Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
It is nearly impossible for me to criticize anything regarding The Godfather. That’s ironic given that criticism is right there in my job title. But when it comes to giving this film any kind of critical analysis, I can only be positive. Not only is it the only Best Picture winner of the 1970s that I agree with, but it remains my all-time favorite American film.
The Godfather was a game-changer, rotating perspective on one of the oldest and most reliable genres that the medium had produced. Instead of cops chasing criminals, the story – based on an over-stuffed pop novel by Mario Puzo – takes us inside the closed world of the mob, a world with its own set of rules, it’s own laws, it’s own legions – families who operate like nations. They make deals, they make treaties, they go to war with one another. The only crime is disloyalty, and the wages of sin is death.
We are inside this world and never step outside of it. The only characters of any relevance are connected with the mob. The heroes are the Corleones, a powerful New York family that has thrived on an olive oil business but also from money made from prostitution, bootlegging, extortion – all of which Vito, the family patriarch, calls harmless vices. We meet his extended family and several other key players in the famous wedding sequence which introduces us to at least two dozen characters and their connection with the Corleones. When this scene is over, we have been introduced to almost all of the major players who will be significant later. This way, all the needless introductions are out of the way and the story can flow more smoothly.
The larger story deals with the tides of change that are brought on by the aftermath of The Second World War. Vito, the patriarch, believes that the families can thrive on business interests, like gambling and prostitution, that he sees as harmless vices. But the changing times are bringing a new generation of mobsters who believe that the drug trade is the wave of the future. The old man warns against this – drugs is a dirty business.
The Godfather is even-tempered and would rather discuss a problem than drive toward violence. He remains even tempered, his only outburst comes when his weak-kneed Godson gets emotional rather than rational. He has ruled this family with an even hand for the better part of 50 years. We see that destiny hasn’t given him the promise of an heir to the throne. He has three sons, Santino (James Caan) – hot-tempered and violent; Fredo (John Cazale) – weak in heart and mind; and Michael (Al Pacino) – intelligent and patient, the most like his father and most likely to inherit the family business.
Michael remains outside the family. He goes to college, enlists in the Army, fights in World War II and returns a hero. His father wants him to use his intellect for something outside the family business – maybe politics. But the winds of destiny and circumstances draw him closer to running the family. The long-running struggle throughout the film is based around The Godfather’s refusal to get involved in the drug trade. He knows that the rackets like prostitution, gambling, alcohol are viewed by his political friends as harmless vices, however drugs are dirty and messy and unpredictable. Vito correctly guesses that it “is going to destroy us in the years to come”. Others see it differently and despite his warnings, they only see the money to be made. He is always looking ahead, like a chess master. The saddest element of The Godfather is that this nasty business of drugs will become a business that the level-headed Michael will inevitably inherit.
What makes the film work is the story construction. There are characters who are briefly introduced and given a purpose and later brought back into the story at crucial moments. Take for example Enzo, the baker. It is explained that he has came to America and joined the war effort, but now that the war is over, he will be repatriated back to Italy.. So, Enzo’s employer asks the Godfather to arrange it so that he could marry his daughter and stay in the country. Later, when we see Enzo, it is to visit The Godfather in the hospital after a botched assassination attempt and Enzo becomes a key figure in deterring a group of thugs who come to finish the job. There are all kinds of smaller characters like that who come into the film, seem to have little purpose but play key roles later.
The late film critic Gene Siskel observed that “The Godfather is about how justice denied becomes justice subverted”. This is especially true in the case of Bonesera. He had been denied justice when his daughter was assaulted by a teenage boy and now comes to the Godfather for restitution. Vito is slightly insulted that Bonasera would assume that murder is an afterthought for a mob bigshot like Corleone, but he is willing to make an adjustment for this man, reminding him that “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me”. When that day comes, the service is not beyond his means, it is not violence but a favor to make his murdered son look appropriate for his mother. Moments like this help us to understand what has been lost when The Godfather dies. The future of this world of organized crime is becoming less crafty, more hot tempered, more reactionary and less compelled to weigh their options. Listen carefully, in the film to the score which comes in under the drama, Nino Rota’s music is funerary in it’s tone, a perfect evocation of a dying age.