Sunday, December 11, 2011

Film #68: The Godfather (1972)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 4 or 5 (last seen about 5 years ago)

*The critics who put together the TIME list counted The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather II, as a single show (no Part III, for reasons obvious to anyone who has ever seen the final installment). I am reviewing them separately, however. Come back in a few weeks to see my review to Part II.

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Mafia family undergoes serious changes following World War II. Mafiosos get whacked in between various family functions.

Extended Summary (A more complete plot synopsis, spoilers included)

Brooklyn, New York. Late 1945. The young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has returned from fighting in World War II. He attends his sister's wedding – a massive affair with hundreds of people in attendance. He explains to his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), that his family has deep criminal connections, as evidenced by the numbers of people lining up to ask his father, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for various political and criminal favors. Michael readily admits to all of this, but assures Kay that he never has and never will have anything to do with that part of his family's business.

The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone, listens to one of the many requests put to him.

Soon after the wedding, Don Vito Corleone meets with his eldest son, Santino “Sonny” (James Caan) and his adopted son and the family's legal counselor, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). They discuss a newcomer to the New York area, a narcotics trafficker named Sollazzo, or “The Turk”. The Turk seeks Vito Corleone's protection through his many political connections, so that he can operate his drug business free of police interference. While Sonny and Tom try to convince their father Vito that this would be a lucrative connection to make, Vito decides to refuse. His reasoning is that narcotics is far more dangerous and far less socially acceptable than their standard rackets of gambling, liquor and prostitution. He respectfully tells The Turk as much during their brief meeting.

A few days after his meeting with The Turk, Vito Corleone is gunned down while shopping at a grocery. Vito lives, but is seriously injured. The assassination was arranged by The Turk, who seeks Corleone out of his way so that he and one of the smaller, less powerful rival crime families can move in on his political contacts and usurp the Corleone family's power. Vito, in the hospital and stable but unconscious, has another attempt on his life averted by his son, Michael, who happens to be there for a visit.

With his two attempts to eliminate Vito Corleone having failed, The Turk attempts to coax a truce, using the civilian Michael as the negotiator. Before the meeting, Michael convinces his brothers and family lieutenants that there can be no truce with The Turk, as his father is the lone obstacle to the newcomers' goals. Instead of arranging a deal with The Turk, Michael conceives a plan to assassinate both The Turk and his bodyguard, local police captain McCluskey. Much to the surprise of his brothers, Michael succeeds in killing both targets. However, he must flee the country due to the political and legal pressures.

In hiding from extradition and the other New York mafia families who supported The Turk, Michael spends several months in Sicily, around his father's home town of Corleone. He keeps quiet, but does fall in love and marries a local beauty, Appolonia. Back in New York, Sonny has taken over the Corleone family business while his father gradually recovers his strength. Sonny, however, is not the most level-headed of crime family leaders. His fiery temper allows him to be goaded into racing to his sisters, without his normal guards, on the pretext of protecting her from her abusive husband, Carlo. Sonny is gunned to death at an isolated toll booth. In Sicily, a similar attempt is made on Michael. This assassination attempt, though, goes horribly wrong and kills Appolonia instead.

Sonny getting ambushed and annihilated on the causeway. This causes, and paves the way for, Michael's rise in the family business.

In New York, Vito Corleone has recovered a certain amount of strength. With Sonny dead and Michael a constant revenge target, he calls a meeting of family heads. He calls for a truce from all sides, swearing that, as long as Michael’s safety is assured, he will use his political contacts to assist any family who wishes to delve into the illegal narcotics business. From the interactions at the meeting, the savvy Vito also determines that it was his rival Don Barzini who had supported the Turk and set up the initial assassination attempt on his own life, as well as Sonny's and Michael's.

Michael returns to New York and reunites with Kay. They get married and, over the course of a few years, have children. Meanwhile, with the help of his aging father Vito, Michael slowly becomes the head of his family's business, legal and illicit alike. Michael is quickly thrust into the role of full-fledged family head when, unexpectedly, Vito dies of a sudden heart attack.

At his father's funeral, new Don Michael quietly and ruthlessly calculates how to retain and increase his family's power. Other bosses, beware.

