The mafia is a subject that has captivated the imaginations of both Hollywood and moviegoers alike for years and years. Generally, when the mob is chosen as the topic for another movie, assuming the film is done with the proper attention and care, it’s pretty much a guarantee that there will be the potential for plenty of money flowing in at the box office. Many of the most successful mafia-themed movies rank amongst some of the best films Hollywood has ever offered to the public. With entries into this particular film grouping including some of Martin Scorcese’s classics, such as “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, to Sam Mendes’ “Road to Perdition”, and even on TV with HBO’s “The Sopranos”, it’s no wonder this is a sub-genre that has lasted for so many decades; however, as great as all of those titles are, there is one trilogy of films that truly set the bar for what all others would be compared to. I’m referring to none other than the best of the best of the mafia film sub-genre…The Godfather trilogy. To kick things off lets talk about the one that started it all, the original classic film in director and co-writer Francis Ford Coppola’s gangland magnum opus, “The Godfather”.
“The Godfather” focuses on the fictional Corleone crime family. The family, as led by Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), vies for money and power amidst the dark world of organized crime. Set in the years following the Second World War, Don Vito Corleone is offered a chance for his family to further expand their empire via the fledgling, yet profitable drug trade. However, the Don is not convinced that this is the way their organization should take for more profits, a school of thought that the other rival families aren’t too comfortable with. As tensions mount and battle lines are being drawn, Don Vito along with his sons, Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo, and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), prepare to do what must be done to preserve the power they have fought so long and hard to attain. As an all-out mafia war begins to claim casualties on all sides, it seems some new blood may be needed to turn the tide. Enter Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the youngest of the Corleone children, and the one who had vowed to steer clear of the dark world that has consumed the rest of his family. However, certain events are unfolding that will force Michael to choose whether his destiny lies by his father’s side or on his own path separate from a life of crime.
Based upon the novel by Mario Puzo, who also served as co-writer alongside director Francis Ford Coppola, “The Godfather” is one of the most faithful adaptations of a book that I have ever seen. Having read the book and seen the movie, I find both to be perfect companion pieces to one another. Even though it is cemented within the dark underworld of organized crime, the story is one that can resonate with virtually every person on some level, thanks in no small part to the many themes inherent within the screenplay and the novel.
The biggest theme that this film deals with throughout its nearly three-hour running time is the concept of family, displayed in both a literal and metaphorical sense (as shown in the numerous references to a person’s mafia affiliation and/or organization as a family). For me this was the most intriguing aspect of the film’s richly layered story. Seeing how the various Corleone children grappled with the weight of eventually taking the reins of the family’s various affairs, both personal and business related, was truly interesting and provided the strongest dramatic firepower for the script to draw from. For me, making the primary driving force of the screenplay focus upon the family aspect, made “The Godfather” stand apart from all other mafia themed movies that had come before it, and many that arrived after it, for that matter. Many times in these types of films we get a very violent story, full of intense drama and plenty of colorful language, and even some allusions to the themes found in this film, but it seems to be a bit of a rarity to find a mafia movie outside of this series that takes the time to delve deeply into the personal relationships these people establish over the course of their lives and nefarious careers as criminal figures. We all know that the mafia is all about loyalty, respect and living by certain codes of honor, but what we rarely get to see is where those attributes come from, which can only be found in the personal relationships these characters share with each other over the course of the film. To me, it is the personal touches found in this movie and its sequels that make the story all the more accessible, and elevate it from being just another mafia movie to something far greater.
The casting choices made for “The Godfather” seem to perfectly embody every single character from Mario Puzo’s classic novel, as if they could have walked right off of the page and onto the screen. Marlon Brando (“Superman: The Movie”) as the Corleone family’s patriarch and Don of the Corleone crime family is simply iconic in his portrayal. He brings a warmth and magnetism to the character that instantly draws you in, essentially erasing all thoughts of the evil acts this man has committed either personally or via his organization. Yet behind the almost grandfatherly quality Brando gives the character, lies an extremely dangerous man, who possesses a quiet and powerful inner-strength, along with a worldly power that is unparalleled by any other member of the underworld.
