May 19, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #3: The Godfather

An idealistic young man is corrupted by the family business in this classic American crime drama.

So, what is the greatest film ever made?  Sure, the go-to answer for many is Citizen Kane, but there is a lot to say that it could be The Godfather.  I suspect it may be a generational thing.  The Godfather came out a scant two years before I was born, and my parents sent me to Catholic school for the first 12 years of my education.  As a result, I spent time with a lot of guys with Italian names and Italian blood in their veins who all wanted to be the Godfather.  I didn’t get it, myself.  Why would they want to be involved with a life of violence and death?  That’s, you know, wrong, and probably the whole point of the film.

Well, I’m over twenty years older now.  I understand a bit about how people might be attracted to the power and allure of the strong man, the whole tradition of the family, the Italian pride thing, and the power and glamour of being a high-ranking member of the mafia.  But then I circle back to the violence and death and I still don’t get why anyone would want in on that life.

Well, maybe I’m not completely baffled.  This is a gorgeous film.  I don’t know what happened to Francis Ford Coppola, but he had two great films in him and one fantastic one that rivals the best of American cinema.  Even if his filmography since the 70s has been rather…disappointing, he’s still done a hell of a lot better than a lot of lesser directors.  The pacing of a nearly three hour film, with beautiful shot compositions, deliberate movements towards violent resolutions, and a hell of a lot of symbolism, makes for a wonderful showcase for what film can do as an artform while still telling a compelling story.

But it’s still about corruption, bringing innocent people down, and watching a presumably good man become the face of evil.  This isn’t quite Goodfellas, where the violence is much more frequent and arguably more brutal.  Violence in The Godfather is more aesthetically beautiful.  There’s an art to a man getting shot through the eye that is lacking from the sudden savage beatings that occur in Goodfellas.  The Godfather is showing mafia members with codes of honor (sort of) and a sense of style.  Goodfellas seems populated more by thugs.  Additionally, Henry Hill wanted to be a gangster and all his crime-filled dreams came true.  Michael Corleone has, at the start of the film, no desire to work the family business, and then he ends up running it.

And therein lies the tragedy of The Godfather.  Don Vito Corleone (the great Marlon Brando) didn’t want the life of a crime boss for his son, Michael, but oldest brother Sonny (James Caan) is a hothead who doesn’t think things through, middle brother Fredo (John Cazale) isn’t very bright, and sister Connie (Talia Shire) is a girl in 1945 with bad taste in men.  Sort of adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is only granted so much respect within the family despite being a lawyer and the family’s consigliere.  That really only leaves Michael who, initially, doesn’t want the position.

And then Vito is shot.

There’s a lot to say about Sonny’s temper, his rage at the attacks on his family.  It causes Sonny to make many, many mistakes that lead him to his fatal trip to a toll booth.  But Michael is hardly devoid of anger.  Faced with threats, he decides to act.  The final scenes of the film, where Michael eliminates the family’s rivals and enemies, is far more brutal than anything the audience saw with Vito.  Vito doesn’t apologize for his past, and there is the whole thing with the horse’s head, but he also didn’t orchestrate a massacre, seeking instead more peaceful resolutions to the gang war.  Vito isn’t stupid.  He knows sometimes violence is necessary in his line of work.  But when Michael brings the hammer down, it’s downright Biblical, and not just because Michael is conveniently attending a baptism when most of his enemies are killed.

So, what to make of Michael’s corruption?  Well, the thing that jumps out to me the most is the exclusivity of the family.  Kay (Diane Keaton) is kept in the dark, starting from the moment Vito is shot.  She sees less and less of Michael, knowing only that he’s in hiding somewhere.  The family, through Tom, is still dealing with her, but all Kay knows is Michael is away.  She is aware what the family does, but is she aware Michael killed two people?  Does she know he’s in Sicily?  She certainly doesn’t seem to know Michael met and married another woman while he was over there, or that this woman was killed by a car bomb just before he returned to the States.  When a door closes on Kay, well, she knows something isn’t right, and this comes after Michael has lied to her face about the fate of Connie’s awful husband.

But the thing that occurred to me as I watched the film this time is Tom is often on the outside as well.  He doesn’t quite fit in with the others.  As the adopted brother, he doesn’t seem to possess the Sicilian temper or honor code or whatever it was.  Sonny disregards him, Michael demotes him, and maybe the biggest tragedy of The Godfather Part III was that Duvall didn’t return for a promised mob war between Michael and Tom.

Maybe that’s the real reason why I didn’t get the appeal of mob life so many of my high school classmates had.  I’m not the slightest bit Italian.  I’d be excluded from this sort of family anyway.

But hey, these people can throw a hell of a wedding.

NEXT UP:  It’s probably the most tragically romantic film ever made, 1942’s Casblanca.