Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Godfather (1972)
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Background

The superb, three-part gangster saga was inaugurated with this film from Italian-American director Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather (1972). The first two parts of the lush and grand saga are among the most celebrated, landmark films of all time. Many film reviewers consider the second part equal or superior to the original, although the first part was a tremendous critical and commercial success - and the highest grossing film of its time. This mythic, tragic film contributed to a resurgence in the American film industry, after a decade of competition from cinema abroad.

One of the original "Movie Brats" who had not had a hit after seven films, director Coppola collaborated on the epic film's screenplay with Mario Puzo who had written a best-selling novel of the same name about a Mafia dynasty (the Corleones). The Godfather catapulted Francis Ford Coppola to directorial superstardom, and popularized the following euphemistic phrase (of brutal coercion): "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

The almost three hour, R-rated saga film (for violence and graphic language) won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando refused to accept the award) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). The other seven nominations included three for Best Supporting Actor (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), Best Director, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. One of The Godfather's original eleven nominations was removed, Best Music (Original Dramatic Score), when it was determined that Nino Rota's score had been used for a previous film.

Gangster films are one of the oldest of film genres (starring Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart), emerging as an influential force in the early 1930s (e.g., Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932)). This gangster film re-invented the gangster genre, elevating the classic Hollywood gangster film to a higher level by portraying the gangster figure as a tragic hero. [With the disappearance of the Production Code, retribution for the gangster's crimes was not an automatic requirement.] The rich and enthralling film is characterized by superb acting and deep character studies, beautiful photography and choreography, authentic recreation of the period, a bittersweet romantic sub-plot, a rich score by Nino Rota, and superbly-staged portrayals of gangster violence. Its grim, dark passages and bright exterior scenes are all part of the beautiful cinematography by Gordon Willis.

Coppola's Godfather Trilogy - See also The Godfather Trilogy
The Godfather (1972)

175 minutes
Ten Academy Awards nominations and the winner of 3 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay; the top-grossing film of the year, and a $134 million box-office hit; set in the mid to late 1940s NYC to the mid 1950s, a 10 year period, with Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, head of the crime family; it was filmed as a modern version of Shakespeare's King Lear (featuring a king and three sons: hot-headed eldest Sonny, Fredo and Michael); the 'honorable' crime "family," working outside the system due to exclusion by social prejudice, was threatened by the rise of modern criminal activities - the "dirty" drug trade. Family loyalty and blood ties were juxtaposed with brutal and vengeful blood-letting, including Corleone's attempted assassination in 1945 after he refused to bankroll a crime rival's drug activities.
The Godfather, Part II (1974)

187 minutes
Eleven Academy Awards nominations, and the winner of 6 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro as the young Don Corleone), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Score Oscars; the first sequel to win Best Picture - and considered an equal to the original; $48 million in box-office business; both a sequel-continuation and a pre-quel to the 1972 film; now Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) served as the family's don in Part II after his father's heart attack in 1955 - he sought legitimacy in Nevada and invested heavily in gambling casinos in pre-Castro Cuba - interspersed with the tale (one quarter of the film) of his father Don Vito Corleone's (Robert DeNiro) rise to power in New York's Little Italy in the early 1900s; the film followed the rise of two successive generations of Corleone power, and extended over a period of 60 years.
The Godfather, Part III (1990)

162-170 minutes
With seven Academy Awards nominations (including the first for cinematographer Gordon Willis in this trilogy) and zero Oscars, but $66 million in domestic box-office business, although its production budget was $54 million; the story began in 1979, about 20 years after Michael Corleone (Pacino) gave the order to have his older brother killed and eight years since Michael and wife Kay (Diane Keaton) had seen each other after divorcing in 1959; consigliere and adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) was now dead, replaced by BJ Harrison (George Hamilton), and the Lake Tahoe compound was in disrepair, as Michael had moved out of the casino business. Aging, 60-ish Michael Corleone was taking first steps toward cleansing himself, breaking his ties to the 'Mafia' business, legitimizing his violent reputation, and buying his way toward respectability, as well as finding a worthy successor; the film ended with a coda years later in 1997 with white-haired Michael's anti-climactic, peaceful death from a heart attack at his Sicilian villa.

The Godfather is an insightful sociological study of violence, power, honor and obligation, corruption, justice and crime in America. Part I of The Godfather Trilogy centers on the Corleone crime "family" in the boroughs of New York City in the mid 1940s, dominated at first by aging godfather/patriarch "Don" Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in a tremendous, award-winning acting portrayal that revived his career). A turn-of-the-century Silician immigrant, he is the head of one of the five Italian-American "families" that operates a crime syndicate. The 'honorable' crime "family," working outside the system due to exclusion by social prejudice, serves as a metaphor for the way business (the pursuit of the American dream) is conducted in capitalistic, profit-making corporations and governmental circles.

