July 16, 2012
First off, movies about organized crime are about as old as the medium itself. Scarface (1932) is one noteworthy example from among the early talkies. Many of these old-school crime flicks concerned themselves with Prohibition, and the licentious pleasures associated with that era of government-mandated morality. These movies are one of the reasons film has always been a sort of prodigal medium: an art form for the common people, the mass audience, concerned with iniquities and people of dubious character. That's the appeal of movies, ultimately. They're not good for us. (The Novel, when it was in vogue, was also considered suspect, denounced as the art of the "common," and what's more, as a medium full of subversive potential. As they say, the movies are the 20th century's answer to the Novel. Both have received similar treatment. But we've become post-literate, and one wonders if the same will happen to movies in the 21st century, ushering in a post-cinematic public.)
The appeal of such entertaining movies was threatened with the production codes starting in the mid-30s, which set strict rules about what films could depict in terms of sex and violence, etc. The major studios mostly churned out sanitized material that was non-threatening and "safe" and "clean." Writers and directors who wanted to address adult subject matter had to be coy about it, or risk being censored by the studio heads. Film adaptations of novels and plays had to tone down racy material. For example, when Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was made into an MGM movie, the main character's homosexuality was removed from the story. Those familiar with the source material of such expurgated movie adaptations could read between the lines, sure, but it would seem that studios exercised a great deal of confidence in the ignorance of the movie-going public at large. Moreover, they perpetuated such ignorance by depicting life in a blissful state. It's like the men in The Stepford Wives (1975) who want to pretend their wives haven't been turned into automatons. Sure, there have always been exceptions to this rule, but mostly Hollywood was about keeping things superficial and fake.
Then came the 1960s. Films like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) in France and Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) in America began to introduce a new kind of realism to the movie-going public, a violent realism that re-examined the values of movies and ignited a new passion for something different, something urgently real.
Along the heals of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch (1969) and other such movies came The Godfather. What people tend to see in The Godfather is a sort of tragic humanization of these old-time gangsters, once cartoonish, expendable, forgotten the moment the picture was finished. In this new vision of the American organized crime world, these characters are no longer divorced from their human context. They are fathers and sons and brothers and husbands, and they bleed real blood. They are corrupt, but also redeemable. They have scruples, as antithetical as that may sound, and their own moral code, which too seems incredulous, and yet they are cold-blooded killers. Ambiguity is always more interesting than morality depicted in black-and-white.
But enough about film context. You can read all that elsewhere, and it doesn't mean you have to like The Godfather a bit. The movie speaks for itself. (The context may deepen one's understanding, but it does not define it.) Marlon Brando plays the head of the Corleone family, based in New York (it starts in 1945, just after the war has ended), who's competing with several other crime families. A chain of events, beginning with Don Corleone's rejection of a narcotics operation in conjunction with the other families, sets up his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) to take over the family business, neither a vocation nor a lifestyle he wanted. He's the war hero, the "pure" son, untainted by the blood of organized crime. (They were going to try and land him a political career so he could be "untainted" there too.) It's inevitable of course that Michael is sucked into the world he thought he was too principled to embrace.
Director Francis Ford Coppola turns this gangster picture into a tragic masterpiece. He is helped by Mario Puzo, on whose novel this was based, and with whom he wrote the screenplay. The iconic music is by Nino Rota. The supporting cast includes James Caan as Sonny, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Richard Castellano as Clemenza, Diane Keaton as Kay, Michael's wife, Talia Shire as Connie, John Cazale as Fredo. Also starring Abe Vigoda, Al Littieri, Gianni Russo, Sterling Hayden, Lenny Montana, Richard Conte, Al Martino, John Marley, Alex Rocco, and Morgana King. Followed by two sequels. (The only criticism I can give of The Godfather is that it spawned a lot of inferior imitations that we have had to sit through for the last 40 years.)