By Marc S. Sanders
Probably the greatest character story arc in all of film is of Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather based upon Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel. (The film is a thousand times better than the book.)
Michael is the youngest of three sons intended for a legitimate life separate from his Mafia family. The masterful opening sequence of his sister’s lavish wedding show him courting his eventual wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), and never feeling proud of the actions of his notorious father, Vito (Marlon Brando), nor his brother Sonny (James Caan) or their consigliere, Tom (Robert Duvall). He’s an innocent war hero in uniform with an open mind of an untarnished future. It is only when bad blood circumstances are tested that he feels forced to strike with the same intent that the Corleone family is infamous for.
Coppola presents quiet, subtle moments of expression in Pacino on camera. You see the change in Michael sneak up on you and you see a character develop into something else entirely. What starts as a false impression to appear as if he’s carrying a gun in his pocket, soon after leads to murder, by means of nothing personal but “strictly business.” From there, he retreats and hides until he is blessed with carrying on an evil legacy.
Yes, the first chapter in the operatic trilogy of crime, is mostly known for a grandstanding performance by Marlon Brando but the story relies on Pacino as Michael. Michael Corleone at least must be one of Al Pacino’s greatest roles. He arguably has one of the most impressive resumes in all of film. Here is where it jump started.
The direction by Coppola is a film student’s required studying. With Puzo’s script, the best idea was to open the film with a wedding. As the film offers so many characters and much back story among all of the guests, the interaction and workings of the family are efficiently condensed into this 25 minute opening sequence. Don Vito meets with people needing favors while outside the home, the crew is dancing, doing their jobs and minding who is watching. By the end of this opening you have a full grasp of the family tree and who works for who and what their characters are like. Sonny is the hot head. Michael is the innocent. Fredo (the middle son played by John Cazale) is not doing much but being a cut up, Momma Corleone is the valued matriarch and Tom is the well managed advisor. You even get a glimpse of some “very scary guys,” some competing hoods, who’s cheating on who, and some people who need help with citizenship and film casting.
Art direction from Alex & Dean Tavoularis is magnificent, depicting a post WWII New York, and a historical Sicily stagnant in open plains, romance and murderous pasts.
The cinematography is better today than it was originally. Gordon Willis returned decades later to (for lack of better word) lighten up the picture. The interiors remain dark in secret and comfort, but the characters are more illuminated. The Blu Ray restoration is a fantastic return to the classic film and its two sequels.
The Godfather is endlessly quotable and never dull no matter how many times you watch it. Puzo’s screenplay plays like the biography of a real person and family, much like his adaptation for the screen of 1978’s Superman: The Movie. It is an American classic rich in a history we believe has been told and carrying on the tradition over the course of a 10-12 year period.
I return to praise Pacino to remind you how his appearance even changes as he gradually builds his strength and accepts his title of Don. I feel like I’m looking at two physically different people from the beginning in his Marine uniform with boyish looks, to his independent walkabout way during his Sicily retreat, to a more broad shouldered, slicked back hair, dark suit tailored appearance during the film’s third act. It’s an uncanny transformation that is built on performance and expert direction and writing from Coppola and Puzo. I still get chills as Michael in his college boy sports jacket volunteers himself to satisfy a family vengeance. Coppola zooms in on him slowly as he sits in a leather arm chair, arms at his side, legs folded. We are seeing a new man in charge for the first time. It’s chilling.
The Godfather is one of the greatest pictures that will ever be made. It’s a perfect chemistry of technical achievement, attentive storytelling and sensitive, yet powerful performances from probably the best cast ever assembled.
I’m amazed that I know of some friends who still have yet to see it.
The Godfather is the film that everyone should see before they die.