Review: The Godfather (1972)

godfather1That moment when the undertaker is first seen pleading for justice and the camera slowly pulls closer, it’s so slight we hardly even notice it, but we hear his bitter monologue about America and his disfigured daughter. A head appears in the frame and we get our first vision of the now iconic Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando as masterful as ever). It’s a brilliant little scene that introduces us to the character this whole narrative revolves around, and it really is an important point to enter his story, on the wedding day of his daughter.

But it’s not just this opening scene that’s of note. In the sprawling expanse of this film that goes from New York, to Hollywood, to Las Vegas, and even back to the old country in Sicily, there is so much to be taken in. A gruff studio head faces the wrath of Corleone when he gets a present in bed, and he learns never to cross the Godfather again. There’s the moment where Vito first utters the words, “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” and then it is mirrored by his son Michael later on.

godfather2You have the quip from the tubby Clemenza after they pull one of the many hits and then very business-like they leave the gun, but take the ever-important cannoli. There’s the turning point where Michael the war hero faces off against crooked cop McCluskey  (Sterling Hayden) and the opportunistic heroin dealer Solozzo because he wants revenge for the shot they took at his father. There’s the striking juxtaposition when Michael takes part in the dedication of his god-child knowing full well what is happening to the bosses all across town. Finally, we once more peer into the inner office now with Michael at the helm, and the door closes as a concerned Kay looks on at what her husband has become.

But not many people need to be told what their favorite scenes from The Godfather are, and they could probably rattle them off while giving color commentary. Aside from just being great scenes, however, these moments tie together a major theme that pervades this entire epic narrative. Because really, when you break it all down, with all the bloodshed, all the business, and everything else this film encompasses, it’s really about family. It becomes such an interesting paradigm, how Family can be sacred, held in such high regard, and yet violence is at times necessary and it’s also seen as a part of life. The two things are so interconnected and yet somehow they still can occupy two different spheres. Wives, children, etc. are left out of the fray. But when it comes down to business, men like Don Corleone will do what they have to do. After all, they are the men of the family and with that comes responsibility and a need to be stoic and strong. Never lose your temper, never show weakness, never say what you’re thinking, and always make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Vito Corleone played so famously by Marlon Brando is the epitome of The Godfather. A 40-year-old man was made to look decades older, he was given a distinctive mouth guard, and the rest is a giant simply delivering his lines with the nuanced — almost gasping delivery — that he was so well known for. He is in many ways the center point as the patriarch of this great family and the head of their business. Although his role does change as the circumstances change, he is a man of incredible influence with a great many friends, allies, as well as a few enemies. In other words, he’s the man with judges and politicians in his pocket, but it doesn’t come without a cost.

Sonny (James Caan) is the eldest son who is first in line to take over the role as head of the family. But although Sonny is a tough guy, his fiery temper is his downfall. He doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and he lets his anger get the best of him. It doesn’t bode well in a business like his.

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is another interesting addition to the family, because he’s not really one of them at all, but Vito took him off the street and he’s rather like a son, becoming a trusted member of Corleone’s inner circle. He helps carry out business and represents the Don when it comes to legal issues. He’s a good man to have around, but it also makes for an interesting dynamic with Sonny and even Michael.

Fredo (John Cazale) is the one brother who is lost in the shuffle, and he’s most certainly the weakest. All he’s good for is living it up and getting drunk so the family sends him to Las Vegas to stay out of trouble. He is unfit to be head of the family, because he simply has no guts and although his father cares about him, he would never trust him with the business.

Michagodfather3el (Al Pacino) comes back a war-hero and with a girlfriend in Kay (Dianne Keaton) who has no understanding of his culture or his people. In fact, the family wants to keep Michael as far from the fray of the family business as possible to protect him. The only possible role he might play is something unimportant so there’s no chance of him getting hurt. But while Don Vito is the focal point at first, The Godfather really evolves into the evolution of Michael from beginning to end. He starts out as an idealistic veteran so far removed from corruption. But the turn of events that deeply affect his family cause him to step into a different role, and he changes as a result. He is a far cry from the man we met during the wedding because now his almost subservient nature has been replaced by a cold-blooded dominance that is personified through his eyes. They’re like to icy black holes that can stare right through you, and they do.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis is obviously superb and generally popularized the golden tinge of The Godfather that gives it a classy and generally nostalgic touch of the 1940s. It makes locales like the open air wedding, Don Vito’s inner office, or even a cathedral all that more atmospheric. On his part, the score of Nino Rota manages to be hauntingly beautiful at one moment and even upbeat when necessary.

What more is there to say but that The Godfather is cinema at its purest and transcendent in its scope. There are few films that carry such magnitude in the vast annals of film history.

