The Godfather • New Hollywood's Pinnacle
Greenscreening Series #33
May 26, 2023
May 26, 2023
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The first of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy about the Corleone crime family is the disturbing story of a son drawn inexorably into his father’s Mafia affairs. - BFI
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I believe in America. - The first line from the film.
It's nothing personal. It's strictly business. - Michael Corleone
The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is often regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, and left an idelible mark on cinema, the gangster film genre, and on Hollywood.
The film is excellent in just about every facet, including writing, directing, acting, cinematography, music, makeup, and more. It's possible to enjoy the film merely as entertainment, but there is a lot going on that makes the film special. It's an epic, running nearly 3 hours in length. It blends popular genre film thrills with moments of pure cinema. It tackles issues of power, greed, vengeance, corruption, love, family, loyalty, and more. It is at times brutally violent, quietly tender, and even uproariously funny.
The Godfather revived the gangster film and elevated it to new heights. Rather than simply retelling the same rise-and-fall story central to the traditional gangster film, Coppola delved into the intricacies of the Corleone crime family, emphasizing themes of family, power, corruption, and sin. The film explored the tension between tradition and modernity, loyalty and betrayal, and the consequences of choosing a life immersed in violence. The film's narrative structure, combining a character-driven family drama with elements of crime and tragedy, elevated it beyond a mere genre exercise.
It also bears mention that the film was freed from the strictures of the Production Code. As a result, Coppola could show criminals more sympathetically, didn't need to wrap up the narrative with arrests and punishment, and could create a more graphically violent world. As a result, the world of the Corleones feels more realistic, and this moral ambiguity resonated with audiences in the 1970s.
Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather had been a runaway bestseller in the late 1960s. Paramount Pictures purchased the rights to the film, with executive Robert Evans seeing a potential blockbuster.
Evans' first choice to direct the film was Sergio Leone, but Leone was more interested in adapting The Hoods by Harry Grey, and turned down the project. (As a huge fan of both Leone and The Godfather, I'm glad things turned out like they did, but look forward to the day when AI gives us Sergio Leone's The Godfather).
Evans had a terrible time finding a director. He went through a who's who of New Hollywood, only to be turned down by every single one of his options.
Paramount's financial straits presented a challenge many New Hollywood directors weren't excited about. After a string of budget overruns, Paramount desperately needed someone to make a hit on time and on budget. And The Godfather was a period epic, which would be difficult to execute on Paramount's proposed budget.
Francis Ford Coppola's name started floating around as someone who might be willing to work on the cheap.
Prior to The Godfather, Coppola had a promising career as a screenwriter and an uneven record as a director and producer. He was deep in debt after his production company financed the flop THX-1138, George Lucas' debut film.
Coppola turned down the project as well, but after sitting with the novel for a while, he got excited about the material. He saw an American parable lurking in the pages of this bestselling novel, and the perfect source material for his ambitions.
Coppola's meticulous attention to detail, his ability to capture the nuances of human relationships, and his skillful handling of complex narratives were showcased brilliantly in the film.
Initially, Paramount was skeptical of Coppola's decision to cast Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.
Brando's star had faded from its peak in the 1950s, when he led a Method acting revolution in Hollywood. He had always been fairly difficult to work with, but as the 1960s wore on, he grew bored with Hollywood, and sleep-walked through a variety of forgettable projects.
But something magical happened on the set of The Godfather. When the cameras rolled, Brando became Vito Corleone. From his carefully controlled movements, his iconic raspy voice, and powerful presence, Brando brought a unique gravitas and owned every scene. It's a truly extraordinary marvel and one of the great performances in film history.
It's also worth noting that Brando is only in a small fraction of the film's 3-hour runtime, yet his presence hangs over the rest of the film. So much so that in the The Godfather Part II, when filming a flashback scene, Coppola decided against showing Brando.
Surrounding Brando was one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time, including Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton. Everyone delivered exceptional performances and launched decades-long careers. There are also countless character actors who add to the film's flavor. Again, something magical happened on Coppola's set, and the relationships between characters came alive on screen and created a vivid world full of flesh and blood characters.
The art direction and cinematography of The Godfather are noteworthy for their meticulous attention to detail, visual storytelling, and atmospheric portrayal of the Corleone crime family's world.
The film's art direction, led by Dean Tavoularis, expertly recreated the 1940s and 1950s settings, immersing the audience in a richly textured environment. From the opulent interiors of the Corleone mansion to the gritty streets of New York, the art direction captured the essence of the time period, enhancing the film's authenticity and adding depth to the narrative. Just like the characters, the world feels real and alive.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis set a new standard for visual storytelling in cinema. He employed chiaroscuro lighting in a way that hadn't been done in a color film. This technique added a sense of unease, secrecy, and intensity, reflecting the moral ambiguity and hidden agendas that permeate the story. Willis also chose a muted color palette full of browns and blacks that makes the film feel like flipping through a book of old family photographs. For his work in the film, Willis earned the nickname "The Prince of Darkness."
