An undertaker arrives at the wedding party for Don Corleone’s daughter, Connie. Because he is the Godfather, the Don agrees to hear a request from the undertaker, an Italian-American with a heavy Italian accent. Because it is his daughter’s wedding day, the Don cannot turn down any request that is made. He will be fielding a number of requests this day, all of them for special favors that only a Mafia chieftain — Don Corleone — can provide.
The undertaker has a serious request. He wants the Corleone family to deliver justice that was denied by the courts. His own lovely daughter was brutalized by two young punks, who received a suspended sentence as “punishment” for their crime. Incensed and humiliated, the outraged undertaker demands the Don murder them. “That I cannot do,” the Don reasonably replies. “Your daughter is still alive.”
This is a crucial sentence, spoken early in the first Godfather film, and it explains a lot. It suggests that, at the heart of it all, Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) has a line, and he will not cross it. He is, in the end, a moral man. Yes, he has killers at his disposal; no, he is not afraid to issue fatal commands. But he is not willing to just jump in and kill willy-nilly, for any old reason. “That is not justice,” he informs the undertaker, as he calmly strokes a very playful cat.
This explanation is crucial because Don Vito is a much different man — and a better don — than his youngest son, Michael, would go on to become. Don Vito is old-school Mafia, direct from Sicily; he never knew any other kind of life. He was, perhaps, destined, to lead a Mafia family, to hold matters of life and death in his hand. There is a purity to the old Don that Michael never achieved. Don Vito led the kinder, gentler version of the mob. He would do favors based on relationships. As he explains to the undertaker, it’s important for him to feel respected by those who would take advantage of him. “You never wanted my friendship, I can’t remember the last time you invited me over for a cup of coffee,” Don Vito replies. Sure, he makes decisions on a transactional basis, but hey, if you’re going to commit murder for someone, it’s nice to at least feel appreciated.
The entire Godfather series is predicated on the tragic differences between Don Vito’s reign and son Michael’s. The films are massive, epic, sweeping examinations of both a family and the socio-economic conditions in which the Mafia was allowed to flourish in the first half of the 20th century. It traces bloodlines — and vendettas — all the way back to their origins in Europe, and we understand how certain characteristics and business ventures are handed down across generations. There is nothing else like the Godfather or its sequels, and all three constitute one film for me, hands down my favorite.
I came to The Godfather fairly late in life, at age 27, 10 years before the death of my father. The Godfather and its first sequel were dad’s favorite films, but I never watched either of them with him, something I now consider a sad oversight. I decided to simply sit down and watch them one day, having rented the VHS tapes, and what I saw mesmerized me. I had never seen anything quite like them. I was moved by the first Godfather and devastated by the second one. I had some reservations about the third film, which had received some bad reviews, but it, too, earns distinction as one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen. Sit down and watch it today and you will realize just how much it dwarfs pretty much anything on the big screen today.
So, The Godfather. I watched it again on Blu Ray recently, and was reminded of how much I loved it all those years ago. It’s everything I thing is great in a film, in that it shows me how a certain kind of people live their lives, how they conduct business, how they look at the world. Yes, this is the Mafia, but no other movie goes into the Mafia in as much realistic (or romantic) detail as this one. The characters are all disgusting criminals eating away at the heart of the American Dream … and yet we come to love, understand and empathize with each and every one of them. That’s the genius of the movie. We care so much about these repellant thugs.
The movie teaches us what it’s like to be in the Mob. It shows us the feasts, the secret conversations, the bitter disagreements, the confusion, the fear, the double-dealing, at the heart of each piece of Mafia business. It shows us the economic as well as the emotional concerns that drive the Don. Yes, there is violence, lots of it, but that’s the price of doing business with the Mob. And, most of the victims are other mobsters. The Corleones operate in a sealed environment. For the typical American to even get a glimpse of a mobster would be like getting struck by lightning.
We are drawn into this conspiratorial world — the darkest and most detailed ever put on screen — and identify closely with the characters. They are perfectly cast — Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Al Letieri, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Richard Castellano, and, of course, Al Pacino — have never been better. They embody their characters. They are also perfectly written. The dialogue is perfect, much of it unforgettable, almost all of it quotable. You don’t watch The Godfather for the cinematography, the music, the direction, or the action — although all those things are top-notch. No, you watch it for the characters, to learn from them, to suffer with them, and to feel triumph with them, even as they commit heinous acts.
