The Movies We Love: The Godfather (1972)

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.

You wanted to cast WHO as Don Vito?

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.

Let's see a John Wayne character do something like this.

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

Add Duvall and Keaton and you've got an amazing array of talent.

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.


14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Movies We Love: The Godfather (1972)

  1. I agree 100%! The Godfather is an absolute classic. Great script, great actors, beautifully dark cinematography, and of course, an incredibly memorable score.

    There was a time when I dismissed it as overly romanticized, especially when compared to films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas (In my mind, Coppola is opera and Scorsese is Rock and Roll), but when I went back and rewatched it in the theater, I was instantly sucked in to the Corleone saga.

    Once again, a great review of a great film!

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    • It’s almost impossible to choose one or the other, though Roger Ebert agrees with you for that very specific reason (that Goodfellas never glorified the mafia life the way The Godfather did).

  2. Between GODFATHER 1 and 2, THE CONVERSATION, THE DEER HUNTER and DOG DAY AFTERNOON, one could say John Cazale already had an epic career.

  3. I hadn’t seen the Godfather growing up, so when I got to college I’m pretty sure I asked you if it was as good as the hype. Your answer was “You should just watch it and see what you think” So, I watched it and it totally blew me away. Then I said, “No way #2 is as good as that”. You said “You should just watch it and see what you think”. I remember after that, I asked about 3 and you said “It’s not as good as those two, but you should still watch it and see what you think” Thanks for the movie advice over the years, The Godfather is one of the best movies I have ever seen.

    • That’s awesome that you remembered that.

      I first saw it one of those weekends when everyone else was away on a float trip (probably you included). It was so awesome that within hours of seeing the first one, Blake and I had to go rent the next one… and then the third one right after that. We probably rented it at Gerbes.

  4. An esteemed classic indeed. It’s been a while since I watched it, but I remember watching it with Coppola’s audio commentary and being amazed by all the problems the crew encountered while shooting. But evidently it was all worth it, of course.

  5. It took me forever to see this movie (I also saw it for the first time less than two years ago). Definitely can see why it’s such a beloved classic. Absolutely great film! Nice review John 😀

  6. This is currently being shown at a local cinema, hope I’ll find time to see it as I really would love to see it on the big screen.

  7. I have only seen bits and pieces of this as my two brothers used to watch this a lot. I can see why this is so beloved, but I just don’t have the cojones to watch the whole thing. I might one day though.

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