best films: #2: THE GODFATHER (1972)
Naysayers be damned, you can’t get much more of a perfect film than The Godfather. Packed with brilliant performances, writing, scoring, cinematography (feel free to stop me at any point), costuming… basically the movie has it all. And though some would argue the very stellar Part II outdoes this 1972 original, I have to stick my guns (I’m sorry for that) and stay loyal to the Marlon Brando starrer. Here we see a family in transition – the aging Don Vito Corleon (Brando) is dealing with the changing landscape of the modern mafia. His eldest, hothead Santino “Sonny” (played with short-tempered gusto by James Caan) is itching to take over, while sniveling Fredo (the ideally cast John Cazale) can’t muster up the courage. And war hero Michael (brilliant newbie turned screen legend in his first major role, Al Pacino) can’t seem to keep out of the family business, despite the urging of his schoolteacher girlfriend, Kay (a young and pre-Annie Hall Diane Keaton). The story that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola have set up is an age-old one: which son will take over the family business? Lord knows Connie (played by Coppola’s sister Talia Shire), with her abusive marriage and dastardly husband isn’t going anywhere near that top dog spot.
But enough of setting up plot, which I’m sure most people with a pulse are familiar with already. On to the reasons why this movie ranks as my No. 2 favorite of all time. As always, let’s start with the performances. Oscar switcheroo aside, Brando is at the top of his game in one of his last great performances as the don. His signature voice and bottom lip have been ridiculed in movies and TV incessantly ever since, so it’s easy to pass off his role as comical. But don’t disregard its original effect – Vito has been at this a long time, so don’t let his seemingly soft demeanor fool you. Caan is a young fireball in the Sonny role – I guess he really couldn’t shake that sort of part since, but at least he perfected it off the bat. Robert Duvall is quiet excellence as Tom Hagen, lawyer and family friend. You can see the desire in his eyes to play a bigger role in the Corleone business, but he keeps it in check for the duration. And Pacino, frankly, has never been better. He may’ve since become the poster child for hamminess in his more recent years, but Michael is so multi-dimensional. Small stature and a delicate speaking voice should not undermine the fact that a future cold-blooded killer is lying in his soul.
And as for the ladies, though Shire was obviously shown a wee bit of nepotism, her domestic scenes are weepy work that the actress does well with. The stand-out of the female set, though, is Keaton, whose quirky tendencies have become her wheelhouse, even though this auspicious beginning (this was her first major film role) called for much more stoic character work. But all of these cast members that have since become major players in the movie business would be nowhere without Puzo’s original source material. Thanks to his work with director and co-screenwriter Coppola, the iconic words and oft-repeated lines are each gems. When watching The Godfather it’s hard not to appreciate every bit of dialogue as a treat. And with Nino Rota’s signature trumpet-driven score behind it, the words fly off the page with such eerie tension.