You have perhaps heard of The Godfather. It is a three-hour movie about the Mafia, released in 1972 by a studio that had been losing money at a steady clip, directed by an up-and-coming filmmaker whose last film had been a major flop (he was hired, in large part because the desperate studio knew that he wasn't in a position to turn down work), adapted from a bestselling potboiler the the director regarded as sleazy trash, with a cast headlined by a former star who had spent a full decade squandering his career, developing a reputation for being combative and undisciplined. All of which just goes to show.

Since the film is one of the all-time consensus masterpieces, and since I haven't the slightest intention of troubling that consensus, I hope you will permit me to begin by talking about the things The Godfather gets wrong? Because, in faith, I don't actually think it's perfect, and I don't rate it in the top ten movies of all time, or whatever - not even in the top 100, if you can imagine such wickedness. I would rank it third among Francis Ford Coppola's films of the 1970s in terms of quality, and fourth in terms of how interesting I find it. There is, I believe, a way in which it is too clean in its novelistic grandeur; it is a film that does not need a viewer to affirm its greatness. The Conversation, The Godfather, Part II and Apocalypse Now all make demands that we do the work of solving them (and that's saying nothing about Coppola's amazing run of luminous messes after the Big Four); The Godfather presents itself, pure and immaculate and complete.

So anyway, the things that the film gets wrong. It has some shaggy pacing, I believe, and a baggy shape, mostly prior to Michael's (Al Pacino) trip to Italy - and I assume it's okay if I don't even bother with the loosest ghost of a plot summary? I don't want to get into all the complicated nitty gritty, and it seems bizarre to pretend that most people don't know the broad strokes. Anyway, prior to that point (which is very close to exactly halfway through the film), there are a lot of scenes that loosely contribute to the film's mood, but give it a kind of aggressive shapelessness. Then, in the second half, the pace becomes mercilessly swift, summarising months and years in individual scenes; it feels almost like a different movie, an impressionistic montage of how the U.S. Mafia redefined itself in the decade following World War II. If I can just go right ahead and make a complete ass of myself, I think one of the scenes I'd definitely cut is the "horse head in the bed" sequence: it is making precisely the same point that was already made by Michael's "my father made him an offer he couldn't refuse" speech to Kay (Diane Keaton), and there, it was a character beat, establishing through Pacino's thin, atonal recital of the anecdote that Michael is slightly disgusted by his family, not just giving us the exposition of who the family is. The horse head scene feels like a relic from an earlier conception of the film, one where we view the Corleones from outside; it is I think the only scene that takes place entirely outside the POV of any character attached to the family, and it feels a little off-kilter.

Speaking of Kay: she's an aggressively under-developed character, and the final shot badly needs her not to be. Keaton was not, at this point in her career, confident enough in creating a personality to push against the limits of the screenplay's imagination; in her hands, and as Coppola and Mario Puzo (author of the source novel) imagine the character in writing her, Kay comes across as an empty vessel, an observer who at best stands in for a thematic point earmarked for later refinement. And on the subject of acting, I don't really get all the love for Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone; he strikes me as extremely over-fussed and too transparent in its mechanics, between the husky, whispering voice, the way he absently scratches his face with his very thoughtfully posed hand, the way he over-relies on the prosthetic that puffs out his jaw. It surely could have been worse: Coppola's other choice was Laurence Olivier, and I cannot imagine what a weird camp object that performance would have been. The studio's other choice was Ernest Borgnine, which would have been at least better, but I suspect he would have focused on making the character threatening and lost sight of the familial affection that is the strongest part of Brando's performance.

There is a really incredibly shitty cut a little bit before the two-hour mark, when Talia Shire is stepping over to pick up a phone. That is, I think, the whole list.

