In honor of AMC's 'Mob Week' I am going to post a very thorough look at what I consider the best American film of all-time. Artistically, technically, & true to the warm and sinister side's of the human condition as we internalize our own power and influence, The Godfather is now forty years old. Francis Ford Coppola turned an already great novel by Mario Puzo into some of the most iconic work ever accomplished in film.
Great films are not defined by how much money they make or even how many awards they may capture. A great film is one that is produced carefully with an idea to convey or a human story to dictate. It must have great staying power in the consciousness of the general public. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather achieves all of the above and sets the bar for American cinema. Made in 1972, The Godfather remains tied for the highest ranked film of all-time on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Critically acclaimed, the Mafia family epic continues to stir America by providing popular one-liners and references throughout popular culture. The Godfather is a masterful blend of technical and narrative technique that continues to be revered by audiences everywhere.
Coppola’s film derives from the novel written by Mario Puzo. The characters embody dominating and apparent traits. Don Vito Corleone is played by Marlon Brando in a monumental performance. “In makeup and physical movement instantly evocative of Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in ‘Citizen Kane,’ Brando does an admirable job as the lord of his domain. He is not on screen for much of the film, though his presence hovers over all of it”. Corleone is a highly complex figure. His professional life festers in crime and corruption, yet his strict code of conduct is most honorable. “Vito Corleone, was a man of morals, principle, and courage in a world sorely lacking in either – a man who stands throughout the film in stark contrast to the State.” As a character, Vito presents profound social paradoxes as he transcends the status quo of society with nobility, yet still dabbles in illegal activity. Vito is also shown to be a loving, devoted patriarch of an extended Italian-American family. His eldest son Santino, nicknamed Sonny, is played by James Caan. Initially, Sonny is set to take the reigns as Don of the family due to his domineering nature. However, he is also very temperamental and not as strategic as his father. His impulsive nature is critiqued by Vito and cause for concern as a Mafia Don. The middle son is named Fredo, played by John Cazale. His role is most limited of the sons, yet his nature is reflective of the warm side that Vito possesses. Fredo is the most sensitive and compassionate of the three, yet he lacks the leadership and control needed to oversee a crime syndicate.
Michael Corleone is the youngest son, played brilliantly by Al Pacino as one of the most developed and dynamic characters in the modern film era. In the beginning, Michael is established as the outlier of the family empire, choosing not to partake in his family’s operation. He is a former war veteran following previous education at an Ivy League school. Throughout the film, his assimilation into the role of Don is hauntingly authentic. After his father is hospitalized, Michael begins to display instinctual traits bestowed upon him. He exhibits quick thinking in tense circumstances, prompting the nurse to move his father’s hospital bed in fear of assassination. He shows himself to be courageous and fearless, acting as guard in front of opposing threats with no weapon. After convincing Enzo to stand guard with him, Michael shows his composure as he calmly lights a cigarette for the trembling baker. These attributes are all included when he volunteers to murder corrupt police Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo to disrupt the balance of power after Vito is shot. Following the homicides in a public restaurant, Michael loses his established innocence in regards to his deviant upbringing. When his first wife, Appolonia is murdered by his own bodyguard, it is apparent that Michael begins to detach his previous emotional ties with his newly acquired role in the family. At the film’s conclusion, Michael is portrayed as a calculated man who is feared yet respected by his peers. His ruthless demeanor replaces the previous man whom is loving and affectionate. Although beneficial as Don of the family, Michael’s changing persona is a landmark of great character development.
Coppola does a phenomenal job establishing shots effectively. They serve a purpose, to tell the audience more than the action unfolding. For instance, when Rocco kills the driver Paulie, a long shot captures the parked car amongst the blowing grain fields in broad daylight. The long shot reveals that execution is not an intimate act to the crew. For these men, it is common and impersonal to slaughter someone perceived as deceitful with such nonchalance. Shooting the scene in the middle of the day with bright sunlight suggests that Vito’s men dictate their own circumstances. In the far distance, stands the Statue of Liberty, a symbolic structure of prosperity and opportunity in America, especially for immigrant families. Deciding to include a symbol of hope and integrity so distant suggests a certain disconnection from these ideals previously explored. The use of extreme long shots in Sicily not only displays the lush beauty of Italian landscapes, but further segregates the atmosphere from the claustrophobic nature of New York City. A particularly stunning bird’s eye shot captures the custom of Michael and Apollonia walking through the Sicilian village after being married followed by the residents.
