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Five Favorite Films: The Godfather (1972)

July 9, 2011
  • Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
  • Released by Paramount
  • Based on the Mario Puzo  novel
  • Rating: ****

Francis Coppola had started his career making exploitation films, including an amusing rip-off of Psycho called Dementia 13. Once he became a big name in the 1970s, he helped young filmmakers such as George Lucas kick-start their careers through his production company American Zoetrope. He even pushed himself to the brink of insanity attempting to bring both Heart of Darkness and the horrors of Vietnam to the silver screen in arguably his most bizarre film, Apocalypse Now. However, there was never any doubt what Coppola’s longest-lasting legacy would be: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the film that made his name in Hollywood.

Coppola’s method of adapting Puzo’s bestselling novel was pure genius: he placed a notebook-paper border around every single page of the book and collected these pages in a binder that he could use as a direct reference for making the film. From the exhaustive notes that he made for every chapter of the novel, he constructed a script that tested just how faithful a film adaptation could be. Unlike other directors, Coppola has always tried to create a novel on celluloid (this approach would ensure that adaptations of books such as The Black Stallion, The Outsiders, and Dracula were well-appreciated by the books’ fans). He even went so far as to insist that Puzo’s name be before the film’s title instead of his own.

The story, precisely rendered from the novel, is intriguing enough that it is no surprise that it caught the New Hollywood director’s attention. Although Coppola and Puzo would collaborate on the stories of the sequels, neither would quite match the taut, engaging intrigue of the original tale. Even though the film has a rather leisurely pace, the story never allows the viewer much time to relax, and it always requires the audience to pay attention to even the most minute details. Such richness is to be expected from a good novel, but for a film to replicate it so well is quite astonishing.

Coppola not only needed to capture the story of the novel, but also its mood. This he achieved through dark, yet warm cinematography that managed to capture the 1940s period feel despite the film’s low budget. The semi-sepia quality to the images serves the film well in both its dramatic and more action-driven moments, and it parallels the use of oranges in the movie as a sign of foreboding. The musical score by Niko Rota (with the help of Coppola’s father Carmine, who would take over full composing duties in the sequels) manages to add so much romance and atmosphere that the movie arguably improves upon the source material in telling its story!

The film’s main strength lies in its cast, who manage to exceed expectations. Marlon Brando reestablished himself as the greatest actor in Hollywood with this film, giving a performance that easily rivals those he gave in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. He plays the aging Don Vito Corleone so well that it is easy to forget that he was much younger than the character (the fine makeup work also helps). Al Pacino would play the role of protagonist Michael Corleone throughout all three films, and he never had a weak moment in any of them. His arc from detached war hero to cruel mafioso in this film is possibly his most intriguing.

The extensive supporting cast is just as impressive. Who can forget James Caan’s violence-prone Sonny or Robert Duvall’s ever-collected Tom Hagen? The actresses deliver too, especially a young Diane Keaton and a pre-Rocky Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister). Even the minor roles, such as Abe Vigoda as Tessio, are played to the fullest, leaving the movie altogether flawless on the acting side. Even more impressive, the cast manages to convince the audience that they are watching a real family interacting rather than a bunch of skilled thespians attempting to out-perform each other.

This multiple-Oscar-winner would have two sequels, once again directed by Coppola, in 1974 and 1990, both of which received notable acclaim in their own right. Although, much like in the instance of Alien, I feel that the first film is easily the best, I must also note the major difference between the two series: while the Alien sequels tend to undermine their predecessors for their own sakes, the second and third parts of the Godfather saga only enhance the quality of the original. Indeed, when the three films are seen as a single narrative piece, the complete story of Michael Corleone easily rivals one of the greatest character studies ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (which, although excellent in its own right, does not make it to this top 5 list). 

From the moment that I heard the first notes of the main theme as the film began, I knew that I had a new cinematic love. The scenes, the lines, and the general mood of the movies, especially the first one, are permanently interwoven in me, and I almost feel a family bond between myself and the Corleones. That’s a clear sign that a motion picture is really working.

Although the 1972 classic remains the most iconic and greatly-valued of the films in my mind, I would insist that you see all three to get the full saga of the Corleones. They are not the violence-driven Mafia films that have been the norm since the 1930s. Rather, they are an exploration of a family’s rise from humble origins in Sicily to power in the New World, and its subsequent fall as the need for power and control begin to outweigh the needs of the family. It is a generational tragedy told on a grand scale, and it is one of the greatest experiences that can be had on film.

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From → Film Criticism

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