This epic story traces the history of their close-knit Mafia family and organization over a ten year period (although the specific words "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" are not found in the film's script - they were replaced with "the family"). The presiding, dominant Corleone patriarch, who is threatened by the rise of modern criminal activities - the drug trade, is ultimately succeeded by his decent youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), a US Marine Corps officer in WWII who becomes even more ruthless to persist. Family loyalty and blood ties are juxtaposed with brutal and vengeful blood-letting and the inevitable downfall of the family. Romanticized scenes of the domestic home life of members of the family - a family wedding, shopping, a baptism, kitchen cooking, etc., are intertwined with scenes of horrific violence and murder contracts - a total of 23 deaths litter the film. Over 50 scenes involved food and drink.

The Story

As the film opens, it is the last Saturday in August, 1945 - the Japanese have just surrendered. In the opening scene of the film, the camera (very slowly) pulls back from the face of a man who is in Corleone's dark home office, where the Don regally and ruthlessly holds court. He carries on with the crime family business during his daughter's wedding reception, that is being held in the bright, sunshiny outdoor veranda of his Long Island compound. According to Corleone's Irish-German overseer and surrogate son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall): "It's part of the wedding. No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter's wedding day." It is the custom of the father of the bride to grant favors and promises to all petitioners and supplicants who pay homage.

Seated in front of the Don's desk is an undertaker named Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), speaking in a heavy accent [Vito Corleone's wife is god-mother to Bonasera's daughter]. Bonasera desperately pleads for a favor - proper vengeful "justice" (rather than American justice) for the threatened near-rape and brutal beating suffered by his daughter (whom he raised "in the American fashion") by her non-Italian boyfriend and his friend. The two brutes had received a court date and only a suspended sentence:

I believe in America. America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but - I taught her never to dishonor her family. She found a boyfriend, not an Italian...Two months ago, he took her for a drive, with another boyfriend. They made her drink whiskey. And then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor. So they beat her like an animal...She was the light of my life - my beautiful girl. Now she will never be beautiful again...I-I went to the police like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison - suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, 'for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.'

In the underlit office (masterfully photographed), American justice has failed. Ostensibly, the Don is a gentle, restrained, 53 year old aging man, sitting behind his study's desk. His face has a bulldog appearance with padded cheeks, and he speaks with a high-pitched, hoarse, raspy, gutteral mumbling accent. On his lap is a cat whose head he lovingly and gently strokes. Although he moves stiffly, he wields enormous lethal power as he determines the dispensation of real justice - who will be punished and who will be favored. He is upset that the funeral director Bonasera hasn't asked for a favor earlier, although he now asks for murderous revenge (instead of justice). The Don promises justice - and then asks for a return favor as a friend:

Corleone: Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me first?
Bonasera: What do you want of me? Tell me anything, but do what I beg you to do.
Corleone: What is that? (Bonasera whispers his request in the Don's ear.) That I cannot do.
Bonasera: I will give you anything you ask.
Corleone: We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel or for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let's be frank here. You never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt.
Bonasera: I didn't want to get into trouble.
Corleone: I understand. You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, you made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. And you didn't need a friend like me. But uh, now you come to me and you say - 'Don Corleone, give me justice.' But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you, uh, ask me to do murder for money.
Bonasera: I ask you for justice.
Corleone: That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.
Bonasera: Let them suffer then, as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?
Corleone (after standing and turning his back): Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.
Bonasera: Be my friend - - Godfather. (The Don shrugs. Bonasera bows toward the Don and kisses the Don's hand.)
Corleone: Good. (The Don puts his hand on Bonasera's shoulder.) Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day - accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.
Bonasera: Grazie, Godfather.
Corleone: Prego.

In return for Bonasera's friendship, loyalty, and "service" some day, Don Corleone arranges with his lawyer ("consigliere" - a counselor or advisor that is "very important to the family") and non-Italian ("not a Sicilian"), "adopted" right-hand man Tom Hagen to have loyal, reliable hit man Clemenza (Richard Castellano) deal firmly with the young rapists.

The opening wedding sequence brilliantly introduces all the film's major characters. [This scene was influenced by the concluding, hour-long banquet scene in the French-Italian classic film The Leopard (1963) from director Luchino Visconti.] Don Corleone's newlywed daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is celebrating her marriage to small-time bookie Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) with a lavish reception outdoors - it has all of the traditional Italian-American rituals including Mazurka music, a family portrait, dancing, wine, lasagna, and the cutting of the cake.

[The wedding portrait includes 53 year old Vito Corleone and his 48 year old wife Carmella (Morgana King), heir apparent, twenty-nine year old eldest son "Sonny" Santino (James Caan) and his wife Sandra (Julie Gregg) and their eight year old twin daughters (Francesca and Kathryn) and five year old son Frank, twenty-six year old unmarried son Fredo (John Cazale), eighteen year old daughter Connie and bridegroom Carlo Rizzi, and twenty-nine year old Tom Hagen and his twenty-five year old wife Theresa and their two young boys (Frank and Andrew).]

