The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty in postwar New York City transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant youngest son.
It is crystal clear why The Godfather is so high up on the AFI list. It’s the “be all, end all” of movies for many. It’s a masterclass on filmmaking, honestly. And there’s so many components that director Francis Ford Coppola helped bring together masterfully. Combining the screenplay and the visuals, Coppola is able to tell us so much in just a small amount of time. For instance, take the opening wedding scene. What do we learn that isn’t explicitly said? We learn that Michael is Don Vito’s favorite son, as he refuses to take the photo without Michael present. When Michael does arrive, he’s dressed in his army uniform, a stark difference from the rest of the his family. We learn that Sonny has some kind of moral center, as he throws down money for the photographer’s camera that he’s just destroyed. The film is filled with little moments like these ones.
From the moment the film begins, the tension is present. We begin with a tight close-up around the character of Carlo Rizzi, with a slow zoom outwards. We are in a dark room. Not too many people present. And, sitting at the large desk in the room is Vito Corleone, the most powerful man in this film. From there, tension builds in the dialogue between characters. Often, conversations will be taking place, and there will be no music underneath. There will be intense things going on, like moving Don Corleone’s hospital bed, while all we (and Michael) hears is footsteps getting closer and closer. We are waiting with Michael to find out if those footsteps will cause the death of his father. These moments bind us to Michael, and that becomes so crucial, as Michael, throughout the rest of the film, is about to do some morally deplorable things.
Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone may be one of my favorites. In his first major starring role, Pacino is far from the caricature that he has become today. In a performance that is understated and subdued, Pacino hooks the audience. His performance isn’t the only one, however. Marlon Brando as the Don is intimidating and, yet, very caring. Diane Keaton who plays Michael’s girlfriend-turned-wife, Kay Adams, perfectly portrays the frustration that she feels about the family, her love for Michael, and the wonder of it all. Robert Duvall plays Tom Hagen, Don Corleone’s right hand man and pseudo-son, and brilliantly weaves between family and business. James Caan as Sonny Corleone, the second eldest brother, is simultaneously irritating and loving (which makes his death scene hurt all the more). And, I cannot forget about John Cazale, who plays the eldest Corleone, Fredo, who gets passed over for head of the Family. And, let me tell you, the audience feels the anger and sadness from him over this.
The Godfather, just like Pacino’s portrayal of Michael, is a film that captivates it’s audience. It’s been captivating audiences since 1972, and will likely not stop. The Godfather became more than a film. It became this pop culture icon, in the same way Titanic did. The film completely takes on a life of its own and, in spite of when the film takes place, it does not feel dated in any way. The Godfather is the film with masterful editing. You have Connie screaming transitioning to the newborn baby crying. You have a baptism happening at the same time that a large number of murders are being executed, per Michael’s orders. The Godfather IS the rise of Michael Corleone and may have one of the most perfect endings of any film. I get chills every single time.