March 13, 2012

#2: The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola may have done something for American cinema that no one had done before him. He redefined it. It seems to me that the more I talk to people about movies the more I hear the phrases "old movie" and "new movie," but I can't manage to pinpoint where the switch occurred. After watching The Godfather once again, I think maybe it happened in 1972. The French new wave was underway in America already and cinema was certainly changing with the times but something about this movie changed how we all think about how it should be done. This period (roughly 1967 to 1975) is maybe my favorite roughly-decade in all of cinematic history, and this movie's a major reason why.

Company: now, we hosted a fantastic Italian feast when we watched The Godfather Part II for the blog last May, but that time we watched both films, in order to get the context for the second. Not everyone made it through -- it's a big commitment -- but lots of friends were more than willing to play again! They included Matt, the only survivor of both movies from the last Corleone blog; Katie, his mervie-lerving gurlfurnd; and Kecia, who is really not a fan of Apollonia Corleone. Add to this the newly engaged Paul and Ryan, Kecia's beau Jeremy and dear sweet Adam and it was a full living room!

Cuisine: spaghetti ("spaghett!") and meatballs, Caesar salad, garlic bread, wine to beat the dickens, and even cannoli from some place in St. Paul! Bene.

I have to say first: this film and its two sequels are all adapted from one novel by Mario Puzo from 1969 and I'd highly recommend it, even if you've seen the films. It's fantastic. Okay, I said my piece.

Both films begin the same way: with the head of the Corleone family listening to someone asking for interference. In the second film, Michael as the Don listens to bribery, but in simpler post-WWII times, the Don Vito Corleone (Oscar winner Marlon Brando in one of cinema's great performances) listens to a man whose daughter has been abused. He wants justice, and knows his daughter's godfather is the man to bring it. This scene sets up the calm and unflinching nature of Vito Corleone as well as the scope of his power. Ask him for someone and it shall be done, not by him of course, but by one of his hired men.

This all takes place at his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding, where we are introduced to the entire Corleone clan -- the Don and his wife, his three sons (Oscar nominees James Caan and Al Pacino, and the wonderful but overlooked John Cazale) and his adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen (Oscar nominee Robert Duvall) -- in one incredible half-hour-long sequence. That's one-sixth of the movie right there.

Oh and I forgot. The outsider of the family: Michael's girlfriend and someday fiance Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). It's easy to forget her because everyone in the family does at some point, even Michael. The second film chronicles their marriage but the first begins with the young lovers with an insurmountable obstacle. Michael can't let Kay know the extent of his family's business without putting her in jeopardy. Does he keep it from her to protect her, or perhaps because he's a chauvinist asshole who believes she couldn't understand? The movie honestly doesn't answer this, but Kay is nevertheless kept outside of the story, much as we the audience are.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

So it usually comes as a surprise to us that such brutal and fantastically executed crime happens right before our eyes, as in this scene where we've been lulled into complacency as an audience with talk of cannoli and then... blam. Coppola doesn't spend a lot of time explaining, he just launches us head first into this world's logic and expects us to keep up. We can't ever quite catch up to him, much as the police are never quite able to catch up to the Corleones (unless they've been bribed not to). I love that in the shot above, the Statue of Liberty is in the background -- liberty and justice, no doubt -- and even more importantly, that her back is turned to us. Don't look now.

The film follows the family's exploits and the eventual transfer of power from the aging Don to his most trusted son Michael, who returns to the country after his murder of a drug lord and a corrupt police captain. Pacino is amazingly only 5' 6" -- this wouldn't be important except that his tiny frame has never been so prominently featured in a film, nor has it ever in my knowledge been so menacing as it is here. All three supporting Oscar nominees from this film (Duvall, Pacino and Caan) lost to Joel Grey for his performance in Cabaret, but they might have won in any other year. Plus, this is not a movie that needed Oscars to be lauded for all of movie history to hear. Let that be a lesson to you, Harvey Weinstein.

One of my favorite shots in the whole film is this one, in which the aging Don warns his son against further violence. The shot almost tricks the viewer visually into believing that the men are looking each other in the face, but eye contact is never made here, and unfortunately for the Corleone's, Vito's warnings are too little, too late for a man whose elder brother and Sicilian wife were both murdered by the mob. The sequence at the end which splices Michael's revenge with the baptism of his own son is one of many phenomenal achievements in editing, contrasting the beginning and ending of life, the birth of innocence and the death of compromise. Michael's ruthlessness knows no bounds.

He even goes to great lengths to convince his sister's husband that he has forgiven him for abusing her, but justice is swift. As swift as a kick to a windshield.

This blog entry didn't function as most of them have, as a recap of events. I've seen this movie more times than most on the list, and I'm not only anticipating the ending, but also fully aware that this movie will continue to expose new, exciting discoveries to me as I see it again and again. But there are some things I will never know, just as Kay (and the audience) is shut out of the private conversations we so long to eavesdrop on. She can't know, and if the second film is any indication, maybe it's better if she doesn't. But boy, it makes for a thrilling story. I have to read this book again!

Only one left. There's no way that's even possible, but it really really is. Citizen Kane. That's it. I will have seen all 100 movies. Then... onto a new project? I suppose!


  1. Lovely writing for such a fantastic important part cinema history. I've seen it numerous times as well and always get something new out of each viewing. Thanks for having us along!

  2. "The sequence at the end which splices Michael's revenge with the baptism of his own son..." The baby being baptized is his godson and nephew, Michael Rizzi.