Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
(based on the novel THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale & Abe Vigoda
Cinephile or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER. This mob epic is currently #2 on IMDB’s top 250, was a sensation at the Academy Awards, and is considered by many to be among the best films ever made. While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far (for a couple of reasons that will become apparent later in the review), GODFATHER is a phenomenal piece of crime cinema that should be seen by anyone who loves film. GODFATHER is essentially a Shakespearean tragedy that happens to take place in 1940’s New York with gangsters.
Don Vito is the head of the powerful Corleone crime family. Vito has five children. There’s hot-headed Sonny (the eldest son), naïve Fredo (the middle son), Tom (an adopted family lawyer), Connie (Vito’s only daughter) and innocent war hero Michael (the youngest son). When Vito declines to make a deal to work with a violent heroin dealer, an attempt on his life is made and five other major crime families stand opposed to the Corleones. Sonny is put in charge and Michael comes home to aid his weak father. What follows is a web of violent inner politics of a deeply dysfunctional gangster family. Michael slowly, but surely, transforms from the good son into the very monster who swore he wouldn’t become.
First things first, I want to talk about the technical aspects of GODFATHER. This is an extremely well made film. To say it’s atmospheric would be an understatement. While watching this movie, you feel like you’ve been transported back to 1940’s crime-ridden New York. There’s a gloomy, grim atmosphere hovering over every block and building, but also a sense of class to it all. The film, though not necessarily blood-soaked from beginning to end, has many shocking scenes of violence that are all masterfully executed and never go over-the-top. Assassinations of various characters still hold a lot of tension and still come off as harrowing to this day. A moment near the end that involves a Christening intercut with various bouts of violence is one of the finest sequences in film history. The film may not be perfect all the way through (more on that in a moment), but the final third of the movie is perfection brought to the screen.
While I know that many consider GODFATHER to be an undisputed masterpiece, I find the film to feel a tad overlong in areas. The first time I watched the movie (back when I was in junior high) I figured that it was just my MTV-addled senses that were used to non-stop action at a fast pace. However, having watched the film for multiple viewings at this point, I strongly feel that the middle hour (with Michael hiding away in Italy) is out-of-place when compared to the rest of the film. To me, it’s a big tonal shift and easily could have been shortened, especially given that the pay-off to the whole Italy story-arc doesn’t feel worth the time dedicated to it. That being said, the script is still a complex web of corruption, family relationships, and violence. It’s compelling from frame one, but does drag its feet in a few scenes…mainly during Michael’s stay in Italy.
For a movie about gangsters, GODFATHER presents an ever so slightly glamorized view of our main characters. However, I’d attribute this to GODFATHER feeling very much like a complex Shakespearean tragedy. If you’re presented with a cast of despicable people and the story being told is an interesting one, then you’re likely going to have to sympathize or feel for at least one of the aforementioned despicable villains in the cast. Though he’s become a far more outlandish version of the actor that he once was, Al Pacino’s performance holds up as the best part of this film. It’s sad to watch the innocent war hero be corrupted into the monster he becomes by the time the end credits roll. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando plays Don Vito. With a raspy voice and paper-thin moustache, Brando actually inserted cotton balls into his cheeks to aid his performance. What resulted is the most iconic gangster in cinematic history. Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve seen Vito referenced in one TV show or movie. The other big stand-outs for me are James Caan as the easily enraged eldest sibling and Robert Duvall as the family’s adopted son/lawyer.
THE GODFATHER may be a little too long for its own good and drag its feet during the middle hour (the piece with Michael in Italy feels out-of-place given everything else that happens in this film), but it holds up as an iconic and hugely influential crime epic. I disagree with it being called the best gangster movie of all time (for me, that’s probably GOODFELLAS), but it’s definitely in the top-tier of mafia movies. With fantastic performances, a complex story and a feeling of class hovering over the entire film, THE GODFATHER is a film that you simply can’t refuse.