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The Godfather (1972)

by on 2011/08/30


“My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people.”

* * * *

As of this writing, a recent survey suggests Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is the film most respondents lie about having seen. I myself hadn’t seen it in full until relatively recently, about fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve seen it two more times, and my appreciation has steadily grown.

Originally I saw nothing beyond a long, complicated mob movie — which it is — but the time since then has obviously aged me very well. Now I see a sprawling, involving, fast-moving collection of diverse, interlocking adventures. Some focus on the family, some on the business, none of them uninteresting, and everything is over far too soon.

Fuelled by exquisite production and a cast of familiar faces in their prime, The Godfather begins in 1945, evolving slowly to cover the next few years. New York (and Jersey), Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Sicily serve as the tapestry’s backdrops. The Corleone family — “Sonny” Santino (Elf’s James Caan), Tom Hagen (Kicking and Screaming’s Robert Duvall), and Fredo (The Conversation’s John Cazale) — led by patriarch Vito (One-Eyed Jacks’ Marlon Brando), play a dangerous game of tug-of-war with the rest of the Five Families, notably their rivals, the Tattaglias.

Other major players include Talia Shire (Rocky) as sister Connie, Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) as Kay Adams and, especially, Al Pacino (Righteous Kill) as the prodigal son Michael. Although Brando gets much of the glory, the core narrative is all Michael, and his relationship with a family which may not have a place for him.

It’s difficult to describe the adrenalizing compulsion in this world, one born of tension between power and its price, exhilaration and dread. It’s an oddly palatable poison of violence and lies. Rivals smile predatorily, and underlings gibber obsequities. Any ground gained in the present is balanced by fear of some vague future price.

These dynamics are well articulated by the cast at the peak of their form. James Caan is surprisingly controlled despite Sonny’s place as the unstable brother. Al Pacino brings a subtle evolution to his role, more early Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) than the frequent loud persona he’d later evince. Marlon Brando caught my eye particularly, however. Familiar to me less for his early career than his turns in The Freshman, The Score, and Superman, he reminded me here of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), with considerable calm gravitas.

And the production gave them all an ideal backdrop to work within and against. The locations are all terrific, convincing in their vintage postwar touches: architecture, automobiles, clothing and props alike . . . even a Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) poster behind a vending cart.

But while I was “sold” by the places and players, their stories and other details, the entire affair was not without its wrinkles. I disliked the choice in a pivotal scene not to subtitle the spoken Italian. I’ve read the decision was intentional, so we’d feel an outsider’s perspective. Yet this approach is not taken in scenes before or after; such inconsistency I find frustrating. (Incidentally, the outsider in question is Captain McCluskey, played by Sterling Hayden of Dr. Strangelove and The Asphalt Jungle.)

An unrelated audio point is another concern I have. In a confrontation between Sonny and Connie’s husband, the foley is way out of synch.

These issues, however, are anomalous nitpicks in the grander scheme of things. There’s far more good than not in this new classic of crime cinema. I simply can’t fathom why anyone would lie about seeing it. Well, I can understand why they’d want to, but what’s preventing them from just doing so? It’s not an elusive video, and it’s not a difficult slog. It’s detailed enough to be interesting, without seeming complex. It’s involving and exciting, and you’ll find the time flies by, with the action never trumping the humanity.

It’s said near the open and close of The Godfather: “I’m going to make him an offer he cannot refuse.” Coppola has done just such a thing with this first part of his trilogy. There is simply no reason not to see this film.

* * * *

Rated 18A (Canada) / R (United States)

177 minutes

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