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In Sicily, Women are More Dangerous than Shotguns - The Godfather (1972) Review
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
“The Godfather” is a true masterpiece. It is teeming with great performances, memorable scenes, and a great soundtrack. The plot chronicles the lives of the Corleones, a powerful New York mob family headed by Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), an aging patriarch whose daughter Connie (Talia Shire) gets married at the beginning of the film. The main character, however, is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), Vito’s youngest son, who has just returned from fighting in World War II. Michael tells his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) about his family’s criminal activities, but says “It’s my family Kay, it’s not me.” Several life-changing events will change his mind.
The film opens with a great wedding scene that is an ideal vehicle to introduce the movie’s characters and themes. It opens with a close up of a man’s face as he tells Vito about how two men brutally beat and disfigured his daughter. The camera gradually pans back to reveal the room the men are standing in. Vito sits quietly in a chair in front a desk, stroking a cat that is sitting in his lap. He denies the man’s request to kill the men responsible, but tacitly agrees to have some of his men deliver a severe beating. Vito then tells his lawyer and adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to give the order to Clemenza (Richard Castellano), a “caporegime” or mid-level boss. Clemenza will then presumably give the order to low-level “soldiers” who will carry it out. This illustrates how insulated Vito is from the actions his organization carries out. There are three layers of communication between him and the people who actually do the job. It’s a great illustration of how the family works.
The wedding also introduces us to Vito’s oldest son and heir apparent Sonny (James Caan). Caan is outstanding as a man whose devotion to his family is eclipsed only by his raging temper. Although he is intelligent and tough, Caan’s extremely violent temper proves to be his undoing. Before his famous murder sequence, however, Sonny gets to beat the absolute crap of Connie’s abusive husband Carlo (Gianni Russo). It’s fun to watch Sonny completely destroy Carlo – even beating him over the head with a trashcan lid at one point.
Marlon Brando delivers one of his greatest performances as a man completely comfortable with power. He has an even-keeled personality, rarely yelling or screaming even when something goes wrong. He has been entrenched at the top of his organization for decades. Vito doesn’t have to demand respect from the people under him, he already has it – and he knows it. Brando’s performance is best known for his distinctive voice, as well as the makeup that makes him look much older than he actually was at the time. He is the film’s wisest character, making several predictions that come true over the course of the film. His death scene is yet another famous, iconic moment. He is one of the few characters who gets to die peacefully (well, as peacefully as a heart attack can be). After Vito collapses, the camera lingers for a few moments, letting the implication of what has happened sink in. He may be a mob boss, but it’s hard to watch that scene and not feel that you have just witnessed the passing of a legend.
In a film filled with wonderful performances, the other major standout is Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. Most of the characters are the same people at the end of the film that they were in the beginning. However, Michael goes through a remarkable transformation. He starts off as a likeable, happy man content to spend time with his girlfriend and avoid mob dealings. His family, especially his father, have grown to accept his point of view. Then several emotional blows occur that change his personality. First, the attempted assassination and near death of his father, then the brutal murder of his older brother Sonny, and finally his first wife’s death by a car bomb that was intended for him. After all of this tragedy, Michael finds it easy to justify ruthlessly murdering his enemies. By the end of the film, Michael has taken things further than even his father would have, as he orders the deaths of the heads of all the other New York mob families. The order is systematically carried out in one of the film’s greatest sequences, occurring simultaneously with Michael attending a baptism. Future director Sophia Coppola appears as the baby in this scene. Michael’s transformation continues in “The Godfather Part II”. By the end of that film, he has become cold-blooded and cruel to everyone around him, even the people in his family.
The most significant turning point for Michael is when his father is shot and hospitalized. He shocks the rest of his family by proposing a plan to kill the men responsible - a gangster named Solozzo (Al Lettieri) and a corrupt police captain named McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Michael eats with them at a restaurant. He then excuses himself to go to the bathroom, retrieves the gun that has been planted there, and shoots both men before fleeing the restaurant. Michael is then sent to Sicily to hide until the resulting mob war has faded. He meets a stunning Italian girl and decides to marry her. We see flashes of the old Michael again, but his happiness is short-lived when he hears about Sonny's death. Michael's character development is more fully realized and intelligently handled than any character I have ever seen.
Several other actors deserve mention as well. Robert Duvall is completely convincing as the family’s lawyer and foster son. He doesn’t have the stomach for bloodshed, but enjoys dealing with the intellectual and legal side of the family business. Richard Castellano excels as Clemenza, the loyal mid-level boss. Diane Keaton is solid as Kay, who sees her idealistic dreams for the future dissolve. Finally, no review would be complete without mention the late John Cazale as Fredo. Cazale is one of the most underrated actors of the 1970’s. He had more to work with in “The Godfather Part II” (a brilliant performance that should have received an Oscar), but is good here as well, as the middle brother of the Corleone family. He is passed over and shunned because he is dim-witted and has a weaker personality than his brothers. His bitter feelings about this are not explored in detail until the second film.
Francis Ford Coppola does a wonderful job directing. The baptism/murder sequence is brilliantly edited. Several different events occur simultaneously but it never becomes confusing. The whole film is beautifully shot. The operatic tone fits with the film’s many tragic themes. Coppola refuses to make the characters into typical mob caricatures. He humanizes them without necessarily justifying their actions. Coppola had a very difficult time making the film and was nearly fired, but his hard work and frustration paid off in the end.
The musical score by Nino Rota fits the film perfectly and has become famous in its own right. It has the same dramatic, operatic qualify. As great as its other elements are, “The Godfather” would not be the same movie without its score.
“The Godfather” is one of the few films that deserve to be called a masterpiece. It is as famous today as it was forty years ago. Few movies have its level of enduring popularity. Its influence on popular culture has been enormous. It will always be remembered as one of the twentieth century's finest films.