THE GODFATHER (1972)

Godfather_ver1Well, here we are. This one had us stalled out a bit while we put off watching it. Not because watching would be a chore, or that we felt we’d have little to say about the movie. Quite the contrary. 1972’s The Godfather is a staple of best-ever lists and has achieved the cinematic triple crown of enduring critical regard, commercial success and lasting cultural significance both artistic and popular. I’ve heard it called the best movie ever made and I honestly can’t find an argument against that statement. This really is where it all came together. So while I quite looked forward to watching it yet again and discussing it yet again, we run into the problem of just what to say about it that hasn’t been said a thousand times over. I mean, this is normally where I’d summarize the story, but I can’t imagine you’d actually be reading a movie blog if you haven’t seen this film at least once in your life. So these two bloggers stalled and tried to find an angle to work that could manage a fresh viewpoint. We tried to secure an actual Italian-American to watch with us but that proved fruitless, despite our South Philly locale. But when we realized the blog could wait no longer, we declared this holiday to be an Italian-American cultural appreciation day, set to work on several recipes from Chloe Coscarelli’s Vegan Italian Kitchen and treated ourselves to a New Year’s Day viewing of a classic saga of organized crime.

Given how intimidated I feel making a stab at intelligently discussing The Godfather, I’ll pursue a more personal approach. I’ll bet everyone has story about this movie, and here is mine. The first time I ever saw it, I inadvertently rented a special VHS release that combined both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II into a single piece, edited into chronological order. I was about three and half hours into watching, with no ending in sight, when I began to wonder just how long this damn movie was? I somehow made it through that six hour, 15 minute beast only to learn the truth later.

Also, putting an orange peel in one’s mouth really can frighten a small child, something I learned personally by trying the experiment on my nephew. I have, in fact, photographic evidence of him fleeing in fear as I approach menacingly, citrus rind in mouth. Fans of The Godfather know that much of its content was inspired by actual people and events, but I’m living proof of real-world basis for that famous scene.

This was my second time watching the film, and I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. There is a lot that is emotionally compelling about this movie. It’s also my strongest experience with both Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Mouse mentioned to me that one critique of the film centered on how it glorified organized crime – and I imagine that is a valid one. The original Don Corleone, Vito (played to perfection by Brando) is an extremely sympathetic character. He appears to have a moral compass and a deep regard for family, and as audience members we remain shielded from what I have to imagine are some of his worst actions.

In his critical meeting with heroin smuggler Sollozzo, we believe him when he says that one of his weaknesses is overwhelming devotion to his children. He shows immense love for family throughout the film. He insinuates his disapproval of his hot-headed son Santino’s (a.k.a. Sonny’s) philandering, stating in his presence that real men are present for their families immediately after Sonny was caught carousing with a woman other than his wife. His body language, tone and delivery make it impossible to take your eyes off of him. I worry that when I watch The Godfather Part II (and we will, as it is another Oscar-winning film), I will miss him the entire time. Fortunately, I hear rumors of flashbacks, so…I can hope.

The film is based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same title, published in 1969. It is a fictional tale that deals with the Corleone family and its mob war with the four other New York City mob families. I loved reading that Puzo sent a letter to Brando, in which he told him in no uncertain terms that he was the only person who could play “the Godfather.” Luckily for all of us, he got his wish. In more disturbing research, I learned that Paramount Pictures head Robert Evans wanted Francis Ford Coppola to work on the film because he would accept a low salary and work with a low budget. On the positive side, Evans did also purposely seek out an Italian American to direct the movie for authenticity’s sake. Coppola’s work would go down in cinematic history. His choices are beautiful and his vision is stunning. I currently cannot get the image of the marsh grass scene with the Statue of Liberty in the background out of my mind – and I have to think he played a key role in such a striking image. I also imagine he laid the groundwork for the complex development of characters’ relationships with one another. This would be the film to put Coppola on the map.

Katy, you may be disappointed to hear that crazy-ass Marlon Brando did not return for The Godfather Part II. To play Vito as a young man they hired some guy called Robert De Niro.

I have no count of how many times I’ve seen this movie. Regardless, I tried this time to catch something new. And one detail I did catch: for the famous horse-head scene there are Academy Award statuettes in the background of Woltz’s house. Almost as if the filmmakers are hinting at something. Hey now, come to think of it, in the quasi-roman à clef of the Godfather universe, the character Johnny Fonatine is generally accepted to be inspired by Frank Sinatra. And the movie he pleads for a part in sounds an awful lot like From Here to Eternity (Best Picture 1953). It almost makes you think there was some conspiracy behind the camera to sneak the words “Oscar winner” into the viewer’s subconscious. I guess it worked.

And speaking of the scenes at Jack Woltz’s, I wonder about the exteriors where that was shot. I’ll bet it was a mansion that had belonged to some huge movie star from the 20s who had just died at the time. I remember seeing Harold Lloyd’s house on Columbo; I don’t think that was it.

