After a small break, it’s time for another entry in the Movies We Love series. Today I’ll take a look at a Hollywood epic, one of the unquestioned masterpieces of American cinema–The Godfather. Let’s crack it open and see what makes it tick.
In the late 1960s, Paramount Studios developed an interest in adapting an impressive novel written by Mario Puzo. They chose an exciting young director–Francis Ford Coppola– who they felt would fall in line with studio wishes. Needless to say, Coppola turned out to be anything but a studio shill. Coppola made several decisions that ruffled studio feathers. But he fought for all of them. And for that, film history has been rewarded a thousand times over since 1972.
Coppola wanted to inject a bit of an Italian Neo-Realist feel to this epic. He wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Mob movies to that point had almost universally featured ridiculous stereotypes of Italian-American accents. Coppola was adamant that they use New York accents instead. Against studio wishes, he insisted that it be filmed in New York. He used several non-professional actors to eat up secondary roles. All of this added a flair of realism.
Casting was also a major issue, but it’s plain to see that Coppola’s choices were the correct ones. Studio heads wanted to use Ernest Borgnine (!!!) in the role of Don Vito. Their choice for Michael was Robert Redford. Coppola opted for Al Pacino because he actually looked like an Italian-American. This seems like common sense, but apparently it was not to all people involved. Paul Newman was nearly cast as Tom Hagen. Coppola was insistent upon his choice. As it turns out, the cast he assembled was perfect for the part.
In the early 1970s, America was breaking away from the hokey moralism of the past. Character motivations were becoming blurred and grittier realities were being presented on screen to audiences. Coppola embraced it fully. He purposely shot with a grainier feel, and even infused the whole thing with black filters to make it darker. And most importantly, the characters were anti-heroes, lying in extremely unique contrast to idols of previous eras like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. These characters were murderers, drug dealers, and thieves, both powerful and dangerous without an ounce of respect for legal codes outside of their own omerta. The tone was set very early on. The entire first half hour of the movie is peppered with signs of dangers–stories of offers that couldn’t be refused, menacing beasts like Luca Brasi, severed horse heads used for intimidation. It was all glorified, no less, making the entire thing so much more compelling.
There at the heart of it all is the family. Puzo’s characters are fleshed out brilliantly, each with very clear character traits and flaws, each with clear motivations. It’s an epic saga of one family’s journey, regardless of how shocking their behavior might be.* And it’s not just the Corleone family that draws viewers into the Godfather universe. The film is nothing without characters like Luca Brasi, The Turk Sollozzo, McCluskey the dirty cop, Clemenza and Tessio, or certainly Kay Adams, who we love-a with all-a our hearts and if-a we don’t’a see her again soon, we’re a-gonna die.
*it’s worth noting that these activities are hardly shocking today, but they sure were in 1972
Like any truly beloved movie, it’s endlessly quotable. And none of quotability of the adaptation would be worth a damn if not for the execution by a stellar cast. For nearly every actor in The Godfather, each respective role ranks as their most memorable. There are very few exceptions to that rule. With all due respect to James Caan, he’ll never trump Sonny. Brando was a legend but ask for an impersonation, and people instantly imitate only one role–Don Vito. Pacino is much the same way. John Cazale’s unfortunate early death, which short-circuited what could have been an epic career, verifies that we’ll always know him as Fredo.
When you put all of these puzzle pieces together–Coppola’s choice to make it as gritty and real as possible, the wonderful cast, Puzo’s writing, the ground-breaking anti-heroism, the story itself–and it’s easy to see why The Godfather is viewed as an endlessly rewatchable masterpiece.