This review originally appeared on aarondcharles.com. A link is provided below. If you have not seen the film, you should also know that the following review will discuss the plot in great detail.
The Godfather is, simply put, a pure cinema classic. Tomes have been written in its praise. It is utterly fantastic. The work of a man who can only be considered a genius — director Francis Ford Coppola.
But what makes it such a classic? Why does it so commonly find itself near the top of so many all-time film lists?
I certainly have my reasons for loving the film, but I would first direct you to the great film critics for specific answers to those questions. My personal favorite is Roger Ebert, and his review of the film is certainly fantastic. As a lover of film, I can only give you my conceptions of why this film ranks as one of my most beloved. I recently had the profound pleasure of watching it on the big screen. This incredible experience only reinforced the fact that, in my mind, this truly is one of the greatest films ever made.
We begin the film looking at a black screen. We hear the words of Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) — “I believe in America.” This initial scene has much on its plate. It must introduce us to all the key characters. It must pull us into the film’s aesthetic (brought beautifully to life by the dark cinematography of Gordon Willis). And we must get a feel for the power of Don Vito Corleone (played by the inimitable Marlon Brando). We must understand that this is a crime family, but we must also love them for the movie to work. We meet them at a wedding, and the scene works fantastically.
It works, because we do not meet Don Vito as he is shooting someone or committing some other crime. We meet him as he is politely discussing committing a crime. It may seem like an insignificant difference, but what happens is that we, as the audience, see Don Vito as a patriarch worthy of honor and not as a crime boss. The movie must be set up in this fashion. We have to be more focused on the family than the family business. “We’re not murderers,” remarks Don Vito. “Despite what this undertaker says.”
We also meet the other key players — Connie (Talia Shire — Coppola’s real life sister) and Carlo (Gianni Russo), the happy couple; Vito’s wife (Morgana King, though she doesn’t play much of a role in this film); his oldest son, Sonny (James Caan); his middle son, Fredo (John Cazale); the consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); caporegimes Clemenza (Richard Castellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda); muscle man Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana — about whom centers one of the film’s many legendary stories); rival Don Barzini (Richard Conte); Don Vito’s godson and celebrity singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino); and, most importantly, we meet Michael (Al Pacino) and his lovely girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). Michael is Don Vito’s youngest son. He is a war hero, and he has no part of the “family business.”
As you can see, just introducing such a large group is quite a task. To also make us understand the importance of Don Vito is a testament to Coppola’s skill in writing the script, an adaptation from the popular novel by Mario Puzo. Coppola signed on to direct the film when he was just 29 years old. The studio undoubtedly thought they would be able to muscle the young director around. Instead, Coppola — who may not have known the inner workings of the mob intimately, but definitely knew about the inner workings of an Italian-American family — had a bold vision for how to adapt the novel. He also had definite ideas in regards to casting. He wanted Brando as Don Vito, and he wanted Pacino as Michael.
One of the many legendary stories is about just how much Coppola had to fight the studio about these two casting decisions. They were not popular ones for two vastly different reasons. Brando — an industry giant by then — had built up a reputation as a costly actor who was difficult to work with. Pacino, on the other hand, was not an industry icon at the time, though he would later become one thanks in large part to this film. No, the studio thought Pacino was not quite up to the task. We laugh at the thought now.
Thankfully, the casting decisions were accepted, and the Corleone family took shape. As we meet all the family members at the wedding of Connie and Carlo, we’re pulled into the family dynamic. We can all understand and relate to the joy of weddings. Without even realizing it, we begin to forget that they are criminals. Instead, we see them as a family. This scene is undoubtedly one of the greatest scenes in film history. And yet, I don’t think it’s even the greatest scene in this film.
The conversation between Michael and Kay in this opening scene is vitally important. In many ways, we as the audience are Kay. Her view is our view. She is an outsider who loves Michael, just as we begin to love these characters. As Michael explains the dark side of what his father does, we experience a brief moment of horror. How can these people be dancing and celebrating with such monsters? But the moment passes, and we remember that we are at a wedding where all requests to the Don must be heard. “That’s my family, Kay,” Michael says. “It’s not me.” We’re already sucked in.
We then get two of the film’s many classic lines in Don Vito’s conversation with Johnny Fontane, both coming from Brando as Don Vito.
- “Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
- “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The first reinforces the family motif. How can we disrespect a man who holds his family in such high regard? We all see being a “family man” as something to be celebrated. But what happens when the family man is also a crime lord?
