You’re not likely to need me to persuade you that The Godfather is worth watching. You’ll make up your mind (have made up?) one way or the other without me, but I suppose that persuasion isn’t really the point of this essay series. Even though in a few cases I’m borrowing from previous writings that were intended to be persuasive, this is really more an attempt to explain what I find appealing about these films. (Unlike most of these essays, this one will have what might be considered SPOILERS! so read at your own risk.)
This is the quintessential mafia movie. More than Goodfellas, more than Little Caesar, more than anything else before or since. It is so influential that despite its fictional nature even real-life mafiosos have had their behavior and attitudes affected by the film, not just film and television gangsters. This mark of its greatness is also its greatest flaw. It so successfully seduces the viewer that the gang of murdering thugs begins to feel sympathetic and even somewhat inspirational!
The audience is drawn in along with Michael. We sympathize and agree with his father’s stand against narcotics. We feel betrayed and hurt by the attacks on the Corleone family. Critically, we do not witness directly the consequences of their corruption of politicians and judges, the illegal gambling, or their prostitution businesses. Properly then, we should be shocked and appalled at our own attitudes when once we realize what has happened, but too often our sympathy remains misplaced. It’s just a bit too easy to valorize the villains.
The scenes in the final act shock us all the more when we see that Michael has not only equaled, but surpassed his father as Don. Not just as a savvy businessman, but in his ruthless use of power to achieve his ends and consolidate his grip on the criminal underworld. He lies without qualm. He blasphemes without a twinge. He murders without any compunction. And then plays hypocrite to everyone closest to him. The closing shot with the door is magnificent and utterly earned. If the viewer has not already guessed, it is now plain. If he has, the point is driven home with finality: the Godfather of the title is not Vito; it is Michael.
Allied with this seductive delight of a story is the beauty of the locations, shots, and scenes. And such actors to play the parts! Brando, Pacino, Caan, and Duvall and even down into the minor character parts and smaller roles (Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, etc.) the acting sparkles.
There is a school of thought that the sequel surpasses the original. Perhaps it does, in some ways. The dual storylines provide a complex and enjoyable tale. Adding the talents of DeNiro is also a big bonus. But we are no longer innocent. There is no long twist in plain sight, no moment of started realization that we have taken the part of murdering scoundrels as if they were the heroes. By the time we watch the sequel we have already chosen complicity and all that remains is to discover how low we fall in our degradation.
In some sense then, The Godfather is a film you only really see once. Afterwards, while you might view it again, it cannot approach that first experience. The twist in The Empire Strikes Back or the truth about the world in The Matrix are genies which cannot be put back in the bottle for us to experience the same way a second time. So with this movie also