Bolstered by the fine writing he had offered in the Oscar-winning Patton, Francis Ford Coppola, now seemingly on top of his game, sauntered into Paramount Studios in need of work. His production studio owed hundreds of thousands to Warner Bros., and his previous film, The Rain People, had bombed. But he had an Academy Award in the bag and showed no signs of stopping. His initial hesitance to take on Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as his next project stemmed from the “cheap” nature Coppola had assigned to the book. Still, that mounting financial pressure changed his mind, and that is indeed for the better, for The Godfather is a stroke of pure, raw passion.
While it is best remembered for its defiant script and stunning scenes of raw, mob-fuelled violence, The Godfather is perhaps strongest when tapping into the parallels between father and son. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) branch off from the same tree. The latter is respected through fear, the former through service and patriotism. Coppola indicates there is no difference because either way the two men can conduct respect and know how to use it to their advantage. By the end of it all, there is no real difference between Vito and Michael. Power corrupts good men, but is Michael a good man at all? He flees to Sicily and attempts to remove himself from the shadier side of his families lifestyle, but is unsuccessful. Whether that is through his own means of failure or outside forces is not the point, the point is that he finds himself once again under the wing of his family.
One key theme to The Godfather, specifically and especially found in Brando’s performance, is that of family. He respects and honours those who do the same for him, and those who don’t are treated with dismissal and neglect. There is something to be said of how Coppola treats this, and how his cast apply these tones to the film. We are given a sense of how closely knit the Corleone family is, not through their dialogue with one another, but their actions. Sonny Corleone (James Caan) is protecting his sister, Connie (Talia Shire) from her abusive husband. A wedding to open the film with is the scene that paints a picture of a very, very large family with a few core members. They are essential to the running of not just family business, but emotion too. Their outpourings of grief or anger are expressed here, but they are expressed as a unit. When one member grieves, so they all do. Michael’s disappearance causes worry and grief not just for Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), but for the rest of the family too. She is reassured by their distress, and they feel the same trouble brewing underneath.
Much of that tone comes down to performance. A dream cast is assembled here, one that Coppola utilises with style and grace. Their family spats are not just conflicting to fill the time, but raw, hard-hitting questions about the state and future of how the family will operate. They are all vying for attention in their own subtle way, and it is only when forces beyond their power start to ease their vice-like grip on the city that they begin to worry. Worry is presented often in film, but not like this. The more we have, the more we worry. It is why characters who are down in the dumps, those with nothing to lose, are often portrayed as worry and carefree. That is not the case for The Godfather, with characters making erratic, violent decisions based on their immediate, sudden thoughts on whether they will survive tense encounters.
All the pieces fit together seamlessly, and the respect and camaraderie found between actor and director hauls The Godfather over the finish line and into the hall of extraordinary filmmaking. It is an achievement that lingers on the mind decades after its initial conception, passed on from generation to generation as the hallmark of success. Rightly so, it is the heroic story of a man seemingly down on his luck rescuing a studio from a string of failures. It is the heart-warming story of risk and reward we love to see in the pictures, taking shape in the real world. The Godfather is a stunning display, where an ensemble of soon-to-be stars (and a handful of faded, jaded ones) would collaborate and conspire to create something that would rock the foundations of filmmaking.