“The Godfather” (1972)
The Godfather turned 40 years old last week. In the history of medium few films have been as influential as Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s pulp novel. It might not be the greatest American film ever made - back in 1972 it wasn’t necessarily thought even the greatest of its year, winning only 3 Oscars to Cabaret’s 8 - but it’s one of only two movies to top the all time money making list whose contemporary critical acclaim matched its box office receipts. You would have to go right back to 1915 and The Birth of a Nation to find a similar example, albeit one blighted by DW Griffith’s unacceptable racism. Gone With the Wind, Jaws, Star Wars, Titanic and Avatar all have their fanatical fan bases but their popularity with audiences has never extended to the kind of critical consensus enjoyed by The Godfather. Conversely, the likes of Citizen Kane and Vertigo have immense reputations amongst those who take film seriously but neither made much of a commercial impression on first release and their popular appeal is always likely to remain limited.
If anything The Godfather’s reputation has grown over the years, in part because its even better sequel put to rest the suspicion that Coppola’s vision was romanticised and overly sympathetic in its depiction of organised crime. The best gauge of a film’s critical standing is Sight and Sound magazine’s once a decade survey of international opinion. In the 2002 critics poll the first two Godfather films, considered together, were adjudged to be the fourth best of all time (behind Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game). Amongst the directors surveyed they were collectively thought second only to Kane.
Coppola’s achievement is all the more remarkable given the studio politics that bedevilled the project. Only 31 and with no significant directorial achievements to speak of Coppola got the job on potential and the strength of his Italian ancestry alone. His casting decisions were opposed at every turn. The studio feared that Marlon Brando had grown too difficult to work with and had lost both his talent and star power. They favoured Ernest Borgnine in the part of Vito Corleone and also bitterly disputed Coppola’s choice of then unknown Al Pacino as his son Michael. The director was forced to cast James Caan as Sonny Corleone, an inspired choice in someways. However, Robert De Niro’s audition for the part was electrifying and left an impression on Coppola. De Niro became the first choice to play the young Vito in The Godfather, Part II’s flashback sequences.
The impact The Godfather had on the gangster film cannot be overstated. It makes the classic 1930s genre pieces look like simplistic melodramas, even if Coppola’s idea of using the Mafia as a metaphor for American capitalism can be traced back to the likes of Howard Hawks’ Scarface and Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties. The craft, the aesthetic, the unprecedented, collective excellence of its ensemble cast and sophistication of ideas are all more reminiscent of high end European productions. The Godfather has a lot more in common with Visconti’s The Leopard than it does with even then recent, celebrated gangster films like Bonnie & Clyde.
It goes without saying that without The Godfather there would have been no Goodfellas, no Sopranos and no Boardwalk Empire. Even if later examples of the genre have tended to shift the dramatic focus away from the Mafia management to its foot soldiers - especially those made by Martin Scorsese - the epic grandeur of Coppola’s work casts a shadow over all. The Godfather remains the high water mark, with Brando the definitive Don.
The film’s influence goes well beyond the confines of the genre and even beyond the kind of superficial cultural impact that always comes with popular success. Yes, phrases like “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” have become cliches and spin-off books have been devoted to Corleone one-liners. “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer” is a maxim that could well describe American foreign policy. Beyond all this though and beyond even the parodies and the rip-offs (I would recommend Brando’s self-mocking performance in The Freshman as the best of these), The Godfather brought a seriousness to American cinema that simply didn’t exist in commercial, A-list productions. Perhaps the impact was subsequently diluted by the blockbuster mentality ushered in by Coppola’s protege George Lucas, but Hollywood would never be the same again.
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