Michael then moves with blinding quickness to consolidate and secure his family's interests. In Las Vegas, where his doltish elder brother FredoBarzini, and even Moe Green in Vegas, are executed.

As his final moves, Michael coolly calls for the deaths of two men very close to his family. One is his brother-in-law, Carlo, who had a hand in Sonny's death. The other is his deceased father's long-time lieutenant, Tessio (Abe Vigoda), who was going to attempt to assassinate Michael himself. When these murders are completed, the Corleone family's control in firmly in Michael's hands. Kay, who has been willfully ignorant of Michael's actions, finally asks her husband if he had a hand in all of these brutal slayings, including their brother-in-law, Carlo. Michael coldly lies to Kay, who buys the lie and sees Michael's ascension to “Don Michael”, the new Godfather and head of the Corleone family.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing)

An absolute titan of a movie, and one that I really never get tired of watching.

After you've seen The Godfather once, it's almost impossible to see it with fresh eyes. The movie has become so firmly ingrained in our popular culture that you would think it might become stale and tired. Yet it doesn't. This speaks volumes for how strong a film it is, and its strength comes from sources that go far beyond what a mere plot synopsis can convey.

The story of the Corleone family's crime involvement and its interpersonal dynamics are a great melding of Greek tragedy and the American Dream. This theme is as simple as it is attractive to many of us American viewers – riches and power can not save people from themselves. As powerful as the Corleone family is, the odd dysfunctions of any family remain. However, unlike most families', the falls are far greater and more spectacular when happening from such heights of ostentatious wealth. This runs through the Corleone family, but most obviously in Sonny, whose Herculean rage leads directly to his own brutal and bloody demise.

Looks like a nice family, right? Wrong. Just in this picture, you have: a hot-headed womanizer, a dangerously doltish stooge, a cold-blooded killer, and several willfully ignorant and complicit spouses. And I haven't even gotten to the adults in the photo.

Of course, The Godfather was far from the first gangster movie, or even the first mafia movie. It was, though, one of the first to bring this notion of family responsibility and honor to the fore. The first 30 or so minutes take place at a wedding – the most cordial and joyous of family events. While the guests are laughing, dancing and singing, however, sinister things are going on in the dark office of Vito Corleone. When not briefly outside with his guests, Don Vito makes deals with various supplicants, promising to use his power to give them what they want, provided that he can call on favors from them in the future. These quiet deals are what make the entire wealthy family machine run. Seeing the wedding take place right along side of it drives the point home.

The point of family cannot be overstated, and it is a great exercise to ponder its various meanings in the story of The Godfather. When watching this recent time, I began to realize just how, in the tale, we are seeing a more subtle transition within the Corleone family. Beyond the handing over of power from Vito to Michael, or the transition from New York to Las Vegas, is the ever-so-slight shift in the family/crime formula. Though we don't get Vito's back-story until the sequel film, we can understand that he is a man for whom family is paramount. The fact that his methods of supporting his family happen to be illegal is of minor consequence to him. We viewers don't have to agree with it, but we can understand and maybe even sympathize with him a little, for Vito does have a moral compass. His children, on the other hand, are a different breed. The hot-tempered Sonny, while a loving brother and son, is easily tempted by money and women. Michael seems to understand the value of family as a concept, but lacks the genuine emotion that was his father's most endearing trait. For Sonny and Michael, the family becomes a sham facade that supports their illegal and immoral activities. This inversion is fairly clear, but the elements that tip the scales are only matters of degree between generations of Corleones.

Michael gets advice from his father. Michael has the brains and wherewithal to do what needs to be done. However, he never does have or obtain the genuine love of people and family, which are his father's redeeming traits.

Of course, the higher-minded themes are only a part of a great movie. A compulsively watchable film needs great characters, as well, and The Godfather has them in spades. The Corleones themselves, Vito, Tom Hagen, Sonny, Fredo, Connie, Michael are fascinating enough, with odd dynamics throughout. But equally compelling are all of the minor characters. The Godfather has a solid two dozen memorable faces and characters, many of them with their own linguistic hooks and gestures that stay with you long after the film is over. A prime example is the bombastic and megalomaniacal film producer Jack Woltz. Woltz's self-satisfaction, pride, and epithet-riddled tirades are hilariously engaging.