The thing about reviewing The Godfather, of course, is that it's The Godfather, one of those films about which there is simply nothing left to say. I am not even sure if there was anything left to say in 1972. We all know the deal: the film tells a miraculous four-pronged story, in its ten-year narrative about the soft decline in power of the Corleone crime family. Most abstractly, it is about the United States of America in the middle of the 20th Century, settling into its role as a superpower after WWII, a role it acquired through an act of blinding violence. Most concretely, it is a new-fashioned version of the wonderful old gangster pictures that were one of Hollywood's greatest products in the early sound years, prior to the Hays Office growing teeth in 1934; it relates the rituals and politicking within the high-level power structure of the Mafia with documentary like precision as well as florid soap-operatic excess, both of them so definitive that we're getting close to a full half-century of Mafia films and television that are all, even the very greatest of them, basically just wrinkles on The Godfather's model. In between, it is a story about the tension between tradition and assimilation in immigrant populations, as populations viewed as non-people by the WASP masters of the universe find niches in disreputable and antisocial corners of the world, and gain power and respect that way. And it is a morality play about Michael Corleone, the man who begins the movie acknowledging full of righteous disgust for his sociopathic father, and ends the movie as a more vicious, calculating bastard than Daddy every daydreamed about being. I personally favor the last of these, and this is a large part of the reason I prefer Part II which goes in much harder on that theme. But part of the greatness of The Godfather is that it can genuinely be all things to all people.

Plenty of that greatness resides squarely in the writing - I have not read Puzo's novel, but by all accounts its a shadow of the rich tapestry of characters and social currents that the film script is. And notwithstanding my grumpiness about the macro-structure of the film, it's hard to deny that this is a tremendous accomplishment, weaving large motifs and small little character beats in and around each other with both bombast and nuance; it is one of the genuinely operatic films in this respect. Hell, even the structure is certainly doing something, it's not just a random mess. The first sixth of the film's running time, after all, is dedicated to one afternoon, and the sprawling spectacle of an Italian-American wedding with plenty of money to spend (it's impossible to imagine the glorious indulgence of The Deer Hunter and its own opening act dedicated to a wedding in an ethnic enclave without The Godfather clearing the road for it); it's a brilliant sequence, honestly my favorite part of the whole film for how neatly it presents the characters and their dynamics, as well as the heavy emphasis on a kind of thickly underscored performance of Italianicity; how it creates a jarring contrast between the sickly brightness of the outdoor where the Corleone family plays and the clotted, shadowy lair where Don Corleone manipulates his crime empire; how it lets the fact that this is a Mafia don's family slowly wash over us, performing exposition through innuendo rather than declarations. And after this point, the film is built around an idea of acceleration: thirty minutes to cover an afternoon, sixty minutes to cover a year, the Sicilian interlude that feels like it belongs to another movie entirely, sixty minutes to cover nine years. Especially in its last 40 minute or so, the sudden rush of scenes launching across time gives the film the sensation of things sprawling out of control, the characters' destinies locked in by fate rather than their willful, considered choices, which seemed to guide things up to the moment that Michael shoots those guys in the restaurant. Call it whatever you like: stability versus violent chaos, Vito's steady wisdom versus Michael's impulsive reactions. Whatever it is, it's baked into the rhythm of the whole film, and it works damn well.

If it's not the script being terrific, it's the outstanding cast and crew Coppola assembled, with help and hindrance from Paramount under the dictatorial hand of Robert Evans. First among equals - and I include Coppola himself, here - is surely Gordon Willis, the genius cinematographer of his generation, who in The Godfather executed what I would not really hesitate in declaring the most important work of photography of the New Hollywood Cinema. Movies did not look like this before The Godfather; they barely looked like it afterwards, though at least Willis laid out a whole new toolkit for people to tentatively, nervously play with. The obvious thing is his fearless, radical use of deep, oppressive shadows, smothering interiors in gaping pools of black, burying actors' in pits of nighttime maleveolence. One sometimes hears the suggestion that a problem with The Godfather is that it makes the Mafia life, with its rigid codes of macho behavior, seem luxurious and honorable and attractive; and given how it has been received, that's a fair complaint. But it's impossible to blame the film for that: setting aside the issue of how sickening and bleak Michael's fall is, and the gutted look on Keaton's face in the brutal final shot (a candidate for the best final shot in all of cinema, obviously - and still not my favorite final shot of a Godfather film, which speaks to how well-made these movies are), I don't see how anybody with eyes could look at the necrotic shadows Wills bathes every space and every face is, and claim that The Godfather makes this look appealing. It is a heavy, oppressive visual world, made up rich painterly tableaux of gloom. The only part of the film that looks genuinely beautiful in a conventional way is the Sicilian sequence, where Coppola and Willis stop making a New Hollywood film and start making an Italian movie; the look grows soft and diffuse, the colors smooth out - for the next most obvious thing, after all the shadows, is that Willis exposed and developed the film to exaggerate the tendency already found in American stock of that period to go towards yellow and brown. The result is a film that makes the dinginess of early-'70s cinematography an unabashed strength, skewing everything towards yellow in a way that adds a patina of nostalgia but also toxicity. In Sicily, this yellowness feels warmer and sunnier.