Furthermore, Coppola and Willis often utilized wide shots and long takes, allowing the audience to absorb the grandeur of the scenes and appreciate the nuances of the performances. This deliberate pacing and framing created a sense of grand opera, emphasizing the epic nature of the story and the tragic consequences of the characters' actions.
Coppola was a film student and created a film journal before he became a filmmaker. As such, he had a specific composer in mind for The Godfather: Fellini's frequent collaborator, Nino Rota.
The main theme, The Godfather Waltz is almost instantly recognizable and associated with the mafia.
Rota's score evokes a sense of tradition and heritage, and infuse the film with a distinct cultural identity. The use of Italian-inspired melodies, including the iconic main theme, establishes a strong connection to the Corleone family's roots and their Sicilian heritage.
Rota's compositions evoke a wide range of emotions, from tender and melancholic to grand and operatic, adding depth and resonance to the narrative.
The Godfather premiered to nearly universal acclaim and generated strong word-of-mouth.
Audiences packed theaters and the film became a cultural phenomenon. It was the fastest to reach $100 million at the box office. Not only was it the highest-grossing film of 1972, The Godfather was one of the biggest hits of the New American Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Godfather earned over $142 million at the global box office during its initial release, making it the highest grossing film ever released at the time.
Adjusted for inflation, its earnings are equivalent to nearly $1 billion, or about what a solid Marvel hit like Captain Marvel will earn today.
If you want a high point in the meshing of artistic and commercial interests in Hollywood, The Godfather was the pinnacle and the mid-1970s were a second golden age. Mature audiences flocked to see films made directly for them. Hollywood had figured out how to give audiences something they couldn't see on the small screen at home. The new generation of auteurs were given significant creative freedom, and audiences went along for the ride. Not until HBO would the entertainment industry figure out as effective a way to create and market to adults.
The Godfather's success showcased the commercial potential of films that pushed boundaries and delved into complex subject matter. While it wasn't the first film to demonstrate that audiences were receptive to narratives that explored the darker aspects of society, its success was unparalleled. The film's critical acclaim and box office success encouraged other filmmakers and studio executives to take creative risks and pursue projects with greater artistic ambition.
The Godfather also influenced the visual and narrative style of New Hollywood. Its meticulous attention to detail, atmospheric cinematography, and character-driven storytelling became hallmarks of the movement. Filmmakers began to embrace a more naturalistic approach, focusing on authenticity, nuanced performances, and gritty realism. The film's influence can be seen in subsequent New Hollywood classics like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Coppola's own Apocalypse Now.
Furthermore, The Godfather exemplified a shift in the portrayal of antiheroes and complex characters. We saw the roots of this in film noir, and a new era launch with the French New Wave-inspired Bonnie & Clyde, but The Godfather brought this to the mainstream. The film's nuanced depiction of morally ambiguous characters challenged traditional notions of heroism and villainy, further fueling the exploration of flawed and multi-dimensional protagonists in New Hollywood films.
The Godfather earned ten Academy Award nominations, winning three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando.
The film's popularity continued with its sequels, The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Godfather Part III (1990), further solidifying the franchise's critical and commercial success. The Godfather Part II became the first sequel to capture Best Picture. Part II is an even more ambitious film than Part I, telling parallel stories that bookend Part I, and deftly weaving back and forth between the storylines, and in many critics' opinions, Part II is the superior film.
Part III is fine, but doesn't reach the heights of the other films.
Over time, critical adulation for The Godfather has continued. The film is often cited as one of the greatest ever made, and a benchmark for cinematic excellence. In 2022, critics ranked the film number 12 in Sight and Sound's list of the greatest films of all time, with directors ranking it third.
Gordon Willis' cinematography. One critic referred to it as "brown, black, and blacker." Throughout the series, we've examined films where the lighting, shadows, and color palette reflect the mood of the subject. The Godfather looks unlike any other film (except its sequels), and the cinematography and art direction are two of the defining characteristics of the Corleone family's world.
Shot duration. Coppola uses long, unbroken takes throughout the film, beginning with the first shot of the film. These long takes contrast with moments of rapid cutting and action. All of it is used flawlessly. This film is one of the greatest examples of the power of editing to influence pace and tone, and to provide a visceral reaction.
Set pieces. The opening sequence at Connie's wedding. The visit to the film producer. Michael's meeting with Solozzo. Sonny's visit to confront Carlo. And of course, the finale. Oh, and the scene where Vito reflects on the life he wanted for Michael -- it's a tremendous scene, contributed by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne.
The business. There are allusions to what the Corleone family controls (gambling, prostitution, bootlegging), and debates about whether to get into drugs, but we don't actually see it. This makes the Corleones sympathetic, to a degree. Vito is principled. What we do see, however, is that their business actually involves a lot of violence.
The quotes! So many lines from this film are canonical. "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." "He sleeps with the fishes." "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." "It's not personal. It's business."
Rituals. The film includes two wedding receptions, a funeral, and a baptism. Coppola takes his time lingering within these moments. And within each of these rituals, there are significant business dealings and crimes plotted and committed.
Analysis of The Godfather by Norman Holland
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