Even ‘Godfather’ Films Merit Re-evaluation
Are they among the best movies ever made, or is that just their reputation?
By Todd Hill
After several weeks of listening to one of those seemingly countless podcasts out there about movies, I decided to part ways with the program after hearing a co-host admit one too many times to never having seen yet another classic title. We all have blind spots when it comes to important motion pictures and that’s fine, but if your job involves writing or talking about cinema those blind spots better be few in number.
This is why I lived under a heavy, wet blanket of shame for decades, simply because I had never seen Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films. I had at some point unwisely attempted to get through 1990’s final installment in the mob trilogy, but having no context by which I might be able to appreciate it I gave up halfway in. That was more than enough for me to realize that the much-derided movie, an admitted money grab by the director, wasn’t worth my time.
“The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974) are landmarks in American film. No argument. Case closed. “Best of” movie lists litter the Internet, but one of the more credible ones, the American Film Institute’s latest “100 Greatest American Films of All Time” list, has the first “Godfather” ranked at №2, behind 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” while the second “Godfather” movie is well down the list at №32. Having recently erased this egregious blind spot in my film vocabulary, I can only state with newfound authority that, well, the gap in the AFI list between the first and second “Godfather” titles is appropriate.
What kept me away from these movies for so long? Was it intentional? Sort of. I’m not Italian-American, nor am I more sensitive to Italian-American stereotypes than the average person, but I have always felt that entertainments about organized crime tend to glorify the lifestyle, whether it’s on purpose or not (and it’s usually deliberate). I certainly felt that way about Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). HBO’s “The Sopranos” (1999–2007) held my interest for a few seasons, and I’ve always respected its vaunted place in television history, but a personal note — I lived in Staten Island, N.Y., for 20 years. What, I needed to turn on the TV to watch the mob? I could just walk down to the corner deli for the real deal.
Long before I managed to catch up with the “Godfather” pictures, I had gotten a clear sense from their many fans that the respect, affection, even passionate love that they have for these films often went beyond all reason. For them, these aren’t simply the best movies ever made, but represent nothing less than the epitome of American, even Western culture. I will never come close to seeing Coppola’s movies in the same light, but it’s not my mission to cut down these fans. Nor is it my impression that their cinematic intelligence, or mine, are compromised by our coming at these movies from radically different directions.
What manner of perspective do I have to offer then, catching up with the “Godfather” flicks relatively late in my cinematic experience, and more than 40 years after they were absorbed into our culture? Simply this — I’m certainly not the only person to have had this gaping hole in my movie vocabulary, and I’m not sure the films’ most rabid champions have anything to offer my fellow “Godfather”-ignorant cinephiles that isn’t deeply biased. A fresh take, in other words, is what I hope to extend to fellow Corleone family neophytes, provided they can get past my contention that the “Godfather” movies do indeed glorify the mob. This isn’t just my opinion, however. Mobsters clearly have felt the same way for decades, but it wasn’t always thus.
Initially, the major crime families in the New York metro area went out of their way to shut down production of these films, and they did so in familiar fashion — by making threats. Italians had played a large and largely positive role in building up cities like New York, these mobsters emphasized, and only a tiny fraction of Italian-Americans were actually in the mob, both accurate claims, even though those making the claims were in fact mafioso. At any rate, the threats were countered with various deals and compromises from the studio, and seemingly overnight, the mob was fully on board. It certainly didn’t hurt that the “Godfather” films were being directed by an Italian-American. To this day, the movies’ biggest fans are the real-life versions of the Corleone family, and why? Because they feel the pictures glorify their lifestyle.
The creation of a motion picture is rarely a simple endeavor, but the journey the first two “Godfather” films negotiated to get on the big screen was more byzantine than most. The novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, who knew little about the mafia when he wrote the book and let some significant gaffes get into print, was nonetheless hugely popular, rendering a big-screen adaptation a foregone conclusion. Paramount and producer Robert Evans offered the movie to a dozen directors before dangling it for Francis Ford Coppola, and Coppola turned it down before later signing on, considering the source material sub-par, which it no doubt was. Coppola’s first two “Godfather” flicks are rare, but by no means the only, examples of films that wound up better than the books on which they were based.
Coppola, like virtually all directors of note, had his career ups and downs, but one constant in his work was his tendency to turn the making of a movie into something harder than it had to be. His struggles on “Apocalypse Now” (1979) are the stuff of legend. The “Godfather” flicks had their own challenges as well, although in most cases they weren’t Coppola’s fault. These are big movies with scores of characters, so it should be no surprise that casting presented myriad choices. Everybody who was anybody in the early 1970’s was considered for one role or another, it seems, and Coppola, Evans and the studio had scores of protracted fights over who to pick to play virtually every major character.
Pondering casting what-ifs is an essentially pointless parlor game (or podcast topic); motion pictures should be judged on what they are, not what they might have been. The first two “Godfather” movies earned seven Oscar nominations for acting, the first one three and the second four, with two wins overall — for Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in Part I and Robert De Niro as the sequel’s younger Vito. And in retrospect, those feel like the most deserved wins, even though Brando can clearly be seen reading from cue cards during a key scene in Part I. (Famously, Brando rejected his award on Oscar night, sending Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to protest Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.)
