Dialogue: Discussing the Family Business, Pt. 1: 'The Godfather'
With Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 gangster classic celebrating its 50th anniversary, we dive into a three-part conversation on the trilogy.
It’s the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece about crime, family, America, the best pasta dishes to feed a small army of goons, and so much more. We’re taking the opportunity to to talk about the saga as a whole. Join us as we work through the three Godfathers (not to be confused with John Ford’s 3 Godfathers, though that’s an excellent film in its own right).
Keith Phipps: The Godfather is one of the greatest movies ever made. I like to avoid hyperbole but, hey, sometimes facts are facts, right? It’s a propulsive piece of storytelling and an endlessly discussable work of art. (Hence, this column.) It’s also an act of slumming twice over, or at least began as such. Author Mario Puzo set out to write literary fiction, but so-so sales and a massive gambling addiction led him to sensationalistic tales of adventure and sex for magazines like Male and True Action under a pseudonym. The Godfather was an attempt to apply the skills he’d picked up via his magazine work to a book that people might actually want to buy. And they did, turning The Godfather into a hot property that the then-struggling Paramount wanted to make into a movie. Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t producer Robert Evans’ first choice for the film, and Coppola didn’t want to make it, either, thinking its sleazy elements beneath his art. But he too owed money thanks to his ambitions-but-struggling Zoetrope venture. So he took the job. And that combination of condescension and desperation resulted in a masterpiece.
I don’t want in any way to shortchange Puzo. The characters of The Godfather, the milieu of The Godfather, the mix of nobility and savagery of The Godfather, they’re all on the page. But the book is sleazy, famously and unapologetically. (Beyond depicting Sonny’s wedding day bathroom tryst in graphic detail there’s a whole subplot about… Actually, you’re better off googling it. I’m not sure I want to get into it.)
So what kind of alchemy was needed to turn it into the film we know? You can provide a list of great individual elements — the score, the cinematography, the production design, the performances — but is it simply a matter of adding them together and the sum total adding up to The Godfather? Maybe that’s a good place to throw it over to you to answer a question I’m not sure has an answer: Why is this movie so great?
Scott Tobias: Keith Phipps, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to this Google Doc.
The greatness of The Godfather is too big a question for me to wrap my head around, but the short answer is something you hinted at already. Coppola’s initial resistance to making the film—that he found Puzo’s work “sleazy”—winds up creating an essential tension: Puzo’s pulpy stories give The Godfather a powerful narrative engine, and that frees Coppola to give those stories a rich thematic and cultural context. You can see the tension pay off in the pacing, which is somehow both stately and the tightest three hours in cinema. Coppola delivers all the whackings the studio probably wanted, each one a small masterpiece of suspense and unforgettable staging, but they never shake him from the larger story he has in mind.
The largest, in fact. The story of America.
“I believe in America.” It’s there, plain as day, in the opening line, perhaps as close as the movies have gotten to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” or “Call me Ishmael.” Don Vito Corleone, the head of the Corleone crime family, is listening to an Italian mortician telling the story of his good daughter’s beating at the hands of vicious assailants and asking for a form of justice that the courts cannot give him. Though Vito will chide the man for not maintaining their friendship over the years—not the first time a Corleone will take umbrage over someone in the “legitimate” world keeping a distance from the family—he eventually acquiesces, with the proviso that the mortician make himself available for a “favor” in the future. (Favors are the unofficial currency of the mafia, along with acts of retaliatory violence.)
But the mortician’s speech is loaded with a significance that sets up not only The Godfather, but the entire trilogy—even though, at this point, Coppola ostensibly wasn’t looking ahead. The mortician’s daughter—presumably a second-generation immigrant, just like Vito’s kids—is framed as a virtuous young woman defiled by dishonorable men, and the symbolism is not lost on Vito. There’s no justice or respect extended to Italians who play by the rules, and no reward for the children of immigrants, who might expect some sliver of the American dream. This is a country not always great at keeping its promises.
