For the most part, the rest of the 1970’s are going to be a pretty difficult time for making decisions for this project. It’s an incredibly stacked decade, leading to some of the toughest competitions that I’ll face throughout this entire project. Today is not one of those times, though. For a couple reasons. On the one hand, as you can tell, I picked the Godfather. Which, is probably an obvious choice. But, on the other hand, it’s not exactly the best year for other choices. I mean, there’s some good stuff in 1972, like Deliverance, but there’s also a whole lot of stuff that I’ve just never made the time for, and I can’t imagine that I would like any of it better than the Godfather. And, as hilarious as it would be for me to talk about the Poseidon Adventure yet again, I would tear my hair out. Otherwise there’s just a lot of stuff that’s been on my watch list for ages, and have never really sparked a whole lot of interest. And, when it came time to research for today’s installment of Cinematic Century, nothing really stood out to me as a movie I thought could topple the Godfather. I hit on this a bit when I discussed Citizen Kane way back when, but there’s a certain amount of pressure when it comes to years featuring some of the movies that frequently get labeled as the “best of all time.” Because there’s kind of an inclination to not pick it, because it gets talked about too much, and the feeling you should instead highlight something else a little more esoteric that doesn’t get the spotlight. But, the whole point of this project is to share my favorite films of any given year, and if I listen to my heart there’s no way to deny that my favorite film of 1972 wouldn’t be the Godfather. Movies that get a reputation as being a towering achievement in cinematic history can sometimes fail to live up to the hype, and other times find ways to exceed it. And, every time I’ve watched this film, I’ve had to admit that it exceeds the legacy.
The Godfather began life as a novel by Mario Puzo, but maybe not in the way you’d expect. Because Puzo’s novel was a massive success, staying on the New York Times Best Seller list for more than a year, and earning a crazy amount of money. But, the movie wasn’t made because of that. Paramount already had the film rights before the book had even been published, and for a pittance. All because Puzo was apparently desperate for some quick cash to pay off some gambling debts, signing onto a pretty lackluster contract that ended up creating one of the biggest films ever made. Which, seemed to have caught everyone off guard. Paramount was coming off some very rough years, and were pretty desperate for a hit, but one that also wouldn’t cost them a lot of money. So, hoping to lend some authenticity to the film, they started seeking out an Italian-American director. And, after apparently being rejected by every Italian in Hollywood, they ended up offering the film to Francis Ford Coppola, and relatively new director whose production company owed Paramount quite a bit of money after bankrolling some huge flops. Coppola wasn’t entirely sold on the book, but ended up giving in any way, throwing himself into a series of fights with the studio to make this film anything special. And, after the book becomes a runaway success, he got the ability to do so. Coppola fought to make the Godfather as big a film as possible, drawing in a stable of incredibly famous actors and hot up-and-comers, gaining the clout to make the film a period piece that was largely shot on-location, and just generally given the respect that he felt the massive story needed. And, it paid off. The Godfather was a huge success, becoming the highest grossing films of the year, and one of the highest of all time. And, it wasn’t just the public, the critics loved it too, leading it to picking up a whole bunch of awards, and earning the film the respect that it still holds to today. It’s one of the most famous American films of all time, and it still holds a sway over pop culture. And, when you watch it, it’s easy to see why. It’s a true American epic.
The Godfather opens up in 1945, on the day of the wedding of Connie Corleone, daughter of Don Vito Corleone, one of the most powerful criminals in New York. He’s the head of a crime family, and by tradition he is holding court during his daughter’s reception, accepting requests from various people for him to help them. And, while he meets with people asking for his help in their crimes we’re introduced to the rest of his family. The heir to the empire is the hotheaded Sonny who is living as hedonistically as possible, he’s given advice by his adopted son Tom Hagen who acts as the consigliere of the family, his screw-up son Fredo is around, and his youngest son Michael has just returned from the War, visiting the wedding with his girlfriend Kay who is shocked by the world she’s fallen into. Vito does everything he can to help the people who seek his help, as demonstrated by the way that he helps his own godson, Johnny Fontane, a singer who is hoping to break into movies. Vito helps his godson out by sending Tom Hagen to threaten the head of a movie studio into giving Johnny the part, reaching the point of having Hagen kill the studio head’s prized stallion and place its head in his bed to prove their point. Things seem to be going very well for the Corleone family, and Don Vito is untouchable. That is until he and the family are approached by a man named Sollozzo who is backed by a rival family, inquiring to see if the Corleone’s would be interested into investing in his narcotics operation. Corleone refuses, and ends up earning the wrath of Sollozzo and the Tattaglia crime family, leading to a mob-war which reaches a zenith when Don Vito is gunned down on the street while Fredo incompetently stands by.
