A haunting portrait of organized crime, mafia rivalry in the 1950s New York
By Niladri Ranjit Chakraborty
|The Godfather (1972)- By Francis Ford Coppola|
During my middle school years, I initiated my odyssey as a film purist. I was addled and had less idea from where to start. My father often told me about “The Godfather” film that he watched when he was in college. One friend recommended me the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list. He told me it was the best index to start my endeavour with. The Godfather was the third film from the top in the list. This aggravated the desire to start my grand journey as an inveterate film watcher with the evergreen trilogy. Francis Ford Coppola’s marvel overwhelmed me and left a mark on the cinematic realm of my mind.
The first film in the franchise was released 43 years ago on 15 March, 1972. It was based upon Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. The Godfather illustrates a typical Cosa Nostra (“our thing” in Italian) or the Sicilian Mafia. The plot revolves around the Corleone family of Sicilian origin. It is an exhibition of what happens inside and outside the family, violence, loyalty, jealousy, contention, organized crime, deception and principles of the New York-based Italian Mafia, apart from romance, brotherhood, familial love and hierarchy and friendship. The Godfather trilogy is an evidence of careful filmmaking. There are silver linings and lapses throughout the triad, yet it remains amaranthine in an impeccable manner.
THE GODFATHER – CORLEONE FAMILY, INTRA-MAFIA RIVARLY, ORGANIZED CRIME, THE MOLES AND THE RISE OF MICHAEL CORLEONE…
Plot Summary: The film starts with a vibrant Italo-American wedding scene. The venue harbours family members and friends of the Corleone family; they gossip, dance and sing. On the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the head of the family, listens to requests put forth by his friends. His son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a war hero, introduces his ladylove Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to the family. The first 25 minutes are prefatorial and gives an insight into the family and its affairs apart from the noteworthy characters who later prove their significance in the film: Sonny Corleone (Michael’s Brother), Tom Hagen (their adopted brother, the counselor), Luca Brasi, Johnny Fontane, Peter Clemenza and others. Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) is the second son of Don Corleone. He has a major role in The Godfather: Part II (1974).
|The Sicilian Wedding: The Godfather (1972)|
The good times do not last long, however: shortly after the wedding a businessman, Sollozzo backed by a rival crime family Tattaglia tries to interest the Don and his hot-blooded eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), in the new up and coming moneymaker: heroin. The old fashioned Don is not interested, believing that selling drugs would wreck the political connections vital to the family, but when Sonny shows interest the rival family decides on a new course of action: kill Don Vito, and try to make a bargain with Sonny afterwards.
The assassination attempt on the Don fails to kill him but puts him in the hospital and Michael, who has never been interested or involved in the Family business before, thwarts a second attempt while visiting his father at the hospital. At a truce meeting Michael kills both the Sollozzo and a debased police captain McCluskey who was involved in the second attempt at his father before going into hiding, and Sonny, furious at the attempts at his father's life, declares an all-out Mob War.
Eventually Sonny is ambushed and killed, and Michael is forced out of hiding to try to take over the family. He reunites with his Kay and they marry. Michael pretends to be helpless at first, but after his father dies and he becomes the head of the Family, Michael ruthlessly purges The Moles within the family and his enemies in the other major mob families (Stracci, Cuneo, Tattaglia and Barzini) leaving the Corleone family as the most powerful force in the mob scene. He eventually embraces his father’s way of life.
Thoughts: Many people believe that it glorifies violence and consider it a mere gangster film. Even after more than forty years, The Godfather remains a classic. Only violence and profanity does not make a film immortal. There are various abstract parts of the movie all of which constitute a masterpiece. Iconic director Federico Fellini said – “I don't believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all.” Director Coppola did not have freedom: artistic or economical. He was struggling to make ends meet at the time. He rejected the script initially because he was not in terms with the novel. He reconsidered the offer after calculating his opportunities and listened to the advice of his friends and family. He had conflict with the crew and the studio. All these negativities incited the ambition in him and kept him going. Most of the credit goes to him (who later went on to make movies like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) for his vision and flawless directorial instincts. Although the film is a long three hours, there is so much detail that it's astonishing how he was able to fit so much in, while also taking time to for poignant moments like the wedding, the baptism, and a moving death, while also ingeniously incorporating them all into the main themes.
