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Review: The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather (1972)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Premise: The aging patriarch of a mafia family (Marlon Brando) passes his duties to his son (Al Pacino). 

What Works: New Hollywood filmmakers often redefined genre and opened up its possibilities, such as George Lucas with Star Wars, Martin Scorsese with Mean Streets, and Steven Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Coppola does that in The Godfather, creating an American epic that is both sweeping and intimate. The grandiosity of the saga is spread across the scope of the story from beginning to end but within the individual scenes the picture often goes for the personal stories of familial ties, and much of this is familiar to the audience as the Corleone family deals with death, sibling rivalry, an abusive in-law, and a family business. The balance of the micro and the macro is done perfectly in this film to create a portrait of intimate detail that spans multiple generations. The Godfather has several classic performances. The most visible is Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. The character is larger than life but Brando’s performance allows the man a great deal of empathy as he struggles with his roles as a businessman and a father. James Caan stars as Sonny, the troublesome older brother who is at least partly a psychopath. Caan brings a lot of energy to the role and is a terrific counterpoint to Al Pacino’s role as Michael. Pacino’s performance is quite different from his roles in the later films of his career. Here he is more controlled and does a lot of acting through silence and subtle actions. The corruption of Michael is very smartly staged and happens so easily yet convincingly that it is a shock to the audience to see what he has become by the end of the film. The cinematography and direction of The Godfather are an excellent demonstration of reinterpreting the styles of a previous era and presenting them in ways that both reflect past entries and establish a new style. In this case, The Godfather uses darkness and shadows the way noir films like The Maltese Falcon, Kiss Me Deadly, or Howard Hawks’ 1932 version of Scarface did, but elevates the style and the genre from pulp entertainment to high craft. Retroactively, the style of The Godfather has come to influence contemporary directors such as David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. As a New Hollywood picture, The Godfather is a reinterpretation of the story of the immigrant family, which is a uniquely American narrative style. The film joins the family with their success intact and catalogues the passing of the family business from one generation to the next. This is also an American Dream success story but it is twisted by placing that success within a criminal context. As such, The Godfather ties together various elements of our culture, ethnic and economic, into a image of the American Dream gone awry.

What Doesn’t: Viewers who grew up on the violence, noise, and style of later gangster films like Brian DePalma’s Scarface may have trouble adjusting to the quieter style The Godfather. That’s not to denigrate the film, but to say that it is quite different. 

DVD extras: The most recent release of The Godfather is “The Coppola Restoration” which makes minor adjustments to the picture and cleans up the quality, making it the best presentation of the film to date. The “Coppola Restoration” box set includes all three Godfather films, a documentary, additional scenes, featurettes, trailers, profiles on the filmmakers, photo galleries, and storyboards.

Bottom Line: The Godfather is significant for enjoying commercial and critical success but it is also one of the premier films of New Hollywood, as it acknowledges the legacy of American cinema to that point as well as American immigrant narratives and then reinterprets these elements for the contemporary audience.

Episode: #213 (November 9, 2008)