More than enough has been said about this film, and I doubt that any of it has been in dispraise. To watch it again many years after I first saw it is to be reminded not only how good a film The Godfather is, but how surprisingly recollected many of the scenes prove to be when compared to other films not seen in that period of time. Coppola made this film the way a jeweler sets stones in the proper setting. His wonderful cast is placed in relation to backgrounds and in terms of one another in ways that never cease to be visually and emotionally gripping. Along with the mis en scene, there is the sound engineering which was always an obsession with Coppola and served as the central topos of his other distinctive film, The Conversation. Half-heard conversations, ambient noise, judicious music, and a variety of on and off stage sounds give a texture to this film that glistens from surface to shimmering depths.
Of course, Marlon Brando does a tour de force performance here as the main character. In the 70′s, I remember feeling that he was a bit hammy, but his take on The Godfather has stayed in the memory and grown with time. Now Brando’s approach seems less caricatural, and in a way unexpected, almost restrained. He would, of course, become a great ham in his toss off films late in his career. Knowing sadly that he would not make many films that reflect his pleasure in doing them, makes this performance the more impressive and appreciated. For me today, the centerpiece is Al Pacino as Michael. He is a wonder of gradualism, all caution and inexperience, the embodiment of Michael’s character at the film’s beginning. Later Pacino gains a bit of weight, a few lines in his face, and a growing assurance in his gaze that makes him, by the end of the film, frightening to behold.
The Godfather is about family, the passing of the baton from father to son, and the unplanned succession that has the child, meant for finer things like college, law or medicine, unexpectedly assume the mantle of his Mafioso father. The Godfather is also about aspirations, particularly the immigrant Italian’s dream of respectability in the new country, a reach for position and integrity where one can make it big without dirtying one’s hands in menial labor, not to speak of drugs, women, gambling and guns. With all of that, you cannot overlook the Sicilian dirt beneath the fingernails.
Watching The Godfather this time around, my third approach after many years absence, I am struck by the fraternal ensemble and how well Coppola exacts a feeling, similar in The Conversation as well, where men automatically subsume their stronger feelings to the requirements of guild and business. One thinks of countless interviews with sports managers as they evaluate their troops and those with whom they battle, how cadgey and diplomatic they stay during pre-game interviews in order to maintain the surface calm that disguises and misrepresents the energies beneath. If Sonny, James Caan, is the one character who defies the convention of good manners, he pays for it in one of The Godfather’s many stunning scenes which leap back to mind about fifteen seconds before they arrive on the screen. Very few films, in my experience bury that many time capsules in the preconscious. I would wager that this effect is due not so much to the rhythmic appearance of violence, but to the art with which these picturesque scenes, recognizable miniatures, are embedded in the film entire.
Many films from Grand Hotel, Anniversary Party or The Big Chill make use of star ensembles. They tend to be like All-Star baseball games, fun to watch with all those glitterati gathered to the same purpose, a Parker Posey or a John Barrymore swinging for the bleachers while standing atop the mélange of other recognizable faces. In this film, there is a sense of the studied ensemble of an entablature, men who are part of a mission, a family where overacting, or standing out is against house rules. To see Al Pacino, especially not chewing scenery, is one of this film’s greatest pleasures. How young, handsome and restrained an actor he could be under proper tutelage. Perhaps Pacino was in awe of Brando in a performance where he also manages to keep the tone of tight lipped, swollen mouthed omerta while having his chuckles throughout.
Brando’s death scene is another of The Godfather’s unforgettable moments, made much better by the artful camera work where Coppola uses the same layered approach to figure and ground we see in the extended wedding scene at the beginning. Actors move in and about one another like figures sliding back and forth in those miniature theatres where cardboard figures move in gullies front to back. The great screen actor Robert Duvall (Tom Hegan) provides a prototype for the actor who does more with less, fits into the ensemble perfectly as consigliere, as he will in several of his later, quite wonderful films where he also provides the scripts (The Apostle). Sterling Hayden, who is an entirely different kind of actor, will meet the same fate as Sonny, a man who is also too unbridled to live long in this world of contained violence.
About that wedding sequence, reprised to some degree by Lars von Trier in his visually stunning Melancholia, The Godfather begins with well over twenty minutes at the wedding of the Godfather’s niece. Here, Coppola sets out the family and its members like a master chef spreading the table. If Brando is the big kahuna, with an orange stuck in his swollen jowls, we meet almost all those who we will encounter later in symmetry at the Don Vito’s funeral. Dances, song, ceremonial handshakes or murmured signals, everything suggested but very little identified, all present a filmmaker who has his plans in mind, and his actors poised to follow.
There is a quality to great films that bespeaks of someone’s world view, entire and enveloping. Like perfectly staged grand opera where orchestra, singers, stage direction and music are all in harmony and balance, the great film, and The Godfather is one of these, feels like a perfectly tuned piece of machinery, a Porsche or a Ferrari that will not misfire. Oh there is perhaps a thirty second scene somewhere, I actually forget which one, that seems to go nowhere, a kind of lull that might have been best left out, I think it has to do with Diane Keaton’s return to the family manse, but that may be part of the larger, minor reservation I have about her character’s role, and the difficulty I have forgetting that Keaton is essentially a light comic actress. She is also, it can be noted, the Waspy good girl who meets the Italian aspirants goal of social acceptance in America, but Keaton’s suffers the famous actor’s familiarity from previous type casting, and it is to her credit that she does a very decent job here as part of the ensemble and refrains from acting ditzy.
Michael married the right girl in Sicily, one of the film’s eccentric byways that works perfectly; that girl, a younger Claudia Cardinale in appearance, is naïve and knowing, the kind of Italian girl that Italian men prize since they can be smart while never forgetting to keep their place. Sonny’s wife and Michael’s sister is, on the other hand like Sonny and does not keep her place and she too is punished for this, part of this film’s tight thematic coherence. The Godfather is about not stepping out of line. Men who play big are likely to get small, fast. The sleek Richard Conte with is bespoke suits and jaunty fedora will meet a similar fate for reaching too high. He is a wonderful actor to watch, does almost nothing and stands in perfect contrast to the slouchy and increasingly disheveled Don Vito Corleone whose suits come from some other tailor. The art direction including fleets of old cars sufficient to enthrall any car buff is beautifully conceived throughout.
In sum, and in preparation for reviewing Godfather II, I remain struck by the beauty and perfection of this cinematic achievement, and how anchored it is by the emergence of Al Pacino as an actor, but more particularly as an evolving human being in a family story where Michael’s surprising arrival and evolution makes The Godfather feels alive with the inhale and exhale of human existence. Of course, The Godfather must be followed by a successor. Francis Ford Coppola, at least this time around touched by magic, knew exactly what he was doing, and was not going to stop at one.