“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
Widely regarded by many as the greatest movie ever made, it’s director Francis Ford Coppola was famous for claiming that he wouldn’t need to make another movie for 10 years. In reality he never needed to make another movie ever again. It’s that good! Of course he would go on to write and direct Part II (which is equally as good) and a plethora of fantastic films that made loads of money and won a ton of awards. But he will always be remembered for The Godfather. It was a landmark in American film-making and still remains one of the most influential, imitated and quoted movies of all time.
It’s 1940’s New York, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone returns home from his stint in World War II to attend the wedding of his sister Connie (Talia Shire). Although he defied his father Vito (Marlon Brando) by joining the Marines and rejecting the “family business” as a career move, he returns to open arms and wide smiles as somewhat of a war hero. The prodigal son so to speak. Michael introduces his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) to his family.
Vito, having refused to aid the drug trafficker Sollozzo who is being backed by the rival Tattaglia family, barely survives an attempt on his life and is left bed ridden in hospital. Meanwhile it’s up to the remaining members of the “family” to continue on with business and try to sort out the mess left behind. Sonny (James Caan), Vito’s first born and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the Corleone consigliere or advisor, devise a plan to entrap the man behind the attempt on the Godfather’s life. Michael, who gradually through the course of events has grown the need to be an effective member of the family, persuades his older brother that it should be him to exact revenge for his father. After killing Sollozzo (the drug trafficker rival) and a local corrupt cop, Michael flees to Sicily to hide out for a while. While there he meets a young Sicilian woman, who proceeds to become his wife, and he begins to set up a new life for himself.
Back in the U.S, the war between the families is hotting up and Sonny is ambushed on his way to visit his sister, who had recently called him for help after her husband Carlo beats her. He is brutally gunned down at a toll bridge by a gang of tommy gunners. After Don Vito is despatched from hospital, rather than take revenge for Sonny’s death, he demands to meet with the other families to discuss the future and negotiate terms of a ceasefire that will end any further fatalities and also allow Michael to return home. After his new wife is killed by Corleone enemies, Michael returns to New York and meets up with his old girlfriend Kay. Although they have been parted for several years he proposes to her and after hesitation she accepts. With Don Vito semi retired due to his rapidly decreasing health, Sonny dead and other brother Fredo (John Cazale) not trusted to lead the family, Michael is reluctantly forced to become the new Don.
Michael sends Fredo to Las Vegas to accrue information on the casino market from Moe Greene, an ambitious casino boss planning on expanding his business. Michael proposes to buy out Greene, who not so politely almost bites his head off. When Michael returns home, he is given counsel by his father. Vito, who has replaced Hagen as consigliere, tells Michael that he expected more than a life of crime from him and had hoped he would legitimise the family business and possibly pursue a career in political office. He also advises Michael of his expectations that his enemies may offer a meeting as a platform for his assassination but more importantly that “a trusted associate” would be the one to bring the offer to him. While playing a game with his grandson in the garden, Vito collapses and dies of a heart attack. After the funeral Tessio, one of Vito’s original right hand men, speaks to Michael and proposes a meeting with Barzini (the leader of a rival family). Vito’s warning resonates with Michael, and Tessio’s approach identifies him as a traitor.
While Michael is standing as Godfather to Connie’s child in a church service, various family dons are extinguished by members of Michael’s close circle. Among them is Barzini, Moe Greene and Tattaglia. Tessio is then confronted and outed for his betrayal, despite his attempts at restoration he is driven away never to be seen again. Last but not least on Michael’s hit list is his own brother in law Carlo, who was in cahoots with Barzini which ultimately led to Sonny’s murder. Clemenza, another long time compatriot of Don Vito, kills Carlo in a car he assumed was taking him to the airport.
It seems Michael’s plan to launch a campaign of murderous revenge against all those who attempted to derail the Corleone legacy was devised shortly after he was groomed as the new Don. He only included those who he could fully trust. With all the other contending families now consolidated into his own, he can now move on and lead the family to a new era of prosperity.
Having won three of it’s eleven nominated Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay) it grossed over $5 million in it’s opening weekend alone (this was 1972) in the U.S. It has some of the most memorable and best scenes in the history of cinema. I could literally be here all night quoting or making a list of the greatest scenes but a few of my favourites are; The Sicilian message “It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”, the meeting of the Families in which they negotiate a truce, the very tense restaurant scene when Michael slips off to the restroom to get the gun that was left for him so he can kill Sollozzo, the opening monologue “I believe in America” from Bonasera in Vito’s office in which he exclaims his pain felt for his daughter and the hatred he has for the men that beat her and left her for dead. Even some of the minor scenes like when Clemenza is explaining the correct way to make a good sauce or when Sonny beats up Carlo or when Luca Brasi is rehearsing his speech for Don Vito at the wedding. I’m no Italian/American/Sicilian but there’s nothing that doesn’t scream authenticity about this movie.
The cast are superb. Marlon Brando made Vito his own, using every single ounce of his stellar acting abilities to bring the character to life rather than just making him into an over the top, caricature of what that role has become so many times afterwards. His simple gestures and notions are what make him undeniably believable and even more so intriguing. Surely his portrayal of Vito is one of the most easily identifiable characters in the history of film. No wonder he won the Oscar. Pacino almost didn’t get this role (lots of other actors pulled out) and although I don’t think it is any way his best work, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role of Michael. Pacino does an impressive job at allowing Michael to morph into the reluctant role of Godfather. When we first meet him he is almost shy, reserved, very aware of his surroundings but as the film progresses Pacino diligently transforms into a different entity entirely. But it’s his ability at how he does this that is astounding, he manages not to lose any of Michaels original dignity or sense of reverence. It’s not like he screws his face up and raises his voice, he does it subtly, almost with subtitles. Screaming without making any sound.
The rest of the cast are just unbelievable. James Caan especially as Sonny, is funny and scary all at the same time. Clemenza is one of my favourite characters. He is as loyal as they come and is included in many of the assassination moments. He is also credited with delivering one of the all time great lines of dialogue ever, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, which I believe was actually a piece of improvisation from Richard Castellano. Robert Duvall is the other important cog in the engine. His quiet demeanour, soft spoken, palpable Tom Hagen is perhaps the most valuable member of the Corleone family and Duvall brings a true sense of sincerity to the role which never ever makes us dislike him. Almost every single character feels like a fully fledged real life person complete with their own baggage, desires and suspicions. There’s a good argument to suggest any on the long list of talented supporting characters could warrant their own spin off project and it would still have enough depth and credibility than most other mob stories.
Everything you’ve ever known about the Mafia probably came from The Godfather. Yet unlike it’s many imitators, it’s not solely a mob movie. It’s about love, morals and at it’s core it’s a story of a family struggling not to be ripped apart from each other. In fact it’s not just a movie, it’s a reference guide to all of life’s unanswered questions and every time you watch it you’ll discover new revelations about yourself, about your family, about your existence. Never outdated, never outclassed, never bettered. The sequel (I consider both parts one long movie) is just as exceptional, telling the story of Michael’s continued rise and also the origins of Vito after his arrival in New York, but that’s another story for another day. Just a complete masterpiece!
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter