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Cult films to see before you die: The Godfather

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Cult films to see before you die: The Godfather
Continuing our series of films you simply must see, we look at The Godfather: James Oliver makes you an offer you can’t refuse...
Here’s a paradox: if Paramount Pictures, the studio behind The Godfather, had any inkling that the film would prove as successful as it was, they would have made a very different movie. After all, sure-fire blockbusters are seldom entrusted to headstrong young filmmakers, and they’re certainly not populated by unknown actors and has-beens.
But, of course, Paramount Pictures had no idea that The Godfather would become such a huge financial success; that’s why they didn’t meddle. And that’s why it’s so great.
The studio did, though, make one vital decision near the start of proceedings and that was hiring Francis Ford Coppola to helm the film.
It’s not entirely clear why this jobbing screenwriter/sometime director got the gig; had Paramount seen something in his earlier film Finian’s Rainbow—a generally disliked musical starring Fred Astaire and, err, Tommy Steele—that everyone else had missed? Or was it that, as an Italian-American, he was assumed to have some intrinsic affinity with the material?
The Godfather, of course, is an adaptation. The original novel was by Mario Puzo, a consciously commercial page-turner that told the story of Don Vito Corleone, an essentially benevolent Man of Honour, and his son Michael, an altogether more ruthless crime lord.
This, though, was a world as alien to Coppola as to most other people. Unlike his near-contemporary Martin Scorsese, who grew up around low-level hoods, Coppola was a good middle-class boy (his dad played flute for acclaimed conductor Arturo Toscanini); like the overwhelming majority of Italian-Americans, he had no connection to the Cosa Nostra.
"Coppola slow-cooks the film to bring out the flavour, seasoning things with beautiful diversions"
Rather, Coppola uses the film to explore other themes. Some are high-brow: this is very much a film about America and American morality, how corporatism is allowed to create its own ethical dynamic. Some themes are more personal: this a film about the immigrant experience and the director’s own duel identity.
And elsewhere, Coppola looks at the universal themes of power and corruption, as the reign of the (relatively) decent Don Vito is succeeded by his icy son.
Coppola’s greatest contribution to the film was the operatic grandeur he brought to the telling, insisting on the importance and sweep of his story.
Or, to use another equally appropriate metaphor, to make the film a banquet rather than the fast-food approach of previous gangster movies: Coppola slow-cooks the film to bring out the flavour, seasoning things with beautiful diversions—in addition to mob warfare, for instance, we learn how to cook meatballs the Mafiosi way.
The director’s other great coup was the casting. While the studio wanted Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier (!) or Ernest Borgnine (!!) as Don Vito, Coppola fought hard for Marlon Brando.
This was a risky choice: Brando’s career was then on the skids—the last film he made before The Godfather was directed by Michael Winner, for heaven’s sake—but unquestionably the right one. Brando’s Don is powerful, sagacious and, we would like to believe, decent.
Orbiting him were a cast of brilliant kids, all of them embracing the chance—finally!—to show what they could do: Al Pacino as the Machiavellian Michael, James Caan as his more voluble brother Sonny and John Cazale as Fredo, runt of the Corleone litter.
Throw in Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Talia Shire, Abe Vigoda and Richard Castellano and you can see why Stanley Kubrick said The Godfather had the best casting of any film, ever.

Marlon Brando, Diane Keaton, Al Pacino. Image via  
But then so much of The Godfather is excellent, if not actually perfect. Production designer Dean Tavoularis worked miracles on a modest budget to recreate New York of the 1940s.
And Gordon Willis’ photography remains one of the very best jobs of cinematography in movies, a beautiful chiaroscuro study of darkness (a darkness that becomes more and more appropriate as Michael Corleone takes control).
Coppola returned to the Corleones twice more, once quite brilliantly (The Godfather Part II is bigger, richer and more bitter than its predecessor), once disastrously (let’s all try and pretend The Godfather Part III isn’t real, shall we?). It is, though, the original that remains his signature achievement, a movie that was allowed to become great mainly because of its studio’s low expectations.
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