Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola || Produced by: Albert S. Ruddy
Screenplay by: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola || Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Music by: Nino Rota, Carmine Coppola || Cinematography by: Gordon Willis || Editing by: William H. Reynolds, Peter Zinner || Country: United States || Language: English, Sicilian
Running Time: 175 minutes
There are films, and then there are motion picture experiences. These experiences can change you, alter the way you think, and have the ability to leave a mark on your memory long after you’ve left the theatre or turned off your television set. The Godfather is one of those life-changing motion pictures. Directed by film legend Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather trilogy [1972, 1974, 1990], Apocalypse Now ), this movie is impossible to summarize in a way that does justice to the benchmarks it set for American cinema and cinema worldwide. Produced at a time when the Hollywood studio system was flailing due to the rise of broadcast television and changing audiences tastes, The Godfather became emblematic of the movie-brat generation that birthed it, a dark horse mascot of the American New Wave. Its influence on the film industry and the impact it has had on popular culture is massive. It has some of the most quotable lines in all of cinema and some of the most memorable scenes ever shot. Truly, there is, and never will be, anything quite like it.
As funny and exciting as it is dark and brooding, The Godfather is as close to flawless as any film gets. The core of its strength lies in the writing, and in the character analysis of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and the tragic arc of his son, Michael (Al Pacino). Brando, in unquestionably his most famous role among a lifetime of legendary performances (A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Last Tango in Paris (1972), On the Waterfront (1954), Apocalypse Now), is a towering figure in this film. His character is extremely versatile, capable of being ruthless, intimidating, and powerful, while also showing vulnerability and compassion. He is unquestionably the face of this movie, and has its most famous lines.
As for Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone, he is the protagonist that guides the audience through this story, and it is his arc the viewers experience. And what an arc it is: There are few character transformations more emotional and effective than Pacino’s in this movie. It is a tragic story, a moral downfall if you will, and Pacino plays it with such precision. His change from a likable, innocent everyman into a ruthless tyrant eerily similar to his old man is one of the most haunting performances in cinema.
Beyond the cast and screenplay (courtesy of Coppola and Mario Puzo, author of the book on which the film is based), the direction is perhaps the film’s most memorable quality. Coppola understands how to frame scenes that maximize tension and suspense. Low-key lighting plays a prominent role in most of his New York-hitjobs and confrontations, while sun-soaked outdoor Sicilian photography provide a unique contrast to their own scenes of horrific violence. Most sequences have subtle visual storylines in and of themselves, and the mood they establish, of dark family allegiance and the moral consequences of serving in the mobster underworld, permeate. Coppola does an admirable job sustaining this foreboding yet intimate tone from beginning to end.
Another thing he and Puzo do well is pace violence with character development. They are intricately intertwined so that brutal, captivating violence is all the more meaningful and the characters’ evolution more engrossing. Instead of character development and arcs being at odds with the action, here in The Godfather, they work in tandem, as they should. Violent character growth is arguably the crime drama’s defining feature, and perhaps no greater case study of that iconic trait exists beyond this film.
Like all great cinema, The Godfather is far deeper than its premise or IMDb description suggests. Aside from its major strengths — the impeccable script, Coppola’s patient direction, and the arc of Pacino’s Michael Corleone — The Godfather shattered the then-popular stereotype of the urban gangster, becoming the trendsetter for most crime sagas that would follow. Its portrayal of complex, deep, and strikingly sympathetic gangsters, most notably by Brando, remains shocking in many ways. While the leaders of organized crime are hardly glorified by any means, the fact that these dark characters feel like real people with real emotions and vulnerabilities bordered on revolutionary for the time of the film’s release. Films like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and TV shows like HBO’s The Soprano’s (1999-2007) would probably never have existed if not for Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel. Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983, also starring Pacino) is one of the few major gangster films that departed from the Corleone-aesthetic, although that movie also showcased an emotionally complex crime lord in its own right.
The Godfather is also a highly patriarchal film that, in many respects, mirrors the complete opposite theme of a feminist picture, such as James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). All of the major characters are male with one important exception, and the women both in the Corleone household and outside are kept in the dark with regards to the “family business.” It is a subtly sexist film, though I would argue that Coppola did this intentionally to make the New Wave-independent spark from Diane Keaton’s character more distinct — and possibly as a criticism of mafia bravado and machismo in general.
The Godfather is a perfect example of character enrichment within violent set-pieces, a hallmark of gangster classics. And yet, this gangster classic is, well, far more than just another famous gangster movie. It was and still is a trendsetter for American cinema, and will forever be a benchmark for all the characteristics that make up a great film. It is for these reasons that I consider The Godfather the greatest movie ever made. If there was an intergalactic film competition that showcased the best motion pictures from every planet in the universe, The Godfather is the film I would choose to represent the cinema of humanity. It’s that good.
So, sit down and spend some time with the Corleone family this weekend. It will be a weekend you won’t forget. If you only see one movie in your life, this one should be it. There are films, and then there are motion picture experiences. Experience The Godfather, the movie that saved Hollywood. Let the Don make you an offer you can’t refuse.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Godfather features towering performances from all-time acting greats Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, though the true stars of the film are Coppola’s visual poetry and Mario Puzo’s excellent adaptation of his own novel. Nino Rota’s score is haunting and melodic, while the film’s dialogue remains some of the most quotable lines in global pop culture.
—> The Godfather, of course, receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.