Lighting plays a pivotal role in the storytelling of Don Vito Corleone and his authoritative Mafia family. The business dealings of Vito, Santino, Michael, and Tom Hagen lurk unmercifully in the violent placement of shadows. The Corleone family conducts business with highly powerful men around New York City. These scenes display a high concentration of dark shadows with tactical interruption of lit subjects across the frame. The shadows and lighting play a major role in character development as well as cinematography. Hard and overhead lighting is often used on the mobsters to depict them and their actions in an unflattering fashion. Much of the time, light is dispersed abruptly across particular features to portray vulnerability or conniving intentions of a certain character. Vito’s eyes are purposefully shadowed to suggest the mystique and ambiguity around his valued thought process.
Conversely, the family-oriented scenes such as Connie’s wedding are lit overtly and intrusively cut to depict the light-hearted nature of a family event set amongst the business dealings of mobsters. “Beginning with the opening sequence intercutting Vito's sepulchral study with the bright wedding outside, Coppola renders the Corleones threatening in their business and appealing in their closeness as they negotiate the legacy of Vito's prosperity). The implications suggest a certain friction between Vito’s business life and his unadulterated care for his family. Many of the scenes defined by shadows foreshadow imminent threats to come. For example, Luca Brasi’s meeting with Sollozzo is intentionally dark to signify a breach of trust. Brasi is strangled to death, yet the viewer can already sense that Sollozzo is aware of Corleone and Brasi’s ulterior motives. Darkness plagues scenes in which Sollozzo is trying to finagle Tom Hagen and his pull with the family into narcotics distribution. Half of Sollozzo’s face is completely dark. The intimidation factor is highlighted by deep shadows to express the distrust and timid approach shown by Hagen to Sollozzo. The scene at the hospital where Michael tries to hide his father from a potential assassination is unusually dark to convince the audience that trouble may or may not arise in a typically safe public setting.
The Godfather utilizes a grainy, warm-colored brand of cinematography. Much of the film uses muted yellow or red tones, projecting a realistic interpretation of Italian-American families and the passion they exude. The props used are directly attributable to an Italian family and their culture. The texture of each frame creates a high degree of realism for the audience. The viewer can visually smell the garlic frying or hear the sizzle of sausage and meatballs in the pan. Individual fibers on the suits are so comprehensive to the viewer that the scene depicted establishes a rooted connection, even to a disconnecting lifestyle. When Sonny is murdered in the toll booth, the armed men are seen through his point of view behind the steering wheel before having his car attacked with bullets. Everything is carefully placed; from the wine bottles and glasses, to the firearms and fruit. All items encompass a defined means of living for the particular group of characters in the film.
For a 3 hour film, editing is a key component. Coppola/crew do a marvelous job transitioning between scenes/locations to let the story unfold, yet still focus on major plot devices. The main transition used is a lap dissolve between scenes all throughout the story. Fade-out, fade-in is carefully used when transitioning between significant lapses in time. For example, one is used when the setting shifts to the Christmas season after previously being a warmer time of year. Other times Coppola uses fade-out, fade-in is when the geographical setting is distant from New York City, like when Michael is in Sicily or when Tom Hagen flies into LA. Coppola is conscience to make these transitions more significant to reflect the diverse locations, specifically the urban environment of New York City and the beautiful remote landscapes of Sicily. The scene in the hospital keeps the viewer on edge because of editing. The quick cuts around the dark corridors establish an apprehensive environment as Michael is unsure if enemies are going to kill his father.
