29a. The Godfather (1972)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, Alex Rocco, John Cazale

I finally understand what made Roger Ebert so particularly enthusiastic about “Citizen Kane.” He loved and admired Orson Welles’ 1941 magnum opus so much as to lecture an entire film studies college course devoted to the subject. As passionately as Ebert felt about that movie, I feel the same way about Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Don’t let the fact that I rank it in the bottom 20’s in my personal top 50 fool you. Excising all other factors and speaking strictly on the subject of the movie as a work of art, “The Godfather” is my “Citizen Kane,” the one movie I feel sets the bar against which all other movies before and since should be measured. It is a triumph of filmmaking in every conceivable manner. What’s more: “The Godfather” is the greatest Shakespearean tragedy that William Shakespeare didn’t write.

What makes “The Godfather” so visually compelling is both the time period in which the action is set, and the color scheme used to emphasize it. When we are first introduced to the Corleone family at the wedding of the youngest of Vito (Marlon Brando)’s four children, Connie (Talia Shire), it is 1945. World War II has only just come to a close. Everything you see is an accurate representation of the period, including the beautiful and exquisitely humongous automobiles. Singing at Connie’s wedding is Vito’s godson, Johnny Fontaine, who is an obvious homage to Frank Sinatra, right down to the pack of swooning young women who flock around him and shriek at the sound of every soothing note he sings. The subtle but otherwise detectable sepia tones in which the film is shot makes for an experience akin to that of staring at an old photograph. We are meant to see this as events which took place long ago, yet seem somehow familiar.

The story takes place in several different locations. My favorite of these is in the middle of the film when Michael (Al Pacino) is forced leave the country for Sicily. Here, the clothing, while still completely dignified, is somewhat more down-to-earth, and I really love that contrast to all the business suits and tuxedos of New York. Every single shot of the villages and open fields looks like an expertly painted canvas. It makes me want to travel there, knowing full well that the Sicily I find would look nothing like it does as represented here.

“The Godfather” also contains my favorite scene from any movie I have ever viewed. It is the incident which leads to Michael’s exile to Sicily. Let me set this up. Michael is a WWII veteran, one who has done everything he can to deliberately stay out of the family business. But he’s been emotionally compromised by an attempt on his father’s life, further attempts to finish the job, and a crooked cop (Sterling Hayden) who broke Michael’s jaw. Suddenly, Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the man who set up the assassination attempt on Vito, wants to call a truce. He and Michael meet at a small, quiet Italian restaurant with the cop serving as Sollozzo’s bodyguard. Michael has come to the meeting with the intention of killing both men, which has simultaneously amused his family and given them cause for concern in regards to Michael’s safety. He assures his older brother Sonny (James Caan) that “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” But whom is he really trying to convince of this? His brother, or himself?

Now to the scene in question. Michael has gone to the restroom to retrieve a gun which has been planted there for him. When Michael returns, Sollozzo speaks to him in Italian, continuing the conversation they’d been having before Michael left the table. The fact that there are no subtitles during the entire discussion is key: What they are saying is irrelevant next to what we know Michael is planning, what he is thinking, and the expressions on his face as he is waiting for the right moment. Echoing Michael’s racing heartbeat is a train passing by outside the restaurant, growing louder by the second. As the noise from the train reaches its most deafening levels, Michael stands up out of his seat and shoots both men dead.

This is a big game-changer as far as character development is concerned for Michael. Up until now, the only men he has ever killed in his life were on the field of battle, the sort of killings that earn a man the right to have medals pinned on his chest. There can be no medals awarded for this deed. Michael has cemented his place in the family business, against all his efforts to stay out, a fact that distresses even his father who had much bigger plans for his youngest of three sons. Soon, when he’s able to return to the United States, Michael will inherit his father’s title of Godfather, and give orders for those under him to commit unspeakable acts, orders which even the ruthless Vito was incapable. I find it fitting, after all of the murders, back-stabbings and revenge killings, that the saddest death in the whole movie has nothing to do with the expiration of a physical human body. It moves me to tears just thinking about Michael’s transformation, one more clue as to why Al Pacino is my favorite screen actor of all-time and Michael Corleone my favorite character out of all the movies I’ve seen in my life.

The scope of the influence that “The Godfather” has had on the film and television industry over the last 40+ years can never be overstated. From just about any crime drama presented theatrically since 1972 to television series like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad” and even “Weeds,” the signature of “The Godfather” is clearly visible. The score by Nino Rota is legendary. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you almost certainly know at least one of the many memorable tracks by heart. The same is true for the dialogue, and the countless catchphrases that have become ingrained in popular culture.

It seems unthinkable now, but the version of “The Godfather” which stands is quite contrary to the version that Paramount Pictures initially wanted. Coppola was their third choice to direct after Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich both said “no” on the grounds that they already had other projects lined up. Virtually none of the main cast members gelled with Paramount’s vision, particularly Brando and Pacino. Brando was thought to be a risk due to production delays on his recent films, of which he was the cause. Paramount wanted Ernest Borgnine for Vito Corleone. I appreciate Borgnine, but I can’t imagine what they were thinking. Pacino, being an unknown who was considered “too short” for the role of Michael, was not Paramount’s first choice by a longshot. The studio would have had Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal in place of Pacino. Both are fine actors, but the casting of either would have changed the complexion of “The Godfather” entirely. In fact, Coppola had to threaten to quit the movie to get Paramount to allow him to have Pacino. Sometimes, you have to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

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