The second is simply one of those classic lines that has embedded itself deep within our cultural psyche. Even if you’ve never seen The Godfather, you’ve surely heard someone quote this line. It is great because it distills the feeling of the movie into a few short words. This “offer” is really no offer at all. Jack Woltz (John Marley) can’t refuse it because, if he tries to, he’s a dead man. It is cased in etiquette and niceties, but underneath is darkness.
To go through each scene in so much depth would make for a long review indeed. But I think the opening of this film is so important — as all film openings are. But this one seems to carry more weight than others. If the opening of The Godfather didn’t work, we wouldn’t hear it listed as such a classic.
We get many memorable moments — the horse’s head, meeting Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the killing of Luca Brasi and the resulting seafood message. We find out that Don Vito does not want to move his family into the drug business, against the wishes of Sollozzo. Some of the other heads of the “Five Families” are interested in the new business, but Don Vito says no.
Sollozzo then orders a hit on Don Vito, nearly taking his life. Don Vito’s regular bodyguard, Paulie (John Martino), had said he was “sick” and had to stay home. Sonny and the rest of the family will not let this go unpunished. This gives us another memorable scene and one of the best singular shots of the entire film (no pun intended). Clemenza takes Paulie and one of the family’s hitmen, Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui, uncredited), to Manhattan to buy mattresses. On the way, they stop in a remote area of tall grasses with the Statue of Liberty in the background. We see the car sitting amongst the tall grass. Then Clemenza steps out of the car to relieve himself while Rocco shoots Paulie in the head. As they leave the scene, Clemenza utters my personal favorite line in the film.
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” — Clemenza
As Don Vito recovers in the hospital, Michael goes to visit him. Here is where the movie makes its big shift. Up until this point, Michael has been an innocent civilian. He has had no part in the family business. Again, the studio had wanted Pacino replaced in the role because they thought he was playing it too soft. But seeing his father in this state brings about a change in Michael. He whispers in Don Vito’s ear — “I’m with you now.” He has a run in with the police chief, Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), outside the hospital. But he keeps his father safe. And he begins his descent into the mafia world.
Michael volunteers himself to meet with Sollozzo and McCluskey to settle the family differences. This scene is the first where we see a stark coldness in Michael Corleone’s eyes. From this point through the rest of the trilogy, that is how we will remember him. This is where he becomes Michael Corleone. “It’s not personal,” Michael says. “Strictly business.”
The dinner scene with Michael, Sollozzo and McCluskey is one of the most famous in the film — with good reason. Pacino’s acting in the scene is fantastic. His eyes show the simmering anger underneath. After shooting this scene, Coppola proved to the studio that Pacino was perfect for the role. As he comes back from the bathroom with the gun Clemenza had planted, he doesn’t listen to the advice he was given. Clemenza told him to shoot them as soon as he comes out. But, instead, he sits down first. We hear the train outside as Michael considers his next move. The tension builds until he finally stands up and shoots them both. It is simply fantastic filmmaking. The change in Michael is complete.
Michael must go away. While he is gone, the mob war ensues. Michael is sent to live with family friends in Sicily. There, he meets and falls in love with a girl named Apollonia. They are married, and our thoughts drift to Kay back in America. Does Michael think of her? Does he want this new life in Sicily or does he plan on coming back to America? If he does, what does he think will happen to Apollonia? The movie doesn’t answer all these questions, and it doesn’t need to. The Sicilian sequence is romantic. That is its purpose. It’s the old country, but even there, Michael learns that he cannot escape his life of crime. Apollonia is murdered by a car bomb meant for Michael. It is clear that he must return to America.
While Michael is in Sicily, Connie and Carlo’s marriage is disintegrating. Connie learns of Carlo’s infidelity, and confronts him about it. He beats her, leaving bruises on her face and arms. When Sonny learns of this, his famous anger is kindled. He beats up Carlo in the street. But Carlo isn’t done. After another fight, he beats Connie again. This Sonny cannot forgive. He leaves the house with blood on his mind. But before he can make it to their house, he is bombarded by cars full of hitmen wielding machine guns. It is an extremely violent scene, even by today’s standards.
Michael returns home to find that Sonny is dead, Don Vito is semi-retired and Fredo has been sent to Las Vegas — deemed incapable of running the family business. Michael is now in charge. He does attempt to reunite with Kay after four years apart (he was in Sicily for three years and waited a full year before contacting her once he came back). Kay reluctantly agrees. Michael tells her that he will make the family “legitimate” within five years. We scoff at Kay’s naivete, and yet, we’re falling for it too.
