Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Tonight's Movie: The Godfather (1972)

Well, it only took 50 years, but I finally did it...I watched THE GODFATHER (1972).

THE GODFATHER came out when I was very young, and it's never been something I've been interested in. The classic black posters looked intimidating to me as a young child, and as I got older the story and characters simply didn't sound appealing. Plus I watch very few R-rated movies and felt the film would probably be too violent for my taste as well.

One thing I've learned as a classic film fan, however, is never say never and that my tastes continue ever widening. If someone had told me a decade ago that I'd be spending good money on Marlene Dietrich Blu-rays I'd never have believed it. Two decades ago I wouldn't have believed I'd fall in love with film noir. And so on. One of the wonderful things about movies is that I find as time goes on, it seems like there is more and more of interest to watch, rather than less.

Sometimes things just come together and the movie meets the right moment, and that was the case for me with THE GODFATHER. I was intrigued by little bits of information and scene stills I'd recently seen on Twitter combined with stories my husband shared about the making of the film after watching a new streaming miniseries. I got to thinking about the fact the movie has two favorite actors in supporting roles, Richard Conte and Sterling Hayden, and that I always enjoy Diane Keaton, going back to BABY BOOM (1987). Then James Caan recently passed away and has been on my mind of late.

And so I finally watched THE GODFATHER. And I'm glad to say I really enjoyed it.

Spoiler alert warning for anyone else who hasn't yet seen the film in the last half-century -- please go watch it and then come back, as I'm going to freely discuss all sorts random plot points and details. However, at the same time I'm not going to spell out the storyline as I often do, assuming many readers have already seen it. In a nutshell: It's about a family involved in the very complicated business of organized crime.

Did I think THE GODFATHER was one of a handful of the greatest movies ever made, as many serious film fans and historians do? No, I didn't. I thought it was extremely well-crafted with excellent dialogue, and I have no trouble saying it's a top-notch 3-1/2 or 4-star movie -- yet it also felt to me somewhat like a high-quality soapy TV miniseries of the '70s or '80s...and indeed, I remember the buzz when the first two films were completely re-edited into a TV miniseries in the late '70s!

I do try to keep context in mind, such as that the film's "all-star cast" feel wouldn't have been the case in 1972, when many of the actors were in the early phases of their careers.

The film's style, with its "elliptical" storytelling, including omitted information and occasional big jumps in time, seems quite modern. On the one hand, that style treats the viewer as intelligent and causes the viewer to do a lot of thinking. I went to Google with some of my questions and discovered that people pour over the film's most minute details like Kremlinologists, trying to divine meaning from seconds of the film. (A question raised by my reading: Sonny and Tom each named a son Frank, and Connie's baby Michael Francis also has a form of the name. Why?)

At the same time, the missing information and being left to infer things on one's own so often can sometimes be frustrating. For instance, why did Michael (Al Pacino) immediately abandon his attachment to Kay (Keaton) and marry Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) during his time in Italy? Did he think he'd never return to the U.S.? Did he love them both? Was Kay just convenient, both before and after Italy? Why did he wait a year to contact Kay when he returned -- grief over Apollonia's death? I'm not asking for everything to be spelled out in detail, but some additional hints would have been helpful.

Here are a number of additional random thoughts on the film, in no particular order:

*For a film about family, the women get very short shrift. I get that the focus is the "family business," which is entirely run by men, but we never see the women's reactions to key events in the film. We have such little insight into who they are as people that it dilutes the power of some scenes in which they do appear, including the famous finale where the door shuts on Kay.

*Along those lines, I would have really liked to know more about Sonny's wife Sandra (Julie Gregg) and Tom's wife Theresa (Tere Livrano), their histories, how they felt about their husbands, the family business, and more, but other than the very brief moments they're seen, the only thing viewers can do is fill in bits of history from the book. Or read Wiki-type web pages which list every detail ever gleaned about the characters. Yes, the movie would have been five hours long including all that...and I guess it speaks well of the film that I wanted to know more.

