The Godfather by Mario Puzo was immortalized in 1972 when Hollywood’s most legendary names combined to produce a timeless mafia classic, which explored the underground world of Post-War New York City. The movie features thoroughly absorbing performances from Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Al Lettieri, and Talia Shire. The film follows the ineluctable circumstances that push Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) into the world he has long despised and avoided. As Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) gets shot, the position of power transitions down to his son, Sonny (James Caan). However, in his desire to stand up to the people who threatened his family, the spirit of the Cosa Nostra saturates Michael’s being as he eventually emerges as the ruthless new Don of the Corleone family with a malicious guile resembling that of his father.
The movie is decorated by enthralling performances all throughout due to its massively talented cast and the chemistry the actors share between them. Such a confluence of immense talent has been a rare feature of only a handful of movies, including the likes of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Marlon Brando’s unflinching portrayal of Vito Corleone dominates the setting with an imposing effect, while Al Pacino takes it upon himself to depict the immersive metamorphosis of a gentle civilian to an unrelenting patriarch. The performances surrounding these two central ones are just as passionate and engaging, and this lures the audience into an appreciation of the cardinal themes and the artistic techniques employed in the making of Coppola’s magnum opus.
Coppola’s directing met the creative filming techniques of Gordon Willis to produce vivid and lasting resonations of the plot’s central themes and the chief concerns of the characters. The dominant theme of The Godfather trilogy as a whole is the illustration of a purely commercial interpretation of the American Dream. In The Godfather: Part 2, Robert De Niro sketched Vito’s journey to the top echelon of society as he loses his naïve faith in the American Dream’s ideals, as symbolized by the fading gloss of the foremost image of life in the melting pot: The Statue of Liberty. Likewise, the first component of the trilogy is a vile tale of murder and rivalry amongst members of the mafia. There exists only the singular goal of economic prosperity with negligible stress on the means to achieve it. Robert Merton’s Strain Theory highlights this social phenomenon in how he defined categories of approach to the disjuncture between legitimate means and socially positive goals. The Innovator’s approach is at the forefront in The Godfather in how characters place an unyielding stress on goals but hold no respect for adopting legitimate means to achieve them. The aforementioned approach to life in the Post-War USA aligns with the desire to construct a familial legacy at a time immediately after the Great Depression, which had emblazoned a sense of impermanence in the American mentality. The constant mention of family loyalty and even the prestige family members attach to the name of the Corleone family is a manifestation of the social concerns of the time: everyone wants to pass down a legacy to the next generation and cement their name against the fleeting nature of life. However, this prospect is achieved through a certain darkness of character that entails a sacrifice of legitimate means. The first shot of the film takes place in a dimly lit room in contrast to the bright elation outside at Connie’s wedding. Marlon Brando’s shots often reveal only one half of his face in a bright fashion while the other half lies dark, sinister and unknown. Fredo never shares this depiction nor does Sonny, despite his ruthless temper. Vito Corleone and Michael Corleone are the two imperative exponents of this cinematography of contrasts and it is only these very characters who possess the darkness of character to neglect means and keep only an eye on goals, which entails that they are the only ones who can, “make the offer,” no one can refuse. It comes as no surprise then that Michael and Vito stand out as the foremost personalities in the Corleone family, while the others revolve around the two patriarchs.
Another paramount theme is the difference between the family life of the common human being against life in the mafia business. Many have revealed the scene in which Michael tensely observes the hospital corridor while revealing only one half of his face with the other half concealed as the exact moment of transition from normal family life to the inescapable responsibilities of the Corleones as a mafia family. The disjuncture is revealed in a variety of ways such as in the dialectical lighting of regular family interactions and those that concern the illegitimate family business. Movie analysts highlight that doors stand out as symbols of the bridge between family life and mafia family life. This is evinced particularly in the very last scene of the movie in how the door to Michael’s office is shut at Kay’s (Diane Keaton) face as the former is crowned, “Don Corleone.” The scene epitomizes the notion that Kay has lost Michael from a regular family life and that he has now inescapably gone to the other side of the door: his family business. This interpretation is solidified by Michael’s growing absence and importance in the eyes of his wife and children in the sequels of the trilogy. Also, Kay’s bright, incongruous clothing stands out as an anomaly throughout the movie against black tuxedos. However, in the very last scene, her clothing has dulled a little from bright reds to a faded golden, symbolizing her ineluctable, albeit unwanted, involvement in the sinister Corleone family.
Coppola’s choices in the restaurant killing scene embody his unparalleled contribution to the film’s memorable effect on the audience. The absence of subtitles for the Italian, the exaggerated sound of a train going nearby, along with no music in the background allowed for a mounting tension to snowball and then culminate in the eventual release of suspense once Michael drops the gun and the indelible Nino Rota score kicks in. Every frame and every scene of the movie has been acted, filmed and edited with a delicate finesse and the last scene of the movie instigates a unity of effect in the audience’s being in how Pacino’s evil look and sense of glory coherently play with the demeanor we first saw in his father. Furthermore, the movie’s score personifies the concrete reality of any Don’s personality: apparently sweet but inwardly vicious.
In conclusion, The Godfather was an insurmountable coming together of talent that will forever live on as arguably Hollywood’s best product. Francis Ford Coppola executed an Oscar-winning screenplay he co-wrote with Mario Puzo and directed the industry’s best in the form of a well-knit cast, who all stood out with riveting portrayals of the concerns of their characters and those of the society they inhabit. If one ever needed to see a movie with a staggering cast, a masterful director, an arresting score, vivid depictions of its major themes, and a holistic movie experience that penetrates the subconscious and the conscious with equal acuteness, The Godfather is a movie you simply can’t refuse.