The Godfather

The Godfather ★★★★★

Of all the reviews I've posted on Letterboxd, I've tended to steer away from my all time favourite films, or those that I consider the very finest, even when I have returned to them whilst being a member of this site, because frankly, I don't have the vocabulary to express just what they mean to me.

But it's my birthday today, and I've spent the evening in the best way possible by rewatching The Godfather, and I thought it called for at least an attempt on my part to try and review this film.

I won't do it justice, and I won't tell you anything you don't already know, but I'll try my best...

By the way, it will be spoilerific so if you haven't seen The Godfather, there's better ways to fill your time than reading this review... Go and watch The Godfather.

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The first thing that strikes me about this film is just how confident it is from the very first note of Nino Rota's score. That black fade in. "I believe in America". The slow reverse zoom from Bonasera to the shadowy figure of Don Corleone sat in his chair. The incredible monologue that tells you exactly who this man is in his community - the man you go to when you need things done outside of the law, but who demands respect above everything else. This immediate, stark opening feels classic from the first moment that you clap eyes onto it. And the way in which each subsequent moment in the opening half an hour bleeds into one another, held together by this fantastic wedding in front of your eyes - every main player in the family is set up, and you understand each of them immediately - Sonny the hothead, Tom the brains, Michael the quiet, thinking man, Fredo the drunk fool, Luca the muscle, Tessio the cunning associate, Clemenza the brash soldier, Paulie the snake, Connie the innocent, and Vito the Don. Everything is laid out in a masterfully created foreword to the main story.

The opening 30 minutes breezes past before you've even blinked.

And then, as soon as Tom flies out to Woltz in LA, the real story begins. We get a harsh indication of just how brutally relentless the Don is in getting what he wants. Acting as a precursor to the rest of the film at large, this whole sequence is a lesson in storytelling.

First, Tom arrives on set and smoothly offers up the ultimatum, to which the film producer roundly rebuffs. But there's enough in Tom's presence for Woltz to check him out, and the frame then dissolves to the Hollywood execs' mansion as Tom's car pulls up for a further meeting. Coppola wisely doesn't cut to any of the discovery about Tom's associates. It's more effective to simply move from Woltz' early dismissal, straight to his sudden welcoming of Tom. Whatever he learnt between those frames is left to our imagination, but we understand enough that it's something powerful. And as Woltz leads Tom around the grounds of his home, showing off his prize stud, what has now become iconic doesn't initially become apparent. It's the trick Coppola constantly plays in this film. Everything that goes before is naturally in keeping with what happens next, and yet it never loses it's power, even after I've watched it over a hundred times. The whole sequence is a work of art. The exterior shots as Rota's score hovers like the sun in the sky, the creeping camera into Woltz' bedroom, the silk sheets pulled back to reveal the blood, the horror on Woltz' face at the great reveal and those anguished,piercing screens... And then another fade, to Brando's Don - a slight lift of the eyebrows, a nonchalant look on his face as if this is just another day's work... It's moment like that, so cold, so calculated that run through the entire story of this family.

And Vito always remains a step ahead. When Tom relays the file he has on Sollozzo - a heroin dealer wishing to move into the territories and in need of the political protection only Vito can provide, it doesn't become clear until the next scene that the Don has already made up his mind. And yet he asks both Tom and Sonny what they think. He's constantly testing his sons to see how they fare in this world. And Tom is the pragmatist whilst Sonny is the firebrand. Neither make for the heir to the throne because of their weaknesses, and it's a great mistake when Sonny jumps in on the meeting, betraying his father's advice - "Never let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking". But that brief outburst from Sonny, a simple unfinished question that his father shuts down, is a signal for Sollozzo to make his move. It's just another brilliant example of the subtlety in the storytelling. All of these minutiae details play into the story of these men. Each small decision triggers the events that come later, and never has a story felt so lived in and natural.

Vito may be caught cold but he hints that he knows what is coming. This is vital to the effectiveness of the story. There is always an inevitable chain of events at play, and Vito can not change it, but he can see it, and that's what sets him apart from his son's who have attempted to follow him. Sonny is far too brash, Tom isn't bold enough when it gets rough, and Fredo can't even hold his gun when the shooting begins, crying pathetically in the street - his love for his father is never in doubt, but he will never be cut out for this world.

