The Godfather (1972) Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Produced by Albert S. Ruddy. Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novel by Mario Puzo. Run Time: 175 minutes. U.S. Color Crime, Drama
When The Godfather was released in 1972, it was a phenomenon. Based on a bestselling novel, the film grossed $285 million worldwide on a budget of $6.5 million. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including three nominations for Best Supporting Actor (none of the three would win; Joel Grey would for Cabaret); and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (for which Nino Rota would be disqualified when it was found he used a similar score for another movie). The film would win three, including Best Picture, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (which Marlon Brando would famously decline).
But while Coppola did not win the Academy Award for Best Director (Bob Fosse did for Cabaret), this film would make his career. Up until then, he was perhaps best known as a screenwriter, winning the Academy Award for his work on 1970’s Patton and as a producer on George Lucas’ first feature film THX 1138 (1971). Up until then, Coppola had not made any film that would give him the clout to found his own studio (American Zoetrope) and Francis Ford Coppola Presents, a lifestyle brand under which he sells goods from companies he owns, which include a winery, resorts, restaurants, magazines and films. No one would be buying Coppola red wine, if the biggest film he’d made was You’re A Big Boy Now (1966) or The Outsiders (1983). And he certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to make Apocalypse Now (1979).
At the time this film was made, Paramount Pictures was run by Robert “The Boy Stays in the Picture” Evans and they were in need of a hit. While Coppola was not the first choice to direct, Sergio Leone was, Evans insisted on an Italian-American director. Coppola and Paramount had differences from the beginning over casting and several times during production Coppola was nearly replaced as director. Certainly, not the most conducive conditions to great filmmaking. But give credit where credit is due and Coppola made a great movie.
While Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone received topped billing, the movie is really about his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), a former military officer, who initially wants nothing to do with the family business, but slowly gets pulls in anyway and by the end has taken over the reins of the family.
The film opens at the wedding of Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire) in late 1945. Sicilian custom is that a man cannot refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding and being the head of a crime family, you can only imagine the types of requests he gets. One of those making a request of the Don is an Italian singer, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), who also happens to be Vito’s godson.
|During his daughter's wedding, people come to see the Don for favors.|
Johnny’s singing career has apparently hit the skids, at least momentarily, and there is a part in a war film he wants that he can’t have that he thinks would be perfect for him. Vito dispatches Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), his adopted Irish-German son and consigliere to Hollywood to handle Jack Woltz, the studio head who won’t cast Johnny in his film.
Meanwhile, Vito is waiting for Michael to arrive, who brings with him Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), his non-Italian girlfriend. Eldest son, Santino “Sonny” (James Caan) bangs a bridesmaid (Jeannie Linero) while his wife is down at the reception.
Tom arrives in Hollywood and even though Woltz (John Marley) knows who Corleone is, he cannot grant his request. Jack has personal reasons why he doesn’t want to help Johnny, but Tom is insistent. In one of the film’s classic scenes, Woltz goes to bed one night and wakes up with the bloody head of his favorite horse in his bed. He takes the hint and Johnny gets cast.
|Woltz (John Marley) wakes up with the head of his prize horse in his bed. |
One of the many iconic images from The Godfather.
Around Christmas, Vito meets with Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) who is looking for an investment of $1 million dollars for his burgeoning heroin business. Virgil is also in cahoots with the Tattaglia family, a rival crime family. Vito has political connections that he is not willing to share, even for the promised return on his investment. He is convinced his connections will look the other way over the gambling business, but they’ll run for cover if he gets involved in drugs.
|The Turk (Al Lettieri) asks Vito to invest money in heroin. Vito says no.|
Vito sends Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) to spy on the Tattaglias, saying he’s disenchanted with the Coreleones and to then find out all he can about their operation. However, the Tattaglias are in on things and they assassinate Luca, sending Vito Luca’s bulletproof vest and some dead fish to indicate Brasi sleeps with the fishes.
|Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) gets whacked when he's sent to spy on the Tattaglias.|
Vito is then the subject of his own assassination attempt. With only Fredo (John Cazale), his simple-minded middle son, to drive him, Sollozzo sends men to kill him. But even though he’s hit five times, the Don just won’t die and his hospitalized. With father down, Sonny takes over the command of the family. Sollozzo also takes the precaution of kidnapping Tom, hoping he can negotiate a deal with Sonny.
|Vito is the subject of an assassination plot while Fredo watches helplessly.|
Michael goes to see his father in the hospital and notices that there is no one guarding him. Sensing there is a second assassination attempt in the works, he convinces the only night nurse on duty to help him move his father’s bed to another room. And while Michael manages to scare off a second hit squad, he is not so lucky when the police arrive. They are led by Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), a corrupt policeman who is on Sollozzo’s payroll. McCluskey breaks Michael’s jaw, an injury that takes Michael more than half the movie to completely recover from.