Woltz also brings up another great element – the humor. The Godfather is loaded with drama and several brief, brutal, and graphic scenes of violence; these are fantastically tempered by the many moments of humor sprinkled throughout. Whether it's Woltz shifting from his condescension of Italians to the German-Irish Tom Hagen by calling him his “kraut-mick friend!”, or it's Appolonia's oblivious butchered English (“Mawnday, Toosday, Thursday, Wensday...”), or even the simple silliness of Vito Corleone scaring his grandson by sticking and orange peel in his mouth, there is a gamut of levity offered throughout. This is also another element that builds a sense of genuineness in all of the characters, and makes them far more than cardboard cutout cliched gangster characters.

The composition of the film is rightly regarded as the height of cinema. Francis Ford Coppola may have only outdone himself with The Godfather II, but only slightly if so. The classic look and feel of every environment and shot in The Godfather is iconic, which is why it has become such a standard for any film. I recall a former New York journalist who, in the 1990s, recounted the cultural effects of The Godfather. He said that it became the movie that every wannabe-wiseguy in the country watched, in order to learn how to “act like a genuine gangster.” It's not hard to see why – so many of the characters possess the ruthlessness, savvy, and style that any aimless young hood would aspire to.

This is exactly the icon that nearly every mafia hopeful and poser aspired to for decades after Coppola's movie. A good haircut, an expensive suit, and a leather chair from which to dispense life and death.

It is difficult to find faults with the movie, but a few things do show up to me. One is that there are a few jerky time jumps. In the second half of the film, around five or so years whisk by, with only a few nonchalant mentions by the characters. It is slightly dizzying. More than this though (and I may be in the minority on this) is that I have never been overwhelmed by Al Pacino in this movie. As great as he has been in other movies, I always find his turn as Michael Corleone as very flat. I understand that he is supposed to be the cold, calculating, and lethally capable heir to his father, and this part comes across just fine. The thing I have never bought is exactly what the naive and warm Kay sees in him. Perhaps this is something that is explored far more in the source novel by Mario Puzo, but it is never clear in the film.

These things aside, The Godfather is superb. Even a person who is not enamored of gangster movies should love watching such an epic tale of the inner working of a dynastic family like the Corleones. It expertly blends nearly every element of great cinematic storytelling into a movie that is uniquely American, yet universally appealing. If you have never seen it, you absolutely need to give it a try.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the film.)

When it comes to such a universally-hailed film like The Godfather, there's not much someone like me can do to “explain” its status. Volume after volume has been written about it, and one doesn't have to look very far to find scores of interesting background and factoids on the movie. Here are just a few of my favorites:

The improvisation. I absolutely love learning what things have been concocted, extemporaneously, by the actors. I always assume that this is what marks the absolute greatest actors – the ability to add things into the movies from their guts, which become as memorable as anything. The Godfather has a few gems. One is James Caan's rapid-fire addition of the phrase “bada-bing!” when he's explaining to his “nice, college boy” kid brother just how he'll have to shoot Sollozzo and McCluskey in the face. All of us, even those from far outside of New York, are now well familiar with this little Italian-American-ism. Another is Brando's open-handed smack of Johnnie Fontaine, when he commands him to “act like a man!”. Apparently, actor Al Martino was too tight in the scene, and Brando decided to shake him up. It worked. You just have to look at Martino's face to see it. There are plenty of others, but these were a few of the standouts.

Rather than go on and on, I'll just recommend that any fan of this movie should seek out a few of these behind-the-scenes pieces. A really excellent one is the recently-published The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies, written by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. These two guys did a great job of assembling analyses and critiques of their “100 greatest gangster movies”, warts and all. The Godfather and its sequel (which top their list at numbers one and two) get plenty of pages. Another great source is the extra materials on the DVD collections. There are tons of tales of the near-castings and near-firings of Pacino and Coppola, and the countless things that Coppola would not compromise on with the studio, all for the better.

That does it for The Godfather, but I'll be watching Part II in several weeks, and doing a separate write-up for it.

That's a wrap. 68 shows down. 37 to go.

Coming Soon: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972):

I've seen this Bunuel movie once before. Peculiar. Mind-boggling. Oddly humorous. These are a few of my impressions. Maybe I can glean a little more out of this second viewing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.