Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE GODFATHER (1972): The "Family" and America

I doubt that Francis Ford Coppola could have predicted the way his 170 minute behemoth, The Godfather, would be viewed in the subsequent decades since its release.  Coppola intended for the film to be a satire on America.  The power hungry Corleones, successful as entrepreneurs while lacking in moral scruples and who over time alienated themselves from everything they cared for and that had any meaning to them, were in Coppola’s mind representative of America itself.  Fortunately for Coppola, the film came to mean so much more than that.  The Godfather was peopled by so many individuals that we respected, cared for, or despised that we clearly identified with the characters portrayed as more than just a subset of criminals.
I will say, however, that in The Godfather Coppola is somewhat more successful in his goal than he was in The Godfather, Part II.  Marlon Brando fleshes out Vito Corleone as someone every bit as sinister (almost bug-like) as he is cunning.  He is respected and feared to such a degree that it seems impossible for him to be truly close to anyone.  His one attempt at humor frightens his young grandchild into believing that his grandfather is some kind of monster.  It’s difficult to imagine Vito anywhere but in shadowy rooms or corridors, and the single time that he is out in the sunshine he is sprayed with pesticide by the same infant grandchild - thus causing Vito to die.  Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro in the sequel and as a younger man, is more heroic than sinister.  Any crimes he commits were for the protection of his family and his neighborhood and were ultimately done out of necessity or rightful vengeance.  This Vito adores his family, reveres his heritage, and honors all that help him along the way.  The young Vito is the self-made man of the American Dream and of such a noble brand that we are proud that he be considered one of us.
But though Coppola was more conflicted in the direction that he wished the character of Vito Corleone to represent, his treatment of Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, is consistent.  Michael’s transformation from the innocent war hero to someone that ruthlessly orders the murder of his brother-in-law and, in the sequel, his own brother, is readily explainable by the events that unfold in the two films.  Michael is at first not so much unnerved by the character of his father as he is revolted by him.  Michael understands exactly what kind of person his father is.  Yet even Michael feels an attempt on his father’s life was somehow unjust and is determined to take reprisal on those responsible for the assassination attempt.  Michael thus loses his innocence by killing two of the men he holds most responsible for this act.  Ultimately, the motives behind any attempt to kill his father goes much deeper than even Michael can at first comprehend, and Michael is pulled into that underworld that he has for many years despised.  The killing of Michael’s young bride and, even more importantly, the killing of his brother Santino – or Sonny (James Caan) – makes any chance for a return to innocence impossible.
There are the other siblings in the Corleone’ family subject to human failings that do not beset Vito or Michael.  Fredo (John Cazale) is Vito’s second oldest son, and Fredo feels insecure and unappreciated.  As much as anyone, he would like to be successful in the family business but he does not have the brains or vicious temperament to be so.  Connie (Talia Shire), the only daughter of Vito, was the girl that watched too many Hollywood romances and dreamed that her marriage to Carlo (Gianni Russo) would bring her everything she wanted.  Instead, Connie’s marriage becomes a nightmare as Carlo is willing to do anything (including beat Connie) to rise in the ranks of the underworld.  Sonny, Vito’s oldest son, is powerful, passionate and temperamental.  It is his temper that gets him killed after discovering that Carlo has been beating his sister.  Finally, there is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the half-German and half-Irish adopted son of Vito.  Tom, an able lawyer and consigliere to the Don, is probably too reasonable and sane to be associated with such a family.  Though the mastermind behind the infamous beheading of the horse (a scene that cannot be described), Tom probably more than anyone would like for the Corleone’ business to go legitimate so that his family loyalty is no longer tested by the ordering of acts of violence.  Unfortunately for Tom, Michael will give Tom no such breaks.
After the death of his first wife, Michael marries Kay (Diane Keaton) and the couple has two children of their own.  Kay, a school teacher who has lived a sheltered life, is unprepared for what Michael is capable of doing.  After the death of Vito, Michael orders the killings of the five family heads in the New York area; also orders the killing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), a gambling kingpin from Las Vegas (loosely based on underworld boss, Bugsy Siegel); orders the killing of Tessio (Abe Vigoda)  (an old friend of Vito), who has made the mistake of changing his allegiance to a rival family; and finally has Carlo executed by Clemenza (Richard Castellano) (an underworld figure that has long served Vito).  Though Connie understands that Michael is behind the killing of her husband, Carlo, Michael is able to convince Kay that he had nothing to do with this action.  After all of this mayhem takes place, a number of underworld figures, including Clemenza, now swear their allegiance to Michael.
If we get beyond the gifted acting of Brando, Pacino, Cazale, Talia Shire and even James Caan (who has rarely ever been credited with great acting), we still have a larger cast of memorable characters in this film than any other movie I can name.  We have Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), the mortician that comes to Vito to avenge the beating of his daughter; Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the Turk that was good with a knife; Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the corrupt police man and complete lout; Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), the deranged killer totally devoted to Vito Corleone; and Jack Woltz (John Marley), who is loosely based on Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, and who doesn’t seem to at first understand that he shouldn’t mess with the Corleone’ family.  The characters and the faces of the characters in the first two films of this series are unforgettable. 
The fortunate mistake that Coppola made in the making of The Godfather was that he actually ended up romanticizing a group of figures that would otherwise have been viewed as having no set of redeeming values.  Yet through the film we understand these characters well beyond their disreputable side.  In some of them, we even see their warmth and humor.  Sonny for example, guilty of many infidelities and murders, is honorable in the manner that he cares for Michael and Connie, and there is no more terrible scene than to see him gunned down due to the treachery of Carlo. 
Coppola has publicly complained that America provides no social safety net for its vulnerable people.  According to Coppola, we are supposed to be upset that weak but essentially good people such as Connie and Fredo can only be protected by the likes of Vito and Michael Corleone.  We are supposed to be aware while watching the film that Tom - intelligent and talented as he was – would have been left homeless if Don Corleone had not taken him in.  All of this may or may not be true.  Coppola has had a lot to say about America, and there comes a point when he probably has said too much.  Coppola bemoaned that America truly was not a pluralistic society, but The Godfather introduces so many diverse and colorful characters populating the American landscape that the film contradicts Coppola’s own claim.  It’s remarkable that a director could so badly blunder in his aim for making this movie and yet still make a film that is close to perfection.
If The Godfather was only taken as a satire on American life, than the film would be a failure.  If it was only taken as the portrayal of the destruction of a family, than it would be a much more limited film than it really is.  There are many things in The Godfather that give us no cause for celebration.  America has at times through its history been a violent and bigoted nation.  But without putting aside those blemishes, it has also been a nation of innovation, diversity and vitality.  That some of its most powerful men have been ruthless and exploitive is incontrovertible, but the same is true of every nation.  Both Vito and Michael pay the price for their lack of humanity and thus the message of The Godfather is far less cynical than some critics would lead us to believe.  As saddened as we are to see what happens to Sonny, we are also saddened by what becomes of Michael.  In his last conversation with his son, Vito told Michael that he had hoped for so much more for him.  Many who watched the film shared that sentiment.
Like Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire (starring a very young Brando), The Godfather is one of the films that changed our culture.  It’s fortunate that Coppola was so much better an artist than he was a political thinker or this film could have been much more insignificant.
July 20, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011