“Citizen Kane” is a better movie than “The Godfather,” but “The Godfather” is still my favorite movie. It’s a film where everything came together by happenstance, where cinematic luck and directorial ingenuity meshed together to create a over-exposed movie masterpiece. In “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles meticulously crafted every shot and sound of his picture. In “The Godfather,” things worked out often by luck or chance. Even when they didn’t and something was flubbed, like when Sonny misses his fake punch at Carlo in the sidewalk fight scene, that mistake ends up making the scene more memorable had he actually landed. It’s a giant happy accident, one that just so happened to change film history.
“The Godfather” follows the Corleone family, headed by Vito (Marlon Brando), a powerful, respected gangster who friends and foes refer to as Godfather. Vito has four sons, one of whom is adopted: the hot-headed Sonny Corleone (James Caan), the collected, calculating Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the black sheep Fredo (John Cazale) and the menacing but mellow Mike (Al Pacino). The movie depicts both the criminal activities and the family squabbles of the Corleones over the course of 10 years. It’s a sweeping act, one that doesn’t feel forced or maligned but truly legitimate, that the characters are certain years older and that a certain amount of time has passed.
The editing is exemplary, particularly the baptism/murder scene. The cinematography feels like a vintage family album, where nostalgia reigns supreme over regret. The direction is subtle but superb, with Francis Ford Coppola only using zoom shots twice, framing every shot to look like a painting. And the moving score by Nino Rota breathes emotion and life into each of the characters, a waltz carefully reochestrated to fit each of its characters in a convincing and moving way. Oh, the acting is superb too, with a relatively young Marlon Brando pulling off an old man to full effect, James Caan and Robert Duvall exemplifying sibling rivalry to the extreme, and Talia Shire and Diane Keaton as the tattered women who are ignored and thrown away in favor of family business.
But the single most impressive thing about this film is the transformation of Michael Corleone. Shot out of sequence, Al Pacino was able to jump in-between different parts of Michael’s story line and still bring him to life. Imagine having to play a grizzled mob boss one day and then an easy-going college graduate the next. But Pacino carries us through with fierce intensity, giving Michael at all stages an underlying, burning anger. Sometimes that anger is directed at his family for embarrassment, other times its at his enemies for defying him, and sadly, more often than not, its at Kay, whose only sin was daring to love him. He has a perennial chip on his shoulder, one that he tries to fill first through ignorance of his family, then through vengeance against his peers.
“The Godfather” is really the story of Michael. He is a canvas where all the best collective Corleone traits are painted, but is destined to hang in a mob house instead of the prestigious art gala where he belongs. The sad thing is, even though he could have been a senator or a congressman, Michael enjoys this type of work. He’s unmotivated when we first encounter him, and only until Vito gets shot does he begin to care about anything. It isn’t such a tragedy for Michael as it is for Vito, that his favorite son, the one with the brightest future, enjoyed playing in the darkness the most.