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The Great American Movie: The Godfather at Fifty

The Great American Movie: The Godfather at Fifty

The iconic film about a New York crime family reprises some classic American themes–and it’s grand entertainment.

Michael Mandelbaum

Literary discussions in the twentieth century included the question of “The Great American Novel:” which work of fiction best expressed the national character and the national experience of the United States? Various books had their proponents: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), whose subject, sin, preoccupied the early European settlers in North America; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885), with its treatment of the perennial American theme of individual freedom; and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), about success and the price it exacts.

Over the course of that century, however, the most popular art form in the United States changed and became the motion picture, which made the question about the novel relevant to film as well. What is the Great American Movie? From the 1940s to the 1970s, and indeed afterward, a frequent response was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the saga of the rise to power and prominence of a newspaper publisher based on the life of the publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Fifty years ago, in 1972, a film that has an equally strong claim to that distinction, if not an even stronger one, made its debut: The Godfather.

Set immediately after World War II, it is based on the novel of the same name, published three years earlier, by Mario Puzo. Its subject, from which the title comes, is a Sicilian immigrant who becomes a major figure in organized crime in New York City. The story begins with Vito Corleone at the height of his power. He soon faces a near-fatal challenge, which creates the need for a successor, who can only be one of his three sons: Santino, the eldest, known as Sonny, has an impetuous, headstrong character that ultimately results in his murder. Fredo, the middle son, lacks the nerve and the discipline to take his father’s place. The third son, Michael, stands outside the family at the beginning, a college student who, against the wishes of his father, enlisted in the Marines during World War II and is engaged to marry a non-Sicilian–indeed a Protestant–young woman. Yet it is he who becomes the new Godfather.

The film follows the book faithfully, its screenplay written primarily by Puzo himself and by the film’s precocious director, Francis Ford Coppola, who was in his early thirties when he made the film. Two years later the film Godfather II appeared. It is both a “prequel,” depicting Vito Corleone’s early life in Sicily and New York, and a sequel, carrying the story forward to portray Michael Corleone’s career as the head of the organization he has inherited from his father. The two films came to be considered a single work. A third, less celebrated and less often shown Godfather movie appeared in 1990. The acclaim the first two received, the continuing popularity they have enjoyed, and the niche they occupy in American cultural history stem from their production values–the lighting, sound, and settings employed in making them–the performances of the principal actors, and their quintessentially American themes.

The films begin with the haunting music of the Italian composer Nino Rota. The first one in particular has a distinctive look, thanks to the work of the cinematographer Gordon Willis: the images on the screen are somber, almost sepia-toned, like a nineteenth-century photograph. Most of the scenes were shot in New York and great care was taken to make the city appear as it did in the 1940s. Memorable movies have memorable scenes, and the most memorable in The Godfather depict violent deaths: Sonny riddled with bullets by the Corleone family’s rivals while stopping his car at a tollbooth, and Michael shooting, at point-blank range in a small Italian restaurant, the family’s great nemesis and the crooked policeman he employs.

Along with its unforgettable images, the film includes dialogue that has become part of the wider culture. In deciding to frighten a movie executive into giving a part in a forthcoming film to his godson, a singer presumably based on Frank Sinatra, Vito Corleone says “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” A line from the novel, “One lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns,” has entered the national lexicon as a cynical commentary on white-collar crime. After executing a disloyal subordinate in a car on a deserted stretch of road, one of the Corleone family’s lieutenants, who has bought some dessert on the way, says to the underling who has pulled the trigger, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” That line, partly an ad lib by the actor Richard Castellano, is the title of the entertaining book about the making of the film by the journalist Mark Seal. The story he tells, replete with vivid characters of its own, revolves around the conflict, over almost every aspect of the film, between Coppola and Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount Pictures, the studio under whose auspices it was made.

They quarreled, in particular, over the cast. Fortunately for the film, Coppola, the less powerful of the two, prevailed. For the central role of Vito Corleone he wanted, and got, Marlon Brando. Perhaps the most admired actor of his generation, Brando’s eccentricities and unreliability had made him, by the beginning of the 1970s, all but unemployable in the film industry. The performance he delivered is the key to the movie. Without it, The Godfather would have been a different and surely a lesser film. At one point it looked as if Burt Lancaster would play the part, and he would likely have brought his noisy, seething forcefulness to it rather than the subtle portrayal that Brando provided.