Coppola makes artistic statements with use of parallel editing. The baptism ceremony where Michael becomes godfather to Connie’s son is a prime example. As the Catholic priest conducts his ceremony, Michael is required to proclaim his faith in God as Father Almighty, Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior, as well as the Holy Catholic Church while renouncing Satan and evil. Cuts are included during the scene to show the crime bosses of the other New York Mafia families are massacred under Michael’s direct orders. The display of brutal murders stemming from Michael as he renounces evil in the Catholic Church is extremely ironic. It reveals the hypocrisy of his words while displaying the result of his actions. “Coppola edits between the baptism with holy water of a newborn child and the bloody slayings of several Mafia Dons. Coppola's editing cuts produce a level of art which is film at its highest level. Coppola creates a dynamic conception of objects: being as a constant evolution from the interaction between two contradictory opposites”. The viewer sees this scene as very powerful and effective due to the editing of contrasting connotations.
Montage is used after Michael kills Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo to reveal the city’s reaction in the form of newspaper photographs and headlines. Very quick lap dissolves are used obtrusively to gauge the city’s reaction and to move the story along a few months in a brief period of time. The juxtaposition of black and white newspaper photos and color footage of prime characters accomplishes the aftermath of an entire city upon learning of their corrupt police captain’s drug racketeering. The music included is an upbeat piano to match the tempo of the montage’s pace.
The Godfather includes numerous examples of cultural and national significance. The dialogue includes selected conversations in full Italian. Even Italian slang terms and words are sprinkled in casual conversation. As previously mentioned, the Catholic faith is a large component of the Corleone family. The majority of Italians have historic roots to Catholicism, and the associations with the Church are a large theme of the film. Hence the title of the film becomes more significant being that Vito is godfather to Johnny Fontane and Michael to Michael Francis. A godfather is a sacred honor and title of the Catholic faith. The film includes themes of prejudice and bigotry that are appropriate given the era and dissention of large groups throughout the picture. Racial slurs such as dago, guinea, wop, greaseball and goombah are thrown around prevalently to describe Italians. Jack Woltz sarcastically refers to Tom Hagen as his kraut mick friend when learning of his German-Irish descent. Sonny refers to African-Americans as ******s while he stereotypically chastises blacks for desiring automobiles made by Cadillac. During the meeting between The Five Families, it is agreed that narcotics distribution is not taboo to the black community, described as animals with no soul. The ethnocentric nature of many characters is extremely plausible and accurate given that pride in one’s heritage is also a large theme in the movie.
Being a male-dominated picture, women are not portrayed in an equal fashion. This includes the scenes in Sicily as well as New York. The arranged meeting and eventual marriage of Michael and Apollonia reveals that a woman’s free will to choose is not traditional priority. Instead, her father makes the decision for her initially. Carlo is condescending to Connie, beating her several times and abusing her verbally. He does not even make an effort to hide an implied affair. Sonny also is unfaithful to his wife several times, suggesting that he uses woman as resources instead of partners.
Sound is also a crucial element in the narrative structure of The Godfather. Traditional Italian music consisting of vibrant horns and strings are heart in times of celebration such as the weddings of Michael and Connie. Other music used is subtly ominous reflecting the mood of stressful narrative sequences. Suspenseful and tense moments use a simple key arrangement deemed as ambient sound to keep viewers intrigued and keep the plot unassuming. A haunting organ is played during the baptism and murders of the other New York crime bosses. Gun shots and fire arms are magnified in different ways at different times. When Clemenza gives Michael the revolver to be planted at the restaurant, Michael fires it and is taken aback at the crisp blast it omits. Clemenza explains this is to frighten the other patrons eating there. The audience also jumps to the unusually loud bang from a small pistol. Even atmospheric sound such as a crackling fire highlights the growing animosity between Tom Hagen and Wolfe’s disagreement to cast Johnny Fontane in his new film.
Despite having box-office success and critical acclaim in the industry, The Godfather reaches legendary status through strength in narrative story-telling. Francis Ford Coppola utilizes different forms of editing and cinematography to tell the story of the Corleone family crime syndicate. Adapted from the novel written by Mario Puzo, The Godfather includes highly celebrated characters and dialogue through their development and the actors in those roles. The cinematography also reaches powerful realms of realistic interpretation through grainy, unsaturated color and impeccable props, settings, and wardrobe. Viewers can empathize with many of the cultural themes presented such as racial or gender prejudice and religious affiliation. The Godfather remains an accurate commentary on life in progressive America since the surge of European immigrants early in the century. Although much of the film is set in dark shadows, The Godfather continues to glow luminously on the mantle of modern American films.