WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: When influential mafia head Vito Corleone is gunned down in the street, it falls to the family, and especially clean-cut army hero Michael, to sort out business. Although Michael is exiled for his actions, he returns to settle scores and set the family business on a new footing, regardless of the qualms of his doubting followers, or the wife who wants – and was promised – a normal life.
It’s now difficult to imagine a cultural map, and especially a cinematic one, without the shady, sprawling influence of the mafia drawn large across it wherever vice rears its head. Coppola’s Godfather may not have been the first film to look into the lives of the families behind America’s crime syndicates, but it is probably the best. Certainly, Mario Puzo’s screenplay (from his own novel) is a perfect introduction to the complex relationships of the families.
The film begins in 1946 at the lavish wedding of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) to Carlo (Gianni Russo), a reason for hundreds of Italian-Americans to gather together in celebration of family life; but behind this celebration, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, one of the Godfathers of the title) is being petitioned to sort out squabbles amongst the community that have been inadequately dealt with by American justice. Also joining the party are Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino, singer of the UK’s first no.1 record, fact fans), a singer looking for leverage to get into Hollywood (unlike any real singers of the late 40s, of course); and youngest son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), just back from the war, accompanied by fresh-faced girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton).
The wedding sequence lasts twenty-five minutes and is a masterclass in exposition, establishing not only the vital importance attached to the idea of family within the mafia structure, but also the dominant position of Don Corleone within his own family and society at large (he has judges and senators in his pocket). We are introduced to the key family members: hot-headed Sonny (James Caan), his adopted friend, consiglieri Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) and the ineffectual Fredo (John Cazale), amongst other heavies allied to the Corleones. We also see Michael insisting to Kay that although he is family, he is not part of the family business, and it is the impossible tension of this position that drives the film so powerfully. What the wedding scene also does is present a bright and joyful picture of Corleone family life, providing a complete contrast to the scenes of extreme violence that follow, especially those that immediately follow as Tom Hagen uses gentle, then not-so-gentle, persuasion on director Jack Woltz (John Marley) to get Johnny in the movies.
From this position of strength and relative peace Don Corleone makes the decision, driven by an old-fashioned morality, that whilst gambling is a vice he can exploit, drugs are beyond the pale; so he refuses Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) the funding he requests, leading Sollozzo to turn to the Tattaglia family and thereby causing conflict between the ‘Five Families’ of New York. Things become serious when Vito Corleone is targeted, and although he survives the assassination attempt, the family’s response can only escalate the war, forcing everyone to take sides as the Corleone clan try to hold on to their power base. The war forces Michael into exile and costs Sonny his life, so that when Michael returns from Sicily his renewed pursuit of Kay must be accompanied by growing responsibilities within the family structure. Michael has a commendable goal of going legitimate in Las Vegas, but the question remains of how he is going to remove the obstacles to achieving it: the answer, for Kay at least, is far from palatable.
The plot of The Godfather is of course much deeper and much chunkier than described above, and so it should be for a film of almost 3 hours’ duration. Importantly, the film is beautifully paced and incredibly easy to follow, without ever feeling simplified; and whilst a few moments do slow down the storytelling, such as Michael’s short-lived marriage in Sicily, these add colour to the film and add to our appreciation of Michael’s character. Puzo’s script is full of slang that has passed into popular culture (‘sleeps with the fishes,’ ‘go to the mattresses’) and Nino Rota’s themes are evocative without being overpowering; there is also a wonderful sense of period, not least from the huge black cars that everyone drives. Coppola’s camera is interested but unfussy, filming much of the action from an impersonal distance; this appears to free up the actors, all of whom give immaculate performances. Brando’s delivery has been parodied past all sense but he inhabits the role of Don Corleone brilliantly, whilst his sons, real and adopted, are all completely believable. Essentially, though, the film belongs to Al Pacino: he is blisteringly good as Michael Corleone, his initial reluctance to join in ‘the business’ giving way to a ruthless streak when he inherits the title of Godfather. The murderous streak in Pacino’s glare is chilling, no more so than when he lies to Kay at the film’s end and the door closes on her husband’s new kingdom. It is worth saying that Keaton does a great job as the outsider trying to cope with the rules of mafia life, since she represents the experience of the majority of viewers too. It would have been easy to make her a weak, wailing wretch, a role which instead goes to Talia Shire as the badly-treated Connie.
With fully rounded, utterly believable characters, mesmerising performances and a story which is both gripping and watertight, it is little surprise that The Godfather appears at or near the top of many best film lists, and that its first sequel, if not the second, was able to expand the story so effectively. It’s not for those who don’t like violence, that’s for sure; but if you have an ounce of interest in history, the mafia, or simply human nature, Coppola’s film will keep you enthralled for every single minute of its running time.