Michael quickly takes control. He wants to move the family to Nevada. He goes there to meet with casino magnate, Moe Greene (Alex Rocco). Moe is offended by Michael’s attempt to buy him out of the casino. Fredo sides with Moe, leading to another famous quote from Michael as he rebukes Fredo.
“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” — Michael Corleone
There is a beautiful scene between Michael and Vito where Vito tells his son that he never intended him to be involved in this life of crime. It is quiet and serene. It is a family moment between a father and a son. At other times in the film, we see other “family moments” — weddings, meals and, later, a baptism. These are the scenes that we, as the audience, can relate to. We must relate to them for the movie to work. It is a testament to Coppola’s writing that it works so well. We feel that this is a family despite all the bloodshed we see on the screen.
Vito also tells Michael that there will be an assassination attempt through the veil of a meeting with one of the other Five Families. He tells Michael that the request will come from a trusted associate.
Later, while in the garden with his grandson, Anthony (Anthony Gounaris), Don Vito collapses. The Godfather has died. At his funeral, Tessio confronts Michael to set up a meeting with Barzini — another head crime boss of one of the Five Families. Michael realizes that Tessio is the traitor.
This sets into motion the film’s legendary closing scenes. Michael must get to his family’s enemies before they get to him. It all happens at the baptism of Connie and Carlo’s newborn son (played by Coppola’s newborn daughter Sofia Coppola — now a talented director in her own right). Michael is standing as the young boy’s godfather. During the baptism, Michael has ordered the murders of all his enemies. The other heads of the Five Families are all killed, along with Moe Greene. Michael has, in one swift motion, brought the Corleone Family back to the top.
The baptism scene is the best scene in The Godfather — which is high praise indeed. It is surely one of the greatest scenes in all of film history. The writing is beautiful, and the intercutting between the baptism and the murders is fantastic. As Michael, standing as godfather, says that his sister’s son will “renounce Satan…and all his works…and all his pomps” we see the depth of his hyprocrisy as the murders he ordered are carried out. He even orders Carlo to be murdered after the baptism — a final payment for his treatment of Connie and his part in Sonny’s death. Finally, Tessio is forced to pay for his betrayal. In a touchingly poignant moment, Tessio realizes what is about to happen. With a sullen look on his face, Tessio looks at Tom and asks if he can be spared “for old time’s sake.” But the decision has been made. Tessio is no longer part of the family. At least, out of respect, his death occurs off screen.
The movie ends with Michael and Kay together in a room. Connie comes in accusing Michael of murdering Carlo. Michael lies and denies that he had any part in it. After Connie leaves, Kay asks Michael point blank if he was involved. Michael lies again. Kay leaves the room as Clemenza comes in to pay his respects to the new Don Corleone. The film’s title does not refer to Don Vito, as we might initially assume. Instead, it refers to the rise of Michael Corleone — The Godfather.
Kay looks on as the door closes and the film comes to an end. Just like Kay, we look on with the growing realization that we’ve been duped. We’ve fallen for the scheme and been sucked into the family while “the business” occured right under our noses.
The Godfather is a monument of beautiful writing and some of the most powerful scenes in cinema history. The cinematography is like a succession of darkly beautiful paintings strung together. It is about the rise and fall of power and the family ties that bind. The writing makes it strangely relatable, considering the dark subject matter.
On top of that, it is a striking look at duality in human nature — our ability to put on appearances, but hide dark secrets. It is a theme biblical in proportions, bringing to mind verses such as Jeremiah 17:9. This film, however, does not deal with the consequences of Michael’s power. We do not see the recompense for his sins or that of the collective family. That is for later films to investigate (particularly The Godfather Part II). This film simply introduces us to the family in all its powerful bravura. We meet some of cinema’s greatest characters — Michael and Don Vito the chief among them. And we get to see some of the greatest scenes ever put on film.
Does that mean we should emulate these characters or praise the evil deeds depicted on the screen? No, of course not. I do not think that we are supposed to view this as an ideal family by any stretch of the imagination. Nor should my praise of the film be taken as an endorsement of the violence these characters use to gain power. This is what I mean when I say it explores duality. There can be evil lurking underneath things, like family, that look good from the outside.
Maybe I, like Kay, am naive. But you’ll have to forgive me if the lasting images in my head after the film’s final closing are of family members in dark rooms or sitting around the dinner table and not of bloody corpses leftover from the family business. Even so, we realize at the film’s end that these characters, though beloved, are desperately wicked. They are a family, but an ultimately evil one. Yet, we can’t help but watch.
No matter how many times I’ve seen The Godfather, I fall for it again and again.