'The Godfather' at 40: Coppola's Masterpiece Stands Test of Time

When Dennis Miller listed 10 things that women can do to make men happy, number four was: “Would it kill you to watch 'The Godfather' with me for the 57th time?”

How true is that? For going on two generations of American males "The Godfather" is one of the most revered — and referenced — films not just in the gangster movie variety but all Hollywood genres. It is difficult to distill director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic telling of Mario Puzo’s masterful screen adaptation of his own 1969 novel into a few paragraphs. But considering that today marks the 40th anniversary of its theatrical release, I will do my best as such an auspicious occasion certainly deserves mention.

Where does one start? I’ve always thought that characters make or break any film, and certainly "The Godfather" is no exception. The movie provides us with an awesome battery of players to love, to hate, and even do both. We have the patriarch Sicilian immigrant bulldog in the aging “Don” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a man who considers himself honorable yet is, at heart, if not immoral certainly amoral given that his great fortune is the result of racketeering, gambling and prostitution … what he considers “harmless vices.”

The Godfather cast

His children range from hot-headed oldest brother “Sonny” Santino (James Caan) whose temper will be his undoing, to the fiery Connie (Talia Shire) whose gender will prevent her from achieving any position of stature in the Corleone crime family and the insecure, doomed Fredo (John Cazale). Also there is the calculating family lawyer and consiglieri, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) the Don’s informally adopted German-Irish son.

Orbiting the Don are the peripheral figures: his caporegime heads, fat Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) and Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda), Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), Connie’s wife-beating husband who in turn gets the tar beat out of him by Sonny, and the vicious hit-man Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) whose true depravity is only hinted at in the film but much more potent in the book.

There are the true antagonists including rival Don Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), heroin lord Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), scorned Hollywood mogul Jack Woltz (John Marley) and corrupt police captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). We’re also are privy to many characters lifted right out of1940s Americana such as Bugsy Siegel and Frank Sinatra and thinly veiled as fictional constructs Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) and Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), respectively. And the list, as they say, goes on. Whew! That’s quite a cast, no? This list alone makes the movie an exceptional achievement.

But, of course, the most important character in "The Godfather" turns out to be Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) whom we first meet during the iconic opening wedding scene. Michael has just returned from WWII a decorated Marine. With his white-toast fiancé Kaye Adams (Diane Keaton) in tow, we learn that he wants no part of the family’s crime business. Yet, we see from the very beginning that while Sonny is heir apparent due to his age and ruthless enthusiasm for the crime-boss lifestyle, it is Michael who the Don truly favors for his intellect and what his father recognizes early as calculating coolness … even as the Don himself is torn in that he also sees Michael as the family’s best hope for legitimacy and acceptance in their new country.

His character arch is therefore the most compelling, carrying him from a man repelled by his father’s criminal lifestyle to becoming a cold-blooded assassin. He eventually assumes the position of the new Don Corleone whose reign will make his father’s crimes seem quaint by comparison. The ice water that flows through Michael's veins can be best summed up in his catch phrase: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

The odds are if you’re reading Big Hollywood then, like me and Miller, you’ve watched "The Godfather" 57 times too, so I won’t regurgitate a plot we all know too well. Suffice it to say that four decades later the film is still as fresh and vibrant as it was when it was first released. It's easy to see why it has been ranked at the top of the Metacritic's Top 100 list and Entertainment Weekly named it the greatest film ever made. It garnered three Oscars including Best Actor (Brando), Best Picture (Albert S. Ruddy) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola/Puzo). It also took home five Golden Globes, including Best Director and Best Score.

It's understandable why this movie received such high acclaim. Heck, I'm watching it again as I write this and it never ceases to intrigue me. But why? What is it about this flick that so beckons me like a fly to sugar again and again?

I think part of the strange attraction to those of us who try to live the straight and narrow is that "The Godfather" was the one of first gangster movies to portray the criminal underworld in a sympathetic light; it offered that its participants can be people of psychological depth and complexity. Indeed we see the Don at first to be a sort of noble figure and protector of the little guy. He is a man you can come to when the system fails you. “For justice,” says a man unsatisfied with the court sentence for his daughter’s rapists “I must go to Don Corleone.”

The Godfather Marlon Brando

In return, the Don will someday ask you for a favor. Only later as the action unfolds do we see the bloodshed and violence that keeps their world spinning … also the dispassion with which murder is carried out. ("Aw, Pauli, you won't see him no more.")

Stylistically I love the mood Coppola creates. It is one of chronic foreboding, almost as if we are peering through a looking glass into another world in which we do not belong, nor are we welcome. The warm, yellowish lighting, like an old-fashioned daguerreotype, and the perpetual shadows that loom in all but the sunniest of outdoor scenes give it that 1940s feel. The color palette also provides an overarching sense that this is a lifestyle in which some darkness will always accompany such ill-gotten fortune.

These are random thoughts that come to me as I sit here on my couch with my laptop occasionally glancing up at my TV screen as the Corleone saga once again unfolds before me. I did not look for "The Godfather," of course. I never do. It just seems to find me. Today I caught a familiar glimpse of it in passing while flipping through the channels aimlessly but now I am hooked … again. Is there a primordial side of me that is drawn to this life of crime and violence? Do I close my eyes and imagine that I am one of those men of so-called honor who — if you strip away the tailored suits, the fine homes, the vintage cars and the professions of principle (“we are not murderers, despite what this undertaker may think”) — reveal themselves as nothing more than common hoods and criminals?

In this sense, Martin Scorsese’s "Goodfellas" two decades later, and the more recent HBO series "The Sopranos," were probably closer to the mark in that their portrayals more accurately resemble the actual gangsters I’ve seen frequenting in the bakeries and pork stores of Brooklyn. They are thugs. Punks. Parasites who orbit the periphery of society and pick away at it, robbing and bullying, without ever having the ethical center needed to make an honest living.

Or am I wrong? Are the Corleones, in fact, more honest than the rest of us in that they strip away the pretense that anything in society is truly honorable, thereby exposing our hypocrisy? Later in the film Michael justifies his decision to join the family business saying, “My father is no different than any other powerful man … like a senator or president.” But Kay refutes him by offering that he’s naïve in that senators and presidents don’t have men killed. Michael only smiles: “Oh? Who’s being naïve Kay?”

Perhaps then the message of "The Godfather" can be found in Puzo’s novel which offers this most disquieting of epigraph: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” Whether we buy into this theory or not is what ultimately decides on which side of the thin and murky line that divides us from them we stand.

I’d like to say more, but I need to wrap this up. After all, the finale where Michael, “settles all family business” by icing the heads of the five families, Tataglia, Barzini, Straaci, Cuneo and Moe Greene in one fell swoop is about to start. That this orchestrated mass-murder takes place at the same time Michael himself stands at the altar of the Lord engaged in the baptism of Connie and Carlo’s child, indeed among the holiest of sacraments that welcomes the most innocent into the Church, troubles him not in the least. It never does. That Michael is about to have this same Carlo, husband to his sister, father to his godson, garroted in the very next scene is of passing interest to him. And I guess that’s why I cannot turn away. Such dichotomy is truly mesmerizing, even after forty years and fifty-seven views…and counting.

(P.S.: If only they could have made a sequel worthy of this great movie. Oh wait … they did, didn’t they? Which is the better movie? "The Godfather" or "The Godfather II?" Feel free to discuss.)


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