You know how something embarrasing can eventually become a point of pride? That’s what my relationship has been to The Godfather. As someone who makes his living discussing movies, it’s almost unforgivable that I wouldn’t have seen a film that, along with Citizen Kane and Casablanca, is widely considered the top acheivement in American moviemaking. Yet, everyone has gaps in their filmography, and there was something weirdly comforting about having mine be such a major one. It was a way of saying “sure, I watch movies semi-obsessively. Sure, I’ll go out and enjoy a bit of Czech surrealism from time to time. But how snobby could I really be — I haven’t even managed to watch The Godfather yet?”
But, as a pre-New Years resolution, I told myself I would finally resolve that by watching parts I and II before the end of the decade (for now, I’m not really intending to seek out the third one). And, as of Christmas Eve, I’m halfway there.
The Godfather is a movie you enter with heavy baggage. It has become so firmly embedded in the cultural bedrock that it’s virtually impossible to view it with entirely virgin eyes — everyone from The Simpsons to The Rugrats (and other, less animated sources) have done their parodies and homages. I knew there would be a horse head. I knew there would be mandolin. I knew there would be commentary on capitalism and the American dream. To some extent, watching it was less like seeing a film than finding the connective tissue between scenes that already nebulously floated around in my imagination.
Does that lessen the film’s impact? I don’t know, maybe. Maybe if I didn’t already know that Jack Holtz would wake up next to a severed horse head, then the slow build in his bedroom, the painstaking pulling back of the sheets, the mounting horror as more and more blood is revealed, all undoubtedly would have been more shocking. But I don’t know that they would have been anymore effective. Coppola’s craft is so evident throughout that fresh eyes aren’t exactly a necessity.
After all, even if I didn’t know to approach the film as a metaphor for American capitalism, the director establishes his theme almost immediately. The opening monologue essentially announces the death of the American dream, establishing the innefectuality of the American justice system, and the need for Sicilian, mafia-style protection. It also establishes a view of the mafia that still persists in Hollywood (and beyond) to this day; these are men with a code. They may be cold-blooded killers, but the punishments they mete must be in proportion to the crime. It’s a hugely appealing image to tough-guys and wannabe-tough-guys everywhere, not least because lip-service to justice, honour and respect seems to establish the mafia system as more legitimate than the existing American system. Its morals may not exactly align with hours, but those morals are inflexible. Cops protect people because they’re paid to. Vito Corleonne protects people for the same reason he kills others — because his beliefs, his morality and the society he comes from demand it.
Brando’s performance as Vito has been parodied so many times that it’s difficult not to think of Dom Delouise in Robin Hood: Men in Tights whenever he’s onscreen. But for all its slightly ridiculous touches (the cotton-ball jowels being the most commented upon), it’s still a remarkable turn. The amount of emotion he’s able to convey with just a subtle turn of the head, when Michael protects him at the hospital or when he learns of Sonny’s shooting, is astounding. At his boldest, he exudes authority in the quiet, almost subliminal way of a man who has demanded it for so long that he can’t remember any other way. At his weakest, he betrays his frailty without old-man camp — with the possible exception of his last scene stumbling through the tomato vines.
In fact, Coppola seems to be at his best in the scenes where not much is happening. When the heads of the Corleonne family are discussing their plans, or when Michael is waiting for an inevitable attack at the hospital, Coppola plays his hand perfectly. He rarely moves his camera, instead cutting from one perfectly chosen vantage to the next, letting the tension rise with every change of angle. If he does need to pan, it’s always with restraint, and always the minimum movement to capture the action — there are no swooping setpieces, just classically composed shots.
The only time things get away from him is when emotions are at their highest. A scene where Vito’s daughter Connie is having a fight with her husband, flailing around the room and smashing every object in sight, comes across as shrill and largely unbelievable (partly because Talia Shire, who is also Coppola’s wife, is one of the weakest links in an otherwise phenominal cast). Funny, then, that according to the commentary, that scene was added because the studio demanded more action — it’s a scene that Scorcese’s somewhat more cartoonish sensibility would have handled well, but Coppola’s formalism doesn’t do it justice.
Back to the cast, though, and Pacino in particular. Having mostly seen his post-Scarface roles, I wasn’t really prepared for how meek he is in the first half of the film. Although he’s “practically a war hero,” he’s the opposite of a guns-blazing American G.I. The rumour is that the studios didn’t want Pacino because he was too small in stature, but that works greatly to his advantage; his growth from the one “legitimate” member of the family into the new Don is powerful precisely because it’s such a complete transformation. He almost seems to be physically expanding as he takes his first steps into a world of crime. By the time he proposes to a Sicilian while hiding in Italy, he has fully accepted his family’s legacy.
The Italian sequence at first felt like too much of a tangent, but in retrospect, it’s absolutely necessary, a re-iteration of the movie’s opening monologue where a dedicated, patriotic American comes to learn the values of the old ways. Michael’s “growth” and hugely emotional loss in the old country seems to reignite his Italian DNA, and the speed with which he gains his father’s ruthless instincts is more than impressive.
There’s so much that can be said about this movie that has already been said by others — the symbolism in scenes where a killing takes place in a field with the Statue of Liberty prominently in the background, the way Michael’s wedding dance echoes Vito’s first dance at his daughter’s wedding, that infamous (and brilliant) last shot with Michael framed in the door — but mostly, I’m now more eager than ever to see part two. Despite the fact that he’s essentially a ruthless sociopath, I like Michael. I don’t want to see his fall, But I do want to see how the story evolves into an even greater tragedy. Watching a moral man’s inexorable transformation into a crime boss is somewhat tragic, true, but it’s a tragedy that still allows for glamour and mystique. His moral failing is balanced by the undeniable cool of being the king of New York. Now I need to see how it all comes undone.