5/5 Stars

The Conversation (1974)

6d644-theconversationDirected by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, this film begins with a commonplace conversation between a young man and woman in the relatively busy Union Square in San Francisco. As they make their way around their words seem of little importance and yet unbeknownst to them they are being followed and recorded. 

The mastermind behind it all is the surveillance expert Harry Caul who uses his know-how and a small team to track their words from a van.  As a professional and a highly respected member of his field, Caul is guarded and he tries not to concern himself with the reasons behind his surveillance. However, as he works his magic in his private lab space, Caul finally does become affected when he picks up on bits and pieces of the conversation. It deeply troubles him and he continually plays the tapes back. 

Because of his concern, Caul holds out on giving the tapes to the assistant of the Director, the man who commissioned the job. The aide pressures him more and more and then finally Caul finds the tapes are stolen. Fearing that the couple is in grave danger, Caul takes the room right next to theirs, but unfortunately despite his best efforts, his fears seem to be confirmed. After searching the empty room Caul goes to confront the Director only to find that things are not as they seem and Caul is the only one who realizes it. The disillusioned man is then threatened over the phone and informed that now the shoe is on the other foot and he is under constant surveillance. Little did he know the implications of the conversation… 

Gene Hackman may have played more memorable characters like Popeye Doyle, Lex Luthor, or even Norman Dale in the Hoosiers, however, I am not sure if he played a more complex character than Harry Caul. He is a detached man who has no telephone, tells white lies about his birthday, has multiple locks on his door, keeps his equipment caged and he has no significant relationships. The other side of him loves the saxophone and is a devout Catholic. He is no hero and not what we would normally call a villain. He is Harry Caul a lonely, confused human who has tendencies for good but still constantly struggles to reconcile that with his career. Above all, The Conversation is a thought-provoking psychological thriller which gives the audience lots to mull over.
 
4.5/5 Stars

Apocalypse Now (1979)

10713-apocnowIn this hellish adaption of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam, Martin Sheen is a captain given a classified mission. He must go down the river into Cambodia to terminate a Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone rogue. The main part of the film follows his journey on a boat with a small crew of men. They meet up with a hardened napalm-loving colonel (Robert Duvall), watch a USO show, and witness as well as take part in senseless killing. With the crew whittled down, Willard finally reaches the outpost of Kurtz, only to witness the horror that lies there. After waiting so long to complete his mission, Willard feels conflicted about it upon seeing Kurtz. This is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s most famous films and it truly was a labor of love since it took a long time to complete. Although their parts may seem minimal, Brando, Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and even Harrison Ford contribute. Because I read the source novel, I could appreciate the film in that sense but The Godfather is a better film in my opinion.

4.5/5 Stars

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Starring a cast including Al Pacino and Robert De Niro with director Francis Ford Coppola, the film opens with a young Vito Corleone coming to America. The story switches gears to 1958 in Nevada where Michael Corleone has successfully moved the family. However, after a close call Michael goes to Miami and then Cuba to attend to some business having to do with a man named Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). The story alternates off and on to Vito as a young man who begins making a life for himself. Upon returning to Michael, he is in a senate hearing where he narrowly avoids being indicted for his activities. From that point on Michael shows no mercy to anyone who is in his way and that includes his family. By the end of the film he is no longer the former idealistic Michael but a callous, cold mobster.

This film was a good installment of The Godfather, acting as both a sequel and prequel. However, at times the split story did seem unnecessary but it does show a contrast between Vito and Michael. The acting, the score, and the directing were all very good. I will let others decide which installment is superior but I will say that this film shows the darker side of Michael. Ironically, he worked so hard to be strong for his family but as he feared he ultimately lost them.

4.5/5 Stars

The Godfather (1972)

This film is often cited by many as one of the greatest films of all time. I certainly would not be one to argue because it has so many extraordinary aspects. You have Brando as the title character and a great cast of others who reveal the honor as well as the brutality of this lifestyle. However this film is not just about the violence. It is complex and fascinating in many other ways.

*May Contain Spoilers

Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, with director Francis Ford Coppola, this is possibly one of the greatest films ever. It begins at a wedding in the 1940s as Don Vito Corrleone takes care of some “business” as head of the family. All too soon it becomes evident that the Don is loyal to his friends and ruthless to those in his way. His youngest son Michael returns from the war and wants nothing to do with the business but at the same time conflict blows up when the family does not back a heroin dealer. When the Don comes close to death Michael finally gets involved. After a series of events he becomes head of the family and soon proves how powerful he can be. Although this film has so much fan fare I did enjoy it a lot. Like I said before it is not just about the violence by any means. It is a period piece with an intriguing story and complex and interesting characters that truly reel you in.

5/5 Stars