I remember bits and pieces of Coppola films more than I remember the full films - the iconic opening of "Apocalypse Now," the ending of "The Conversation," and poor Fredo on that boat in "The Godfather Part II." I'm picking "The Godfather" to write about because it's the one that's managed to stick in my mind in the most cohesive fashion. I was lucky to have first seen it without many preconceptions of the film it was supposed to be - the iconic mafia masterpiece that launched a thousand catchphrases and imitators. Maybe that's why I always think of it first and foremost as a film about a family.
"The Godfather" underlines from its opening lines that it is a film about the American dream, the promise of new possibilities to the hopeful immigrant. And from this point of view, its romanticized portrayal of organized crime is made more palatable, elevating its potent mythology of the wise Godfather and his loyal sons and underlings. The audience is seduced by the lifestyle and its more brutal system of morality right along with Michael Corleone. Unlike other gangster films, there were no overt judgments made on the criminal characters, no punishments meted out by a higher authority. Instead, outsiders are only allowed glimpses, and only the final shots convey a true sense of tragedy.
Coppola's many, many contributions to the film were largely driven by a desire to imbue it with authenticity. In addition to directing, he also co-wrote the script with Mario Puzo. He fought the studio over casting choices, filming locations, the composer, the budget, the running time, and more. He wanted "The Godfather" to look and feel recognizably Italian-American, to reflect an immigrant experience that we hadn't seen in American film before. He fought for Al Pacino to be cast in the lead role, despite his relative obscurity. These choices were unpopular with the studio, Paramount Pictures, and Coppola claims he was constantly afraid of being fired during production.
However, Coppola prevailed. And it's thanks to him that the film shot on location in New York and Sicily, that it featured Nino Rota's elegant score, and that it cast so many wonderful actors of Italian descent alongside non-Italian ones. The production was chaotic at times, thanks to behind the scenes drama with the studio and the real-life mob. On screen, however, there was no trace of any difficulties to be found. Instead, it was easy to get lost in Gordon Willis's evocative lighting and cinematography, considered unusually "dark" for a mainstream film of the era. And it was easy to get wrapped up in the lives of the characters, driven by the dynamics and traditions of a big Italian family, more than the usual criminal shortcomings like greed, lust, and ambition.
Though it's often billed as the ultimate gangster picture, "The Godfather" is at its best when it's a family drama. The father son relationships in particular are vital. Brando purposefully played against expectations, portraying Don Corleone as a powerful, but gentle and intelligent man of great complexity. He's become so caricatured by popular culture that it's something of a surprise to discover just how charismatic and how touching Brando is in the role. I've come to appreciate James Caan's brash Sonny more as I've gotten older, and Pacino and Cazale suffer only in comparison to the career-defining work they would do two years later in "The Godfather Part II."
And it's difficult to talk about "The Godfather" without talking about its sequel, which is often treated as part of the same narrative. Much of what we see set up in "The Godfather" doesn't pay off until "The Godfather Part II," where Michael Corleone is confronted with the price of power and sees the rest of his family disintegrate. However, I've always seen them as different films, even if they are intimately connected. The original "Godfather" is about capturing a specific time in the lives of the Corleone family, a moment of transition from the old generation to the new. Though "Part II" is still about Vito and Michael, it's a very different kind of story.
It's fitting, then, that "The Godfather" became one of the key transitional films of the 1970s, emblematic of New Hollywood counterculture supplanting the older, established order. As for Coppola, though he never found the same level of success again, he never stopped making wildly ambitious, boundary-pushing films. And he never stopped doing things his way either.
What I've Seen - Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather (1972)
The Conversation (1974)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Outsiders (1983)
Rumble Fish (1983)
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
The Godfather Part III (1990)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
The Rainmaker (1997)