“The Godfather” Movie Review

I know I’m pretty far behind on my New Year’s resolution plan, but so help me God I fully intend to fulfill it. And I figured this would be a great place to go next. This epic crime drama from director Frances Ford Coppola was released worldwide on March 24th, 1972, when it earned roughly $280 million broke numerous box office records around the globe. It was also released- in spite of industry skepticism -to universally positive reviews and numerous accolades. It has since been studied and revered as one of the greatest films of all time by cinephiles, academics, and many others. Interestingly, it also received praise from real-life gangsters for its extreme realism. Based on the sprawling novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights for the film right before it became popular, although their first several choices for director passed up. Coppola got in constant conflict over casting decisions, specifically his insistence that all of the main characters be played by real Italian or Sicilian-American actors and thespians. The studio’s faith in the project was reportedly so shaky that they had another director, Elia Kazan, on standby just in case things fell through. Beginning in post-war 1945, the story focuses on the Corleones, a tightly-knit but dysfunctional Sicilian-American crime family in New York City. Following the eventful wedding of his daughter, the powerful Don and patriarch of the family, Vito Corleone, is attacked by rival gang members, and both his right-hand man and two eldest sons are seemingly left humiliated. All of a sudden the youngest son Michael, an intelligent war hero who initially wants nothing to do with the family business, is forced to do dirty. While he seems intent on legitimizing his family’s reputation, we witness over 10 years as he plunges head first into the world of crime, corruption, and power. It’s weird having to write a review for a movie that virtually every other cinephile on the planet has already written about in one way or another. Especially when that film is as beloved of a classic as The Godfather, but such seems to be the pattern of my New Year’s Resolution. No, I have definitely seen the film a few times prior to this review, but I’d say on this one I was a little more enlightened. I already knew that Frances Ford Coppola had made a true masterpiece, but I had almost always underestimated its brilliance. This is quite possibly the best film of its decade and one of the all-time greats. What I find most fascinating of all is how incredibly neutral the film is on organized crime culture as a whole. Previously, a lot of films would often portray gangsters as these over-the-top bad guys with no remorse as they’d gun down civilians and cops with Tommy guns. But here, the filmmakers decide to give us an inside look at the mafia; they’re well-knit, highly resourceful, and almost always put family before anything else, including business. We come to really care about the Corleones as human beings, especially when they’re under attack from their rivals. But they also don’t skimp on the unglamorous parts of their position; quite a few people die, either directly by a member’s hand or at their behest. It neither glorifies nor condemns the lives of gangsters, but rather shows it as it is, in a nearly unsentimental fashion. I can’t thank Coppola enough for how hard he fought for there to be real Italian and Sicilian actors in the roles, because it’s so hard to imagine anyone else playing these characters. Where to begin? There’s Marlon Brando’s immortal performance as the Don Vito, which won him an Oscar. (And resulted in one of the weirdest acceptance speeches in history) Al Pacino proved to everyone his worth as a great actor playing Michael, a mostly quiet, internalized role. John Cazale, James Caan, and Talia Shire each revel in their roles as Michael’s siblings, each with their issues to work out. Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen may be somewhat out of place as an Irish man in a Sicilian home, but he’s highly intelligent, dealing out one particularly gruesome job to ensure the future of his Don’s godson. No one in this iconic cast is bad in the slightest, everyone feels so natural in their roles. It’s also easy to see why The Godfather was an important film from the technical aspects alone. With then-new cinematographer Gordon Willis behind the camera, we get to see how patient the director is to reveal more of the world. There are many instances where the camera lingers on a subject as we anxiously await what might happen. The film opens with a still shot on a man begging for the Don’s help and it cleverly pulls out to reveal Vito. Thanks to the clever editing by William Reynolds and Peter Zinner, the contemporary New Hollywood techniques are matched with some of the Golden Ages sensibilities- a feat that is hard to achieve. Many scenes are closed or transitioned with cross-dissolve. Combined with the exquisite production design, we’re given a New York that feels authentic and lived-in. Frequent Federico Fellini collaborator Nino Rota composes the instrumental film score, which is one of the most iconic of the 20th century. The main theme “Speak Softly, Love” may have been reworked from a previous work of his, but it’s no less fitting for this one. It uses mellow instruments such as Oboes and strings to convey a certain feeling of Romanticism that just doesn’t seem allowed to exist in this world. It really becomes noticeable during the beginning and ending credits, establishing a strong tone and atmosphere. Other tracks create a feeling of ambiance and sadness that often feels unwelcome in the gangster genre. It’s also a little frustrating that Frances Ford Coppola made this film this early in his career, as he could never really reach these same heights again. While Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part II were undoubtedly incredible films, for to come swinging out the gate with a movie this amazing is a rare feat. In that, it’s more understandable why his career went downhill after this. The Godfather marries an impeccable cast with a unique story, and is without a doubt a real cinematic classic. If, by some happenstance, you claim to be a cinephile and have yet to watch this film, please rectify that situation as soon as possible. It’s one of the rare “classics” that is 100% worth its immortality in the annals of history.

 

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