“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” – Michael Corleone
The Mob movie, one of our most ubiquitous and enduring film genres, has come a long way in the last half of a century. Movies like Scarface, Donnie Brasco, about a third of Martin Scorsese’s filmography, and TV’s The Soprano’s owe a debt of gratitude to The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece didn’t invent the genre, but its overwhelming success helped transform the Mob movie from a pulpy and low-brow catalog of genre flicks into the intricate and prestigious storytelling canvas we see it as today.
The story chronicles a blood feud between multiple mafia factions, centering on the Corleone crime family. The patriarch, Vito (the late Marlon Brando), runs his organization ruthlessly but with an heir of dignity. He’s the Don of his syndicate, handling favors for his supposed friends, threatening his enemies through the prism of friendly business, and using violence to advance the career of declining star Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), a character intended as a facsimile for Frank Sinatra. However, it is another crime boss who makes Vito an offer he can’t refuse, extending an invite into the world of drugs. Vito is offended by the suggestion, believing that dealing in drugs (while assuredly profitable) will ruin his reputation and his ties to various corrupt politicians. Vito’s decision to refuse this offer will be a turning point in his life, changing the destiny of his tight-knit family.
It has often been said that what makes the film relatable is the story’s focus on family. Vito rationalizes what he does as a means to take care of his family. This includes providing a lavish lifestyle for his children while preparing his sons Fredo (the late John Cazale) and the hot-headed Sonny (James Caan) to be leaders of men in their own right. On the peripheral of this bloodsport is Vito’s middle son Michael (Al Pacino), an army vet who seems to have inherited all of the brains in the family. But Michael doesn’t want the mafia life, and Vito doesn’t want it for him. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Vito reveals a dream he had hoped for Michael that he’d become something like a senator, someone who pulled the strings rather than acting as the puppet that Vito has often embodied.
The iconic puppet strings adorn both the book cover and the film poster of The Godfather. This is a movie about power, ascension, and the changes that time brings about. A lot of time, literal years, elapse over the film’s runtime, as we bear witness to a tale of class, betrayal, revenge, domestic disputes, and several moments that prove to be a point of no return for various characters. At its heart, The Godfather asks if it is possible to have honor in such a dishonorable business? Vito, and his right-hand man/surrogate son Tom (Robert Duvall), live by a set of codes and ethics. But their commitment to tradition flies in the face of how the criminal underworld is changing, and that change threatens to be their undoing.
The film’s center zeroes in on the bond and lives of Michael and Vito. Vito is on the backend of his life, while Michael’s is just beginning. While the two share a great love for one another, there’s an unspoken difference in philosophy here. As Vito holds on to his ideals, protecting his family in the most civil way possible, Michael is a pragmatist that will use whatever is necessary to make his father’s issues go away. He repeatedly states it’s just ‘business’ but it’s not. When it’s this close to home, it will always be personal, and your choices in those moments will determine the type of person you are. They’re united by their father-son relationship, but their differences will send them on different paths.
Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the aftermath of this film’s release, and he remains the movie’s trump card. His portrayal of Vito is the most iconic and oft-imitated character in the entire franchise – mumbling in a gruff, raspy tone is easily identifiable. But despite the exaggerated vocals and his unsavory criminal activity, Brando presents Vito as a fully realized human whose fatherly tenderness provides what’s sweet about this bloody story. However, this doesn’t discount the efforts of Pacino, whose stoicism and steely eyes allow us to tell what he’s thinking or what his next move will be. Pacino maneuvers from ancillary character, to hero, to something we don’t quite recognize, and those damn eyes tell the story in each iteration.
But who pulls it all together is Coppola, in perhaps his crowning achievement. He has a way of depicting the material as if it’s the most important thing that has ever happened in human history, and the sweeping nature of the story (along with a beautiful score by composer Nino Rota) forces us to not question that assertion. It can be forgotten how many characters Coppola has to juggle, including a movie producer, a crooked cop, a distant friend, a small village in another country, and Vito’s fiery daughter Connie (Talia Shire). Since many of the supporting characters have such limited screen time, their performances must be big in order to communicate a lot of story in a short amount of time.
Headed by DOP Gordon Willis, the movie’s cinematography was highly influential in its use of contrast and shadows, a heavy departure from the colorful and big-budget roadshows that dominated Hollywood in the previous decade. The low light helped easily convey the darkness at the heart of the story, initially used to cast Vito in shadowy mystery in his introductory scene. Although, there are some moments of levity, including an errant punch from Sonny to his shitty brother-in-law in a silly but highly entertaining and memorable scene.
Coppola’s most important influence may have been making the source material more sophisticated while simplifying the story. The film is based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. While the book was a mega-hit, it wasn’t exactly well respected in literary circles. It was considered a bit trashy, unkempt, and an unfocused tale that succeeded for its many scandalous details rather than efficient storytelling. Puzo didn’t even consider it his best work. Coppola honed it on what the book did well – a dynastic myth that mirrored the descent into the darkness of western civilization. The salacious nature of the novel was toned down to focus more on the drama. Yes, Mario Puzo, you don’t need to dedicate a subplot to a sex operation, Coppola can communicate that aspect of the story without even a word of dialogue.
When The Godfather debuted in 1972, the landscape of movies was an entirely different world. Iconic brands like Star Wars, The Terminator, Indiana Jones, and Alien didn’t even exist yet. Superheros were mostly confined to comic pages, besides the occasional TV show, and we lacked the technology to accurately depict the worlds of Marvel and DC. So it should come as no surprise that The Godfather was not only the highest-grossing movie of 1972, en route to winning Best Picture but was at the time the highest-grossing movie ever. The 70s as a whole is looked upon as a time period in cinema where the most critically acclaimed films were also some of the most popular at the box office. Technology changed all that – CGI, Home Video, cable, streaming services, etc. This turned Hollywood into a world where a product can be sold based on its special effects rather than how well the story is told, and small films lacking CGI spectacle can gobble up all the awards despite the casual fan having no interest in seeing them.
In an interesting twist of fate, the world that The Godfather seems so foreign to is the same one the franchise is starting to penetrate. Paramount+ is releasing The Offer in a couple of months, a limited series about the making of The Godfather. In viewing the trailer, I wasn’t really sold. While I’m sure there will be some solid performances and an oddly out-of-place Miles Teller, the preview left me incredibly whelmed. It just feels extraneous, totally unnecessary. The Godfather itself, the film, never feels unnecessary. There’s an urgency to the film that demands our attention. It’s not ‘content’, it is antithetical to ‘content’. The Offer may be great, but it’s more likely to end up being reduced to trivia, a footnote of needless world-building for a much more important work of art. Despite being a brand new series, it may be swallowed up by the film’s significance almost immediately.
In a way, this is why we celebrate old classics – there are certain accomplishments that acquiesced at the exact right time, and the circumstances that made them possible are unlikely to be duplicated. It’s like hanging a championship banner in sports, as you can’t guarantee you’ll ever repeat that success. The Godfather is one of those accomplishments, a movie that represents the epicenter of commercial dominance and critical adulation, just as those two measures of success were about to diverge in increasingly widening ways. In the world of movies and popular culture, there’s no better time capsule than that.
Thank you for this article and Happy 50th for the Godfather.