The acting — Jesus Christ, there’s no better acting in any other film or set of films. Brando is impeccable as the Don. He creates a character so believable that we forget we are watching a performance! Yet there is nothing “credible” about Don Corleone, he is all artifice, all pretense. Everything Brando does in the film is for noticeable effect. He stuffed his cheeks with cotton wads to fill out his face and slur his words. He pets a cat, sniffs a carnation, blows up, tells jokes, whispers, cries, waits patiently. He finds the thin line between ham and fine acting and stays on the correct side. The performance is legendary, one of the greatest of all time, and for good reason.
There is also Pacino, who sneaks up on us as Michael. He’s all coiled concentration and silent hatred. Michael is introduced as a war hero, but he’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He decries his father’s business, telling WASPy girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton!!!!) that “that’s my father, not me.” But it IS him. Michael is 100 percent bloody Mafia don, far bloodier than Don Vito ever thought about being. Michael lacks his father’s purity of heart. He went overseas and fought for America, learned how to kill in the Army. Killing is Michael’s way of dealing with problems. He could give a shit about having a cup of coffee with you. His policy is to slay all enemies — and therein marks the downfall of the Family.
Michael rises to power in The Godfather, seizing his opportunities in a handful of classic moments that suggest his quiet ascension to the throne. In Part II, Michael takes the Family down a bad road, murdering family members as well as allies as he tracks down conspirators. Part II is a classic — the greatest sequel EVER — but I will admit that the scenes with Michael, Fredo, et al, are the best in the film. Director Francis Ford Coppola also, in the same film, shows us the rise of young Don Vito, played here by Robert De Niro. The idea is to compare and contrast Don Vito’s world view (and way of doing business) with Michael’s. While this is an interesting and noble experiment, it’s a bit like interspersing the downfall of Anakin Skywalker with the heroic exploits of Luke Skywalker, both in the same Star Wars film. It makes things a little long and disjointed.
No matter — the salient moments in Part II vastly outweigh any structural deficiencies in the way Coppola cuts back and forth between the two storylines. (And De Niro is great in the role of Don Vito, definitely worth seeing.) The conclusion of the film, with Michael silently overseeing the assassination of a crucial Corleone family member, is sad, tragic, haunting. The final shot, of Michael sitting by himself, contemplating his sins, is just as effective as the final shot of the previous film, with him slamming the door on a hurt and betrayed Kay. Michael is an evil, miserable man, doomed to isolation, an insect in the shadow of a greater don.
Part III might seem unnecessary, coming 16 years after Michael’s silent contemplation of hellfire, and indeed, I could live without it. But Coppola felt compelled to make it, and having watched it again recently, I can report that it, too, is a great film, despite its many flaws. Pacino plays Michael as a gregarious old man hoping to absolve his sins by using his ill-gotten gains to purchase a powerful company within the Catholic Church. Coppola originally intended to call this film The Death of Michael Corleone, which is a little too on-the-button. It’s more about the slow demise of Michael’s integrity. He wants to go legitimate, to use his children as a front to convert the old “family business” into something respectable, but his Mafia past catches up with him, and the film ends on a strikingly horrific note. Michael gets his just-desserts, but long after the rest of his surviving family members have paid for his dark deeds with blood. It’s a sad, desolate fate, the exact opposite of the old Don’s peaceful expiration in a vegetable garden, playing with his grandson. The gulf between father and son seems unbridgeable.
I won’t go into Part III’s numerous flaws, except to say that, of the three films, it is definitely the least impressive. But I was carried away by the story, the acting, the thrill of being involved in dark conspiracies, and the detail that Coppola again brings to the screen. Here we get to see not only the inner-workings of Mafia-as-American-corporation, but the darker side of the Catholic Church, depicted here as a failing multinational business in need of a quick infusion of cash. The weakest part of the film is, unquestionably, the performance of Sofia Coppola as Mary, Michael’s daughter. She’s a deer in the headlights, an example of egregious miscasting. But the best part of the film, once again, is Al Pacino, who gets a lot of big emotional moments here and makes them all work. He should have won Oscars for all three films.
So, we have an epic trilogy that makes us sympathize with mobsters. There’s nothing else like it. Martin Scorsese came close with GoodFellas, but honestly, as good as that film is, it can’t begin to compare with the sweep and scope of The Godfather. Nothing else can.