AFI #2: The Godfather

TheGodfatherAlPacinoMarlonBrandoThe 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

AFI #19: On The Waterfront

on_the_waterfrontWell, we’ve cracked the top 20 and things are heating up, literally. Temperatures are rising on the docks in 1954’s On The Waterfront, a film that reminds one how amazing movies and acting can be. I don’t even know where to start with this film, so I’ll just jump right in. The story is intense, focusing on a washed up boxer (Terry Malloy played by Marlon Brando) who works on the docks and runs errands for a mobster union boss. When he becomes the central figure in a mob hit and falls for the sister of the dead stool pigeon his life gets turned upside down and he’s torn between staying D&D (deaf and dumb) or singing like a canary (talking to the cops). Throw in a priest with the passion to make things right on the docks and you get the age-old right versus wrong debate.

For film lovers On The Waterfront has it all, but nothing better than Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy. Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three times prior to this film, but he finally won his first Oscar for his portrayal of Malloy. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that his performance is one of the greatest ever captured on film and it has become iconic. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Brando in the film as his character begins as a happy-go-lucky guy with a cushy union job and no worries to the central figure in a major crime wave. He plays Malloy with his characteristic intensity and you believe he is a dumb New York dock worker who maybe got hit a few too many times as a prize fighter. And of course, he utters the classic monologue in the back of a cab when his brother threatens to kill him if he snitches on the mob:

“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

Nearly 30 years later Robert De Niro used the same lines while winning an Oscar himself for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, which for the record is No. 4 on the AFI list.

But back to On The Waterfront. It took home eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Eva Marie Saint. Kazan’s direction was marvelous and along with Leonard Bernstein’s Oscar-winning score provided the perfect mood for the big city docks. Karl Malden was terrific as the priest, who acts as the moral compass for the film and makes the comparison between the sacrifice of the “stool pigeon” and the sacrifice of Jesus. His speeches to the dock workers were also worthy of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

When you think of film in the 1950s On The Waterfront rises to the surface as a masterpiece. Four of the top 20 AFI films are from the 1950s, but On The Waterfront really encompasses the style of the decade. Bernstein’s score has a lot to do with it, but also Kazan’s direction and Brando’s method make the film edgy and alive. But make no mistake — this film as all Brando. And if you don’t like it then I’d be happy to give you a one-way ticket to palooka-ville!

Next: The General

AFI # 47: A Streetcar Named Desire

Stella! Stella!

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those films I’ve always heard about but never saw. And of course, the famous scene with Marlon Brando screaming for his wife Stella has become a meme and a staple of any Hollywood montage sequence. I also must admit I have never read any Tennessee Williams plays nor have I seen any other films based on Tennessee Williams writing, so I’m not expert on the guy or his genre. My guess is that the play was better than the film and the written work was better than the play. I say this because the screenplay is clearly the highlight of the film and as if you need any proof the acting ensemble all took home Oscars or Oscar nominations — good writing!

Let’s get this out of the way first — I really didn’t like the film. In fact, I fell asleep for a few minutes in the middle of the damn thing. But I did like the acting and the screenplay. Vivian Leigh was amazing as Blanche DuBois and it seemed as if the part was written for her. For anyone who thought her turn as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was a clinic on overacting, she certainly redeemed herself 12 years later as DuBois. She won the Oscar for both, but without question her portrayal of DuBois was a tour de force. It’s never easy to play someone who is mentally ill without going over the top, but in this role she slowly starts to come apart from the beginning of the film until she completely loses it by the end. Brilliant work. Karl Malden was also very good as poor Mitch who falls for Blanche and watches as she comes undone. It’s funny how we think of an actor like Karl Malden for one particular role (for me Karl will always be Detective Mike Stone from The Streets of San Francisco) but he has quite a film career prior to his television success. Malden won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film and was nominated again a few years later for On The Waterfront. Kim Hunter was also nominated for an Oscar, for her role as Stella. I had no idea who she was until I looked her up on IMDB and found out she made a name for herself as Zira in The Planet of the Apes series!

And then there was Marlon Brando. What can we say about Mr. Brando? The man was nominated eight times for an Academy Award and won twice (for On The Waterfront and The Godfather). He was nominated for his role in this film as the brutish Stanley Kowalski and frankly I could barely understand a fucking word he said. What is it with this guy? Why is a guy who mumbles like this considered such a great actor? I don’t get it. He’s the film equivalent of Bob Dylan (the greatest mumbler of all time). I get that he’s a method actor who gets into the head of his characters, but why the hell can’t he annunciate? Whatever.

Maybe I’m just not a Tennessee Williams fan. We’ll see as he gets another shot later in the AFI list.

Next: It Happened One Night