My first experience of this gangster epic was in the mid to late 1980's, when The Godfather Saga(1977), was re-aired on TV, an amalgam of the first two Godfather films. There I caught sight of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone sat, illuminated in the rich golden hue of Gordon Willis's classic cinematography, listening to a fellow Italian immigrant (a moving monologue by Salvatore Corsitto) giving his perspective on the life they have cultivated for themselves in the Land of Opportunity:
"I believe in America. America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but I taught her never to dishonor her family. She found a boyfriend; not an Italian............These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison - suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone."This forms the core of the whole perspective of this particular Italian experience in America, of a good-natured but intermittently violent people who come to America to live the Dream, but when it starts to turn sour, they defend themselves to the utmost, especially where vengeance is concerned. Like it or not, no matter how they try to play by the rules, some can't help slipping towards the life of crime.
Little by little, as this TV series screened in the following weeks, I caught various glances and became increasingly aware of The Godfather. After one evening watching an episode, I saw a video cover for the film in the shops, and realised I had unwittingly watched my first adult (ie. certificate "18") film.
The one name that soon emerged after a few viewings was that of Francis Ford Coppola. Italian-American raised of course (his father Carmine was the son of an immigrant), Coppola was initially reluctant to take on the project, with all the stereotypical associations with the Mafia (the word is never used throughout the film) that it entailed. An influential independent film maker however, and a noted screenwriter (he had just won the Oscar for co-writing Patton in 1970), he needed the money after the recent failure of his fledgling studio American Zoetrope; with The Godfather, his career was well and truly up and running.
What Coppola very quickly imbued into his treatment of the story (together with original author Mario Puzo) was a sense of family honour and tradition. At the same time he also sought to dissociate himself from the whole gangster shtick by having them ultimately corrupted and isolated by their own power, as well as trying to make a statement about the inherent good nature of Italians (one character later openly expresses this sentiment at a Senate hearing - see below).
Several film-making friends of Coppola were extras in The Godfather Part II's Senate hearing scene - standing centre with a camera round his neck: future Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz.
I became attracted to the film initially because of the name Marlon Brando in the title role, whom I had seen in one other film at that time, Superman (also co-scripted by Mario Puzo). Brando isn't in the film very much, but his powerful presence makes itself felt throughout the film. It was here also where the famous Brando mumble came into play most effectively - although in truth only a small percentage of Brando's diction was ever mumbled or "naturalistic". Together with his haggard looking make-up (see right), he grabs every scene - or perhaps Coppola makes him - with an intensity and a power that is especially moving in the scene where he learns from his Consigliori Tom Hagen (the excellent Robert Duvall) that his eldest son Sonny (James Caan) has been killed.
If Brando pulled in the punters (though not necessarily the enthusiasm of Paramount Studios), then the one face that emerged out of Brando's shadow in The Godfather was Al Pacino. New to film, having done strong work in the theatre (under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg), Pacino's diminutive but steely presence makes its way gently into the film at first, arm-in-arm with Diane Keaton as his girlfriend Kay Adams (one of the few "outside" voices in the film) at his sister Connie's wedding, and though young and naive looking in these early stages, he nonetheless has that steely look in his eye, as he regales a story to Kay about his Family's methods of "making an offer [they] can't refuse." As the film progresses, that steeliness grows with conviction when his father is assassinated (another moving performance by John Cazale in the assassination scene), and Michael finds himself drawn into the Family Business that he had tried to avoid, in order to protect his father - again, family duty comes into play, and explains in a stroke (if not necessarily justifying) the reasons for the Mafia's brutal methods.
That brutality, when it comes, is beautifully wrapped up within the general brooding stylish sumptuousness of the film. Typical is the infamous horse's head in the bed of studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) - based loosely on Harry Cohn - or the demise of Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) who arrives at a swish nightclub run by the rival Tattaglia family, who are in cahoots with the sinister Sollozzo (Al Lettieri). Luca pretends to want to join the Tattaglias, but they're onto him, and he is suddenly stabbed and throttled (in a manner mimicked in Return of the Jedi for Jabba the Hutt's demise), and the subsequent Sicilian message is sent back to the Corleones, together with Luca's discarded bullet-proof vest: "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."
At three hours, The Godfather was long, but totally absorbing, and also something of a ground-breaking film, for which THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) followed up by being even more innovative, extending the Corleone Saga another three and a half hours, intercutting between Michael's increasing power and isolation, to scenes originally cut from the book detailing his father Vito's rise to power, as played stylishly and meticulously by Robert De Niro.
The De Niro scenes in Little Italy in the early 20th century, settling down to a life in the brave but spartan New World, have a delightful sense of fin de siecle nostalgia (accompanied by Nino Rota's superb music), and it is perhaps the one "prequel" to most successfully explain how its main character grew into the infamous figure he later becomes.
Michael Corleone continued to rule with a saddened iron fist in the underrated THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) - perhaps 16 years too late after the first two, but Pacino nonetheless gave a superb performance of King Lear-like gravity, and supporting him this time was Andy Garcia (as Sonny's illegitimate son Vincent Mancini), very much in the mould of the younger Michael, as the heir to the Family crown. Coppola once again was on top form, although having cast his own sister Talia Shire in a key role back in 1972, he ended up repeating the trick for Part III when Winona Ryder pulled out of the important role of Michael's daughter Mary, and so Coppola (for whom Michael was becoming something of an alter ego) naturally cast his own daughter Sofia, who received the biggest flak from the critics for her slightly perfunctory performance. At least she was keeping it in the family - she isn't at all bad actually (and has since become an acclaimed director - with a little more help from Daddy), and has in fact been an ever-present (like Pacino) through all three Godfathers: it was baby Sofia who was being christened in the church (right) during the brilliant climactic montage of the 1972 film.
I saw The Godfather in the cinema for the first time on a 1994 re-release at the Lumiere cinema in St. Martin's Lane, London. Even then, only 22 years after its release - in the groundbreaking 1970's - it made me reflect already that they just don't make films like that anymore. Maybe we need to give them an offer they can't refuse.