Portraying the other primary members of the story are veteran actors (although at the time they were still rising stars in Hollywood) James Caan (“Misery”), Robert Duvall (“Secondhand Lions”), and Al Pacino (“Heat”). James Caan plays the hot-headed eldest son of Vito Corleone named Sonny, who is first in line to take over the family business whenever the Don steps down or passes on. Caan perfectly portrays the character with a dangerous volatility that is electrifying and borderline insane at times, yet he also brings to the table an unyielding devotion to his family that is both his greatest strength and biggest weakness. Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen the surrogate son and consigliere to the Corleone family, seems an ideal choice lending the character plenty of gravitas, while at the same time giving a sense that he is constantly seeking approval from the other members of the family due to him being of German/Irish descent, and therefore an outsider to the otherwise Italian family. Lastly, we have Al Pacino, giving his most restrained performance of his career, long before he became the iconic actor he is today, as the youngest Corleone sibling and the one member of the family that tries his hardest to remain at a safe distance from the crime and corruption that has consumed the other family members. So, in a sense, even though Tom is an outsider due to his heritage, it is Michael who is the one that is truly the outsider, a position that he finds harder and harder to retain the more the story unfolds.
Other cast members worthy of note would include Talia Shire (“Rocky”), Diane Keaton (“Because I Said So”), and John Cazale (“The Deer Hunter”). To be fair there are so many more actors and actresses that deserve attention, I just don’t have the time to devote to them. Talia Shire played Connie Corleone, the lone girl amongst the Corleone children. Talia does a very good job with her character, even though she isn’t given a very large amount of screen time. Nevertheless, if it weren’t for her character’s involvement many of the major events within the story never would have come to fruition. So, even though she possibly has the least amount of time in front of the camera, out of the entire family, her character’s story arc is one of the most pivotal ones of all. The always terrific Diane Keaton is Kay Adams, the young woman who finds herself inadvertently dragged into this dark world through her romantic relationship with Michael. Diane gives Kay an innocence that balances the otherwise corrupt nature of essentially every other character within the film; however, it’s fascinating to see her character’s temptation by the power and money that accompanies such a dangerous world. To see how Kay grapples with the person she is and the person she may become via her romance is interesting, and provides some very small, yet important moments within the film. Rounding out this particular grouping we have Fredo Corleone played by rarely seen actor John Cazale (“The Deer Hunter”). Fredo is the middle child of the three Corleone boys, and is generally perceived as weak and relatively simple-minded in the grand scheme of things. Even though Fredo is given very little to do in this film, John is spot-on with his interpretation of the character, and it’s a shame that an actor as talented as John clearly is, has for some reason chosen to shy away from movie roles ever since “The Godfather Part II”.
It seems somewhat strange to me that a film such as “The Godfather” has become such a globally recognizable film and essentially a major brand name for games, toys, etc. I feel this is strange partly because of these films’ subject matter (which could be perceived as a reflection on our dwindling morality), but also because this film almost didn’t see the light of day, at least not in the way we all have come to know and love. Prior to anyone really being attached to this film, the head of troubled film studio Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans, was having a difficult time convincing anyone to direct this gangland epic after acquiring the rights to the novel. It wasn’t until director Francis Ford Coppola (“Dracula”) took the gig, in an effort to save his fledgling production company, that the film truly began to take shape. Even so, if it hadn’t been for Francis’ stubbornness, Italian heritage, and cinematic vision, who knows what this film would have ended up as, most likely it would not have been the masterpiece it wound up being, that is if the attempted studio tampering had prevailed. So, thank God for directors who know what they want, and have the courage to see their vision through.
With a gripping story rife with powerful thematic elements, intense drama, and some of the best acting you will ever find in any film throughout history, “The Godfather” is a film that truly defines what it is to be a definitive tour de force of American cinema. If you have yet to see this film or its sequels, do yourself a gigantic favor and rent a copy today.
“The Godfather” is rated R for violence, brief language, and brief nudity.