Oscar Review: The Godfather (1972)

#3 on AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of all time, containing the #5 most memorable score, winner of 3 Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, and one of my personal favorites, The Godfather is without a doubt one of the finest pieces of American cinema ever made.

Family. Business. Revenge. Set in post-WWII New York, The Godfather traces the final years of Don Vito Corleone’s (played by Marlon Brando) rule at the head of the most powerful crime family in the city.

We enter the scene at the wedding of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire). The Don and his adopted son/lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) are listening to the pleas of a man for vengeance for his daughter, Sonny (James Caan) is fooling around with a bridesmaid, and Michael (Al Pacino) arrives home from the war with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) while girls swoon over Johnny Fontane at the microphone.

As deceit, betrayal, and power struggles abound, competing families fight to gain control of the criminal underworld. When the Don rejects a plan to add drugs to their list of activities and Sonny loses his temper one too many times, it is up to Michael to take over the family business and become someone he never wanted to be.
*****
The Godfather is just an amazing film. Having never seen the trilogy before, I spent a weekend watching them with my mom about 4 years ago and just fell in love with the series. It is so full of great writing, brilliant acting, and that haunting melody.

One of my favorite storylines is Michael’s transformation. His rise to power is central to the plot, but the subtle, intensely calm moments throughout the first half of the script really show Michael’s progression from little brother to his self-realization as a true part of the business to his assertion of his new role as an active participant in the family. He goes from a nice-guy, Navy Cross recipient who is off-limits as a “civilian” in the eyes of the crime world to orchestrating a double-hit that sends him into exile.

My favorite moments of the entire film are those surrounding Michael’s transformation. He finds out his father has been shot and heads to the hospital. When the police guard is nowhere to be seen, Michael feels as though his father is in danger and enlists the help of the baker – who has come to pay his respects – to dissuade a potential hit. Outside on the hospital steps, Michael lights a cigarette in the baker’s trembling hands and notices for as his own hands are as steady as can be. Back in his father’s office as the sons are frantically plotting revenge, Michael calmly lays out a plan – justifying it as “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

The Godfather is plainly a great movie. A nearly flawless script contains some excellent quotes: “leave the gun, take the canoli;” “Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Saturday;” and the #2 quote on AFI’s list: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

A fine film, deserving of all it’s accolades. If you’ve never seen it, do. If you have, watch it again and see again the brilliance of Frances Ford Coppola’s master work.

UPDATE: An interesting piece of trivia, Marlon Brando became the second person to ever refuse an Oscar for his portrayal of Don Corleone. Brando sent a little-known actress dressed as a Native American (Sacheen Littlefeather) to speak on his behalf in protest of the way the US and Hollywood discriminated against Native Americans.

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