*The (male) characters that do get more than those few seconds of screen time are all perfectly cast and memorable.

*It was interesting to learn that ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) wasn't Marlon Brando's only great scene in the back of a car. The scene where Vito (Brando) tells Tom (Robert Duvall) that he now knows that Barzini (Conte) was behind the death of Sonny (Caan) is a great one. And once again, we're left to figure out why he now knows it -- that he must have realized the truth from the way Barzini took control of the council of the "five families." I had to replay the meeting and car scenes just to make sure I wasn't missing anything.

*During the five families meeting, I loved the shots of Tom sitting behind Vito, their heads often aligned in exactly the same way, reflecting Tom's unquestioning loyalty.

*My favorite character, in fact, was Tom; I found his "outsider insider" status as Vito's adoptive son to be quite interesting. His courtly manners and eternally calm persona belie the fact he's as ruthless as the rest of the Corleones. I especially liked his interplay with the hotheaded Sonny and the fact that while Sonny would pop off, in the end he respected Tom's opinions and listened carefully. They were a good match.

*Speaking of Sonny, I honestly think killing him off was a big mistake which weakened the film. Sure, it may make dramatic sense as the springboard to a great deal more drama, and I understand that in the end these films are mainly Michael's story, but with Sonny's death a light went out. The remaining lead characters, Michael, Vito, and Tom, are all very "buttoned down" and quiet. Caan's Sonny provided a much-needed contrast and lit up the screen with energy, and his character's absence makes it a less interesting film from that point on. The flatness caused by his absence is one reason I find THE GODFATHER an excellent yet not completely satisfying film.

*That said, the climactic set piece where Barzini and all the family's rivals are wiped out during the baptism of Michael's godson is as great as advertised. I also loved the earlier scene where the declining Vito warns Michael how he'll know the identity of the insider traitor.

*The contrast of Clemenza (Richard Castellano) instructing the driver to be careful of the kids playing when they're leaving the house to kill Paulie (John Martino) is delightful in a black way -- he's just off to "work," completely normal. Of course, the sequence culminates in the perfect line "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." You may have just bumped off someone who betrayed the family, but don't forget to bring home dessert! (How did the box avoid being blood-splattered, anyway?)  When he's later asked about Paulie, Clemenza offhandedly replies "You won't see him no more." Castellano is terrific in this key supporting role.

*The sequence in the empty hospital where Michael realizes a plot is afoot to try to finish off the badly wounded Vito was an outstanding piece of suspense. I loved the way Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei) bravely repaid Vito for his past assistance.

*I don't think Richard Conte even had any lines in his first scenes at the wedding, but he didn't need any. Talk about making a huge impact simply with his screen presence! I loved him in this, and his casting works exceptionally well for the "shorthand" way the story is told, because the viewer immediately comprehends his power without the need for character development and back story.

*I love Sterling Hayden as a hero, but he also played creeps really well, didn't he?

*The Sicilian sequence serves a function to show Michael embracing the family's roots and gives some additional foundation for his ultimate ruthlessness as he descends into evil -- but it also kind of feels like we switched movies. (And yes, I frankly could have done without the unnecessary wedding night nudity.)

*Now I need to rewatch a favorite film, YOU'VE GOT MAIL (1998), so I can fully appreciate all the references to dialogue from THE GODFATHER.

*For those who may not be aware, Alison Martino, the daughter of Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), has a great Twitter account, Vintage Los Angeles.

*Regarding the violence which was one of the main drivers for me to ignore the film for years, my husband mapped out the problematic scenes for me in advance. I did not actually look at the screen during scenes such as the horse's head or Sonny being gunned down, just listened. Other sequences, such as the finale, I didn't find so bad, perhaps because in 2022, a 1972 R-rated film might seem a little milder?