For the other parts Coppola cast then-unknown actors who went on to become major stars. Al Pacino, who had previously appeared in only a single, still unreleased, film played Michael Corleone. In the second film Robert De Niro, like Pacino a familiar and celebrated screen presence for the next half century, was cast as the young Vito Corleone. The role of Michael’s WASP fiancée and then wife went to another unknown, Diane Keaton, who demonstrated her versatility by portraying an entirely different kind of character as the co-star, with Woody Allen, in the landmark romantic comedy of 1978, Annie Hall.

Its production values and its acting make The Godfather a great American movie. Its themes give it a claim to being the Great American Movie. The United States had as its major nineteenth-century project the country’s expansion across North America. Life on the westward-moving frontier inspired a particular genre of American fiction and especially film: the Western. A typical Western portrayed the struggle between the forces of law and those who did not respect it. “Outlaws” were (and are) staples of Westerns.

By the twentieth century the frontier had closed, more and more Americans lived in cities, and many were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Transposed to this setting, the outlaw became the gangster, and among the best-remembered characters in twentieth-century American film are gangsters who are both colorful and brutal: Paul Muni in Scarface in 1932, (Pacino starred in a remake in 1983), Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo in 1948, and James Cagney in White Heat in 1949 are examples.

The Godfather, the greatest of all gangster movies, differs from its predecessors in two important ways. First, it embeds the gangster in his family. Far from being portrayed as an isolated sociopath, Vito Corleone is the patriarch of a clan whose members revere and depend on him. Second, the film, like the book, depicts him as noble as well as dangerous, both as someone who brings justice to people unfairly denied it and as the orchestrator of terrifying violence. In the first film’s opening scene an Italian immigrant undertaker with the all-Italian-American name of Amerigo Bonasera comes to Vito Corleone with a request to punish two young men who have beaten his daughter and escaped jail because of their families’ connections. The don–the Italian word for boss–as Corleone is respectfully called, is introduced as the champion of the powerless.

The Godfather also has a Shakespearean dimension. A frequent subject of Shakespeare plays is kings–how they achieve power, how they exercise it, how they try to pass it on to their offspring. These are, in different ways, the themes of Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, and the plays with which Puzo’s novel and Coppola’s films have the closest kinship: Henry IV Parts I and II. (Those last two plays include Shakespeare’s greatest comic character, Sir John Falstaff. Neither the novel nor the two films of The Godfather have much in the way of comedic elements, but one character in the second film, Frank Pentangeli, does have a whiff of Falstaff about him.)

Since its independence from Great Britain in the eighteenth century the United States, of course, has had no monarch; but in its successful businessmen it has had great empire-builders. Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane is such a person; Vito Corleone is another. To make the point, the epigraph of Puzo’s novel is a well-known line from the nineteenth-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Successful American businesses follow a typical path: the founder builds them, then sells shares to the public. He and his family thereby become immensely wealthy but control of the enterprise passes to professional managers. Organized crime cannot follow that path. Its godfathers cannot sell shares of their enterprises on the stock market. They must find successors within their families, as Shakespeare’s kings had to do, and that is the story that The Godfather tells.

When it opened in 1972 the first film caused a national sensation. It became the highest-grossing movie in history up to that point. In the many theaters around the country in which it played, people formed long lines to buy tickets. Since then, technology has changed the way Americans consume entertainment. Cable television and streaming (with an assist from the Covid virus) have marginalized the theaters where the films first found their audiences: few viewers will ever see them on the large screens for which they were originally intended. But the proliferation of small screens has made the two films far more widely available than those who made them could have imagined a half century ago. The Great American Movie that Puzo, Coppola, and Brando wrought is now playing, somewhere, all the time.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of the new book The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, which was published in June.

Image:  Marlon Brando and Salvatore Corsitto in "The Godfather." (IMDB)

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