“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.”
Bet you weren’t expecting me to quote that line, which also happens to be the first one spoken in The Godfather. It is spoken by an undertaker named Bonasera. He is asking a favor of justice for his daughter who has been beaten and whose attackers have been released without punishment. The camera slowly pans out from Bonasera’s face to reveal the back of Don Vito Corleone.
You’ve surely seen or heard of this opening scene in Corleone’s office during his daughter’s wedding. A scene that perfectly presents the film’s tone and let’s you know exactly what you’re in for. Honestly, there probably isn’t a scene in The Godfather that hasn’t been talked about already. So what I’m going to try to do today is share my own thoughts and analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece.
We begin The Godfather in 1940’s New York, a period where drugs are just becoming a valid option for organized crime in the States. Don Vito resists this, saying it’s a dirty business, and refuses when a member of another crime family offers a deal to help in the business. This will be a recurring issue throughout the film.
While that is an essential part of the film, the last two times I watched The Godfather I’ve found myself focusing on the character of Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino. Michael is probably the most important character in the entire Godfather trilogy and I would argue no more so than in this film.
During this viewing I noticed three crucial moments that take place almost consecutively. The first is when the primary players in the Corleone family are sitting in Vito’s office after he’s been shot. Michael gets up, walks around the desk where his father sits and we see just enough of his back, evoking that opening shot where we see Vito talking to Bonasera. Only this time it is Michael in the position of power and we start to see him falling into his eventual role of Don. He is still “un-initiated” at this point but Coppola is beginning to foreshadow his future.
In the next scene Michael goes to visit his father in the hospital, finding that there’s no security or even more than one staff member. He calls to inform Sonny (James Caan) who brings help and tells him not to panic. Michael says he’s not panicking and takes care of the potentially dangerous situation. The key moment is when he asks a visitor to pose as a guard while a car slowly drives by them. The man takes out a cigarette, hands shaking so much that Michael needs to help light it. We see his hands come up, perfectly steady.
Finally, the family is having another meeting while Michael sits in a chair, framed in the center of the shot. Michael speaks up, devising a plan to kill Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. It seems clear now that Michael is the one who will be taking over the family and that his old self is almost entirely gone.
In a time when it seems like every movie is setting themselves up for a sequel and franchise, it was refreshing to see a movie that lends itself to one but isn’t needed or forced upon you. If this was a single film I have no doubt it would still hold up. With Michael deciding to move operations to Nevada and the film hinting at Fredo’s eventual betrayal, Coppola and author/co-screenwriter Mario Puzo brilliantly achieved the necessity for more stories to be told. Granted though, they did have more source material to work with. I’m not sure if a trilogy was always planned, but Parts I and II work together as a perfect pair.
It’s a shame Diane Keaton and Talia Shire aren’t given much to work with in terms of characters. They shine superbly with what they can, but it’s not much. Keaton’s Kay Adams is usually there just to react to Pacino’s evolution into the family business. Shire’s only scene without her husband is after he’s been killed. The strength of their performances only makes me wish they were given better roles. Even Michael’s wife in Italy doesn’t say a word until the day she is killed.
To close out my review I should talk about the closing of the film, starting with what’s known as the baptism sequence. If what I talked about earlier is Michael’s ascension to becoming Don, this is definitely the final nail in the coffin. As he is becoming the godfather to his sister’s son, Anthony, we see a montage of Michael’s men killing off the heads of the five families. He is ensuring his role as godfather in both senses of the word. It’s a brilliant, striking and dark scene with countless implications for the future of the franchise. And just moments later he’s killing the father of his godson. He flat-out lies to Kay about it and the movie ends with one of the most powerful shots in the film. She looks at him in his father’s office, seemingly petrified at what she sees as the door closes over her face. She’s clearly horrified of what he’s become, knowing there’s nothing she can do.
I’ve seen The Godfather five or six times now. Each experience has revealed new layers to it and my interpretation changes. In many ways it’s a simple story. I believe it’s “greatest movie of all time” status is because of the perfect craft and flawless filmmaking behind it. For three hours it never loses your attention, building suspense through story and dialogue, and doesn’t have a single bad performance. I’m certainly not qualified to say this, but The Godfather may well be the greatest film of all time.