Worried about not having one of his sons in the family portrait, the Don asks eldest son Sonny about his younger son: "Where's Michael?...We're not taking the picture without Michael." [Michael (Al Pacino), the twenty-five year old Americanized youngest son - Ivy League and Dartmouth-educated, uninvolved with his father's activities, has just returned as a highly-decorated (he was awarded the Navy Cross) Marine captain from World War II.]

While Sonny flirts with other women and is told to "watch (him)self" by his wife Sandra, one of Vito's men, Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda), dances with a little girl on his feet during the festivities. Connie collects gifts for her bridal purse (totalling $20,000 to $30,000 "in small bills - cash" according to Paulie Gatto (John Martino), Corleone's chauffeur).

A rival gang leader named Barzini, one of the guests at the wedding, tears up a roll of film that one of his men grabs from a photographer. Out in the parking area, FBI agents have been taking down license plate numbers - hot-tempered Sonny angrily confronts the agents:

Hey, get outta here, it's a private party, go on! What is it? Hey, it's my sister's wedding. (He spits after being shown a badge, turns, and walks away.) Goddamn FBI, don't respect nothin.'

Sonny also smashes the camera of another photographer taking unauthorized photographs.

More business is conducted back in the black interior of Corleone's office - a pastry shop owner named Nazorine (Vito Scotti) requests help with immigration difficulties for an employee named Enzo, who is a suitor and potential husband for his daughter. Michael, who has broken with tradition, arrives with his non-Italian, eighteen year old WASP girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), and they begin to dance during the festivities.

A giant, brutish thug named Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), one of Corleone's most trusted enforcers or lieutenants, practices the tribute he will deliver in his audience with the Don. Then, after being admitted into the study, Don Corleone listens to the rehearsed words of congratulations from the loyal and valued, but simple-minded hit man:

Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daugh---ter's wedding...on the day of your daughter's wedding. And I hope that their first child be a masculine child. I pledge my ever-ending loyalty. (He hands Don Corleone a cash-filled envelope.) For your daughter's bridal purse.

Shouts of joy are heard from the outdoors party at the arrival of Hollywood's Italian-American singing idol Johnny Fontane (nightclub and recording star Al Martino), the Don's godson. [Some have interpreted the Fontane character as being modeled on Frank Sinatra.] Kay is curious to know how Fontane was helped in his singing and acting career by Michael's father, so Michael explains how his father persuasively conducted business in a past incident. He offered Fontane's bandleader $10,000 for the singer's contract, but actually ended up paying only $1,000. After one of the film's most famous lines, Michael reveals his ambitions to escape his family's Mafia ties:

Michael (as Johnny croons "I Have But One Heart"): Well, when Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to this personal service contract with a big band leader. And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. Now, Johnny is my father's godson. And my father went to see this band leader, and he offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go. But the band leader said no. So the next day, my father went to see him, only this time with Luca Brasi. And within an hour, he signed a release, for a certified check for $1,000.
Kay: How'd he do that?
Michael: My father made him [the bandleader] an offer he couldn't refuse.
Kay: What was that?
Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains - or his signature - would be on the contract...That's a true story...That's my family, Kay. It's not me.

Michael introduces his shy, weak-charactered brother Fredo to his girlfriend Kay. The Don asks Hagen to look for his son Sonny. Hagen calls out "Sonny? Sonny?" at the bottom of the stairs inside the house and soon realizes that hedonistic Sonny is having stand-up sex against a doorway in the upstairs bedroom with mistress Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero).

Cream puff Johnny Fontane appears in Vito Corleone's office, seeking another favor. This time, he is being denied a part in a picture by the head of a Hollywood studio, producer Jack Woltz (John Marley). Fontane wants desperately to be in the film, but is wimpish about what to do to get the part: "It puts me right back up on top again."

Johnny: A month ago, he bought the movie rights to this book. A best seller - and the main character, it's a guy just like me, I, uh, I wouldn't even have to act, just be myself. Oh godfather, I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.
Corleone: You can act like a man. (The Don slaps Johnny in the face.) What's the matter with you? Is this how you turned out? A Hollywood finochio [a demeaning Italian word meaning homosexual] that, uh, cries like a woman? (He imitates Johnny's whining.) 'What can I do? What can I do?' What is that nonsense? Ridiculous. You spend time with your family? (The Don glances toward Sonny and speaks more to him than Johnny.)
Johnny: Sure I do.
Corleone: Good. 'Cause a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man. (To Johnny) Come here...You look terrible. I want you to eat. I want you to rest a while. And in a month from now, this Hollywood bigshot's gonna give you what you want.
Johnny: (protesting) It's too late, they start shooting in a week.
Corleone: I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse. Now, you just go outside and enjoy yourself, and uh, forget about all this nonsense. I want you, I want you to leave it all to me.

The Don instructs advance man Hagen to immediately fly to Hollywood, California: "I want you to talk to this movie bigshot, and settle this business for Johnny." Don Corleone goes out to the wedding festivities, joins everyone in a family portrait on the yard, and has the traditional and stately first dance with his newlywed daughter Connie.


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