|Francis Ford Coppola (right) with cinematographer Gordon Willis|
Apart from direction, the greatest attribute of the film, according to me, is the stunning cinematography. When Gordon Willis was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2010, the citations noted his “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, colour and motion.” The second item in that list may be the key to his legacy: No cinematographer made better use of dark sets, twilight exteriors and underexposed film. Some of the most memorable films of the ’70s and ’80s have a dramatic, distinctive look, giving them an immediacy that resonates for viewers even today. The dimly lit scenes of Marlon Brando holding court in a study helped revolutionize the way movies looked in the 1970s and beyond. And when you think of that look, you’re probably visualizing the films shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis. Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), which won an Academy Award for Jane Fonda, was Willis’ first foray into the low-light moodiness that would characterize his most notable achievements. But on The Godfather (1972), he really let the risky creativity flow. He worked with a high-contrast, yellow colour palette, which enhanced the film’s queasy intensity, and he also shrouded star Marlon Brando’s eyes in darkness, a controversial but smart decision that made Don Corleone an inscrutable enigma — and a legendary character. 1974’s The Godfather: Part II was the one of the last major American films to have release prints struck in Technicolor’s three-strip IB, or “dye transfer” process, until the end of the century. This process provided the film a lush saturation and gave the sepia flashback scenes a preternatural glow. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) was also well-served by the Willis touch. As Willis recalled in the book Masters of Light, “That technique or that approach to the movie visually just came out of a thought process. And the process, in my mind, was based on evil; it was based on the soul of the picture.” The wedding outside had “a very sunny, almost Kodachromey, 1942 kind of feel to it. Then when we cut inside the house with Brando, it was very down and very ominous…so it was a very simple philosophy. However, the overall look of The Godfather was a kind of forties New York grit, with the exception of the scenes in Sicily. The Godfather II is basically the same approach only more romantic.”
|Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone: The Godfather (1972)|
The Godfather takes places in the years after World War II, the 1940s and 1950s. The time of the story necessitated costumes and vehicles from the mid- and early twentieth century. The wedding scene itself depicts outstanding efforts in making the audience go back in time. Vintage cars were used and people wore dresses which vividly seemed of that era. It was Oscar nominated for The Best Costume Design award. Coppola chose Anna Hill Johnstone, a New York-based costume designer. She was recognized for her designs for twenty-nine films before The Godfather, including Portrait of Jennie (1948), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964) and The Group (1966). She also designed the wardrobes for Brando and others in On the Waterfront (1954). She did an excellent job in illustrating the individual characters and their varying circumstances through their outfits. For instance, at the start of the film Michael Corleone’s plain look and brown or lighter-coloured suits reflect his isolation from his father’s clandestine operation and the gangster lifestyle. But as the film progresses, we see Michael in darker, expensive attire, signifying his transition into the life of a Mafia leader. The cars played major role in some sequences (including the popular ‘Cannoli’ scene, and when Sonny gets killed). Some of the cars used were Cadillac Fleetwood, Alfa Romeo, Lincoln Continental, Hudson Eight, Ford and Fiat series, Chevrolet Master De Luxe, Buick Limited and Buick Special. The cars imparted the justice of chronology into the viewer’s mind.
|Sonny Corleone's Assassination: The Godfather (1972)|
Whenever I think of The Godfather, two things appear on my mind – the words ‘I believe in America’ and the signature theme music. Prolific Italian composer Nino Rota conceived the music for the first two films of the franchise. He received the Academy Award for Best Original Score for The Godfather Part II. His work for the soundtracks of these productions is engrained in the memory of the mainstream, defining the sound of mafia music much like the characters influenced later incarnations of essentially the same idea. If you boil down the plot elements of The Godfather to their most basic ingredients, they would be tradition, love, and fear. Rota's score for the film perfectly embodies these three aspects of the story, licensing ten or so existing pieces for source usage. There have been several adaptations of the soundtrack in various languages. His music proved its pricelessness when Michael Corleone falls in love with Appolonia in Sicily and then they get married: during that phase of the film, it was the music which told their love story and intensified the presentation of their bond to the audience. One of my favourite scenes in the trilogy is of the third film in which Michael’s son Anthony sings “Brucia La Terra” (the Sicilian version of Speak Softly, Love or The Godfather Love Theme) for his father and Michael recalls his golden times with his lost love Appolonia. “I Have but One Heart” by Al Martino as Johnny Fontane in Connie’s wedding.
