The Godfather

The Godfather ★★★★★

I know exactly where I was when I first saw this film back in 72 – Hawaii of all places – yep, instead of being out on the beach, soaking up the sunshine, I went to the movies…

And what a movie – over 40 years later and it still shines bright, running on all cylinders – from a terrific story (screenplay adapted by Mario Puzzo from his novel, and Coppola himself), to wondrous camera work and inventive shots (using the back of someone as a frame for the scene), to the memorable score by Nino Rota, to the amazing acting on hand.

The screenplay and direction by Coppola ably juxtapose the violence of these mobsters against a belief in the all importance of “family”. There’s such incredible depth here, from the maneuverings of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, who commands every scene), to the growth of youngest son Michael into his father’s shoes.

I don’t imagine it would be giving too much away (and really, if you haven’t seen this masterpiece, where the hell have you been?) to say that the interplay between the master, Brando, and his protégé son Al Pacino is the heart and soul of the piece. Don Vito wants to keep his youngest (and brightest) son out of the family business; dreaming that some day Michael may make a legit name for himself – say as US Senator, but in spite of Don Vito’s best intentions, circumstances slowly pull the young Michael into the fray, and in doing so, Pacino does an amazing transformation – what a performance!

The opening scene, of a mortician asking the don for revenge, is a masterwork in its own right – an introduction into the Sicilian way that is so wondrous and complete that it could be a stand alone short, with Brando commanding that you look upon him and listen to every utterance - what a way to start a film! There are hints of this again at film’s end, which includes a glorious tracking shot that says very much while nothing is spoken.

So many, many powerful scenes, with appropriate lighting and great use of overhead booms (like footage of the opening wedding scenes). And the film gave us so many memorable passages – from the infamous horse head scene (poor Khartoum, a mere pawn in the serious intimidation game) – to the famous “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” line. Back in 72, the book was not widely known, and, in fact, very little was known about the mafia and its codes at all – so this film was a mindblower – made for 6 million, it grossed over 130 million box office bucks.

In retrospect, I find it amazing that the film made such wondrous use out of some very young (at the time) actors, and in a chicken or egg musing, I wonder if this film didn’t “make” the careers of Pacino, Duvall and Caan, or if Coppola simply had a terrific eye for casting and knew that these actors had the chops to have long and distinguished careers – perhaps a little of both.

And while I’m talking famous actors, there’s former 50’s leading man Sterling Hayden, portraying a police lieutenant in the pocket of one of the rival dons.

Truly, this is a film for the ages – and with such a broad palette to work with, it certainly makes sense that there is a sequel – which I will be reviewing soon, as I’m planning on a Godfather weekend – what a glorious beginning.

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