Modern cinema simply could not exist as it is without The Godfather. Francis Coppola’s masterpiece redefined the width and depth that movies could explore, and inspired a million imitations and homages along the way. No film has ever distilled disparate elements so well: Arthouse ambition melds with pure popcorn entertainment. Nouvelle Vague flourishes flow through the dimensions of an old-school Hollywood epic. Coppola’s scope is both sweeping and majestic, and yet this story also functions as an intensely intimate character study. The resulting film is gripping, visceral, and timeless–a worthy addition to our cinematic Mount Rushmore.
The plot is so iconic that it will probably feel familiar to those who haven’t even seen the movie. Based on Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel, we follow the post-war exploits of a mafia empire, and the gradual transition of power within it. In the beginning, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) reigns as The Godfather. In modern money, he’d be a billionaire. Senators, judges, and police captains immediately take his calls. His family lives in great opulence. But as the Don grows older, his hold on the regime begins to slip. Michael (Al Pacino), Vito’s youngest son, slowly begins to assert his quiet, ruthless nature over the family.
Along this bloody, tragic journey, Coppola (who co-writes with Puzo) packs his story with vibrant characters: Santino (James Caan) is the oldest and most volatile of Vito’s children. Adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) serves as the family’s level-headed lawyer. And then there’s poor Fredo (an underrated John Cazale), the middle son. He’s a good-hearted doofus. In a family like this, that means he’s probably doomed.
Both the female leads live as victims of the family’s reckless ruthlessness. Connie (Talia Shire), Vito’s only daughter, memorably opens the film by marrying Carlo (Gianni Russo). He is abusive and unfaithful, and their farcical marriage has dire consequences for all the Corleones. Kay (Diane Keaton) is a patient, grounded schoolteacher who receives the curse of falling in love with Michael. Of all the people who experience Michael’s casual cruelty, nobody gets it worse than Kay. Appropriate then, that the film’s legendary final shot is one last crime against her.
I have a list of twenty five or so perfect movies, and The Godfather resides at the very top. Everything about it just clicks. We’ll start with the performances. Brando’s ego and eccentricities loom so large that it’s easy to forget how masterful he truly was. Twenty years before this film, his Stanley Kowalski brought fragile angst and billowing anger to the modern leading man, so it’s even more remarkable that Brando would win his second Oscar by playing restrained. Don Vito is a man of cool calculation; much of his wisdom is built on knowing which cards not to play, and the most critical moments to not play them. Every word and tic of Brando’s work seems perfectly placed, which is amazing when you realize that he spent much of this shoot reading from cue cards.
For all of Brando’s instinctive brilliance, he might not even be the defining presence in the movie. Pacino inhabits babyfaced Michael with the assuredness of an actor with Serpico, Scarface, and Frank Slade already on his resume. The result is one of the most complex and enigmatic protagonists in movie history: Michael combines his father’s savvy leadership with Santino’s penchant for brazen violence to form his family’s best hope and worst nightmare, all in one lethal bundle. Stunningly, Pacino did not win the Oscar for this, his signature work.
Neither did Coppola, for that matter. Yes, he and Puzo shared the Adapted Screenplay statue, but the Academy chose to award Bob Fosse for Cabaret, instead. (And don’t get it twisted. Cabaret is a damn fine movie, but…raise your hand if you’ve actually seen it!) Coppola and master cinematographer Gordon Willis create a paradoxical aesthetic that’s somehow gorgeous and shadowy–a grimy neo noir landscape, painted in a million colors. The Academy would make amends by awarding Coppola Best Director for Part II, but I would argue his work here is just as strong. (In one of the biggest snubs in Oscar history, Willis wasn’t nominated for either flick.) Much like Brando, Coppola’s later career would invite derision, but The Godfather duology (much like Bruno, we don’t talk about III), The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now remind us that he was the preeminent auteur of the New Hollywood movement.
Like an aged Montalcino, you have to drink deeply from The Godfather to fully savor its greatness: There’s Nino Rota’s legendary score, with its solemn trumpet solos and trembling mandolins. Next, you can tick off all the iconic one-liners and gangster references that have become part of pop culture lore. (That was a real horse’s head!) Or, you can enjoy John Cazale’s criminally underrated turn as knuckleheaded Fredo, who always seems to be three martinis into a bender. While you’re at it, soak up all the eccentric supporting turns, from Lenny Montana as a hulking, bug-eyed henchman, to Richard Castellano’s underboss, who never lets a street war get in the way of a good pot of sausage. Long story short, The Godfather is rich enough to keep you coming back for more.
But don’t take my word for it. You should see The Godfather, well…simply because you have to. It’s a cultural landmark. Look beyond its monolithic status, and you’ll simply find an exceptional piece of entertainment. The Godfather is the rare classic that actually gets better with age.
175 min. R. Paramount+.