Don Corleone: …a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.
The Godfather is “Don” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando- age 47), the head of the Corleone mafia family in New York. Brando wanted to make his character “look like a bulldog,” so he stuffed his cheeks w/ cotton for his audition. For the filming, he wore a mouthpiece made by a dentist. On the day of his daughter Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding, he is meeting w/ several members of his (Italian-American) community on his estate on Staten Island. There is a saying that the Don’s adopted son/lawyer, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall- age 40 and wearing a bad hairpiece), says: “no Sicilian can refuse a favor at his daughter’s wedding day.” Michael (Al Pacino- not yet famous at age 31), the Don’s youngest son/decorated WWII Marine, is also present w/ his blonde/WASP girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton- only 25). Pacino and Keaton started dating during filming and were a couple for 5 years. Michael seems thoughtful and introverted, as well as uninterested in the family business. Don Corleone is an influential man w/ connections to businessmen, politicians, judges, and celebs. He can be kind/generous to those who give him respect, but ruthless against those who don’t. When a dangerous rival wants to sell drugs, and needs the Don’s agreement, he says no way! His oldest son Sonny (James Caan) seems to disagree. What follows is a clash between the Don’s “old-school” values and the ways of the new generation.
Don Corleone [to Sollozzo]: I said that I would see you because I had heard that you were a serious man, to be treated with respect. But I must say no to you and let me give you my reasons. It’s true I have a lot of friends in politics, but they wouldn’t be so friendly if they knew my business was drugs instead of gambling which they consider a harmless vice. But drugs, that’s a dirty business.
I saw some scenes (over the years) of this iconic movie; however, I don’t recall seeing it fully until this past week! Director Francis Ford Coppola (only 33) had received some notice for one earlier movie; he was young and untested like much of the cast. He wasn’t enthusiastic about making this movie (at first); he thought the book by Mario Puzo was too sensational. I learned that he feared being fired by the studio for the first 2 weeks of filming! The unique (dark) lighting chosen by cinematographer Gordon Willis also made the execs worried, until they were convinced that this showed the shady ways of the Corleones. Willis earned the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” w/ the choices that he used; it turned out well (of course). Brando (due to heavy prosthetic makeup) is usually lit from above. Michael is brightly-lit in the first act of the film (before the Don is shot). Then the lighting scheme changes; we see half of his face in shadow. Once he has transitioned to the head of the family, dark shadows appear over his eyes. Caan (playing a loud/hot-headed man) is usually more well-lit than Duvall (who is calm, soft-spoken and tactful in his speech). Did you know that Caan improvised the part where Sonny throws the FBI photographer’s camera to the ground? Kay’s face usually looks bright; Keaton was lit from the side. However, I wasn’t a fan of the wigs (or hairdos) they chose for Kay. She is dressed in shades of red for most of the movie (a red/white spotted dress at the wedding, a maroon dress at the hotel dinner, and a bright red hat and coat when she goes to the estate).
Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
There is much to admire here, but the most important thing is that we really care for these characters and go on a fascinating journey. As Roger Ebert commented (after the 25th anniversary): “In this closed world, The Godfather is the good guy. He is the hero that we root for.” I was esp. impressed by Brando when the Don becomes injured/weak; as for the tough-guy moments (we know he can do those well). Pacino (youthful/handsome) gives a nuanced performance (which may be a surprise to younger viewers); it’s almost all in the eyes (as we find w/ the finest of screen actors). We don’t see the angry/volatile side of Pacino (Coppola’s first choice for the role) until the final act when he yells at Kay. I learned that the studios wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neill for the role of Michael- LOL! Martin Sheen (w/ long hair and a mustache) auditioned for the role also; you can see some clips of screen tests on YouTube. All the supporting cast (incl. those who came from open calls, such as Abe Vigoda) suit their roles well. Look out for two veterans from the Golden Age of Hollywood- Richard Conte (the smooth-talking Don Barzini) and Sterling Hayden (the racist/crooked cop- Chief McCluskey). Both Conte and Hayden are in fine shape; they were known for noir films (I got into this genre over quarantine life). Fredo (John Cazale) doesn’t have a big role here, but I learned that he will feature more in The Godfather: Part II. He received much acclaim (from his peers and critics), died rather young, and was engaged to Meryl Streep.
This movie appeals to many people across the decades all around the world. One critic said: “It’s a simple story about a king and his three sons.” I’m sure it was rare to see a well-developed story of immigrants and first-gen Americans (w/ dark hair and olive/tan skin tones), even in the early 1970s. Having a Italian-American director must’ve been a great asset; it was Coppola’s idea to incorporate a real Italian-speaking wedding band, non-actors (incl. members of his own family), scenes which reflect everyday life (w/ kids running around, cooking, domestic disputes, etc.) There is the gorgeous/romantic sequence shot in Sicily where (some critics say) Michael finds true love (Appolonia) and happiness for the first time. When I saw the chaste courtship scenes between Michael and Appolonia (and her extended family) , I was reminded of the stories of my own family (parents, aunties, and uncles) who grew up in Bangladesh. This is a must-see film you can’t refuse!