Vito should know. His boys, Sonny and Fredo, have no future outside of the illicit family business, and circumstances will pull Michael, a “war hero” of formidable intelligence and charisma, into the morass. Marlon Brando’s performance as Vito isn’t among my favorites of his (or even among my favorites in this film), but the speech where he expresses his regret to Michael (“I never wanted this for you,” etc.) gives this theme a heavy dramatic punch. Vito is a condemned man and he knows it, despite his stewing over the hypocrisies of politicians and police captains whose own corruption and duplicity is shrouded in the heavy veil of public virtue. He surely admires Michael’s strength—the real, cold-blooded kind, as opposed to Sonny’s fiery temperament—but if he ever dreamed of a better life for his children, that dream dies right along with him.
One way of answering your question is another question: What does Coppola bring to the table? The fact that he even got the job is a miracle in itself, borne as much out of instinct as a résumé that suggested he’d be right. I suppose we should credit Robert Evans for his belief that an Italian-American should direct The Godfather, though Evans is the greatest of all unreliable narrators. (I love that The Kid Stays In the Picture exists—as a book, as a documentary, and especially as an audiobook, but Evans’ storytelling has a conspicuous “print the legend” quality.)
When I wrote a ranked list of Coppola’s work for Vulture a few years ago, I hadn’t seen a lot of his films pre-Godfather, so I went into the project hoping that Dementia 13, You’re a Big Boy Now, Finian’s Rainbow and The Rain People would be the bread crumbs that would obviously lead to this extraordinary masterwork. The best arguments I could come up with: 1. Finian’s Rainbow is a raggedy adaptation of a Broadway musical that’s of-the-counterculture-moment in some respects and weirdly old-fashioned in others, like the casting of a very old Fred Astaire. But it did prove that Coppola could manage a large-scale production. 2. Coppola (and Edmund H. North) had just won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1971 for Patton, which has a feeling for history and quite literally takes a tour through Italy. 3. The Rain People is a brilliant movie with a superb James Caan supporting performance. It probably wasn’t much of a factor in getting Coppola the job, but it has to be said.
But let’s hear from you first, Keith. How did Evans’ instinct to use an Italian-American filmmaker pay off? The wedding sequence is a prime example of Coppola’s sensibility: In terms of the basic plotting, the wedding needs to introduce the main characters while the festivities are juxtaposed with the dark appointments being kept in Vito’s office. Instead, it’s in the heart and soul of the movie.
Keith: Hindsight being 20/20 it’s obvious that Coppola was the right choice for the job, but you’re right that it isn’t obvious then. The Rain People is really good, but it’s also a kind of loosely plotted road movie largely filmed on found locations (including a repulsive roadside “zoo” with standards that would embarrass Joe Exotic). I’m currently reading and enjoying Mark Seal’s book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. Here’s a list of some of the other directors considered for the job: Arthur Penn, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gavras, Otto Preminger, Peter Yates, Sam Peckinpah, and Sidney J. Furie. While I’d love to peek into an alternate universe and watch those directors’ Godfathers (maybe not Furie’s, as much as I love The IPCRESS File), Coppola and The Godfather have become inextricable. If current trends toward franchising everything to death continue, we’ll almost certainly get a Coppola-less Godfather project somewhere down the line. That’s another reason to root for current trends not to continue.
How much of that can be attributed to Coppola being Italian? I don’t know if I have an answer for that. Both Puzo and Coppola understood Italian-American traditions from the inside (while their knowledge of the Mob came from the outside). And there are details in Coppola’s biography that echo in the film as well. His sister, Talia Shire, is on the screen. His father, Carmine Coppola, provides some of the music. That’s Sofia Coppola getting baptized at the end. But I’m particularly struck by the intense fraternal relationships at the heart of the film, especially between Michael and Sonny, which at times resembles the way Coppola talks about his relationship with his older brother August, whom he regarded heroically as a boy and who helped form his tastes in literature and movies (and who would later father one Nicolas Cage… and now you know… the rest of the story).