*Given the long running times of both Part I and Part II, I decided to treat them as the TV miniseries I compared it to earlier and watch an hour or so at a time, that being the easiest way to fit them into my schedule. I watched THE GODFATHER's 2 hours and 55 minutes in three consecutive evenings of late-night viewing. The next film, THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), runs an even longer 3 hours and 22 minutes.

*Does the fact I have had so much to say mean the movie is better than I felt it was? Hmmmm. Thanks to readers who stuck with this all the way to the end!

The huge supporting cast also included Talia Shire, Abe Vigoda, Morgana King, Al Lettieri, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, and many more.

THE GODFATHER won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay (Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on Puzo's novel). It received several other nominations, including Francis Ford Coppola as director, Nino Rota for the score, and three nods for Best Supporting Actor: Duvall, Caan, and Pacino. Pacino protested at the time that he should have been in the Best Actor category and I can't fault his thinking on that.

I was surprised Gordon Willis wasn't nominated for his evocative cinematography.

THE GODFATHER is available for home viewing in many formats. I watched "The Coppola Restoration" on Blu-ray.

I anticipate watching THE GODFATHER PART II in the near future and may have even more to say here at that time! Until then, I suspect most of my readers have seen THE GODFATHER, and I welcome comments.


Blogger Will McKinley said...

Great review! Glad you enjoyed it. Truth be told, I hide my eyes during the horse head scene as well! Also: I need to get that Blu-ray.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Will, I appreciate you checking out the review and your response. I love that you don't look at the horse either LOL.

The Blu-ray set has all three films and a fourth disc which is nothing but extras, should be very interesting. All three films also have Coppola commentary tracks.

Best wishes,

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Dave Wade said...

Great review! Do you think it'll be a favorite film that you revisit regularly?
After seeing THE OFFER mini-series--which was quite entertaining and'll probably inspire many young cineastes to want to become producers instead of directors or screenwriters--and doing my usual research and trivia hunting, I was struck by how young many of the actors were. And it drove home the observation that people appeared more mature at a younger age decades ago. James Caan was only 31, and at that only a month older than Pacino. Cazale, the middle brother was 36. Foster brother Duvall was ancient at 40. Looking forward to your take on Part 2 & the problematic # 3(which comes in 2 versions).

6:52 PM  
Blogger Nathan Cone said...

I just re-watched the film on the big screen last month as part of our TPR film series; then promptly bought the 4K disc set on Amazon Prime Day. I really enjoyed your review, and will be interested to hear your thoughts about Part II when you watch it. For me, it's the best of the three films--dark, tough, and a little cynical (Heck, it was 1974, and Watergate was in the air). It's a terrific tragedy.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Barry Lane said...


You worked hard and long on this, and while agreeing with every word written, there is an implied emptiness to the film, heightened by the disappearance of Sonny. On a personal note, I do not care for the cast, other than James Caan and, of course, the girl, Diane Keaton. That there are sequels, which I've seen, completes the turn-off aspect.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your comments!

Dave, I can see myself revisiting it, as I think there will be more to notice...a favorite, probably not. That's a very interesting point about the ages. Caan was definitely a mature 31.

Nathan, how great you saw the film on a big screen. I'd be open to trying that someday. Thanks for your thoughts on Part II.

Barry Lane, that's an interesting insight about the emptiness, I'll have to think about that. Surely the characters led lives that were, if not empty, unhappy. I appreciate your kind words very much -- writing it did take me a while! Was up way too late writing my first draft (grin).

Thank you all for reading and commenting!

Best wishes,

10:34 PM  
Blogger Tony Wendice said...

I'm just speechless. Truly. Whatever you do don't watch The Offer which is not only mostly fictional but absolutely one of the worst acted things ever put on television.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Well, OK, then, Tony Wendice! I know you're a man of strong opinions so I'm guessing my takes are different from yours. ;) Thanks for taking the time to read, as well as for sharing your opinion on THE OFFER.

Best wishes,

2:11 PM  

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