Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) is tremendous film. Not for nothing is it Empire’s number 1 movie in their top 500 movies of all time. The novel by Mario Puzo is excellent, but to have been able to transpose it to the screen so well is a remarkable achievement. Of course this was helped by Mario Puzo being involved in writing the screenplay, but of course the ultimate control rested with Francis Ford Coppola.

For those who don’t know the story, stop reading and go and watch the film; but if you insist on reading on, this review will obviously contain spoilers. The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone family, based in New York, from 1946 onwards. Vito Corleone (the great Don) is brought to life by Marlon Brando, and his son Michael (who eventually takes over the family business when the Don dies) is played by Al Pacino. Through various nefarious dealings, not least with narcotics dealer Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the power of the Corleone family is reduced, until at the climax of the film Micheal “settles all the family’s debts”, and the Corleone family are once again the most powerful of New York’s Five Families.

Of course the plot is far more involved than that, but I really can’t do it justice in a brief blog post. At almost three hours long it is by no means a short film, but it doesn’t drag at all, the pacing is perfect. The beginning of the film goes against what a lot of people would consider great wisdom; that is to have a huge set piece near the start to hook the viewers. However, the first act (presumably at least 30 minutes) is set at the Don’s Long Beach house, celebrating the wedding of his only daughter; Connie (Talia Shire). During the wedding we are introduced to a lot of characters as people turn up to ask Don Corleone for a “favour”. I feel I am at an advantage because I have read the book, so it is easier to keep track of all the characters, and know more of their history which was necessarily cut for the film.

But even so, the film doesn’t hurry. The very first shot is of Amerigo Bonasera; an undertaker whose daughter has been cut up by some local chavs. The justice system has let him down so he has come to Don Corleone for his justice. The camera moves away from Bonasera extremely slowly; no rush. Then after a couple of minutes, as Bonasera is breaking down with emotion, Marlon Brando’s right hand appears on the screen, subtly gesturing for someone to take the unfortunate man some water. All so understated, all so controlled, all so perfect.

There are other scenes where the camera moves very slowly. The piece de resistance of the film is when Al Pacino announced himself to the world. There is a scene in Louis Italian American Restaurant, where Michael is having dinner with Solozzo and the police captain McCluskey. Because Sollozzo is responsible for an attempt on Vito Corleone’s life, and McCluskey broke Michael’s jaw, the plan is for Michael to shoot them both in the small family restaurant. Just before Michael stands up to shoot them both, the camera is slowly zooming into his face, and Al Pacino is magnificent. He is uncomfortable, shifty, his eyes keep darting all over the place; Sollozzo carries on speaking, but his voice fades out just as it would for Michael as he is not paying any attention. It’s like an orgasm; the tension builds and builds, and then BANG; Michael stands up, shoots them both, and then leaves the restaurant. Amazing. Nothing fancy, just put a camera on Al Pacino and let him do his thing; and he does it brilliantly.


The rest of the cast is also superb. While George Lucas was busy making Star Wars with a bunch of randoms, Ford Coppola filled The Godfather with stars. Marlon Brando is fabulous; he is quiet but forceful; he manages to have an amazing presence on screen; whenever there is a scene with him, you know it’ll be great. Not only does he have a cruel understated cool, but all the mannerisms that he injects into the Don are just perfect. James Caan is just perfect as the hot-headed Santino Corleone (Sonny), the eldest of Vito’s sons. The second eldest son Fredo (Michael is the youngest) is played well by John Cazale, but he doesn’t have so much to do as his character has far less screen time than the other Corleones. Diane Keaton is good as Kay Adams, Michael’s girlfriend/wife, but like Fredo she doesn’t have that much screen time for her to shine. Robert Duvall is fabulous (I’m running out of superlatives) as Tom Hagen; the German/Irish lawyer-come-counsellor to Don Corleone. I’ve not seen that many films with Duvall in them, but I really think Francis Ford Coppola gets the best out of him, because he is also phenomenal in Apocalypse Now. I should also mention Richard S. Catellano who plays Clemenza one the Caporegimes (a commander of troops - in its loosest terms). This is a character that is fleshed out so much more in the book, but the way Richard plays him is just spot on.

I think my only issue with the film would be the ending. At the climax, as Michael is being Godfather to his sister’s baby, we see five guys shot as Don Michael is regaining the Corleone’s upper hand. Four of these guys are the heads of the other four New York families, the other is Moe Green who owns a hotel in Las Vegas that the Corleone’s are interested in. So that’s fair enough bumping of the heads of the other families, it doesn’t happen like that in the book, but that’s fine; I’m not going to be a snob about it. My problem is that 1) we have only met two of the family heads very briefly, at a meeting organised by Vito Corleone about two thirds of the way through the film. 2) When Philip Tattaglia is gunned down in his bed, we see the girl that he is bed with very clearly, but we really only see Philip's eyebrows! The upshot of these two points is that we are left thinking “Who the fuck are they?” To me this rather spoils the ending. Following this, the murder of Carlo Rizzi (Connie’s husband) is really brutal; but looks great (as murders go!).

I could probably go on mentioning brilliant things about this film as I remember them, but I have to draw a line somewhere. Short summary: one of the best films ever made. If you haven’t seen it already and you are still reading this, try and forget everything I’ve said and see it as soon as possible. Superb cast, understated camera work allowing the actors to shine through, brilliant story, an epic film in more ways than one, that never drags despite the patient way it is made.