carries it beautifully, displaying a subtlety that would often be sorely lacking in his later roles.  (The affecting moment where he looks down at his father lying in a hospital bed and pledges to protect him is a very important moment for the character that he underplays brilliantly).   I even think that Diane Keaton  is very good as  Kay Adams, a sweet young woman who falls for Micheal without knowing anything about his family; its a bit of a thankless role in that her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Micheal after years of not seeing him is hard to believe, but I think she's necessary to the story, being the only really likable character in the film.  And it is perfectly appropriate that the film's ending is seen through her eyes, chillingly showing just how vicious Micheal has become when a killer swears fealty to him while a door is slammed in her face. The only performance I have trouble with is Talia Shire's as Connie Corleone, who overplays her hot headed female Italian stereotype character.  The scene where she and her new husband  Carlo (Giani Russo) violently fight is perhaps the film's weakest; although not bad, it goes on too long.  
While the film is often remembered for its graphic, violent moments, such as the brutal shooting of Sonny, or the brilliant way that Coppola cuts from Micheal's son's baptism to scenes of his hit men killing rivals, many of my favorite scenes are the quieter moments, as when Vito and Micheal discuss family business with weary resignation of what must be done, while the mantle of power is passed from Vito to Micheal (Coppola admits that screenwriter Robert Towne quickly wrote this scene just before it was shot). Or the way that Vito powerfully breaks down upon seeing Sonny's bullet ridden corpse, and, the tables now turned, finds himself begging to Bonasera to make the corpse presentable, memorably saying"use all your powers, and all your skills. I don't want his mother to see him this way."

When gangster films first began appearing in the 1930's, moral critics of the day were outraged over how they humanized brutal men, and that same charge was made against THE GODFATHER;  while I love the film, I can't say that these charges are entirely wrong.  Although it is tragic that a good man like Micheal becomes a mob leader, it is hard to criticize his first gangster action when it involves protecting his helpless father.  And when he kills the men responsible for the shooting of his father, his desire for revenge is understandable.  Furthermore, Vito himself is likable when he refuses to enter the lucrative drug trade for moral reasons, and when the mob families all join together to finally discuss drug trafficking they seem reluctant, and pledge to keep it out of schools.  Really, in many ways the gangsters often seem like legitimate businessmen making deals, which I believe is Coppola's point;  Gangsters are the real Capitalists.   In any event, the charge of making the mob too likable stung Coppola, who consciously decided to make Micheal  more despicable in the second film.


It is a real tribute to just how amazing a period the early seventies were for films that, along with THE GODFATHER, 1972 also gave us two other classics: Bob Fosse's CABARET and John Boorman's DELIVERANCE, and while I do love those films (I think CABARET is one of the best musicals ever), THE GODFATHER is such a great film, and one that holds up to repeat viewing so well, that its choice was as inevitable as it was right.