Sonny, who is a bit of a hot-head, retaliates by having Don Tattaglia’s son, Bruno (Tony Giorgio), killed. But Michael devises a better way to settle things. He agrees to meet Sollozzo and McCluskey at a restaurant to discuss things, but instead of talking, Michael uses a handgun hidden ahead of time in the restroom to blow holes in the men.
|Michael (Al Pacino) killing Sollozzo and McCluskey.|
Because he’s hot, Michael is sent to Sicily where he is to stay under the protection of Don Tommasino (Corrado Gaipa). With all an out war between the families brewing, Fredo is also sent away to Las Vegas to work with and be protected by Corleone associate Moe Greene (Alex Rocco). Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Rosso), Connie’s husband, beats her when they fight. When Sonny finds out, he hunts down Carlo in the street and beats him severely in broad daylight with a crowd watching.
Back in Sicily, Michael falls in love with a local girl, Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli) and marries her. Meanwhile, his whereabouts are no longer a secret and Don Tommasino moves him around to stay ahead of possible assassins. But one move is too slow and Apollonia is killed in a car bomb meant for Michael.
|Apollonia Vitelli catches Michael's eye while he hides out in Sicily.|
Back in New York, when Connie tells Sonny that Carlo has beat her again, he jumps into his car to seek revenge. But at a tollbooth, Sonny is gunned down in a hail of gunfire. A carload of bodyguards arrive, but only after the assassins have already fled.
|Sonny gets gunned down at a toll booth.|
Vito calls together the heads of the five families that run New York and New Jersey for a meeting to end the feud. He withdraws opposition to the heroin trade the Tattaglias are involved in and promises not to seek revenge for Sonny’s murder. In return he wins safe passage for Michael to return to America. At the end of the meeting, Vito and Philip Tattaglia (Victor Rendina) embrace. But Vito has realized that Tattaglia is really taking orders from Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), the head of the Barzini family.
Michael returns to America and a year later, seeks out Kay, who is now a school teacher. He tells that he loves her and wants to marry her. He admits that he’s working with his father, but promises her that in five years, the family business will all be legit. Kay believes him and marries Michael, who has risen to the head of the family through default. Vito makes a point to warn him that someday someone he trusts will set him up for assassination by Barzini. He’ll know who it is because they will offer him a place to meet where he will be protected.
Michael makes the long term decision to move the family operations to Nevada and to leave New York to members who stay behind. He also replaces Tom as the consigliere with Vito, a move Tom doesn’t appreciate. He is assured by Vito that the family has long term plans for him.
Michael flies out to Las Vegas and offers to buyout Moe Greene’s interest in the casino the Corleones are financing. But Greene is defiant and tells Michael that the Coreleone’s power is a thing of the past. Even worse, than being called a bunch of names, is that Michael sees Fredo is siding with Greene.
Back home, Vito dies while playing with Michael’s son Anthony. At the funeral, Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda), a caporegime (or made member) of the Coreleone family, arranges a meeting between Michael and Barzini, promising Michael’s safety. This is just as Vito had predicted and warned him. The meeting is set for the same day as Connie and Carlo’s son, Michael (Sofia Coppola), is to be christened. Acting on his orders, while Michael is pledging to denounce the devil, his assassins take out the other leaders of the New York families as well as Moe Greene.
|Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda) betrays Michael's trust at Vito's funeral. |
But Michael had been warned by Vito that this would happen.
Tessio is told that he’s been found out and despite his pleas to Tom to help him, is taken away to be killed for his betrayal. There is only one piece of business left. Michael talks with Carlo and, after promising not to hurt him, gets a confession that he was in cahoots with Barzini and helped to set up Sonny’s ambush. Carlo is given a ticket to Vegas and is killed by a wire garrote in the car by Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), a still loyal capo in the family.
The film ends with the Corleone house up for sale and the family packing up to move. Connie bursts in to confront Michael about the murder of her husband. Michael tells her he had nothing to do with it. When Kay asks, he at first rebuffs her, telling her that he won’t discuss family business with her. But he softens and lets her, just this once, ask. When she asks if he was involved in Carlo’s murder, he tells her no.
In the final scene of the film, Kay is busy packing, while in his office, Michael is being greeted by his capos and we see he is firmly in place as the new Don. Just as Kay must realize all the lies he’s told her, one of the capos closes the office door on her.
|Kay finally realizes that most of what Michael has told her is a lie.|
This is a very powerful film and holds up very well over 40 years later. The story, though involved, is fairly easy to follow and is told with beautiful cinematography by Gordon Willis. This is truly a masterpiece for Coppola, who really upped his game. I’ve seen You’re a Big Boy Now and there is nothing in that film that remotely indicates he was capable of making a film as good as this.
He is aided along by some very famous and very good actors. His lead, Marlon Brando, was already an acting legend by the time he made this film. Brando first achieved fame in 1947, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire on Broadway. Known for his mumbling delivery and animal magnetism some view Brando as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.