But then there's Michael.

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The young war hero who returns with his bride-to-be in the opening wedding scene is strictly out of the business. He made that decision a long time ago, and now he's returned home, his intentions to marry Kay and live a long happy life. But in the classic Shakespearean way, it's his destiny all along. And it's all right there at the beginning during the wedding - listen to the cold efficiency with which he tells the story of Luca, his father and the bandleader. Or the loving-yet-sorrowful look he gives his drunk brother. Or the authority with which he pulls Kay into the family photo. Coppola's just giving you little hints that whilst Sonny's off having his affairs, and Fredo's getting drunk, and Tom is busy being subservient to his father, there's Michael showing the leadership traits that might carry this family on.
But the point where it really turns is the incredible, incredible hospital scene. After Michael learns of what's happened to his father, he goes to see him late at night. But there's nobody around, only half-eaten sandwiches and empty chairs. As Michael carefully climbs the stairs, slowly pushing the door open, we understand that he's taken it all in - he knows what's going down, and when a nurse pops up to tell him he needs to leave, we get the first glimpses of the new Michael:

"Do you know who my father is? Men are coming here to kill him..."

It's the same coldness we'll see over and over with this character, but what makes Pacino's performance such an astonishing feat in acting is the manifestation of this evil. He's not there yet, and he won't get there for some time, but for every step of the way that he shows the cunning to be his father's true heir, there's a new layer of darkness unfolding, which the family cannot see in this young war hero. Michael shows his understanding and manipulation when he grabs Enzo the baker - who's come to bring flowers to the Don - and asks him to stand on the door, hand inside his coat as if concealing a gun, as hitmen turn up at the gates of the hospital. The deterrent works, but Enzo is visibly shaken, rocked to his core by what could have happened. He just about manages to pull out a cigarette, but his nerves are too shot to use his lighter.

Michael takes the lighter and looks down, almost in surprise at his own response. His hands are deadly still...

Whilst the story of Michael unfolds, this underworld around him becomes increasingly complex. Next up, McCluskey arrives on the scene and promptly beats Michael for screwing up his plans in aiding Sollozzo in finally getting rid of Vito. But Michael did what he needed to do, he bought time and Tom shows up to add more protection on the ward, saving the Don for another day.

But McCluskey is an important factor now. He's a police captain, and some things you just don't do. The success of the criminal enterprise run by the Corleone's is based on political power over the other five families. It's what brought Sollozzo to Vito in the first place. And if you gun down a police captain, that kind of heat loses you that political leverage, because the "honest" politicians won't touch that kind of controversy, and the other families will then wade in once they can see the Corleone weakness.

So whilst Tom and Sonny argue over how to deal with this situation, sat in his chair of his father's office, bruised, swollen face from McCluskey's attack, the camera slowly pans into Michael as he makes his speech and finally steps into this world:

"We can't wait. I don't care what Sollozzo says about a deal, he's gonna kill Pop, that's it. That's the key for him. Gotta get Sollozzo. They wanna have a meeting with me, right? It will be me, McCluskey, and Sollozzo. Let's set the meeting. Get our informers to find out where it's gonna be held. Now, we insist it's a public place, a bar, a restaurant, some place where there's people so I feel safe. They're gonna search me when I first meet them, right? So I can't have a weapon on me then. But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me, then I'll kill 'em both."

Sonny, Clemenza, Tessio, even Tom have a little chuckle. The nice boy who wanted to stay out the business, now he's been punched by the cop he wants to gun down both him and a major drug pusher?

"Michael, you're making this very personal."

But it's not personal. Michael's just one step ahead of everyone. As he offers up the plan - use the newspapers on the payroll to spin the story of a crooked cop and let it play out whilst Michael disappears for a while - the other men all begrudgingly accept that this apparently good, innocent kid just read the script clearer than any of them.

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Now, many a film would probably conclude with that meeting between Michael, Sollozzo and McCluskey, but The Godfather features it roughly around the halfway mark, which indicates just what a vast story is being told. There's entirely key characters on both sides that have not even been introduced by this point. In arguably the most beautiful movement in the entire series, Michael goes into hiding in Sicily, finding his ancestral home - Corleone - and the true love of his life in young Apallonia. It's a fascinating way again, to show the shedding of this old Michael and the beginning of a very new one. Kay, the war hero's wife is left to wonder if Michael is even still alive, and in many ways, that Michael is now dead. He falls for Apallonia and they marry. Kay is a past life.