The consensus has long been that Al Pacino was robbed in 1975 when the Best Actor Oscar went to Art Carney for “Harry and Tonto,” despite Pacino leaving such an indelible imprint on “The Godfather Part II.” There was indeed a robbery that night, and “Chinatown” star Jack Nicholson was the victim. Sorry, but Pacino’s performance just doesn’t make a significant impression on me. The dead eyes are a nice touch, and a device Pacino returned to for many other later roles. But his Michael Corleone is little more than churlish and sullen throughout Parts I and II, which isn’t terribly interesting.
James Caan (Sonny Corleone) has some powerful moments in Part I. His character feels a bit one-dimensional, but that may not have entirely been Caan’s fault; Coppola snipped much of Caan’s screen time, to the actor’s acute dismay. Robert Duvall, one of the best American actors of his generation, is predictably terrific as consigliere Tom Hagen, although the films, particularly Part II, progressively lose interest in his character. And it’s impossible to look past Brando. Even though the years have turned his portrayal of Vito Corleone into a stereotype, in the context of the complete motion picture his performance here is without question the stuff of legend.
I’m just skimming the acting highlights here for the sake of space. There are far too many memorable turns in Parts I and II to mention them all. And this is why the bad casting choices are so mystifying — or perhaps not. The appearance of Talia Shire, as Connie Corleone, is nepotism at its worst; Coppola’s sister is fairly awful on more than one occasion. Al Martino is similarly underwhelming as singer Johnny Fontane, the character ultimately responsible for Part I’s famed horse head scene (featuring a real severed horse head), but the mob may have had something to do with his casting. Finally, the less said about Diane Keaton the better; the actress seems to have wandered onto “The Godfather” from some other movie, although much the same can be said of her character as well.
Hard-core “Godfather” devotees will insist that the films need to re-watched, and repeatedly so, to even begin to appreciate everything Coppola and his enormous cast and crew have done here. Of course, this is never the case with any motion picture. I’ve watched Parts I and II just once, and have no immediate plans to revisit them, for the simple reason that I have too many other blind sports in my cinematic vocabulary to erase, and never enough time to do so. Granted, these are densely plotted movies, which no doubt could reveal a plethora of new details with each viewing. But any film critic — indeed, anybody — should be able to pass judgment on both of these pictures after an initial viewing. While I could very well come to different conclusions about them after the 20th watch, perhaps more favorable but possibly not so, I wouldn’t trust those as much as I do my initial impressions.
And we can see this phenomenon playing out in comparing the contemporaneous reviews of Part II, in particular, with the many re-evaluations from years later. As difficult as the first “Godfather” movie was to bring to life, its positive reception — both commercial and critical — richly rewarded everyone involved. It shouldn’t be surprising then that a year later, Coppola — now newly anointed Hollywood royalty — essentially got everything he wanted to make Part II. And the movie suffered for that. Many critics were downright suspicious of the industry’s first-ever officially titled sequel, although Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters went all in for the film (six wins on 11 nominations). The Oscars get this sort of thing wrong all the time though. This analysis is just the latest in a long line to throw shade — albeit a gentle, dappled shade — on Part II.
The first “Godfather” installment is simply the tighter one, even with a three-hour running time. Every scene featuring Brando is elevated by his presence. And there are moments in the film that are frankly unforgettable; I don’t know that I’ve ever seen tension as well played as it is in the scene when Pacino’s Michael guns down Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo and NYPD Captain Marc McCluskey in that restaurant on White Plains Road. But oh, the unevenness! The movie slows to a crawl during Michael’s long hideout in Sicily — and how can a mobster expect to go unnoticed in Sicily, with more mafioso per square mile than any other place on the planet? Things pick up out of nowhere for Sonny’s flashy toll plaza rub-out, although the death scene is logically incoherent.
The “Godfather” sequel, meanwhile, is all over the place, hopscotching from Lake Tahoe to New York City to Havana to Washington, D.C., to Italy and then back to Nevada again. It also lurches back and forth in time, between 1958 and 1917, or thereabouts, to keep us up to date with the young Vito Corleone (De Niro). The movie’s over-arching “no honor among thieves” theme is hard to miss, as Michael, despite all the solemnizing about the importance of family, is ultimately left alone thanks to his inability to trust literally anyone. And Part II is so obsessed with the eradication of Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) that it’s not just utterly anti-climactic but something of a relief when he’s finally dispatched in a fishing boat at the end of the film (he couldn’t row out on the lake on his own?).
The so-called tableau format adopted by Coppola and his cinematographer, Gordon Willis, in which multiple scenes are designed like some Old Master painting and shot statically, doesn’t do much for the movies’ momentum, although that doesn’t bother me as much as the dark, yellow-brown sheen that coats so many sequences, another conscious choice created by underexposure of the film stock.
Seen fresh today, the first two “Godfather” movies are able to exist neatly as a commentary on the rampant corruption that now easily infiltrates so many American institutions. It’s an open question whether that association was as strong upon the films’ release, although coming as they did amidst the Watergate scandal and the waning years of the Vietnam War I imagine it was. In other words, there’s more going on here than the usual gangster shenanigans.
If it’s mob movies you want, however, it doesn’t approach hyperbole to state that these are the best such flicks you’ll find anywhere. If “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” are among your cinematic blind spots, you kind of have an obligation to change that if you care at all about the art form. Be aware, however, that these pictures deserve to be included in the conversation about the best movies ever made only because they always have been.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.