The Godfather (1972)

the godfather IMDb

I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I had never seen The Godfather films before a week ago. When I started doing this blog, I looked at my collection and tried to think about where the gaps were, and I realised that no self-respecting movie collection could be considered complete without including this epic tale of the Corleone Mafia family. I bought them that weekend, but had to wait until we got to G to actually watch them.

The Godfather did not disappoint. I expected greatness, and director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpiece definitely delivered. The film follows the Corleone family, particularly Vito ‘The Don’ Corleone (Marlon Brando). Vito is hesitant to get involved with narcotics dealings as the rest of the mafia families would like. He upsets them when he refuses to use his political contacts to help the Mafia start dealing drugs. His refusal causes a war between the families, and eventually the torch is passed to a new Godfather in the Corleone family.

Before watching this film, I’d heard a lot about Brando’s performance, and he was terrific. I was most impressed though by Al Pacino as his son, Michael. Michael’s character arc is played so well. He goes from younger brother who does not want to get involved with his family’s dirty dealings to eventual Godfather. His story is told further in the terrific sequel, but I just found his character in this movie to be fascinating. Everybody expects oldest brother Sonny (James Caan) to be the new Godfather when Vito is ready to step down, but circumstances lead to Michael reluctantly taking over. I was engrossed by Michael as a character, he does not want to get involved in any of this, but feels a loyalty to his family after an attempted assassination of his father. I think even he is surprised how naturally this behaviour comes to him, as the audience is also.

Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for this film, and he is great. I do feel like Al Pacino is somewhat hard done by though. Pacino apparently boycotted the Oscars that year as he felt insulted that he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). You can’t really argue with him. Brando’s role feels like a supporting character, the story is much more about Michael’s journey than any of the other characters, in my opinion. I’m sure the studio felt Brando should be put up for Best Actor, given his name and status in Hollywood, but it can’t be argued that this is Pacino’s film more than his. I also really enjoyed James Caan as hot headed older brother, Sonny. He is the man everyone expects to take over from his father when ‘The Don’ is ready to retire, but his fiery temper gets him in all sorts of trouble. I felt for his character though, he is a jerk for most of the film, but when he is actually doing something honourable like defending his beaten sister (Talia Shire), that’s what gets him into a deadly situation.

The Godfather is an epic film with a terrific cast at the top of their game and an engrossing story about a lifestyle we’ve all dreamed of living, but would likely be unable to deal with in reality.

Rating: A-

Note: I have to give this an A- so I have room to move while reviewing the superior sequel.

There are really only two movies you need to see to get 99% of all references in film and television: The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather. Both movies have so permeated Western culture that even if you haven’t seen either you still know what people are talking about when they are mentioned. I am well versed in the world of Oz, but I had no idea just how many Godfather references I’ve been absorbing my entire life. Apparently they’re everywhere– I was just unaware how much of an impact the Corleone family has had on everything.

This is the first time I’ve ever watched The Godfather. I’ve never had any desire to watch the film before, given how perplexed I am that Italian Americans seem to really love being portrayed as criminals. Why would you want to celebrate that aspect of your heritage? But now I kind of get it. This movie created the stereotypes that now permeate the mobster genre, but has a lot more heart than its many, many successors. At its core Godfather is a family drama. The crime is almost secondary to the relationships that form the story– between Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino); between Michael and his older brothers; between Michael and his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). Contemporary mob films seem to focus on gun fights, stabbings, and explosions. The Godfather has all of those, but they aren’t really what the movie is about.

Everyone always goes on and on about Marlon Brando’s performance, but I don’t really get what all the fuss is about. Personally, I thought he was better in A Streetcar Named Desire. He’s also not even in most of this film. The weight of much of the story falls squarely on Pacino’s shoulders, and it’s crazy that he was put up for Best Supporting Actor instead of Best Actor. He’s the lead here. It’s his story that drives the plot– from his reluctance to join the “family business” to his eventual rise to power. Pacino is really the titular Godfather, not Brando.

I’m glad I finally watched The Godfather. My only regret is that I didn’t watch it sooner, before all the allusions, homages, and parodies seeped into my brain. In a way, watching this film was a little like having déjà vu. I felt like I had already watched this, but really, I’ve just seen a million references to it. It was all oddly familiar and easily predictable. My reaction to the infamous horse head scene is a perfect example: as soon as I saw the live horse I knew what was coming. Sure, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the big reveal, but how shocked would I have been if I didn’t know what was coming?

All this is actually a testament to the lasting cultural impact this film has had. I knew the basic story, some key scenes, and numerous quotes (“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”, “On this, the day of my daughter’s wedding?” ,”Don’t ask me about my business...”) despite having never watched a single scene before this year. How many other movies are still as significant decades after their release? Very few, for sure.

Rating: A

4 thoughts on “The Godfather (1972)

  1. Pingback: The Godfather: Part II (1974) | From The Abyss to Zoolander

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