As Michael lays low, Sonny does his best to keep running the family, but it's all handled in a very "Sonny" way. His approach is always shoot first, don't even bother asking questions later, and this creates a tension between Sonny and Tom, which may have boiled over further were it not time for the return Vito, discharged from the hospital, but still very unwell, he's welcomed by multiple generations of the family, before the sons have a catch-up with the old man. They brief him on what's happened, seeming rather pleased that the political tide is swinging back in their favour. But none of this matters too much to the Don, as he asks:

"Michael. Where's Michael?"

In a film series of iconic moments and performances, one of my absolute favourites is this set of scenes. As Tom reveals to Vito about Michael's involvement, it simply takes a look away and casting wave of the hand from Vito to tell you how distraught he is at this news. Brando is incredible in this film - of course - and it's these small moments that remain the most powerful. He does a lot of his iconic work in the first half of the film, but it's the second half - this scene, the drink with Tom when he gets news of Sonny, the conversation with Michael in the garden - that are Brando at his finest as an actor. And I love the beautiful coda to this scene. As Tom and Sonny fight, Fredo sneaks back into his pops room to just sit with him. I've always thought that moment is tinged with real sadness.

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And that sadness and melancholy is something that's not always discussed when talking about the Godfather, and yet from here on out, it always remains there. The Connie story is heartbreaking to watch play out. Talia Shire doesn't tend to get the recognition next to the acting behemoths in this film, but her performance as Connie is just as brilliant as everyone around her. The fight scene between Connie and Carlo is still genuinely horrible to watch nearly 50 years after its release. I think it's the way Coppola frames it. This is the days before Steadicam so it must have been a hell of a sequence to pull off, but the camera stalks round the room as Carlo belts his pregnant wife, as she smashes the room in a terrified frenzy, the camera almost peering around walls until it seems that the violence is too much and it hovers on a closed mirrored door as Connie's screams get louder and more anguished. It's a really powerful, unsettling scene.

And of course it sets off a chain of events that will bring the story to its head. Sonny, unrelenting in his fury, sets off for Carlo only to be double-crossed in one of the most brutal scenes in the whole series. It's something that you always saw coming, but it doesn't lessen the impact when it arrives.

But it's the following scenes that bring it all home. As Tom sits in the chair and Vito shuffles into the room taking a seat next to him, it's the language of the dialogue that's so memorable. It's like poetry. It could have been a scene where Vito simply asks, "what happened?" and Tom tells the story, but no:

Vito: "My wife is crying upstairs. I hear cars coming to the house. Consiglieri of mine, I think you should tell your Don what everyone seems to know.."

Tom: "I didn't tell Mama anything. I was about to come up and wake you just now and tell you...

Vito: "But you needed a drink first."

Tom nods his head, visibly upset.

Vito: "Well, now you've had your drink."

As Tom tells Vito exactly what happened we watch the Don slowly move down the corridor, as Tom phones Bonasera, the undertaker, letting him know that it is now time to repay his Godfather, the scene dissolving into the next, with Vito now dressed and looking more determined in his recovery, shows Sonny's body to Bonasera, and almost as a closing to the previous scene's conversation, declares:

"Look how they massacred my boy."

It's genuinely heartbreaking.

And it's far from sunshine and roses elsewhere as Michael catches news of Sonny's passing, he is told by the local Sicilian Don who has been protecting him, that it's no longer safe for him in this part of the world. As Michael prepares to leave by himself, he looks for Apallonia. He's told that she is going to drive him but as Michael watches Fabrizio, one of his bodyguards run away, he looks in the man's eyes, then at the car that Apallonia has just stepped into...

With Sonny's murder, Vito has called for a meeting with the heads of the five families to squash the beef with the Tattaglia's who killed Sonny in response to Sonny's own killing of Bruno Tattaglia due to his involvement with Sollozzo. At the meeting, Vito delivers a titanic speech - another mesmerising moment from Brando - about how he wishes to end this war so he can bring his other son, Michael back home. The two bosses do come to a truce and it all appears to be sanctioned by Don Barzini, with some co-operation from Vito to allow the distribution of narcotics across the territories.

