“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
The Godfather opens in a dark room, Bonasera, an undertaker, tells the story of two men who assaulted and brutally beat his daughter. He “believes in the American way” and therefore takes his daughter’s case to the courts. But upon the judge’s decision to throw out the case, the guilty men smile in Bonasera’s direction, prompting him to seek help from another source. As Bonasera tells his story, he is lit from the top, the shadows prominent across his face. The camera slowly zooms out, ending over the shoulder of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), or The Godfather, as he’s respectfully known. As the meeting concludes, it’s revealed to the audience that just right outside this room of darkness, Vito’s only daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), is getting married in a world of vibrant colors. As I revisit The Godfather to mark its 50th anniversary, I realize that it may be one of the best opening scenes of all time. Not only does this scene immediately grab the viewer, but it sets up The Godfather’s overarching theme: the dichotomy of right and wrong. Good and evil. Light and dark.
As the third youngest boy in the family, Michael (Al Pacino) never expected to have anything to do with the family business. Sonny (James Caan) was first in line, and then if that were to fall through, Fredo (John Cazale) was next. Michael’s cool, calm, and collected next to Sonny’s hot-headedness and vicious threats. At Connie’s wedding, Michael appears in his military uniform, a war hero. This is his way to further distancing himself from the family. A way to say he sides with the “American way” versus the “mafia way.” After telling his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), a horrific story about his father, he says, “It’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Or is it?
The Godfather’s story begins when a man named Sollozzo needs Vito’s political connections so he can sell narcotics. When Vito refuses, thus begin the attacks on the Corleone Family. More importantly, Vito’s attempted assassination. Michael is an outsider looking in. He has no place in this fight. But after witnessing his father alone in the hospital, no one to protect him, and the police (Captain McCluskey of the force, particularly) are conveniently on the side of Sollozzo, Michael knows he must protect his family no matter what the cost. He realizes the “American way” has failed. Michael’s plan is to meet with Sollozzo and McCluskey, kill them, flee, and the Corleone Family can still run. His calculated ways are what set him apart from his siblings.
The scene in the restaurant is one of the best uses of sound in film. The place resides below busy train tracks. Michael sits down to dinner with his enemies, speaking with the two men, but soon gets up to go to the bathroom. A gun is perfectly placed in the stall by a family associate. He goes back to the table—no longer saying a word. His eyes move back and forth knowing there’s no way back. The trains overhead are loud, but this last one we hear is different. This one isn’t just loud, but the sound we hear is almost as if it’s screeching to a halt, or going off its tracks. The comfy life, the normal life, that Michael had laid out for himself was about to be gone. He was about to take the plunge into a family he tried for years to distance himself from, and then, BANG! The deed was done. Michael’s persona is complex as he doesn’t softly descend into cruel behavior—he explodes into it. However, his moral compass doesn’t begin to crack until he gets a taste for power, and later once Vito has passed away.
I go into full detail with these scenes because Francis Ford Coppola’s writing and directing is perfection. It leaves the audience constantly wanting to know what will happen. The way Coppola stages each scene as he invokes conflict between the characters, or tension within a room before some bad news is revealed. It’s pure genius. When he wants the audience to feel uneasy, he’ll make them feel uneasy. And when there’s comfort, which is rare, he’ll make the audience feel that too. It’s a masterful work of both dialogue and direction.
One cannot talk about The Godfather without talking about the cast. Brando, by that time, had built a name for himself. He was in his late 40s, playing an elderly man. Pacino, however, was pretty new to the business, and did mostly plays at the time, but found his career skyrocketing after this role. Every young member of the cast, Keaton, Caan, Shire, Cazale, and Robert Duvall all give brilliant performances for it being so relatively early in their careers. The cast will be forever immortalized in this film for their work.
Back in 1996, in order to celebrate The Godfather’s upcoming 25th Anniversary, a reprint was issued to show in theaters. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed the film, praising it for being a masterpiece all those years later—briefly becoming mesmerized by the themes of the film. However, there was something that Ebert said that caught me by surprise, something that I had not realized in all my years of watching this classic film. “The only crime is disloyalty.” In all of The Godfather’s multifaceted themes, it really can be drawn down to that simple sentence. Everything bad that happens is because of disloyalty. This one sentence explains so much about the complexities woven within the shadows of this film. The Godfather went on to win three Academy Awards in 1973, including the award for Best Picture. 50 years later, it finds itself at the top of numerous classic film lists, and deservingly so. The Godfather is a true, and unwavering, masterpiece.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, John Cazale, and Marlon Brando