From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from January 17th, 2015…
“I believe in America”
These are the first words we hear in The Godfather, part of a speech in which the eponymous organised crime figure, Don Vito Corleone, listens to a man seeking his own brand of justice, the camera slowly and carefully pulling back from the guest to take in the outline of Marlon Brando.
It’s the first of many iconic shots in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s epic crime novel, itself a masterpiece of fiction, a shot that immediately gives birth to the central beating heart of this adaptation – a searing, beautifully shot deconstruction of the American Dream in all its ugliness and corruption, bursting with magnificent performances from many actors who have since become legend, directed with a vision, class and grace few have equalled before or since.
Even at over four decades old now, it doesn’t even seem to have aged, rather continues to mature as a glorious period piece, arguably the greatest motion picture about organised crime and the Mafia ever made.
One of the most remarkable facts when you look back is just how little faith there was in what Coppola was making – he had constant battles with the studio over what he was shooting, the tone of his piece, even down to having to insist Al Pacino–then unknown–would play Michael Corleone, a role you now simply can’t envisage being performed better by anyone else.
Coppola strongly fought for what he saw in Puzo’s lengthy adapted screenplay, primarily how he wanted to convey the sense of burgeoning corporate America through the Mafia themselves, and it’s a crucial point; we never actually see the Corleone’s engage in criminal enterprises, indeed the Godfather himself’s refusal to get them involved in the drug trafficking trade now beginning to bloom in the wake of World War 2–in the shadow of which the whole film rests–triggers the internal wars and politics between the Mafia crime families that forms the spine of the story, chiefly Michael’s transformation from WW2 vet who shied away from the family business into the new Godfather.
Coppola was at this point a fresh face, one of the American New Wave alongside luminaries such as Scorsese, Spielberg & Lucas, all men about to change cinema forever with their vision across the 1970’s but at this point unknown entities; thus Coppola stuck to his guns, ensuring Puzo’s themes about the American milleu, the importance of family, the cost of justice and consequences of personal vengeance, were all retained. His Corleone’s are charming, hugely charismatic figures, rich in depth and brimming with dangerous power, but they almost don’t feel like criminals, and Coppola not once explores them from outside their inner circle.
That approach informed so many well known and loved movies and TV shows about organised crime & gangsters–from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, itself only a shade down on the masterpiece scale, all the way to David Chase’s The Sopranos–and cemented The Godfather as eternally part of cinematic pop culture. Brando, in a glistening career of magnificent turns, will always be remembered first and foremost for his calm, collected and dignified turn as Vito Corleone, his mouth stuffed with cotton balls and accent infused with Italian vowels; alongside him Pacino is equally poised yet even more dangerous as Michael, in a tricky role to nail as someone internally conflicted; James Caan brings fire and Italian passion as Sonny, while Robert Duvall is the head instead of the heart as Tom Hagen, the consigliere, and provides a rock at the heart of the picture.
Some have suggested Coppola’s cast here is the best assembled in any movie and that’s hard to refute – they define perfect for Puzo’s complicated, rich roles which his screenplay allows to delve into each of them and explore to the point you almost feel one of ‘the family’, while at the same time they can still turn around and surprise you as people – though famously Caan was wanted as Michael at first while the studio believed Pacino was too short for such a main role in one of the most masculine pictures in American cinema; though Talia Shire, Coppola’s sister, is suitably passionate as the Corleone sister in a violent & loveless marriage, only really Diane Keaton makes a mark in that regard as Kay, Michael’s second wife, though she manages to imbue her with an inner strength & grace as she struggles to counterbalance her love for him with what the family business turns him into.
With a cast beyond equal and a script that delved into the complexities and scope of Puzo’s enormous novel, it was down to Coppola’s directorial approach to truly bring this to life, and he does so with a skill commensurate to a helmsman beyond who previously had not even attempted something on this scale; indeed after the studio approached numerous directors who turned the project down, even Coppola had his doubts, unaware he would go on to make not just the defining picture of his career but one of the 20th centuries most iconic pieces of cinema. What he does, especially viewed in the 2008 restoration print, is frequently breathtaking; along with his supremely talented DoP Gordon Willis, he instantly evokes the post-war allure and glamour of the 1940’s and establishes the Corleone’s as not just a family but a dynasty, a representation of the corruption of the so called ‘American Dream’; his lens is wide and operatic, allowing his actors to breathe and his sets to be admired, but it’s also elegant and careful, poised and personal where it needs to be.
Backed up by a gorgeous central score by Nino Rota, his film exudes a regality, a class, while simultaneously managing to reflect the brutality and ugliness of the darker aspects of organised crime – when Michael assassinates a police chief or Sonny is brutally gunned down, he doesn’t spare the claret, doesn’t shy away from the visceral savagery, and reminds us just how above the law these people are & the world they inhabit is. As previously mentioned, he also manages to reflect the changing times – gone are the days of outlaw bootlegging & everyone being bought, the Mafia in New York City & spreading to Hollywood & Vegas are having to adapt, to become almost akin to a corporate entity, a business model, protecting their stocks & interests from those who might upset the status quo – and a key component of Puzo’s story is the Corleone dynasty shifting from the old guard to the new; only in Sicily, beautifully romantic on screen, do the old rules seem to apply.
At almost three hours long, The Godfather roughly clocks in at perfect length, yet you wish the saga would continue – and to say that about a 177 film is remarkable. Francis Ford Coppola, without hyperbole, took of the finest pieces of 20th century literature and quite possibly made a better cinematic experience out of it, a fact almost beyond compare. His picture is truly sumptuous in every way, it never once puts a foot wrong in terms of script, of direction, of its masterclass in acting or the scope of its beautiful direction. Many have said far more profound words on The Godfather and what it means to cinema, but it truly is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
The offer I’ll make you that you can’t refuse is to watch this movie, then watch it again.