Best of the ’70s: The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic crime drama is widely regarded as a masterpiece, and with good reason. It deftly handles detailed characters and intricate plotlines, all with barely a hint of exposition. A veritable masterclass of storytelling, The Godfather is a film that should be experienced by anyone with even the slightest interest in movies.

The Godfather’s key characters are established in an unforgettable example of expert filmmaking. They’re all in attendance at the wedding of Don Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) daughter Connie (Talia Shire). By the end of the celebrations, we, the audience, will have more than enough information about each character to invest in the story.

As is customary for Sicilian families, the father of the bride must grant any requests on the wedding day. Within reason, of course. Away from the merriment outside, Don Corleone dwells in a darkened office discussing even darker things with various people requesting his assistance. Everyone from a heartbroken father, seeking justice for his daughter’s rape, to the aging singer looking to prolong his fame by using the Don’s influence to make the transition to films.

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“The opening wedding scene expertly introduces the key characters.”

Immediately, we’re intrigued. Just who is this man that is treated with such reverence? Who has the influence to grant such demanding requests? In a single scene, Don Vito Corleone has become a figure to be feared and respected. A puppet master with politicians, judges and seemingly countless others in his pocket. With that said, however, the Don is an aging patriarch. He knows his time as the head of the family is drawing to a close, so he decides to transfer control over to his heir.

Traditionally, the eldest child is first in line for any inheritance, which would make Sonny Corleone (James Caan) the next Don. It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that Sonny is ill-equipped to deal with such responsibility. A lustful man with a savage temper, Sonny is fiercely loyal to his family, but doesn’t have the mentality to lead. As the story progresses, it’s clear that Vito’s younger son, Michael (Al Pacino), is a more appropriate successor, but both Vito and Michael are reluctant for this particular change.

It’s a loving but complicated relationship between father and son. We first see Michael at the opening wedding in a military uniform, which suggests that, although he respects and loves his family, he does not wish to be involved in the family business. Vito clearly cares for his children, but he seems to respect Michael more than the others. In Michael, his father sees the potential to become an even greater person than himself. So with Michael seemingly destined to take his father’s place, Vito appears regretful. So much so that at one point he even admits to wanting to see his son aspire to be a governor or a leading politician.

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“Vito admits that he had higher hopes for Michael.”

For a man so obsessed with family values and loyalty, Vito is deeply concerned by Michael’s promotion, mostly due to the fact that he sees it as his failure as a father. It’s a fascinatingly complex character acted out with unsurprising brilliance by the incomparable Marlon Brando. Thanks to Brando’s performance, we forget that Don Vito Corleone is a professional criminal capable of despicable things. Instead he becomes a sympathetic character that we respect and admire due to his unfaltering loyalty to his family. His willingness to bring consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) under his family umbrella also emphasises Vito’s kinder side.

Al Pacino comfortably shares the screen with Marlon Brando as Michael Corleone. He gives credence to Michael’s transformation from upstanding citizen to the head of a powerful crime syndicate. The turning point for Michael is when he thwarts a second attempt on his father’s life. Upon visiting him in hospital and noting the lack of security, he quickly realises that a sinister plot is unfolding and takes steps to remove his father from danger, putting himself in harm’s way in the process. In saving his father’s life, he condemns his future; he realises that he is capable of both taking over the family and sacrificing himself for the good of it. Pacino handles such complexity with remarkable ease.

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“Michael thwarts a plan to kill his father in hospital.”

One possible complaint against The Godfather is the lack of strong female characters. Although a valid point, women during this time period were accorded less respect by men, so it’s more a negative reflection of the time rather than the film. The female characters are relatively weak throughout, but it’s quite understandable for a family so focused on masculinity. The only women that get much screen time are Michael’s love interest Kay (Diane Keaton) and his sister Connie (Talia Shire). Of the two, Shire stands out more purely because she descends into a screeching, emotional mess. But again, the weak female characters are more indicative of that period’s treatment of women rather than a detriment to the writing.

Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to refrain from the uglier side of organised crime makes the whole experience much more endearing. Throughout its lengthy runtime, The Godfather notably refuses to show innocent victims, and is reluctant to spend time with any character outside of the family affairs. It makes us invest more easily into the plights of what would normally be villainous characters.

The Godfather is one of those rare films where everything comes together perfectly. From Mario Puzo’s excellent source material, to the incredible performances, to the iconic score from Nino Rota and the remarkable vision of the director. The Godfather is an unquestionable triumph of both storytelling and filmmaking.

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