The Godfather, which is not only one of the greatest mob movies ever made but also one of the greatest American films ever made regardless of genre, celebrates its 45th anniversary this week.
Premiering only in New York City on March 15, 1972 and then opening nationwide on March 24th, 1972, The Godfather remains a true bonafide classic in every sense of the word. The film’s rich storytelling, which is based on the original story by famed literary scribe Mario Puzo, almost borderlines on pulp fiction, yet is raised to a level of fine art by the surefooted and sharp and watchful eye of director and mastermind Francis Ford Coppola. Add to that the cinematography by Gordon Willis, which put blacks and whites and shades into a pioneering new light; the memorable, sweeping music, led by the iconic theme song; the acting by an ensemble cast led by Marlon Brando and supported by actors who wound up becoming legends in their own right, The Godfather is many things to many people and a masterpiece of a film to all.
With the release of Puzo’s novel in 1969, the pop cultural consciousness ate up the mafia tale, which spanned generations and spoke of the Corleone Family, led by patriarch Vito Corleone. Interweaving narratives such as family into the mix of the mafia milieu, the story became an engrossing multi-layered, somewhat dimensional epic tale. Once Paramount Pictures bought the rights to Puzo’s story in 1970 and set gears in motion to make a film, after a few false starts and inspired casting which might have found Frank Sinatra as Don Corleone, the film version became to all present and involved a dark horse that had low expectations in a lot of ways in terms of genre. This was due to a Paramount film released a few years prior that bombed at the box office entitled The Arrangement, with Kirk Douglas in the starring role as a Mafia head. Yet The Godfather wound up winning Oscars for Best Picture, for Coppola’s and Puzo’s screenplay, and Brando’s magnetic lead performance.
By the time The Godfather was released, Marlon Brando was sort of struggling in his career, coming off of uninspired theatrical vehicles such as The Chase and Burn, and hadn’t had the kind of roles like the ones he masterfully portrayed in legendary films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront in years. At first, his casting raised eyebrows in the Paramount brain trust (consisting of people like producer Robert Evans). But it wasn’t until the viewing of the dailies, coupled with Brando’s gung ho leave it all at the door performance, with cotton in his cheeks and made up in expert Dick Smith makeup and speaking in a gruff, barely there kind of alpha old school Italian voice, that the lightning slowly started to seep in the bottle.
And speaking of which, the supporting cast was also a striking of a hot iron indeed. Led by Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and the late, great John Cazale, names that were pretty much unknown before The Godfather (Duvall had starred in George Lucas’ cult scifi film THX-1138 and Pacino had done work mainly on the Broadway stage), it was on the strength of the picture that literally catapulted the actors into A-list status. This was especially true for Pacino, who wound up making films post-Godfather that solidified his status as a legendary American actor, just about on par with Brando himself. Coppola made sure to cast actors with distinctive looks and faces, which is why the characters are able to dart in and out of the picture. And there are a lot of them, but they are instantly recognizable once we see them throughout the film. It’s a testament to Coppola’s directing that people like Al Letteri (who played the ruthless Sollozzo), Richard Castellano (who played Clemenza), Alex Rocco (who played Moe Greene), Abe Vigoda (who played Tessio), or even Lenny Montana (who played the ill-fated Luca Brasi) are names that (with the exception of Vigoda), even though they might not be readily remembered by John Q. Public, their faces are and it’s why we still remember who they are even after 45 years.
Like The Exorcist, which was released in late 1973, The Godfather elevates a genre that was pretty much looked upon as a B-picture. It was previously a genre in which people like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft hammed it up for the most part with alpha struts, machismo, snappy lines, herringbone suits, and tommy guns. While those aforementioned actors did some spectacular work in films that rightly remain classics — such as White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces, the original 1930s version of Scarface, and Little Caesar — it really wasn’t until the release of The Godfather that the genre itself was lifted. Thanks to Coppola’s now-classic, the mob film genre was viewed in the same skein found in films like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Robert Wise’s West Side Story in terms of the scope, vision, and a clear vision of how to utilize a budget, crew, and creative talent so effectively, not only at the box office, but critically, which is a main reason why The Godfather still runs on sky high after 45 years. The film brought in an expected sense of American literature and approach to mob films and the genre in general that is now expected and still carries on the tradition in storied films and television programs like Goodfellas, Mean Streets, The Sopranos, and the like.
Watch it again if you haven’t seen it in a while. Or watch it again if you have. Either way, like the very best films, The Godfather has a sort of perpetuity to it, where it seems like it’s always running somewhere on some network or cable channel in some market in the world. It’s always in the pop culture consciousness and it’s still the launching pad for so many narratives, scenes, characters, and portrayals of violence in films today and rightfully so. I resisted on using the famous tag line from the film, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” until here, at the very end, a line which remains one of the top five quotes in film history, just like the film remains one of the top five greatest films in film history. But forget about can’t refuse, The Godfather is such a wonderful visual piece of silver screen literature, that no one WANTS to refuse. Ever. Capisce?