Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden
Through cultural impact or incredible hype through the years, it becomes impossible for some films to live up to the reputation they have built. For these films, the only way it could possibly match would be for the product to be completely flawless. By every possible metric, The Godfather lives up to and even surpasses its long-lasting legacy and to this day remains one of the greatest films ever made.
Using influence in the gambling world and many public officials in their pocket, the Corleone family led by Vito (Marlon Brando) operate a sophisticated crime syndicate in New York. When the introduction of the possibility of getting involved in the drug business appears, it puts many of the family members in danger and forces the once-innocent youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) to step into more prominence in the family business.
From the opening music to the final name of the end credits, The Godfather displays filmmaking excellence of the highest order. Something I heard of as one of the best films ever and my goodness it certainly deserves the plaudits it has received. It does this not only by telling a harrowing tale of a family ripped apart by a new tide in the world of crime syndicates but also features one of, if not the best character arc in all of cinema in Michael. Beginning the story as a college-graduate army vet who purposefully never got involved in the family business, he merely knew of what occurred. He even gets referenced as a civilian by the gangsters serving as quite the reversal with Michael being an army vet and how everyone else would be considered a civilian in his eyes. Young Michael may have experience in the uniform but this world his father has ruled for decades stand has its own battlefield.
The continual progression of Michael throughout this story works so well because of the camera. Purposefully farther away when he remains uninvolved with this operation and slowly zooming in on him more as he realizes the skills for this line of work flowing through his blood. Moments of him fully changing from the innocent army vet to a straight-up murderer flows incredibly well, especially when the end arrives. Truly special filmmaking at hand, but several other facets of this feature also dazzle.
As a work of fiction, it creates a New York with dangers at every corner but also a world filled with levels of respect. While we focus on the Corleone family, they are one of five who seemingly run organized crime in the city. The rules established between them get clearly established and only add further intrigue with how they collaborate and then antagonize each other throughout the feature. They can trust each other as far as they can throw each other and the constant betrayals between them demonstrate these characters can never truly feel safe unless surrounded by bodyguards.
With Michael receiving his own arc throughout the feature, the major underpinning of these crime families comes with the introduction of peddling drugs in their communities. Vito’s refusal to partake in the business sets off all of the violence in the film, which opens up an interesting facet of how these individuals view themselves within their communities and their faith. The film opens with the sacrament of marriage, with Vito and the Corleone family celebrating the marriage of the only daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). The final major scene occurs cutting between a baptism thus showing the importance of the Catholic faith to this family. They take the duties of marriage and the responsibility of being a godparent very seriously but these deeply religious events come tied with violence. From the requests of Vito’s visitors to enact violence on others at the wedding and the horrific violence on display as Michael becomes a godfather himself. It begs the question of how these men can view themselves as followers of Christ when they enact so much pain in the lives of others. This blatant hypocrisy from their beliefs and actions runs in line with the introduction of drugs into this world.
Vito notably sees his family’s involvement in gambling and women as proper utilization of vices but when drugs get incorporated, he begins to draw a line, which ruffles feathers. This demonstrates a particular divide between an old school mentality of “noble” illicit activities as opposed to this dirtier act Vito wants to stay away from completely. A future being forced upon him but the world he has dominated for so long refuses to wait for his approval and the motions set in place not only pushes the narrative forward but jumpstarts Michael’s arc as an innocent bystander to a Don lacking any sense of mercy from those who oppose him.
This review could genuinely break down each of these characters and the greatness they bring to the story but then it would be as long as a novel for how much I could write about them. I want to bring specific attention to Tom Hagen portrayed by Robert Duvall. Serving as an adopted son of the Corleone family and a consigliere for Vito, he stands out as one of the more intriguing and personal favorites of mine. He represents one of those people always looking out for his family but he also adds plenty of texture to the familial dynamics. Not being a biological son of Vito or being of Sicilian descent, his presence in the family demonstrates where lines get drawn and why bloodlines remain important to the Coreleones. Duvall’s performance provides a level of loving reassurance on top of the bite needed to give advice to men with plenty of power and not the clearest of minds at times. Sitting in the corner and whispering important things we cannot always hear, he fascinates me to no end.
The rest of the cast just genuinely knocks it out of the park with their portrayals and each of their characters feels beautifully fleshed out. From James Caan as Sonny, Diane Keaton as Kay Adams, Talia Shire as Connie, John Cazale as Fredo, Al Pacino as Michael, and of course, Marlon Brando. Legendary for a reason, every line of dialogue comes out with strain for a man who has closed the eyes of many others and wants to maintain some semblance of honor amongst this family. Brando just transcends in this role and rightfully allows this character to stand out as one of the most famous ones to ever grace the silver screen. Sitting back and watching him portray this character felt like a treat and an honor simultaneously.
When films reach the 3-hour mark they need to ensure to fill out the time with enough substance to justify its runtime and The Godfather may just be the quickest nearly 180-minute film ever made. From its pacing to the epic-sized story it masterfully parses through and elaborates, it never ceases to be engaging. Not even for a second. Every single frame either pushes the narrative forward or further expands the world we’ve entered in such fascinating ways. This certainly cannot be said for every 3-hour film but it demonstrates the importance of each scene within this narrative and how it ultimately culminates in this being about Michael’s journey by the time we reach the end.
No one had a better run in the 1970s than Francis Ford Coppola and it all began with his greatest achievement in this feature. He followed this up with the sequel some say is better, The Godfather Part II, along with The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Like who can do it any better than this man? In this feature, he creates one of his many masterpieces and, in my opinion, the greatest of them all. The way he takes Mario Puzo’s source material and fleshes it out in such an endlessly entertaining, thought-provoking, and intriguing manner just continually stuns me to no end. An incredible directorial effort and the way he brings together the incredible acting talent in this feature just speaks wonders and leaves me in awe.
The Godfather encapsulates cinema at its very finest. Every single detail layering this crime epic demonstrates why it instantly became a hit with both critics and audience members. It deserves every single bit of praise it has received and certainly stands as one of the best pieces of fiction put up on the big screen. I genuinely felt like standing up in my living room and applauding when the end credits rolled because of the impact it has on each and every viewing experience. Absolutely vital and required viewing for any cinephile or individual who wants top-tier entertainment.