The Godfather had been known for changing the lives of many actors who starred in the film, including Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton. Marlon Brando became a superstar after appearing in such films as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (winning an Oscar). However, in the mid-1960s, he appeared in a series of flops that made him unhirable. The Godfather brought him back. Mario Puzo always imagined Brando as Corleone. Brando as the Don remained at the centre of the plot. He employed his method acting skills and provided justice to the character. He proved his naturalistic acting skills and justness in living the role. In comparison to his warm-blooded demeanour in On the Waterfront, The Godfather sees his calm self. Vito Corleone, an aged patriarch of the Mafia family, is concerned for his family’s well-being. He is wise, understanding and partly ethical in his ways. He brilliantly cements his fatherly and grandfatherly images on the viewer’s mind. When we think of The Godfather, his iconic representation of Don Corleone appears in our thoughts first. He was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor (which he rejected).
Michael Corleone was the toughest role to cast. Coppola saw Pacino in a Broadway play and instantly knew he had found his Michael Corleone, but at the time Pacino was an unknown and did not perform well when he tested for the role. The studio insisted on casting a big name, like Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson. But options waned, and with the start date looming the studio caved to Coppola's wishes. Al Pacino did a terrific portrayal of Michael Corleone. Michael’s cunning and cold blooded image appears after he loses his father and brother, Sonny. He employs his strategic skills in running the family affairs and annuls all the attempts from the rival families. He takes down all the rival leaders at once. After the moment when Don Vito is gunned down and a candid conversation between the father and son, it becomes clear that Michael will embrace a life of crime as a gangster. First the aloofness to the family affairs and then the vengefulness - Michael shows both. Al Pacino, who was known for his visage as an angry and excited young man, did not let loose of his rage as Michael, rather he contained his emotions within a veil of cold-bloodedness and intellect. His acting skills demonstrate his versatility. The second film sees a much colder version of Michael (who orders the murder of his brother Fredo). While Dog Day Afternoon and Scarface had seen a more temperamental acting of Al Pacino, The Godfather enforced his pantomime of an insensate soul.
|Diane Keaton as Kay Adams and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone|
Kay Adams is perhaps the most overlooked character in the trilogy. Diane Keaton’s performance as Michael Corleone’s lover has fetched lesser mention by the audience. If Pacino’s performance is the heart and soul, then Keaton’s performance accompanies it, acting as all the veins and arteries that allow Pacino’s heart to beat and break, again and again. Kay Adams is a complex character in the complex male-dominated narrative. Keaton executed a wondrous performance by being the wife who breaks traditions in the confines of a very traditional male-dominated Mafia world. The romance of Michael and Kay remains etched in the laurels of this film. She is a devoted lover who dedicates her whole life to Michael and their children. Even after the pair separate, she continues to adore him and remains concerned about his affairs and well-being. While major proportion of The Godfather fans take side with Michael and consider Kay an obstacle in his life, I stand by Kay and call her a sight for the sore eyes. Had she not acted in the film, it would only be an exhibition of violence, profanity, brutality, cold-bloodedness and a gangster life. Keaton’s performance perfectly complements to Pacino’s, conceiving a downright chemistry.
Final Thoughts: The Godfather is a lavishly staged film. From intense romance to small specks of dark humour and from acts of chicanery to virtues of loyalty, it is a repertoire of what everyone expects in a film. It is very hard to review or rate a film as such. Its paramount success and rise to the zenith of cinema is undebatable. It flawlessly renders the razzmatazz of the Italian Mafia in New York. Various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn chosen for shooting the outdoor scenes, add to its proclivity to the script and its purpose of making the time and place to be felt real by the viewers. Fine performances delivered by legendary actors strengthen its mightiness. The Godfather is not just a product of damn good filmmaking; it also has magnificent story telling. It is the perfect blueprint on how to tell a story, regardless of genre. All components in the film are orchestrated without any blemish. It remained an institution for the young filmmakers, cinematographers, costume designers and actors. The Godfather is a cannoli for your cinematic taste buds.
About Author -
Niladri Ranjit Chakraborty is a film enthusiast, a poet, and a healthcare student. He is an ardent lover of films, regardless of genre. He believes that all films, good or bad, have something to learn from and have the potential of making great changes in our lives.
Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!
Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!
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