Mouse really dislikes Sinatra, I think. Maybe that’s in part because of the Fontaine likeness. Why, just today while driving our kid to daycare, he asked why anyone would like Sinatra! I had no answer other than to shout plaintively, “Ole Blue Eyes!”

I do want to mention how upsetting the domestic violence is to me in this film. It has physically upset me both times I have seen it. It appears to have gone undetected by the original Don Corleone. I can’t imagine what he would have done if he knew Connie, his daughter, was hurt by her husband the way she was. The abuse scenes are very realistic to me, and part of what makes it incredibly hard for me to watch.

Pivoting now, I want to mention how strange I find it that when Michael (played of course by Pacino) pops out of nowhere back into his ex-girlfriend Kay’s (Diane Keaton’s) life he doesn’t mention that he was married to an Italian woman named Apollonia who died in a car bombing. Also somewhat bizarre to me that after all that time with no word from him, Kay does in fact pick right back up and marry Michael. I wonder if anything similar has ever happened in real life.

Later, she tries to inquire about some details of his practices once he has taken on the family business – in what I found to be a very welcome assertion of self. Michael first gets angry, then allows her one question. He leaves her in the dark, ultimately – but as audience members, we get the sense that she knows this on some level and it is a pill she is willing to swallow. This point is driven home when the men of the Corleone family continue meeting, and close the door to her as she looks on. This is their world. There is scant space for women to be involved in any substantive way.

No, I don’t dislike Frank Sinatra. I do feel a little puzzled by the level of adulation people feel for him. Surely he was very good at what he did, which is great if big band style popular tunes are your thing. When I see people displaying merch with his likeness, I wonder how many of them own any recordings of his contemporaries who worked in a similar style, or can even name any outside his social circle. It seems he has become a cultural figure in himself, beyond his artistic output. He is famous for being him. But why him? Yes, I get that he personifies a certain type of cool to people. But even in his time he spent much of his career within the musical establishment, while contemporaneous developments in music were much more interesting. I’m not knocking him down, or anyone who likes him. I just feel like folks must be seeing something I don’t see when he’s afforded this godlike status. Anyway, we’re here to talk about the movie.

I’m probably a rarity in that I read the novel before I saw the movie. I didn’t even know which character Al Pacino played. The whole time I read it, I imagined that’s what Sonny looked like! The novel gives a lot more background on characters and explores some additional – some might say unnecessary- subplots. Some of the back stories found their way into the sequel and a combination of time constraints and good taste forced the movie to hint at things spelled out at length in the novel. For example, Vito is described as extremely old fashioned in his view of family life and sexuality. His Old World outlook causes him to see the domestic violence in his daughter’s marriage as a matter left to their household and not his business, whereas his thoroughly American son is violently protective of his sister. The Don never comments directly in the movie, but watch for the dinner table scene where Sonny attacks Carlo’s bullying of Connie and his own mother reprimands him not to interfere.

One character who didn’t transfer well from the book to screen was Luca Brasi. The other characters are obviously afraid of him, which puzzles viewers who have never read the book. All he does in the movie is behave awkwardly at a wedding, then get killed the first time The Don sends him to do something. If you read the book, you get a lot more about this guy and why he freaks people out so much. Also, can we take this time to say that when someone declares, “The book is always better than the movie,” that’s a pretty good indicator they’re an idiot?

The door-closing scene has got to be one of my favorite endings in all movies. It’s a little bit like an upending of the famous doorway shot from The Searchers. It’s true that Kay doesn’t exactly get to do much in the story, but seeing Michael through her eyes is crucial to experiencing his transformation. One of the first times we see her she is literally being pulled into the picture as Michael insists on her inclusion in the family portrait. The last thing we see is one of Michael’s henchmen literally closing the door on her, and the look she gives as it darkens the frame is just chilling, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it.  

I did mention to Mouse that in my gut I feel that Kay has to know what he has become. I think she has resigned herself to it. She wants so much to be married to this man that she is willing to live under delusion about the family business. I do agree that seeing things through her eyes is useful – but at a certain point, I wanted more from her character. More oompf. More outspokenness. More conviction. I realize this was a very different time, and women’s roles were different – but still. A person can dream and wish. It gets a little distracting and irksome to me to watch films where women are underdeveloped and un-complex, serving mainly as foils to the men in the picture.

Hearing about all of the subplots and histories in the book was interesting – but I am certainly glad that Vito’s condoning of domestic violence as par for the course in marriages was taken out in the film. It’s too bad Connie’s mother steps in to assume that position in the dinner table conversation, even subtly. Sonny’s reactions to the situation made emotional sense to me, even though I felt a knot in my stomach watching him beat up Carlo the first time. I just know that when those kinds of things happen to abusive men by other men, women often pay later.

I am pretty excited about getting to see the second film in the series. What will happen next with Michael? Will we hear more from Connie? Will Kay come into her own (fingers crossed)? Can’t wait. Happy New Year, blog readers!

Also nominated in 1972:
Cabaret
Deliverance
The Emigrants
Sounder

Next film: PATTON (1970)

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