"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
At what point does a movie become bulletproof? If that moment exists, it would be hard to argue that The Godfather has not reached an never before seen level of untouchability. This is not to say that the film has not earned the praise that it receives, but rather that me trying to say something original about it may seem a bit pretentious. Of course, that does not mean that I will not say what makes it great - even if it is stupidly obvious.
The Godfather is one of the most stylized great movies ever made. It creates a universe in which everyone knows everyone and the claustrophobic feeling is evident. There is no glorification of the mob here, but instead the camera is rolling during the down time. None of the in-home action ever seems particularly urgent. In fact, there is a lot of waiting.
This interesting take on mob life was formulated from the screenplay written by the same man behind the best selling novel, Mario Puzo. It has been said that his original draft was heavily organized and edited by Coppola, but no matter who you choose to believe the outcome is brilliant. Each moment is perfectly scripted to match the dramatic and insistent tone of the movie. My favorite dialogue comes in the opening scene when Don is accepting requests for favors. There is an unforgiving vernacular that these mobsters use when they speak to each other, and Coppola does not wait before introducing it to the audience.
Of course, no scene in any movie can be great without a talented cast to push the narrative. This is something that The Godfather does better than most movies ever made. The ensemble cast provides deep and believable performances even when their respective charters have very little screen time. For example, Talia Shire and Sterling Hayden are casually slipped into the film and are forced to make the most of their moments. And that is exactly what they do. The supporting cast understands that their motives, desires and needs may not be thoroughly explained, so each action needs to be perfect.
The main cast is a regular who's who in popular film. John Cazale, James Caan and Robert Duvall become the family. They seem to be so deep in character that you wonder if they have ever done the mob thing before, especially Caan. Diane Keaton is the one sympathetic figure in The Godfather. She has married into the family and is desperate for her husband to find another lifestyle. At first her husband, Michael Corleone, has no interest in the family business. That opinion famously changes and climaxes in the brilliantly shot and acted scene at the end of the film. It is really heartbreaking stuff.
We are all aware of the most famous performance in The Godfather. Marlon Brando plays the role of Don Vito Corleone - the patriarch of the Corleone family. In his original review, Roger Ebert argues that Brando is lazy and unrealistic in this portrayal, but conventional wisdom seems to point toward the opposite. Brando famously stuffed his mouth with cotton balls in order to provide the protruding jaw and iconic vocal styling. He is nonchalant and careless in his motions because he is a man accustomed to power. He no longer feels the need to flaunt his might because his old age has ensured his dominance. He was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work here, but refused to accept it over a personal discrepancy. That is a whole different, and strange, story itself.
Though the packaging and advertising of The Godfather would leave you to believe that Marlon Brando is the central character, it is Michael Corleone who demands the most attention from the audience. Played by a virtually unknown Al Pacino, Michael is the brother who goes through the toughest transformation. This performance is an embodiment of the thirst for power that created organized crime in the first place. You can even see the lose of innocence in Michael's eyes as he transforms into the new Don Corleone.
Though it is probably an under-respected aspect of the film, the artwork in The Godfather is also very well done. The dull colors of the town, home and environment create a noir-ish visual that has undoubtedly inspired several mobster movies that came after. Nothing about the movie is ever directed away from the outstanding style, so it is impossible for The Godfather to become dated.
Great acting makes a movie watchable. Great stories make movies entertaining. Art and skillful shooting styles makes a movie visually interesting. The Godfather may be the most perfect example of what happens when everything works. It is a fantastic movie - maybe the greatest ever made.
The Godfather: A