Review: The Godfather (1972)

The Thinker by Rodin

Goodness, who hasn’t seen The Godfather? Well, um, me, until this weekend. How could I have possibly missed seeing one of the most famous movies of all time, a movie so famous that viewers on the Internet Movie Database rate it 9.2 out of 10 stars? In fact, it is tied with The Shawshank Redemption as its highest rated movie.

I missed it because I was inconveniently fifteen in 1972, and thus was not allowed to go to R rated movies. My parents would not have taken me, being devout Catholics and all. We did sneak read parts of the novel by Mario Puzo. I never tried to read it all the way through, but we dog-eared the pages with the sex scenes. In 1972, it was a very racy book.

I knew that the movie would be gross because it’s about the Mafia. Not being a fan of violent movies in general, once of legal age I felt little inclination to see it. But given its high rating by imdb.com fans, it seemed like there was no way to dislike it. So I looked forward to seeing the movie at last, knowing I was likely to be satisfied nearly forty years after its release.

Well, it’s definitely not a bad movie, and yeah it’s a pretty good movie but a movie that should be tied for first place as the viewer’s choice award for all time? No, definitely not in my judgment. Granted, I can see how in 1972 it would have been something of a sensation. It’s chock full of violence. In an era when violence was rarely portrayed accurately in a movie, The Godfather was an exception. Watching it in the 21st century, the violence seems a tad on the tame side, but that’s largely because we’ve grown inured to it. But director Francis Ford Coppola proved something of a genius in perfecting violent (principally murderous) scenes. They feel creepily authentic. Mix the violence with the creepy but plausible world of the New York Mafia in the 1940s and you have a movie that feels authentic in a really awful way, like you want it not to be true but you knew it is faithful to the times. Indeed it was, as I have read about the Mafia of the 1950s.

Seeing The Godfather nearly forty years after it was released feels like being in a time warp. With the exception of Marlon Brando, many of Hollywood’s big stars appear in The Godfather are so fresh faced. None is fresher than Diane Keaton, who plays the girlfriend and eventual wife of Michael (Al Pacino), the unexpected heir to the Corleone crime syndicate. Speaking of Pacino, I had to look at him carefully before I could believe it was him. He is so young, and so baby faced. Marlon Brando’s was the exception. His late fifties-early sixties look was likely largely a result of an excellent makeup artist, as he was 48 when the movie was released.

Brando of course won but would not accept an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of The Godfather, a.k.a. Don Vito Corleone. This puzzled me because while he did a good job with the part, it did not strike me as best actor caliber. For one thing, his raspy voice turns out to be grating, and grows more grating as the movie progresses. If anyone deserved a best actor award, it should have been Al Pacino, whose character Michael slowly morphs from a nice, humble war hero into the ruthless head of his father’s crime syndicate. It’s a transition that is excellently portrayed, and leaves us decent people aghast at this turn of events. With his brother Sonny (James Caan, also looking surreally young) one of many victims of rival syndicates, Michael’s life of crime seems to be necessary simply to sustain a vast family empire. What’s chilling is how he takes to it. The best and most heartbreaking scene in the movie is probably near the very end, where he lies to his wife Kay. He’s spun so tightly in his weird idea of machismo that he cannot even tell her about the woman he fell in love with and married while on the lam in Sicily. He will lie even when he promises her he will not lie. It’s all about fidelity or something.

What shows through for me forty years later are the smaller parts, mostly the amoral thugs of the Corleone syndicate, like Alex Rocco as Moe Green and Abe Vigoda as Tessio. Many of the best pieces of The Godfather puzzle are found at its edges, not its center. The movie is compelling in the same way a bad car wreck is compelling. It leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth that people like these can be such complete hypocrites and liars. Integrity has a strange meaning in the Corleone clan.

So, yes, forty years later The Godfather is still a compelling movie and I can see how in 1972 it would stand out against much more pedestrian fare. Besides, the novel was as ubiquitous as the Bible at the time. It’s sad that one of our allegedly best films renders so well people and time better forgotten.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