It's just a few months since the end of WWII, and Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the head of the Corleone crime family in New York City and dubbed the Godfather, is at the height of his power. He has an epically successful business, running the unions and all the gambling in the city, and he's able to do it because he has countless politicians and judges in his back pocket. Things are changing though all around him, especially the underworld and the business he helped create. Vito is approached about a deal he could bankroll, but it involves drugs, and he chooses to ignore it. The decision is one that drastically affects the family, one that will incorporate all his family members, especially fiery firstborn Santino (James Caan), adopted Irish son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), and his youngest and smartest son, Michael (Al Pacino). What does the future hold? Who will rise up to help their father?
Based off a novel of the same name by author Mario Puzo, 'Godfather' is one of those rarest films; it's perfect. In that sense, director Francis Ford Coppola improves on Puzo's novel, the rare film that is better than its source novel. None of that is a dig at Puzo -- the novel is one of my favorites, a well-written gem -- but the film takes the idea, premise and characters and runs with it. Clocking in at 175 minutes, it never slows down, never feels dull. The dialogue and script provide countless engrossing talking scenes. The look of the movie with its authentic wardrobe, cars and sets is incredible, Coppola filming in an earthy fashion where things always look dark and burned-out to a point. Oh, and composer Nino Rota's score is halfway decent (that's sarcasm by the way), one of the great, classic scores in Hollywood history. You know it already, but listen to the theme HERE.
What sets Coppola's film apart from countless other films about the Mafia, mobsters and organized crime is the impeccably written story. Puzo's novel introduces countless characters, relationships, history at the reader with all sorts of backstory, and the film assembles it into an expertly told, very coherent (sounds simple, but you'd be surprised) story that develops nicely. It covers over 10 years of time, but at no point does it feel even slightly rushed. Puzo's novel (he also worked with Coppola on the script) introduces characters and within minutes we feel like we've got a good idea of who they are as an individual. Imagine that with over 10 characters that get a fair share of screentime. There is a comfort level with the characters -- the good guys and the bad guys -- that makes the movie more enjoyable the second it begins. Does it all fall into place right away? No, it takes some time, but getting there is half the fun.
As far as true acting movies go, this 1972 classic is hard to beat. There isn't a performance that falls short or feels fake, but two rise above the rest; Brando as Vito Corleone and Pacino as his son, Michael. Playing one of the most iconic characters in film history, Brando's performance has opened the doors for all sorts of impressions, caricatures and stereotypes, but it is a career-best performance (and that's saying something considering Brando's career). It is a layered, nuanced performance, a man in the second half of his life who is highly intelligent, kind and ruthless at the same time, and a man who will stop at nothing to care for his family. Pacino's Michael goes through the film's biggest transition, a young man and WWII hero who wants nothing to do with his family's shady background but finds himself thrust into the family business when outside forces descend on the Corleones. Brando won an Oscar -- fully deserved -- and Pacino was nominated, but whatever the award nominations out there, it's two amazing performances.
Coppola's film earned plenty of acting nominations, three alone for Best Supporting Actor with Pacino, Duvall and Caan all earning a nod. The coolest part? All three deserved it for one reason or another. Caan and Duvall get less screentime, but they make the most of it. Caan is a scene-stealer as the fiery, hot-tempered Santino, known to friends and family as Sonny, the oldest Corleone son. The same for Duvall as Tom Hagen, but in a different way. Where Caan is more aggressive, Duvall underplays his part as Tom, the unofficial Irish Corleone brother, a childhood friend of Sonny's who Vito welcomed into the house. Other members of the Corleone family and operation? Richard Castellano and Abe Vigoda as Clemenza and Tessio, the Corleone caporegimes (think right-hand men, enforcers), John Cazale as Fredo, the Corleone brother and screw-up, Talia Shire as Connie, the lone Corleone sister and her similarly fiery husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), and Diane Keaton as Kay, young Michael's love who must decide how much she's willing to put up with.
And then there's the opposition, the all-around nice individuals who are trying to take down the Corleones. For starters there's Richard Conte as Barzini, a head of another NYC crime family, Sterling Hayden as Capt. McCluskey, an NYC cop on a rival's payroll, John Marley as a film studio head who incurs the wrath of the Corleones, Al Lettieri as Sollozzo, a drug supplier looking for funding and backing, and Alex Rocco as a casino owner dealing with a buy-out of his casino.
On repeated viewings, I've noticed different features about the film, different layers that can affect how I view it. The biggest is simple; family. Yes, it's a pretty hardcore, violent story about a crime family with its hand in illegal happenings, but it's still family. If you can look past that whole criminal aspect, the biggest focus is the family and the dynamics and relationships among family members. Through the rather vicious, violent ups and downs, love and hate, they're there for each other (for this movie at least). I love how Vito dotes on his kids and grandchildren but can balance that out with a brutal mindset -- it's business, not personal -- at the same time. The relationship between Vito and Michael is the most heartfelt, including one of my all-time favorite scenes as father and son discuss what could have been, maybe what should have been. A worrying Vito wanted more for his son, but a firmly entrenched Michael (very much looking out for the family) calmly states "We'll get there, Pop." It's an endearing, heartfelt moment, one of many.
There are far too many memorable, iconic, and all-time great scenes to discuss one by one. Big picture, that's probably what viewers will remember the most on initial viewing. The infamous horse head scene, the introduction of Vito, his loyal enforcer, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), and his "offer he can't refuse," the perfect simplicity and natural quality of the opening wedding, a slight detour to Sicily and its beautiful hills, a meeting among Michael, Sollozzo, and McCluskey in a traditional Italian restaurant, and maybe the most memorable, the baptism scene, almost entirely silent other than Rota's score playing over the developing scenes. Each of the above scenes could be analyzed in a review unto itself, but this review is already getting long-winded. Long story short? It's maybe the greatest movie in Hollywood history without a flaw in sight. Shame on you if you haven't seen it by the way. What are you waiting for?
The Godfather (1972): ****/****