Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Seen on DVD
There are movies in film-buff canon so important that you just can’t be taken seriously if you’ve not seen them. Near the top of every cinephile’s best-of-American list is the one with the horse’s head, and an offer you can’t refuse – parodied, referenced and reverenced in all forms of media, by common consensus, The Godfather is THE mobster movie.
How I made it to the thirtieth year of my life without ever having seen it is rather a mystery, and after twenty nine years of build up I put the DVD in with some trepidation.
It's an epic, a classic.
But I didn’t really rate it.
Don’t get me wrong – the film is an Oscar winner, and deservedly so. The heavy score was gorgeous. The cinematographer achieved a perfectly mixed romantic noir look, setting the tone for a grand tale grounded in gangland intrigue: the descent (or rise, depending on how you look at it) of Michael Corleone, the straight-laced young war hero from one of the New York Mafia’s five families.
Michael is the “good” son, not meant for the family business, and purposefully kept on the outer - but each choice he makes takes him further in, his calm, quiet character slowly picking up the reigns and steering the family fortunes. The young Al Pacino, now film legend in his own right, became a star in this role. He’s magnetic, drawing the eye in every scene.
Marlon Brando received accolades as the stone-faced Don, building a complete character and flawlessly modulating his performance from robust ruler to invalid no longer fit to lead. The often-lampooned voice he created was beautifully kept up, and cleverly adapted to thin tones of ill-health, yet at times he still struck me as a posing caricature.
Several scenes were so well constructed they still haunt me. The almost dreamlike hit on Paulie, amid golden fields of waving grass, the Statue of Liberty just visible in the background. And the nightmarish hospital visit, Michael wandering alone through the empty corridors, tension rising as he realises all his father’s men are gone and the Don is alone and unguarded.
As a pivotal scene for the central character, this was beautiful - the strong feeling of impending doom, and Michael’s first panicked response giving way to quiet command of the situation, the first real indication that he’s a dangerous man. The relief tendered when he has successfully moved his father is immediately punctured with his oath: he’s in, despite his own intentions and even the efforts of the Family.
Michael’s development over the film was mesmerising. From naive young man, lauded by conventional society and repelled by his family’s business, he has become a cold, calculating killer, baptised as leader during the horrific intercut of family christening and hits on his enemies. The last scene, in which he is able to lie to Kay with a straight face, then with equal lack of emotion accept the fealty of his father’s men, is chilling.
But the film was over-long, and I found it over-complicated. Perhaps because I got some characters mixed up with each other, which meant I couldn’t keep the story straight. Or perhaps because of the sudden jumps in time, especially towards the end, with no indication that it had happened until confronted with a line like “I’ve been back a year. Longer than that, I think,” or the sudden, out-of-the-blue existence of a three year old child.
I also fell into a few plot-holes. To a certain extent, when watching a film, you have to accept that some things are going to happen which you may not understand, but which are an essential part of moving the story or characters on. Several times during the Godfather I found myself unable to allow these moments, and was yanked out of the story, completely unable to believe that a decision or action taken was vital, and thinking less of the characters and the film because of it.
At this stage, it’s not a film I’ll be adding to my collection. I do feel a slight sense of loss about that – expectations certainly not exceeded – but the mythos has caught me. I am already contemplating the possibility of a re-watch helping me understand the story better…
But first I am looking forward to continuing the story, and following Michael’s fortunes with the only sequel to a AMPAS Best Picture winner also to have received the Oscar. There’s got to be something in that!
Love the epic, romanticised period view of the American mafia in The Godfather? Try watching Gomorrah for a so-real-you-might-faint view. Set in the seedy underbelly of modern day Naples, the Italian mob’s reach and control is mind-boggling, messy and utterly terrifying.