It also shifts to having a more robustly Italian score, which I bring up mostly because you can't write about The Godfather without genuflecting at Nino Rota, a composer who had no end of triumphs, and a couple candidates for Best Score of All Time in his collaborations with Federico Fellini. He has another candidate right here, notwithstanding that the main theme associated with Sicility was taken intact from his music for the 1958 Fortunella, directed by Eduardo Di Filippo (from a Fellini script!). Even before the film begins, we get a taste of Rota's strategy, in the extremely sad-sounding horns that introduce the first statement of the Godfather Waltz, a delectably complicated and tricky motif that is, on the surface, romantic and refined and stately, but has a spider-like quality waiting to pounce on us after the full statement of the main melody completes. It is beauty that hides a venomous, malicious undertone - much like the world of brutal thugs with nice homes, nice clothes, and a well-developed sense of honor that the waltz accompanies.

The cast, outside of the significant cases of Brando and Keaton, is also superb throughout. Al Pacino is the star of the show, a working actor who had his well-deserved breakout here, letting evil creep into his portrayal of Michael slowly, and always painted as worn-out pragmatism; really, until he lies to Kay at the end, there's never a point where Pacino clearly wants us to see that Michael knows what he's doing. It's less wide-ranging than he'll get to be in the sequel (where he is the unabashed lead, rather than at the forefront of a busy ensemble), but it's stellar work, especially given that Pacino has to make sure we understand what's changing in Michael during the chronologically manic final hour. But as easy as it is to single him out, there are brilliant performances at every turn, from the very obvious (Robert Duvall being handed every one of his muted reactions on a silver platter by the director) to the slightly less obvious (James Caan's impetuous, violence-prone Sonny is a gangster movie cliché grounded in surprising choices about where to reveal the character's terror and self-doubt - check out his line readings in the "we don't discuss business at the table" scene for an especially sharp example), to the not very obvious at all (Abe Vigoda's portrayal of his character's final scene, contentment and resignation mixed with just a molecule of hope that there's a way out of this that doesn't involve his own death, is a contender for my favorite single scene of a performance in the film).

It is, that is to say, a terrifyingly complete work, impressive in every way, an exemplar of every aspect of the filmmaker's craft, and so oferstuffed in the ideas it depicts and the themes it explores that it feels like you can watch an entirely new film with a whole new message every time you turn it on. Given how hectic and unpleasant the shoot was, and how little he believed in the project at the onset, it's astonishing how strong of a guiding hand Coppola keeps on the whole affair; this is one of those movies where every single collaborator is doing such incredible work that you can't help but want to ascribe all the success to the director making sure they're all lined up, weirdly enough. As much as I bristle when the film's loudest fans suggest that it's obviously the pinnacle of filmmaking, or at least American filmmaking, or at least American filmmaking in the '70s (it is the only perfect five-star masterpiece that I would also be inclined to describe as "overrated"), there's no denying that this is a consummate achieve that deserved all of its considerable financial and critical success, and has completely earned the exciting freshness that still clings to it nearly half a century later. Hard as its themes get, and for as long as it is, this is one of the most compulsively watchable of great films, and that counts for just as much as the immaculate craft does.

Reviews in this series
The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
The Godfather, Part II (Coppola, 1974)
The Godfather, Part III (Coppola, 1990)