He first made an impact in Hollywood, reprising his Street Car role opposite Vivien Leigh of Gone With the Wind fame. Throughout the fifties, Brando appeared in many powerful roles, including Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Johnny Strabler in The Wild Ones, both in 1953; and Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954). He even appeared in the Sam Goldwyn movie version of the musical Guys and Dolls (1955).
While Brando was riding high in the 50’s, the 1960’s were not good to him. None of the films he was in were a financial success and by the end of the decade he had also earned a reputation as being difficult to work with. Paramount originally wanted Danny Thomas (of all people) for the role, partially to get a production deal with the actor. But Thomas had the sense to turn down the part and encouraged Paramount to hire Brando, the actor Coppola wanted, for the part.
Brando gave a great performance as Vito Corleone, but he is far from being the only actor who did. Al Pacino, who in 1972 was a relative unknown, having only appeared in two films prior, gives a very subdued and powerful performance as Michael. Pacino, whose acting style has developed over the years to be much more demonstrative, draws power from playing everything low-key. He felt snubbed by the Academy, since he actually has more screen time than Brando, but was only nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
|Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) confers with Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).|
Robert Duvall is also excellent in the part of Tom Hagen. Again, this is a subdued performance. Tom never lets himself get riled up about anything. That cannot be said for James Caan’s Sonny, who seems to live on the edge. While Tom is about thinking of a solution and acting smart, Sonny is all about action. He easily flies off the handle and pays the price for it in the film.
Veteran actor Sterling Hayden was also very good as Captain McCluskey, the corrupt policeman working with heroin dealer Sollozzo. Hayden brings his own presence whenever he’s on screen. Maybe he’s not at the level of Brando, but Hayden easily holds his own in a film filled with great actors.
|Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) doesn't know it, but he's enjoying his last meal.|
There isn’t really anyone in the supporting cast that misses the mark. This goes for Abe Vigoda as Tessio, Robert Castellano as Peter Clemenza, John Marley as Jack Woltz and Richard Conte as Emilio Barzini, but really everyone was good.
The parts for women are not nearly as strong. Talia Shire, Coppola’s sister, makes the most out of her role as Connie, who for most of the film is her husband Carlo’s punching bag. She does get to exhibit some emotions, but they seem to be over the top when they are. Diane Keaton’s Kay is really not very well explained. She should have bolted after Michael left her for a couple of years. Why she is drawn back in and can’t see through the lies is never explained, though we get a hint that she’s finally catching on at the very end of the film.
So now comes the part of the review where I pick up on something that doesn’t quite work for me in the film. There are two things in The Godfather that I don’t quite get. Though the scene of Woltz waking up in bed with a horse’s head is very powerful, have you ever considered the logistics it would take to pull something like that off? Whoever did it would have to break into the grounds, break into the stables, decapitate a horse, break into the house and break into the bedroom without making noise or setting off an alarm. And what a sound sleeper Woltz must be, not to be awakened when a bleeding horse’s head is added to his bed. I know it’s picky, but these are the things I think about when I’m watching a movie.
The other problem for me is the plot between Carlo and the Barzinis to kill Sonny. While I don’t doubt Carlo had the motivation to kill Sonny, the set up seems a bit chancy. The fight between Carlo and Connie, which is set in motion by a call from Carlo’s lover, seems quite spontaneous and while it is very believable they would escalate from words to throwing dishes to belts, this means someone had to know where Sonny was at that particular moment and the route he would take to get into the city and that he would be alone. Obviously to pull off an assassination like this, there has to be a conspiracy, but the coordination required, in the days before cell phones, seems a little too over the top to be believable.
I don’t know if these “holes” are from the source novel or are in the screenplay. I just know that someone would point these out as problems if I presented them in a work of fiction.
The Godfather is a brutal film with what they refer to now as a hard R rating. None of the characters can afford to let their guard down for even a minute as they never know which close and trusted ally hasn’t turned against them. The murders, when they are depicted, are hard to watch; they seem so real, which is why they stay with you long after the credits have finished. I’m thinking of you Luca Brasi. He certainly didn’t see his demise coming; compliments one moment, a knife through his hand and a string around his neck the next.
The Godfather is an essential film to watch, not only as a high point in filmmaking, but for the references made to this film in pop culture at large. Who hasn’t seen or heard some reference to an offer that can’t be refused or to a horse’s head in the bed? The problem may be that some of the more powerful scenes in The Godfather have already been parodied, copied or referred to so much as to dilute some of their impact if you’ve never seen the film before. If this is you, then you certainly owe it to yourself to seek The Godfather out.
However, The Godfather is not a movie I could watch again and again. While I can appreciate the epic grandeur of the storytelling, the visual artistry and the acting, seeing it once every twenty-five years or so seems about right for me. The film doesn’t pull me in, the way something like Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon does. I hate to say it, but I’m more likely to change the channel if I see The Godfather is on, than sit down and watch it.