The Godfather is likely the most critically acclaimed film of all time, even though it did not take the top spot in the AFI survey. Still, it’s hard to find any critic who does not place The Godfather among the greatest films ever made. When it was released in 1972 it was the highest grossing film that year and for many years held the record for the highest grossing American film. It won a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Acting Oscar for Marlon Brando. The film cemented Francis Ford Coppola’s position among the best American film makers, and it catapulted Al Pacino into legendary actor status — which he formalized two years later with his legendary performance in The Godfather Part II.
But there is something else about The Godfather that struck a chord with viewers and has made it such an enduring film. My personal view is that the film speaks to the American immigrant experience and the success of the underdog and that certainly resonates with most Americans. But more than that, The Godfather was the first film to delve into the psyche of the American criminal and give us insight into the motivations of truly bad people. That and we love a good mob hit!
There were plenty of mobster films before The Godfather, but they were caricatures of mobsters, with the likes of James Cagney sneering and shooting his Tommy gun. In The Godfather we have much more robust characters. In The Godfather Part II we learn what drove Vito Corleone to a life of crime, essentially his inability to provide for his family in any other way plus the revenge of his own father’s murder. In The Godfather we see a more measured and mature Vito trying to keep his family where it is while avoiding the pitfalls of the growing narcotics trade. His maturity is in stark contrast to Sonny’s youthful exuberance and lust for power, which ultimately gets him whacked. But the real story of The Godfather is the precursor to Part II, in which we see a young Michael return from war thinking he could stay away from his family business only to be dragged in when things get personal for him. As he sees his father shot he gets a twinge of understanding for the family business, and then when his wife his killed in Sicily and his brother is gunned down he returns to America fully engaged in the family business. It is this change in Michael that provides the climax of The Godfather when Michael kills off the heads of the other four mafia families and whacks Moe Green as well to establish the family’s dominance not just in New York but across America. We see how that turns out in Part II, but the change in Michael is fascinating to watch and he ultimately becomes a much more ruthless killer than his father.
I don’t know anyone who likes The Godfather that doesn’t root for the family, even though we know what they are doing is against the law and immoral. We cheer when Michael kills Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo in the restaurant and we love when Clemenza strangles Connie’s husband for setting up Sonny. Not only do we love it when Clemenza kills Paulie for setting up Don Corleone, but we celebrate his famous line following the kill — “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” We feel compassion for the Corleone family when Sonny gets killed and when Michael’s wife is blown up in Sicily. We root for the killers. It’s the phenomenon that later has us relating to Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan. Before The Godfather killers didn’t have feelings.
Of course The Godfather is one of the most quoted movies of all time, especially among men but even women love the bad guys. “Don’t ask me about my business Kay.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” And the most famous line, #2 on the AFI list of best movie lines ever: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
So, do I love The Godfather? No, but I like it a lot and understand its place in the history of American film. I also liked Part II, but as I said in that review I think you can’t separate the two films as they are really part of the same story, especially when you consider how Coppola shot the films out of chronological order. I’m not saying it should be seen chronologically, but when you understand the chronology the films are better. The films also gave us several iconic characters and has spawned hundreds of tributes and references. George Lucas, for example, said that the baptism scene in The Godfather was his inspiration for the scene in Episode III when Anakin Skywalker kills the separatist leaders and announces the beginning of the Galactic Empire. If there were no Godfather there would have been no Goodfellas or Casino or Sopranos. The Godfather is truly a great and important American film.
Next: Citizen Kane