Skip to comments.At 40 Years Old, 'The Godfather' Has a Profound and Complicated Legacy
Posted on 04/12/2012 10:21:04 PM PDT by nickcarraway
Once, it was thought of as the gangster movie to end all gangster movies.
Before he played Don Corleone, Marlon Brando had been all but written off after several flops. But of course that's exactly what "The Godfather," which opened in New Jersey 40 years ago this Saturday, was not.
Instead, it was the gangster movie that began all gangster movies, at least as we know them now: not just its own sequels, "The Godfather: Part II" and "The Godfather: Part III," but also "Goodfellas," "Donnie Brasco," "Analyze This," "Scarface," "The Freshman," "Prizzi's Honor" and "Married to the Mob," not to mention "The Sopranos." But "The Godfather" is the epic original: the "Gone With the Wind" of the boomer generation.
"It's compulsively watchable," says Teaneck-born critic Leonard Maltin. "If you should stumble onto it on cable, you can't stop watching it."
This is not the only iconic film to mark an anniversary this year; "Casablanca" returns to theaters Wednesday in honor of its 70th (for more, see Monday's Better Living).
"The Godfather" has also aged in an interesting way. Back in 1972, it was thought to be a movie that exploded all the romantic Hollywood myths about criminals. These bad guys, critics said, were not glamorous lone-wolf heroes like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney; they were yes-men who followed orders from a vast hierarchical organization, just like the guy sitting in the next cubicle at work.
But this, it turned out, was the most romantic thing of all. The idea of a powerful, all-embracing family that would protect you, avenge your wrongs and license you to go out and kill your enemies was exactly what made "The Godfather" far more seductive than old-fashioned gangster movies like "Little Caesar" and "The Public Enemy."
Italian-Americans, needless to say, have a complicated relationship with this film. On the one hand, it reinforces stereotypes of Italians as gangsters an old concern about Hollywood crime movies (there were similar complaints, in the 1930s, about "Little Caesar" and "Scarface").
On the other hand, it makes those gangsters so attractive, so sexy, so exciting, so operatically tragic, that Italian-American kids were proud to identify with them, and non-Italians were envious. Real-life Mafiosi took the Corleones as role models, just as gangsters of the 1930s practiced lines like "I'm takin' over the whole North Side, see?" with a Little Caesar snarl.
"The Godfather" is memorable for lots of reasons:
As the great comeback film of Marlon Brando the 20th century's most iconic actor, the genius of "On the Waterfront," who had been all but written off after a string of 1960s clinkers. He gave the performance of his life as Don Corleone then he gave Hollywood the finger, sent Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his Best Actor Oscar and settled back into his long road to hell, which in his case turned out to be "The Island of Dr. Moreau."
As a fount of clichés: "I made him an offer he can't refuse." "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." "May your first child be a masculine child." "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."
As a great collaboration: Director Francis Ford Coppola was matched in brilliance by his cast, by cinematographer Gordon Willis, by composer Nino Rota and by novelist Mario Puzo, who started it all. (Paramount Pictures is currently trying to stop Anthony Puzo, son of Mario, from publishing a new sequel to the novel, due out in May.)
As an example of sheer movie storytelling at its best. There are those who prefer "The Godfather: Part II," a brilliant film in its own right. But it's the first "Godfather," a film that begins with a wedding and ends with the killing of the groom, that has the great story arc. It is, above all, the story of the Fall of Lucifer: Michael (Al Pacino), the apple of his father's eye, the brightest hope of the future, the college boy who will lead the Corleone family to legitimacy, turns to the dark side and ends up the coldest, most fearsome gangster of all. Brando's look of pain, when he discovers that it was his son Michael who killed his enemies, is unforgettable.
As inside baseball: Real people and incidents are referenced throughout the film. Perhaps the best Brando's slapping the Frank Sinatra surrogate, Al Martino. In real life, there was little love lost between "Mumbles," as Sinatra called him, and Frank, who resented the actor for landing the roles he wanted in "On the Waterfront" and "Guys and Dolls." "Sinatra is the kind of guy," Brando once said, "that when he dies, he's going up to heaven and give God a bad time for making him bald."
As a showcase for a new generation of actors. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Talia Shire, John Cazale, all gave the performances of their lives in this film (as did Robert De Niro in "Godfather II"). The close shot of Pacino's eyes, darting crazily back and forth in the seconds before he shoots Sollozzo, may be the great, virtuoso example of movie-acting in film history.
As a watershed in movie violence. Audiences in 1972 were horrified to see the bloody horse's head, and James Caan being riddled with bullets at the tollbooth. Today, arguably, schoolchildren are exposed to worse.
"It troubled me at the time that this epic saga was about ruthless gangsters, who murdered people with reckless abandon," says Maltin, who never forgot his first exposure to "The Godfather" at the now-defunct Rialto in Ridgefield Park. "But it's undeniably fascinating."
A few weeks ago I thoroughly enjoyed at the theater the digitally enhanced n “redone” GF1 in XD at Cinemark . I had forgotten quite a bit but it all came back quickly. This Thursday Gf2 will be in theaters for one day. Also enhanced n XD at Cinemark. Don’t think there are plans for 3 or 4
James Caan was VERY attractive in that movie n most women were attracted to his protective attitude toward his sister. His Tomcat morality presented the challenge. Couldn’t trust that hunk further than you could throw him
One of the first good laws, in fact "The Man Law" clearly states the only two movies guys are allowed to cry over are "Old Yeller" and "Brian's Song."
“...the only two movies guys are allowed to cry over are “Old Yeller” and “Brian’s Song.”
Awwww.... I gave up animal stories when I was about 12, why are they always sad?