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Movie Review: The Godfather

The Godfather
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo from his novel
Paramount Pictures, 1972

This review came from my old site, the L & N Line.  Changes and additions have been made to fit this site’s Best Picture structure.

The hardest thing for me to decide how to write about a movie like this is finding an approach. I’ve read numerous anecdotes on the film from then-Paramount-head-honcho Robert Evans’s book The Kid Stays in the Picture and in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. It’s lines, scenes, and performances are legendary. It received 11 Oscar nominations and won Best Picture. It’s AFI’s #3 movie of all time.

What makes the movie one of the best you’ll ever see is that you can pick it up at any time and be riveted. There are very few movies that hit that kind of stride. After all these years, it shows no real signs of age. Once you get into the history of how all the pieces came together for The Godfather, you’ll also realize how much of a miracle it is that this movie was made. Hollywood was giving more and more power to the directors, rather than the producers. Coppola had made nothing but bombs but was still pegged to direct after many had been approached but declined. That Al Pacino is Michael Corleone is a miracle. And, before Jaws, became one of the huge factors in changing the way movies were distributed and why the opening weekend gross has become such a critical aspect of a movie’s success.

What I like about the movie is how, at heart, it’s the story of one man’s improbable rise to power. In the scope of the film’s influence and famous scenes, what almost gets lost is the basic story. Michael Corleone (Pacino) is a World War II hero coming back home, ready to make a nice life with the non-Sicilian Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). He’s his father Vito’s (Marlon Brando, who won an unclaimed Oscar) favorite, and as such, he’s supposed to be the guy who made it on the outside of the family business. But a series of events slowly draws him in. The other families want to get into narcotics, with the Corleone’s pull in politics and law enforcement. Don Corleone believes the trade is a bad idea, feeling his support from senators and cops would be lost and with it, so would his power.

A hit is put on the Don, leaving him weak, his son Fredo (John Cazale) in shock, and his volatile son Sonny (James Caan) in charge. Michael feels obligated to help, and he soon leaves the life he had made for himself. Because he is viewed as a respectful, cooler head, he becomes the negotiator for the Corleones in a time where everyone is looking for revenge. But this underestimation becomes his strength in the early going–it leads to the famous restaurant scene where he takes out Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the man responsible for the hit on his father, and the police chief McClusky (Sterling Hayden), leading to his exile to Sicily while things heat up.

Meanwhile, Sonny’s temper becomes his downfall, and it becomes an opportunity for the other families to kill the vengeful Sonny. The recovering Don calls a truce, but it’s a clever ruse to get Michael back in the States and take over. His authority isn’t immediately recognized, but he soon shows why he’s a man to be respected.

This is one of the very best of films, and you’ll have to look under the most obscure of rocks to find someone who doesn’t think this is in the top 10 of all-time.  In 1972, The Godfather beat out The Emigrants, Sounder, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and probably the best-known of its competition, John Boorman’s Deliverance.  Surprisingly, The Godfather, for all its legend, only took home 3 Oscars, and Coppola lost to Fosse.  The Godfather II would soon make amends for that.

Next: The Godfather II

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