Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Godfather

Leonard Maltin called 1972's THE GODFATHER "the '70s answer to GONE WITH THE WIND", and that's as good a one line summary as I can imagine for this cultural benchmark of a movie.  A seeming conception out of the most divine elements of the possibilities of fiction.  A behind the scenes saga of organized crime that makes no particular effort (or claim) to follow the truth, to expose real life "families".  While such details are interesting, I agree with director Francis Ford Coppola, who admitted later that he really didn't give a damn about the "mafia".  The grandeur, the mythology, the operatic, epic, sprawling nature of such a story is the point here.  It is what separates it from a hundred other underworld dramas (and shlocky "true crime" programs).

Yet THE GODFATHER remains compact enough to maintain an intimate involvement with its larger than life characters. GODFATHER II, for all its greatness, covered perhaps a bit too much ground and lost some of that intimacy.  Here, in the opening minutes of this movie, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) immediately casts a powerful figure in cloaks of darkness in his inner sanctum.  He's listening to a desperate man describe the horrible violence which befell his daughter.  The man has come to Corleone to ask for a favor, customary on a Don's daughter's wedding day.  But the godfather reminds the man that he's never even been invited over for a cup of coffee.  Friendship, at least gestures of it, are highly valued and almost as vital as loyalty.

Don Vito Corleone grants the man his request, reminding him that someday he may ask for a favor of his own.  Others will come with pleas as Connie's (Talia Shire) lavish party of matrimony unfolds just outside. Consiglieri Tom Haden (Robert Duvall), an Irishman who as a child was adopted into the Corleone family, is there to manage the procession of requests.  We quickly learn that he is as much a son to Vito as the volatile Sonny (James Caan), clumsy, half-witted Fredo (John Cazale), and quiet war hero Michael (Al Pacino). In the nearly three hour running time of THE GODFATHER, each character will be fleshed out thoroughly and brilliantly.  They will become like, yes, family to many viewers.

Many reading this, I imagine, are familiar with Coppola's saga enough to create their own character sketches and quote the dialogue.  Involuntarily hum Nino Rota's score.  My first immersion into this world was as a child, some years before I saw the original cut.  My mother had the sheet music and it featured several stills from the movie, all of which were works of art in themselves.  Sonny beating up Carlo. Barzini framed against the artwork of a train on a wall during a meeting.  Haden and movie producer Jack Woltz in the horse stable. Scenes from the wedding. Luca Brasi's final moments.  Enough can't be said of Gordon Willis' gorgeous color photography.  Incredibly meticulous, resulting in many scenes that appear as almost paintings.

I will not spoil any of the plot, but I think it's no secret to anyone with even an inkling of film knowledge that Michael will rise to be his father's successor.  He proves himself in action as well as with his cool head, much unlike Sonny, who explodes at the drop of a hat and can't even keep it in his pants during his sister's wedding.  Michael's trajectory will follow an arc that is majestic and tragic, the path of which will continue through two sequels.  The exploits of the Corleone family should be the envy of any storyteller; this is some of the most compelling drama I certainly have ever seen.

Mario Puzo (and I agree with Roger Ebert; he's a better storyteller than writer) wrote the original novel with studio Paramount's guidance; everyone knew this would eventually be a movie.  I can't imagine anyone would predict how huge it would become.  A part of pop culture that is as relevant today as in 1972.  Coppola is reported to have nearly been fired several times from the picture, and chafed at studio involvement.  Despite any production woes a certified classic was born.  A movie that deservedly ranks with the works of Golden Period filmmakers.   When you analyze it, you realize that THE GODFATHER is essentially dime store fiction transformed and finally elevated to the highest annals of cinema.

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