This movie is approaching its 50th anniversary in March. After an interval of many years, I watched it again last week.
It still stands as one of the finest American films. It established the careers of Francis Coppola, its director and co/writer, and many of its actors. It also inspired many other films with similar themes.
We all know the story. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) heads a crime family in New York, but is also, in his way, a man of principle. He protects those who matter to him
The movie itself is skillfully organized. It opens with the spring marriage reception for Vito’s only daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), an event that establishes Vito’s family values, how influential he is in his community and that his older son, hothead Sonny (Michael Caan), is active in his father’s organization while a younger son, Michael (Al Pacino), is not.
Then a Hollywood subplot establishes that Vito really means it when he says “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The balance of the movie is a prolonged war, punctuated by gun attacks, between the Corleones and the other New York gangs. Besides the issue of whether the Corleone organization will prevail, there is a more personal question — whether Vito’s golden son, Michael, a WWII veteran and college man, will be drawn into the family business.
What distinguishes the Godfather movies is that they operated on two tracks — as family stories and also as shoot-em-ups.
Before this movie, there were occasional crime-gang stories — some Jimmy Cagney stuff in the early 1930s and then “On the Waterfront” in 1954, a story about a boxer (Marlon Brando again) whose ambitions are corrupted and destroyed by a Hoboken gang.
“The Godfather” was followed by two sequels, and the trio of films grossed a billion dollars in US ticket sales, which was pretty good money back in the day.
The popularity and profits led to many other Mafia movies, most of which were heavier on the gunplay and lighter on the family themes. Some of the most prominent were “Mean Streets” (1973), “Scarface” (1983), “Goodfellas” (1990), “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Donnie Brasco” (1997) and 2017’s Baby Driver. (To be fair, there was also the long-running “Sopranos” series on HBO, which was largely character-driven.)
So how true to life is “The Godfather?”
— Mario Puzo, who wrote the novel that was the source material for “The Godfather,” based his story at least in part on another writer’s description of his own father, a small-time thug. After Puzo’s death in 1999, that second writer wrote about their work relationship and said this:
“Before The Godfather, who knew that criminals had families and believed in justice? The greatness of The Godfather is that, except for the material derived from The Honored Society and some Congressional hearings, it is entirely a work of fiction, the invention of a great story teller. It’s really a shame that it caused people to believe that crime was romantic and honorable and heroic, that the Mafia was ever anything more than guys hustling lots of cheap scams in order to be able to live in Kew Gardens, Queens.
“But Mario didn’t really know much about crime. I did, and so I see the book as a great work of art, while others want to see it as some kind of history.”
From a wide-ranging Vanity Fair story about the making of the original film, here is producer Albert S. Ruddy’s account of quietly arranging a mafia-only preview screening of the movie.
“‘There must have been a hundred limousines out front. The projectionist called me and said, “Mr. Ruddy, I’ve been a projectionist my whole life. No one ever gave me a thousand-dollar tip.” That’s how much the guys loved the movie.
“They not only loved it—they adopted it as their own, employing the term Puzo invented (the Godfather) and frequently playing the movie’s haunting theme music at their weddings, baptisms, and funerals. ‘It made our life seem honorable,’ Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano, of the Gambino crime family, later told The New York Times, adding that the film spurred him on to commit 19 murders, whereas, he said, ‘I only did, like, one murder before I saw the movie.… I would use lines in real life like, ‘I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse,’ and I would always tell people, just like in The Godfather, ‘If you have an enemy, that enemy becomes my enemy.’”