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The Godfather at 50

A study of murderous Medici-like intrigue and a reflection of the underbelly of the American Dream

Review by Nou Ra


The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s triple Oscar-winning mafia crime drama is widely held to be one of the best films of all time. Released in 1972, it was the highest-grossing film of that year and, until blockbusters like Jaws came around, it was the most lucrative film of all time. 

I was born in 1973; I didn’t come to The Godfather until much later. I grew up with two older brothers who were both hugely influenced by movies. I, the little sister, looked up to them both and they helped shape my cultural tastes by exposing me to the art they loved. I came to the soul singers Al Green and Marvin Gaye through their passions. To me, my brothers were the pinnacle of cool; all my early cultural references came through them. After imparting their musical wisdom, they started introducing me to film. The Godfather was one of the first films they shared when I was a young teen. Coming from a family of immigrants, The Godfather resonated with me as it had my brothers; we could relate to the overarching theme that underpins Coppola’s classic: the family.

Family is everything in this film, based on the novel by Mario Puzo; the story of the Corleones and the rise to power of the youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) as the new Don (crime boss, or godfather) in 1940s New York. Coppola himself is Italian American and involved his own family in the film, casting his sister Thalia Shire as Connie, the only daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Connie’s baby, who is baptised in one scene, is ‘played’ by Coppola’s daughter, Sofia. His mother and sons were extras, and his father, Carmine, contributed to the score. Coppola called it the ‘biggest home movie ever made’. This is one hardworking Italian American family, telling the story of another hardworking Italian American family, albeit one that lives on the other (wrong) side of the law.

In one iconic scene, Don Corleone asks Johnny Fontane (Al Martino, playing a singer said to be based on Frank Sinatra), ‘Do you spend time with your family?’ Johnny replies ‘Sure I do.’ The Don says ‘Good, because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family is not a real man.’ Of course, with that view come gendered roles in the familial hierarchy, with the Don also telling Johnny to ‘be a man’ when Johnny shows signs of embarrassing emotion (crying) in the film’s opening wedding scene at which he sings. 

I also grew up with one set of rules for the boys and another very different set of rules for me. In my experience of that structured culture, women have their place and should know not to rock the boat. The women in the film all play into traditional roles: mothers, daughters, wives, often tethered to screaming children, and seem to be there as support for the men.  The male characters are depicted as being in control, shot-callers and decision-makers who wield all the power. The exception being Fredo (John Cazale), Michael’s older brother, who is portrayed as weak, and a little strange. 

The depiction of Sonny (James Caan), the eldest Corleone son, as a hot-tempered philanderer really veered away from the stoic, measured personalities of both the Don and Michael. However, it’s Sonny’s love for his sister and determination to protect her that lures him to his untimely death. 

Sonny’s death was the most graphic depiction of murder I had seen at my young age, an aggressively violent scene in which he is riddled with bullets in an attack at a toll booth, said to be inspired by the deadly shoot-out in Bonnie and Clyde. In Sonny’s death scene, James Caan wore 147 squibs (a pyrotechnic device used to simulate a wound spurting blood from the impact of a bullet).

The Godfather’s longevity is testament to its quality. With a running time of 2 hours and 55 minutes, it is a long film but every minute is purposefully used and allows us to really see the family dynamic and the inner workings of organised crime. Its enduring appeal may, in part, be helped by its quotability and cultural references. ‘Make him an offer he can’t refuse’ is probably the most well known quote in the movie, but for me the most memorable quote was ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’ – a reference to one of the toughest foot-soldiers in the Corleone family of mafia hoods who is killed in a gruesome way by a rival mafia family. 

It wasn’t until I watched The Godfather again years later that I realised Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) only had about seven lines in the film and was killed off quite early, so why did this character have such an impact on little me? Perhaps because he was an iconic hard man. It was Luca Brasi who held the gun to the head of the bandleader who was refusing to sign a waiver letting Johnny Fontane out of his contract when Don Corleone threatened “either your brains or your signature will be on the paper”. Or maybe it was the intensity of his murder, and that the idea he “sleeps with the fishes” was so poetic a metaphor for such a brutal act. 

The lore around the production of The Godfather also became a source of fascination for me over the years: it surprised me that such an iconic film could be plagued with so many disputes over whether or not they had the right actor or even director. Al Pacino was Coppola’s first choice for Michael, but Paramount Pictures had other thoughts, with both Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen reading for the part. Even Marlon Brando was far from Paramount’s first choice, having a reputation for being difficult. 

Coppola got the cast he wanted but his own position wasn’t secure as he was told he could be fired at any time; intimidation tactics from Paramount included having another director shadow Coppola’s every move so he could be replaced in an instant. 

Luckily, Francis Coppola persevered and the film was released to great acclaim. The film still holds up today and the location shots in New York and Sicily look like a Renaissance painting. As a study of murderous Medici-like intrigue and a reflection of the underbelly of the American Dream, The Godfather is as stunning, brutal and refreshing at 50 as it was in 1972.