Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Forty-five years ago “The Godfather” first hit screens and it immediately became embedded in American pop culture consciousness. Its enduring impact has defined the parameters of an entire genre, the mob movie, with its satisfying blend of old and new filmmaking. It’s also come to be regarded as the apogee of the New Hollywood even though it was very much made in the old studio system manner. The difference being that Coppola was in the vanguard of the brash New Hollywood directors. He would go on to direct in many different styles, but with “The Godfather” he chose a formalistic, though decidely not formulaic, approach in keeping with the work of old masters like William Wyler and Elia Kazan but also reflective of the New Waves in cinema from around the world.
I actually think his “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” are better films than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” because he had even more creative control on them and didn’t have the studios breathing down his neck the way he did on the first “Godfather” film.
But there is no doubt that with “The Godfather” and its sequel he and his creative collaborators gave us indelible images. enduring lines, memorable characters, impressive set pieces and total immersion in a shadowy world hitherto unknown to us.
I think it’s safe to say that while any number of filmmakers could have made a passable adaptation of the Maria Puzo novel then, only Francis Ford Coppola could have given it such a rich, deeply textured look and feel. He found a way into telling this intimate exploration of a crime family pursing its own version of the American Dream that was at once completely specific to the characters but also totally universal. Their personal, familial journey as mobsters, though foreign to us, became our shared journey because the layered details of their daily lives, aspirations and struggles mirrored in many ways our own.
In many ways “The Godfather” saga is the classic tale of The Other, in this case an immigrant patriarch who uses his guile and force of personality to find extra legal ways of serving the interests of his people, his family and the public.
Coppola was ideally suited to make the project more than just another genre movie or mere surface depiction of a colorful subculture because he straddled multiple worlds that gave him great insights into theater, literature, cinema, culture, history, this nation and the Italian-American experience. Growing up in 1940s-1950s New York, Coppola was both fully integrated into the mainstream as a second generation Italian-American and apart from it in an era when ethnic identity was a huge thing.
The filmmaker’s most essential skill is as a writer and with “The Godfather” he took material that in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes and elevated it to mythic, Shakespearean dimensions without ever sacrificing reality. That’s a difficult feat. He did the same with “Patton,” the 1970 film he wrote but that Franklin Schaffner helmed.
Of course, what Coppola does in the sequel to “The Godfather” is truly extraordinary because he goes deeper, more epic yet and still never loses the personal stories and characterizations that anchor the whole thing. In “The Godfather II,” which is partly also a prequel, he establishes the incidents, rhythms and motivations that made Don Corleone who he was when we meet him in the first film. Of course, Coppola subsequently reedited “Godfather I and II” to create a seamless, single narrative that covers the genesis and arc of the Corleone empire in America and its roots in Italy.
“Godfather III” does not work nearly as well as the first two films and seems a forced or contrived rather than organic continuation and culmination of the saga.
The best directors will tell you that casting, next to the script and the editing process, is the most important part of filmmaking and with the first two “Godfather” films, which are hard to separate because they are so intertwined, Coppola mixed and matched a great stew of Method and non-Method actors to create a great ensemble.
The depth of acting talent and pitch perfect performances are staggering: Brando, Pacino, Caan, Cazale, Duvall, Conte, Hayden, Keaton, Castellano, Marley, Lettieri, Vigoda, Shire, Spradlin, Rocco, De Niro. Strasberg, Kirby, “Godfather I and II” arguably the best cast films of all time, from top to bottom. One of the best portrayals is by an actor none of us have ever heard of – Gastone Moschin. He memorably plays the infamous Fanucci in Part II. And there are many other Italian and American actors whose names are obscure but whose work in those films is brilliant. Coppola is a great director of actors and he beautifully blends and modulates these performances by very different players.
Coppola’s great way into the story was making it a dark rumination on the American Dream. He saw the dramatic potential of examining the mafia as a culture and community that can exist outside the law by exploiting the fear, avarice and greed of people and working within the corruption of the system to gain power and influence. Personally, I’ve always thought of the films as variations of vampire tales because these dark, brooding characters operate within a very old, secret, closed society full of ritual. They also prey on the weak and do their most ignominious work at night, under the cover of darkness. drawing the blood of the innocent and not so innocent alike. While these mob creatures do not literally feast on blood, they do extract blood money and they do willfully spill blood, even from colleagues, friends and family. No one is safe while they inhabit the streets. Alongside the danger they present, there is also something seductive, even romantic about mobsters operating outside the law/ And there is also the allure of the power they have and the fear they incite.
“The Godfather” set the standard for crime films from there on out. It’s been imitated but never equaled by those who’ve tried. Sergio Leone took his own singular approach to the subject matter in “Once Upon a Time in America” and may have actually surpassed what Coppola did. Michael Mann came close in “Heat.” But Coppola got there first and 45 years since the release of “The Godfather” it has not only stood the test of time but perhaps even become more admired than before, if that’s even possible. That film and its sequel continue to haunt us because they speak so truthfully, powerfully and personally to the family-societal-cultural-political dynamics they navigate. For all their venal acts, we care about the characters because they follow a code and we can see ourselves in them. We are equally repelled and attracted to them because they embody the very worst and best in us. And for those reasons these films will always be among the most watched and admired of all time.