It seems like there may finally be peace. But Vito may not be as quick on his feet, yet he hasn't lost any of his ability to read these situations:

"Tattaglia's a pimp -- he never'a could've outfought Santino. But I didn't know until this day that it was -- Barzini all along..."

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Michael returns to America, and the first time we see him, he's approaching Kay for a reunion. He explains he's been back a year - The Godfather is always vague on time - and clearly a lot has changed since those early days when they were dating. Michael acts like he has no time to spare, but also like a man who is no longer used to being told "no". He expects Kay to marry him, expects her to mother his children, now. But Kay is still the women he left behind with her ideals of the man she once knew. She calls him naive only for him to throw it right back at her. But he's unrelenting, and he knows he will get what he wants from her. We're still nowhere near the monster he will become, but he's well on the road.

And he's as unrelenting in his business dealings. As the former Don sits in the corner of the room, Michael now takes the desk and no prisoners as he lays out the plans to the remaining captains, and Tom. Those who have been used to the previous regime all baulk at the new ideas - Clemenza, Tessio, even Tom - but with Vito's backing, Michael now has the power to take the family into new waters, starting with taking a trip out to Nevada to see Moe Greene. We catch up with Fredo who has settled into his new role out in Vegas with great fervour. He's much more jovial and sets up a little party for Michael's arrival, to which Michael quickly shuts down in order to get straight to business. In a foreshadowing of the later story, Michael announces to Moe that he will be buying him out. Moe is outraged at the idea and Fredo unwisely tries to offer up a more considerate solution:
"Fredo, you're my brother and I love you very much... But never take sides against the family."

And it all comes to a head in the final 25 minutes. Michael and Vito share a rare moment of contemplation between the two, as Vito looks visibly distraught at how things have ended up:

"I never wanted this for you."

But he can't change destiny and he knows it. This is also the moment where Vito delivers his final piece of advice to Michael. He tells him exactly how Barzini will come out Michael, and whoever arranges the meeting - "on their ground" - will be the traitor.

And with this, Michael is now ready to take over from his father. And in a way, he never gets closer to his father's tutelage again. When Vito collapses in the garden, it's the passing of the torch, but from here on out, spanning the next film in its entirety, Michael moves further and further away from the path his father laid. As the family attend the funeral, Michael sits at his father's grave, quietly plotting the massacre ahead. As he learns of the traitor, the plan is set in place.

The baptism scene is another of Coppola's greatest achievements. I can't think of a film before it that so cleverly edited two juxtaposing sequences to create one overarching theme. The "do you renounce Satan?" question as the gunfire rings out and Michael indeed takes his first steps to becoming truly evil, is quite unlike anything else out there. It acts as a precursor to what Coppola and Puzo somehow achieved across an entire film with the sequel.

And Michael has one final plan in store to seal his fate...
The closing moments of the film are filled with sheer disbelief. First Connie, then Kay, then us as the viewer. We know what's happened and yet we can almost make sense of it because the film has worked to create an anti-hero out of Michael. When you spend so much time in a character's company, he must be good, right? That context has slipped in the 50 years since the release of The Godfather, but back in 1972, it was unheard of to spend so much time devoted to a character who is so beyond redemption. And the final scene just hammers that point home to the viewer. Will he be honest? Will he now sever criminal ties as he'd promised Kay? Will he renounce Satan? As the door closes, it's pretty clear...

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The Godfather remains one of the two or three greatest films ever made. I've laid out a lot of plot points and some analysis in this review, but I've barely brushed the surface. There are single sequences here that could be picked apart over hours and hours, but the real power of the film is in how it never leaves you. It's too detailed and natural. To go back to my earlier point about the opening scene, it feels classic throughout. There's not a note out of place. The casting is perfect. The performances are all stellar. The score from Rota, iconic, like it was always meant to score this film. The technical details such as the set design, editing.. these things almost go unnoticed now at how incredible they really are.

And at the helm is Francis Ford Coppola. A one-in-a-million genius who has most definitely made mistakes in his career, but holds the distinction of probably crafting the two highest peaks in all of cinema history.

And somehow, he topped this with the sequel...

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