Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the head, or Godfather, of his family and crime syndicate in 1940s New York. He receives a request to move into narcotics by up-and-comer Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), but when Vito declines, the Tattaglia family, with whom Sollozzo is in business, attempt to kill Vito and break the Corleone family apart. With Vito in hospital, it is up to his children – headstrong firebrand Sonny (James Caan), simple Fredo (John Cazale), newly married Connie (Talia Shire), war veteran Michael (Al Pacino) and adopted Tom (Robert Duvall) to resolve matters.
Technically I’ve seen The Godfather before. I’ve recently joined Letterboxd, and have been back-dating my account using the film spreadsheets I’ve kept since 2008, and apparently over the weekend of March 29th and 30th, 2008 I watched a marathon of films that looked like this: The Science of Sleep, Scarface, Romance & Cigarettes, The Godfather, Porky’s, The Godfather Part II, The Proposition and The Godfather Part III. That was the first year I was working, so it was the first time my weekends were free and devoid of homework, so I recall a lot of my time was spent watching TV and films, generally whilst doing others things simultaneously. I also spent that year building up and crossing off a giant list of Films To Watch, however I neglected to really pay much attention to the films before crossing them off said list, and as such pretty much everything I saw outside of the cinema that year can be dismissed as not having been seen. Some films from that period stuck and earned repeat viewings – the likes of Alien, The Princess Bride and 12 Angry Men amongst them – whilst others suffered a one-and-done, immediately forgotten fate. Suffice to say all three Godfather films became lost in the myriad murk of my mind. I’ve known I’d need to watch them some time, but I had no idea how I would broach these films when that moment eventually came. And then the LAMB held a poll to vote for a franchise-special Movie of the Month, and The Godfather trilogy won. Alas due to scheduling issues we have been unable to nail down a date when the required guests will all be available, and as such I’ve still not yet revisited Part III, but you can expect a review of Part II in the immediate future as well. (Also Part III isn’t on the 1001 List, but it is on a different list, so it needs reviewing some time anyway.)
So what did I think of the film voted number one on Empire magazine’s Top 500 Movies Of All Time poll? Well, you know what? It’s pretty damn good. I mean it’s no Jurassic Park, which sits at the ridiculously low rank of #232 on that same list, but this film was always going to be hindered by a significant lack of both dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum, so they’ve really only got themselves to blame. In all seriousness, I didn’t think The Godfather was a perfect film – we’ll get into that a little later – but it is a tremendous achievement in film-making, and there’s a great deal of it that has stuck with me since watching it a couple of weeks ago.
The film is rich with a cornucopia of memorable characters and scenes, with many having become iconic. From decapitated horses to offers that can’t be refused, fishes being slept with, guns being left and cannolis being taken, I’ve no idea where to begin. It’s just an absolutely solid film worthy of the masterpiece description. My only minor qualms are within some of the directions the story takes. For example, when youngest son Michael becomes involved with the family business, he suddenly needs to be out of New York for a while, and holes up in the family home of Corleone, Sicily. The whole section outside of New York brings much of the film to a standstill, and really drags the pace down. I could have done without almost everything that takes place here, especially the romantic sub-plot wherein Michael falls for local girl Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) despite being in a relationship back in New York with Kay (Diane Keaton). This sub-plot looked like it was going somewhere, potentially building up to Michael having to make a choice between these two lives and women, until the decision is very much made for him. I’d have much rather spent the entire time with Sonny and the rest of the family back in the States.
Similarly looking at things I wished I’d have seen, I’d have really liked a film just showing the Corleone family at the top of their game. The film opens with Vito being well respected and influential, his family amongst the main gangs in the city, with Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) his premium muscle and Vito shaping his children to eventually follow in his footsteps. We see a little of this – Tom dealing with an uppity studio head when Vito’s godson Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) is denied a lead role in an upcoming picture, Fredo moving into the gambling world in Las Vegas with Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) – but all too soon the Corleone’s world crumbles. I understand that this is the plot of the film, the inciting incidents and character arcs relevant to the overall narrative, but I’d absolutely love a film that’s nothing but the Corleones handling any and all problems that arrive. This says a lot about the chemistry of the cast and the way their characters work together, as clearly I’d only want to see more if they all worked well together, but it’s still something I’d love to see.
Acting-wise I’ve got no issues either. Brando in particular is on incredibly memorable form, regardless of how much of his dialogue I can actually understand. In fact pretty much everyone does exactly what is required of them. There’s a scene in which Sonny beats a guy up that has been shot terribly – you can see a mile away that Sonny’s punches are missing the guy by about a foot – but that’s not enough to take anything away from the film. Often with these classics that I’ve missed for a long time I’ll watch them and not feel at all compelled to re-visit any time soon, but with The Godfather I’m already looking forward to the next time.
Choose Film 9/10