Things get incredibly tense at this point, and Sonny starts planning all sorts of retaliation for their father’s attack. Don Vito survives, but is in pretty bad shape, and the Family is worried that their enemies will continue to strike out at him. Men on both sides are killed in the process, and Michael at one point is forced to stand guard in from of his father’s hospital room to keep assassins away. And, after that, Michael decides he needs to do something to help his Family. Up until this point he’s largely kept himself separate from the Corleone family’s less than legal antics, but he offers to have a sit-down with Sollozzo. And, with the help of the Family, Michael uses that dinner to kill Sollozzo and his corrupt police-officer muscle. This obviously escalates the gang-war, and Michael is forced to leave the country and hide in Sicily until the heat dies down. Which, takes a while, because Sonny’s temper helps stoke the gang-war to an almost untenable point. But, after the Tattaglia’s manage to murder Sonny at a toll-booth by baiting him with the abuse of his sister Connie, Don Vito decides things need to end. He’s become worried that the Tattaglia’s are actually in cahoots with the Barzini family, making the whole war a conspiracy to take the Corleone’s down a peg, but he swallows his pride and ends the war, promising to not take any revenge. And, with things in chaos, Michael returns from Italy, after having a very strange time in Italy, including a marriage that ended with his bride’s fiery death.
Michael returns to America and decides that he’s going to go straight. He marries Kay, has some kids, and generally tries to lead a normal life. But, when Vito’s health continues to degrade and it becomes apparent that Fredo can do nothing but pal around with other mobsters in Las Vegas, he takes over the reigns of the family. And, from the beginning, he makes it clear that he’s here for war. He sends Tom Fagen away to Vegas, feeling that he would complain about things getting too dark, and starts planning for war. And, after Vito finally dies after a fatal heart attack, Michael decides it’s time to act. Especially because it becomes clear that the Barzini family is still planning on finishing the Corleone’s by swaying a high-ranking member of the Corleone empire named Tessio. Michael agrees to meet with Barzini, and sets up a meeting on the same day as the christening of Connie’s baby, to whom he’s been asked to be a godfather. But, Michael has no plan on attending that meeting. Instead, he orchestrates a massive series of hits. His men kill the heads of the other four major crime families of New York, along with a casino magnate in Las Vegas named Moe Greene. And, in one fell swoop, Michael has eliminated all competition, leaving the Corleone’s the only stable crime family in New York. He also has Connie’s husband Carlo killed, after learning that Carlo was instrumental in Sonny’s death. The family then prepare to leave New York and set up shop in Las Vegas, while Michael pushes Kay aside and prepares to accept his destiny as the most powerful criminal in America.
There are certain movies that are kind of hard to talk about, because they’ve been so discussed, so picked over by the film world. I mean, this is the Godfather! It’s one of the most famous films ever made, a movie that has seeped so deeply into the pop culture consciousness, becoming one of those rare films that people can quote and know scenes from even if they haven’t seen the movie. It’s culturally omnipresent, and it’s easy to see why. It’s just a pure masterpiece. Nailing down what made the New Hollywood movement can be surprisingly difficult. New Hollywood was usually considered to be gritty films that pushed away from the flash and pomp that was so usually linked with Hollywood, focusing on smaller stories that often lavished in crime, sex, and violence, all the things that the Code kept from Hollywood for so long. And, if you go by that basic definition, this is a perfect example of that entire aesthetic. It’s a sprawling story, following a huge family over the course of more than a decade, but done in a way that you don’t get lost. It juggles numerous plot-lines and character arcs, but is done with charming characters and a seemingly innate ability to create the types of scenes and quotes that worm their way into people’s minds, which then just replicates as culture reflects it. The film is gorgeously shot, taking all the wealth, power, and grandeur of the story and keeping it in a dim and grimy palate that reminds you you’re watching a bunch of murderers. And, keeping in line with the fact that at its heart this is a story about family, the film is lifted up by a whole cornucopia of amazing performances, representing some of the finest actors in American cinematic history putting career best work. It’s frankly staggering to watch this film, seeing damn-near ever major actor of the 1970’s show up, breathing incredible life to this epic story, and keeping this huge story about a mob-war in a world that anyone can understand.
Because, at it’s heart, the Godfather is about family. Family, and the lengths that one will go to make sure your family will be safe and taken care of. Even if that sometimes means perpetrating a mob-war to eliminate the potential of competition for your crime empire. Which is what the whole idea of America is about. The American Dream is based around the idea that you can arrive with nothing and work your way up to being a powerful member of society, providing for your family and setting up a dynasty that will keep your family safe for generations. It’s a largely nonexistent idea, and one that gets more and more impossible as time goes on. People can scrimp and save, and fight every day for provide for themselves and their family, and just fail. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off. At least if done legitimately. Enter a story like this. Francis Ford Coppola was apparently put off by the idea of making this film, a story about a bunch of criminals having a power struggle. Such a premise doesn’t exactly make for likable characters, and at a time where people were craving authenticity and reliability, it just didn’t seem like a story that could work. But, what seemed to finally click for him, and what I believe led to this film having the cultural impact that it did, was the idea that it’s all about a family finding their way in America, by any means necessary. Which, could be a very relatable thing. Very few people have experienced the pure success of the American Dream, but the struggle to succeed is something that is almost universal, a story that is fed to almost all Americans. The Corleone’s are an immigrant family who arrived in America, looking for a way to succeed. And, what they found was a system that refused to let them do so, unless they resorted to crime. Which proved to be an incredibly lucrative experience for them. But, success in America isn’t an easy or stable thing. You can’t just succeed once and stay on top, you need to fight constantly, both working your way up and keeping people from below from taking your spot. Its a chaotic, violent, and draining cultural expectation. And this film brings it to life in a more honest and palpable way that almost any other film I’ve ever seen. It’s near impossible to succeed in America, but if you have to kill someone at a toll-booth to do so, it’s worth it.
The Godfather was written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1972.
Categories: Cinematic Century