Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Richard S. Castellano, Talia Shire, Al Lettieri and Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone
Plot: Michael (Pacino) is received pressure to join the family business, when he much rather have a quiet life with his new wife (Keaton).
They don’t make films like this anymore.
The scale of the Godfather is immense. Even without taking the trilogy into question, this single film undertakes a massive story. The Godfather is a sprawling epic, taking on the story of an entire crime family and giving every section of their life justice. The focus is settled onto the black sheep in the family (or maybe white sheep in the family would be a better definition), Michael Corleone, the only member of the family who doesn’t want to get involved in a life of crime with his father and brothers. We take this quiet man who just wants to knuckle down and get on with a pretty idyllic and cheerful life, but because his family have started a gang war, he is forced to step up to the plate and take the head of this massive family. It is interesting watching all of these good morals and best intentions slowly get corrupted by ambition and power. Sure, this message works better with the second film tacked onto the end of it, but it is still visible here. At first, Michael goes against his better judgement in order to protect his family (if older brother, Sonny, takes over, then the entire family would be heading for a certain death through recklessness), but by the end of the film, Michael is a totally different creature, purposefully echoing Marlon Brando.
Ah, Marlon Brando. Would this film work as well without him portraying the role of the main Godfather, Vito Corleone? He is one of the main things people remember about this film. Brando definitely has a legacy behind him and his addition to the cast helps Coppola convey the sense of magnitude that makes this movie so memorable. He suits the part perfectly, coming across as an ageing, feeble man, yet at the same time, he has so much power and gravitas. He looks like the weakest character, yet the strongest character at the same time. He is the giant spider sitting in the centre of this whole web of corruption. Despite having less screen time than most people remember him having, Brando really does make a lasting impression that echoes throughout cinematic history. This could be his finest role. However, the real star here is easily Al Pacino. This movie was made, before Pacino had made too much of an impression on the film industry. He had a few films under his belt, but otherwise was a pretty fresh-faced actor. And he knocks it out of the park. Brando over-acts and provides the theatrical, but Pacino has the more subtle, understated performance (you don’t hear that often with Pacino, do you?). It is the quiet calculating behind the eyes, the slow delivery of lines dripping with poison and malice. Welcome to the movie business, Mr. Pacino. We are going to love you!
Of course, the Godfather really is an ensemble piece with great performances littered everywhere around. It has an authentically Sicilian feel with good Italian actors like Castellano that really capture the mood and tone of the piece. Then there is fan favourite, Tom Hagan, played by Duvall, who never overworks for it, but still earns a special place in our heart. With so many volatile and crazy gangsters into the mix, it is refreshing to have the quiet, yet logical Hagan lurking in the background. Fun comes in the form of two Corleone brothers, Sonny and Fredo. James Caan has never really topped this performance, as the angry heir to the throne. The scene where he beats the husband who punched his sister is a classic, Coppola knowing better than to cut away from the intense beating. John Cavale does what he does best with Fredo. He is sadly underused in this film, but when joined with the second part, it is great to watch the bigger picture of Cazale doing his thing.
The thing most people don’t know about the Godfather is that the book it is based on is a load of garbage. Well, maybe that is a little harsh. Mario Puzo gets some stuff right, but he likes to ramble and go off on a tangent. There is a whole sub plot in the novel, where the girl Sonny sleeps with at the start heads off to Vegas to get vagina surgery. That story lasts about five or six chapters. It is useless and it has very little overall purpose. The writers here have to cut away a lot to get to the gem of the story. It makes it even more impressive that the classic scenes made it in. It would have been easy to cut the scene where Hagan leaves a horse’s head in a paedophile producer’s bed, but someone cottoned onto the idea that this moment would go down in movie history. The death with an orange in a major character’s mouth could have been written off as surrealism, but someone cleverly kept it in. As a result, the Godfather is not only a great character piece, but one that is infinitely quotable and memorable. Watching this really does feel like movie-making at its very best.
Final Verdict: Words fail to do this justice, so maybe it is easier to review this in a single word: classic!