Evans and Paramount certainly couldn’t have asked for a director with better instincts, even if Coppola often had to fight to get his way. Brando, Pacino, Caan, and Keaton were all his first choices for their respective roles and yet he had to go through an elaborate song and dance of screen testing others. Those choices now look as essential to The Godfather as Coppola’s involvement. I’m not sure where Brando’s performance falls short for you. I think it’s remarkable, especially the way he plays Don Vito’s slow decline, a time of ambling around, repeating himself, feeding the fish, and wearing cardigans. But I’ll grant you that I kind of can see other actors playing the part, as Burt Lancaster and Ernest Borgnine wanted to do. (So did Danny Thomas, who considered buying a stake in the struggling Paramount to secure the role. That I have a hard time picturing)
But I find picturing anyone else in these career-making roles kind of impossible to imagine, especially Pacino. I don’t want to bag on Pacino’s later performing style, which I often enjoy (and which we’ll sample when we get to Part III). But the heart of the movie is his quiet intensity and the way he suggests both Michael’s corruption by the family business and how that corruption is tied to his love for that family. So is the seeming inevitability of his corruption. We’ll get into this more with Part II (and probably Part III), but I see Coppola’s Godfather films as deeply fatalistic works. This is a world in which characters have few choices. They’re often playing parts written for them long ago.
Can you picture anyone else playing the Corleone kids, Scott? And, on the subject of Michael in particular, does this film have a Rubicon moment in your eyes? Does he get drawn into the, um, import-export business by degrees or is there a conscious choice to pass the point of no return?
Scott: I can’t possibly go wish-casting over an ensemble this perfect. Forget just the Corleone kids. Can you imagine anyone other than Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi or Sterling Hayden as the corrupt police captain or Abe Vigoda as the turncoat who begins the film dancing with a little girl on his feet and ends it quietly pleading for his life? Neither can I.
The question of Michael’s descent into the family business is interesting to me, because Pacino plays everything so close to the vest, befitting a character given more to cold calculation than macho bluster. There’s never a point at which Michael doesn’t have a voice in the family conversation, however, so it’s really just a series of events—Vito’s near-assassination, Sonny’s extremely successful assassination—that brings him to power. His protestations (“That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.”) are an audacious lie that I think he sincerely wishes to make true. He is well-aware of Corleone business, despite his seeming distance from the day-to-day as the film opens, and he does feel a sense of obligation to step up when nobody else can hold the family together. (Apologies to Fredo, who’s off in Las Vegas getting jerked around by Moe Greene.)
We can only really know Michael by his actions, which are always shrewd and often unfeeling, as if he were natural selection’s predatory advance on his father. He has a plan to get the Corleones out of New York, where they’re on the losing end of the power struggle with the other mob families, and to Las Vegas, where the casino business offers the promise of legitimacy. In order for the plan to work, he has to alienate everyone close to him: Kay, who’s left with little explanation as he ships off to Sicily indefinitely and winds up marrying another woman; Fredo, who he embarrasses mere moments after he arrives in Vegas; Connie, who’s upset that he murders her duplicitous abuser of a husband; and Tom, who gets demoted for not being a “wartime” consigliere. He also pulls off the timed assassination of New York mob bosses, which Coppola intercuts masterfully with a baptism, with the first shooting timed to recitation of the words, “Michael Francis Rizzi, do you renounce Satan?”
My interpretation of Michael—once that’s reinforced by the structure of The Godfather Part II—is that, simply, he’s his father’s son. He wants a better life for his own children, and if that means sacrificing his soul, then so be it. Even though his life is under threat, there’s some vision of happiness to his exile in Italy, where he marries the prettiest woman in town and puts an ocean’s distance between himself and family affairs. But that’s not in the cards for him. He’s a contradictory character because he’s capable of unleashing violence of astonishing viciousness and scope, but he’s also trapped in a life he genuinely never wanted. He’s stepping into a role that will quickly define him.
Keith, what are some of your favorite moments? Coppola and his collaborators invest so much detail in every aspect that it feels like we should wrap this up by celebrating a few of them.
