Some movies become so iconic they become transcendent. How many people have quoted lines like “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” or “…sleeps with the fishes,” or “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” and have never even seen the movie? Marlon Brando in his tuxedo, or with an orange in his mouth. A horse head in the bed and the gun behind the toilet. There are so many lines, so many scenes and images in The Godfather that everyone knows it regardless of whether or not they’ve seen the film. It’s a movie that has seeped into the consciousness of our culture.
With good reason, too, for The Godfather is one of the greatest movies ever made. I think I first saw it when I was in college, just as I was seriously starting to watch as many classic films as I could. I was very disappointed after that first viewing. It was too long, too dull, and while there was a lot of violence, it seemed very staid, not very exciting. I watched the sequel sometime after and began to understand what it was about. From there, I read the book and began to understand that it wasn’t a movie about mafia family but rather a family that happened to be in the mafia. It’s about America and the undying need of capitalism to always consume, to make money no matter the cost.
It’s about Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the patriarch of one of the biggest mafia families in New York and his children. It’s about one generation turning power over to the next. The Godfather is old, his ways are traditional. He lives by a dying code – one of trust, loyalty, and respect. When a younger, up-and-coming gangster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) wants to bring drugs into the mob, Don Corleone must say no for it breaks his code. But there is too much money in drugs for the rest of the Five Families to stay out of it. War breaks out and The Godfather is shot.
The eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), is a hot head and wages a full-scale war despite costing the family millions in lost revenue. Michael (Al Pacino), the youngest, understands the family but has spent his life trying to stay out of it. But as he would later say, they keep dragging him back in. To protect his father, he comits an act of violence and must flee the country for Sicily where he meets a girl. Another act of violence brings him home, ready to lead his family. The good son becomes The Godfather.
At three hours, The Godfather is long. Francis Ford Coppola directs it at a meticulous pace. But I no longer find it boring. Rather each viewing is enriching. I always find something new that deepens my love for this film. Every scene, every line, every moment is perfect. Coppola has taken Mario Puzo’s rather pulp novel (and don’t get me wrong, I adore the book) and made it into a masterpiece.
Getting to see it on the big screen was like getting to see the Mona Lisa in person after spending a lifetime looking at it through post cards. It was fantastic.