Why 'The Godfather' is still refreshingly new 50 years later

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 bestseller 'The Godfather', which celebrates its 50th anniversary later this month, is a genius act

By Vinay Kamat

Published: Fri 4 Mar 2022, 10:56 PM

It’s not classic. It’s epic. It’s not just a great story. It’s cinema at its bloody best.

No other film has been overanalysed, overinterpreted like The Godfather. On the face of it, the movie is a family drama swinging between honour and justice. And yet it is complex because a magical cast and an innovative director reimagine the story.

If you read Mario Puzo’s eponymous novel and set your imagination at play, you will realise director Francis Ford Coppola and his team have beaten you to it. Their clinical and vivid rendition of the novel is what the movie is all about. In Coppola’s hands, violence is a cut above class. It is stylised without intending to be so.

If you compare Coppola’s treatment of violence with some latter-day class acts like the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), you’ll know why it has transcended time.

Even in the popular world of cool kills — as scripted by Quentin Tarantino — The Godfather resonates by being non-cool.

It’s only in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) that The Godfather faces a mean challenge.

The train station sequence in the first movie by director De Palma and screenwriter David Mamet is pure craftsmanship; it draws heavily on Sergei Eisentein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). The closest you have in The Godfather is the ambush killing of Sonny Corleone (James Caan), heir to the mafia empire. Team Coppola packs a punch with screenplay, shooting and editing to create a visceral effect.

The 1972 movie owes a lot to Puzo’s plot; in fact, the author collaborated with Coppola on the screenplay. While the main ingredients are all there, Coppola is sharply focused on Vito (godfather), Sonny (heir) and Michael (new godfather), with Michael predominating.

The storyline effortlessly maps the evolution of Michael’s character from a brooding war hero to a brutal don, giving him more limelight. Michael’s acting reminds you of another chilling performance: Edward Fox’s, in the 1973 movie The Day of the Jackal. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote of The Jackal: “It’s not just a suspense classic, but a beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch.”

Like Fox, Al Pacino (Michael) adds rhythm to motion.

Why should we reminisce about a movie that is 50 years old? It’s refreshingly new when you see it today. That’s largely because of ace cinematography by Gordon Willis, which he achieved with varied lighting and shot-by-shot set pieces that amplified shades of character. The key actors undoubtedly gave their very best: Marlon Brando (Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), James Caan (Sonny) and Diane Keaton (Kay Adams). If you compare Duvall’s performance in The Judge (2019) to his performance five decades ago in The Godfather as the family’s consiglieri (adviser), you’ll sense the difference. Call it the godfather effect.

The film’s buzz phrases have invaded our vocabulary as well. Take Vito’s famous threat: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” That has played out in many movies, including The Judge. In You’ve Got Mail, The Godfather is referred to as the sum of all wisdom. Today’s management gurus might love this Vitoism: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Then there is Vito sounding like Marcus Aurelius: “A friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults.” But there are times you sympathise with Vito: “I have a sentimental weakness for my children, and I spoil them… They talk when they should listen.”

As Michael flexes his muscles in the storyline, his tone keeps changing: “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So, I stole a bike and asked him for forgiveness.” There’s one from Michael that echoes the Coleone wisdom: “There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” But what sets him apart from his dad is his cold demeanour: “Never let anyone know what you are thinking.”

The Godfather is Sun-Tzu’s Art of War + William Shakespeare’s King Lear + Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal + Martin Scorsesse’s Goodfellas + Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition — all baked into one meaty loaf. But its biggest attraction is the family and what defines it — tradition, succession, power, frailty.

Puzo starts his best-selling book with French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac’s quote: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” He could well have kicked off with Leo Tolstoy’s: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the two aphorisms converge in The Godfather, you get a story that is as intriguing as the time it is set in (1940s).

The Godfather belongs to a social timeframe bordered by two influential Hollywood films depicting changing family values, starring Dustin Hoffman: The Graduate (1967) and Kramer vs Kramer (1979).

The Godfather (1972) snugly fits into the family groove as it graphically presents the story of succession. The movie relies heavily on contrast to heighten the vicissitudes of the family. Two poignant messages appear at the start and the finish. There’s togetherness (an Italian wedding) when the curtain rises and aloofness (growing distance between wife and husband) when the curtain falls.

The best part of the movie lies in its sub-parts. The Godfather boils down to seven sequences, each of which is a mini movie.

• The Wedding (the don’s stellar show)

• The Horse (a wakeup call for the audience)

• The Henchman (Luca Brasi’s last fight)

• The Hospital (the don’s great fightback)

• The Ambush (the tragedy of Sonny)

• The Restaurant (Michael’s makeover)

• The Baptism (the lull after the storm)

It’s the wedding scene that sets the movie apart. Besides introducing the Corleone family in all its hues, the screenplay creates a carnival of characters whose personas are brought to life by lighting, cinematography, and editing. But, finally, it’s Brando, who sets the pendulum in motion. Like Sean Connery, who created the ultimate template for James Bond, Brando reimagines the don and creates the definitive bossman. Brando’s acting, as the authoritative, humble, familial, and wise don, sets the tone and pace for the movie. With a light raspy voice, jowls padded with cotton, Brando immortalises Vito.

Like Darth Vadar’s, Vito’s voice is the movie’s clarion call. Bruised, soft, solemn, and grating, the voice is the signature of the patriarch. It’s the legacy of an astounding method actor. It’s the soul of the movie. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the cult classic, let’s raise a toast to Brando. “The only thing an actor owes his public is not to bore them.”

That Brando line tells you why you should see The Godfather. Again.


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