Keith: Three Great Moments in The Godfather
• I’m going to echo a touch cited by our friends Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen at Filmspotting. The staging of the famous “Take the cannoli” hit is so marvelous. The wind blowing through the fields. The Statue of Liberty in the background (a detail deepened by an echo in Part II). The sheer simplicity of it. A life ends in the middle of nowhere with no fanfare, just some gunshots no one but those responsible will hear. (But, hey, don’t let that get in the way of bringing home dessert.)
• “I’m with you now.” Pacino’s delivery of that line seems to let the viewer decide where to place the emphasis. He’s there by his father’s side physically. That’s obvious. But the story will soon reveal he’s now with him in other ways.
• “Mikey, why don't you tell that nice girl you love her? I love you with all-a my heart, if I don't see-a you again soon, I'm-a gonna die!” The film is so good at humanizing its characters and making us like them in moments like this. We forget they’re heartless killers at our own peril.
Over to you.
Scott: And now a few from me:
• Mama Corleone getting summoned to the stage for “Che Le Luna” at the wedding. The amount of detail that gets poured into the staging of that wedding is astounding and clearly important to Coppola, who does not want to make a film that denigrates Italian-American culture– which is not easy to do under the circumstances. But the reception is so joyous that at moments we can forget, as we watch, that the context for it is a gangster film.
• The series of dissolves leading up to Jack Woltz finding the head of his $600,000 horse in his bed. The entire Hollywood sequence, where Tom is sent to strongarm Woltz into casting Johnny Fontaine in a career-making role, is handled like an episodic story-within-a-story. It’s cordoned off from the rest of the film, a ripe tale to demonstrate the reach of the Corleone family. Coppola doesn’t want to linger on it any longer than necessary—the story has that Puzo pulp sleaze about it —so when we get to the punchline, the morning after Woltz adamantly refuses to comply, the movement from the grounds of Woltz’s estate to his bed is shortened by dissolves. It’s an elegant way to cut to the chase.
• Don Vito’s death is an obvious one, but it’s singular. For one, this is not how mob bosses are supposed to go out. They’re either killed or they’re tossed in a prison cell for the rest of their lives. Vito gets to have this lovely scene in the tomato vines with his grandson, aping around with an orange peel in his mouth while the boy gibbers happily with his water can. But Vito doesn’t exactly pass peacefully, either. He suffers a heart attack or stroke, grabs unsuccessfully to the vines for support, and collapses in a heap. It’s an ordinary death, but even those deaths are shocking.
Next week: A younger Don Vito and an older Michael in The Godfather Part II. Also, this will be the last entry in this series available in full to non-paying subscribers. But accessing future entries isn’t the only reason to subscribe. Your support helps keep The Reveal going, opens up commenting privileges, and guarantees nothing will be behind a paywall for you in the future.
On the “I’m with you line”, two additional keys to that scene. First, Vito’s tears as he realizes his son is there with him while also acknowledging the destruction of those hope and dreams he has for Michael that he alludes to later. In that moment, the idea of Governor Corelone is dashed. Second, the scene on the steps outside the hospital with Enzo after the assassins drive off. Enzo tries to light a cigarette but his hands are shaking too badly, but Michael is as cool as they come, lights the smoke without a problem and acknowledges this with a brief look as he closes the lighter. Perhaps a realization he was indeed meant for this.
Excited for these discussions. Keep up the good work.
Great stuff folks!
I've never really delved into Godfather trivia before but whoa, a Yates version sounds hella interesting to me. I'm sure it wouldn't have been as good but I probably would love it - more grubby, more bummed out, less musical.
I do love a few other Coppola movies but one thing that this movie and it's weirdly poured-over-process kind of show is just how much movies are collaborations and how many people doing great work together really can add up to a lot. I have doubts that this would ever get rebooted or remade or sequalized - just feels like it looms too large (like The Exorcist - just easier to rip off what you want), but, it feels like a prime target for a "let's make a movie about how this movie got made" pass.