The Godfather needs no introduction.
But in spite of how well known it is, and after being extensively referenced and parodied, it never feels ruined by its status in pop culture. This is partly because it’s entire scenes, rather than quotable lines, which tend to be remembered, and partly because almost every scene in the film is equally iconic, meaning references to it are far more varied than for other films (“these go to eleven”).
It could certainly be accused of glorifying the Mafia. The fact some mafiosi deliberately modeled themselves on the film afterwards suggests so, and Coppola and Puzo’s research into and inclusion of genuine Cosa Nostra members in the film (such as in the opening wedding scene) suggests a close relationship which doesn’t lend itself to scathing criticism. Although on the flipside the film received threats and intimidation from some Mafia groups (and Frank Sinatra) who wanted to close down the production.
It never seeks to minimise or justify the violence on which the veneer of respectability is constructed. And by focusing on the family life of its mobster characters it challenges us to see the good as well as the bad. Someone can be a violent crime boss, but also a loving father and a generous pillar of his community. And with plot developments in mobster land often occurring in tandem with key family events (a wedding, Christmas, a christening) it shows how closely intertwined the two are, and the double-think of the family-focused Catholics carrying out the massacres.
This is best exemplified in Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) whose family is at the core of everything he does. And while Vito has a very strict code of ethics he is the exception rather than the rule in this world, with the other senior mafiosi – the heads of the other families and the Don’s own sons Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo (John Cazale) – more often succumbing to vengeful violence and debauchery.
Written by Mario Puzo at the same time as the novel, it stays close to the original characters, although some good scenes are removed, presumably for length. For example, the book opens with the Don’s previous consigliere Genco Abbandando (briefly referenced in the name of his Genco Pura olive oil business) dying of cancer, begging the Don to save him. It’s a great scene, showing the godlike esteem in which the Godfather is held, and setting up the need for a new consigliere in Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), but feels more like the end of a previous story than the beginning of a new one.
Often characters’ motivations and inner thoughts from the book are not made explicit in the film. But thanks to meticulous attention to detail and precise performances they are shown through the most subtle of expressions and gestures.
Brando understandably gets the most praise for his quirky yet restrained turn as the Don. While Pacino gives a performance only surpassed by himself in The Godfather II. His quiet and enigmatic Michael remains similarly softly spoken throughout, yet by the most minimal changes in manner and expression, Pacino is able to take him from honourable war hero to intense, ruthless Mafia don, his diminutive frame exuding self-assurance.
Coppolla ensures the highest quality in every aspect of the film, from the makeup and period detail, to the storytelling which gives us just enough information to follow without overloading us. There’s ciaroscuro lighting to rival Caravaggio and Nino Rota and Carmine Coppolla’s soundtrack is one of the greats. The end product is a film which can only be described as the Godfather of gangster films, and is truly an offer you can’t refuse.