by Allan Fish
(USA 1972 175m) DVD1/2
Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes
p Albert S.Ruddy d Francis Ford Coppola w Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo novel Mario Puzo ph Gordon Willis ed William Reynolds, Peter Zinner, Marc Laub, Murray Solomon m Nino Rota art Dean Tavoularis, Warren Clymer
Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagan), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), James Caan (Sonny Corleone), Richard Castelleno (Clemenza), Sterling Hayden (McCluskey), Richard Conte (Barzini), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Al Lettieri (Sollozzo), Abe Vigoda (Tessio), Morgana King (Mama Corleone), Franco Citti (Calo),
The Godfather is truly one of the great movie experiences. It’s more than just a movie milestone, it’s a watershed, a film that changed cinema forever. Maybe not entirely for the good as it lead to so many inferior imitations, but for three hours it draws you into its dark world and, despite the evil that drips off the screen like mozzarella cheese off a pizza, you are sad to leave it behind. You have grown to love these characters, or at least to know them, and the reason for this is that, at its heart, beneath the deception, the murders, the corruption and the poison of the underbelly of the American dream, it’s a good old-fashioned family saga. One is reminded of Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers with Edward G.Robinson waiting around, Lear like, while his contrasting sons screw up his Italian-American banking empire while he tries to listen to Rossini. Indeed, Richard Conte, Paul Valentine and Luther Adler so resemble Pacino, Caan and Duvall here (Duvall may not have been the other son, but the similarity is there) that it’s uncanny. It could be argued that The Godfather is rather like King Lear, but this Lear knows which of his sons he loves best and which one he wants to keep his hands clean. In the end, however, like Macbeth upon catching sight of the witches, he knows he’s just a pawn and so is Michael. And for those who didn’t see the link to House of Strangers, check out the name of Richard Conte, esq., in the cast as Barzini, principal rival family head.
Yet the irony is that it’s not Vito Corleone who’s the central figure here, in spite of being played by top-billed Brando. Just as Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays are not about the eponymous king, they’re about young Prince Hal, silently observing all those around him until it’s time for him to take centre stage. When we first see Michael he’s a war veteran, a hero, returning home for his sister’s marriage, with a naïve young woman in tow, who he tells, in very matter-of-fact tones, how his father settles arguments. “That’s a true story” he tells her, and we believe him. Even this early in proceedings, in the opening set piece of the wedding (where Coppola masterfully cuts between the frivolities outside, the FBI checking number plates outside the gates and the Don dispensing favours in the darkened office) we know this young man is going to change and this change can be best summed up in three pivotal scenes. The first is when he arrives at the hospital to find his father unprotected and has to think on his feet, feigning protection with another guy when in fact there is none. From the moment his jaw is broken by McCluskey, we know he’s out for revenge on him for his father and himself. There’s cold calculation at work. Next there’s the scene at Dempsey’s restaurant where he kills McCluskey and Sollozzo. It’s at this point that he has his first blood on his hands and, like Macbeth and Richard III, sin plucks on sin. So much so that, in the third pivotal scene, at his father’s funeral, he’s become a monster, a disquietingly evil Machiavellian figure, so cold as to be in cryogenic suspension. For those used to the more flamboyant performances of Pacino’s later career, his subtle transformation throughout the film is amazing, so much so that he completely steals the film, in spite of the fine work of Duvall, Caan and Conte (Brando is actually rather hammy). Throw in an immortal score from Rota, moody photography, nice period detail and uncanny direction from Coppola and you have the ingredients of a first class pizza. It might give you indigestion. Its flavour may be too rich for weaker stomachs. But hell, take some Gaviscon, it’s worth it, it really is an offer you can’t refuse.