Although Coppola has often been depicted -- and loves to depict himself -- as primarily an emotional and intuitive director, The Godfather is a film filled with correct choices, painstakingly thought out and passionately carried through. And part of what made it a breakthrough as a crime movie is that it's about gangsters who make choices too, and aren't propelled simply by bloodlust and greed. They're battling for position in New York's Five Families, circa 1945-46. If Don Vito Corleone and successor Michael come off looking better than all the others, it's because they play the power game the cleverest and best -- and the game is sordidly exciting.
For all the movie's warmth, you could never confuse the Corleones or their allies and competitors for fun-loving ethnic types. That first scene shows the Don exacting a deadly patronage, coercing Bonasera into vows of love and pledges of unmitigated loyalty in exchange for a feudal bond that can't be broken or forgotten. Before the wedding/office sequence is completed, we've also heard the Don tell a Sinatra-like singer, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), that "a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." Once Coppola ties the themes of power and family together, he takes off with a story in the grand tragic manner. Its theme is the corruption of once justifiable goals, their altering through histories of struggle and domination. The Corleones are one generation removed from Sicily. They're in the business of staying alive in America, and part of their business requires them to kill.
The growth of Michael Corleone -- and Pacino's startling physical and emotional alteration in the role -- gives the film its shape. A college man who's also a Second World War hero, he tests his strength and cunning in the streets to avenge his father's near-murder. He states his rationale to his girlfriend (later wife), Kay, played by Diane Keaton: "My father's no different than any other powerful man. Any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." Kay responds: "You know how naive you sound? Senators and presidents don't have men killed." In a line that marked a breakthrough in mainstream political awareness, Michael wearily answers, "Who's being naive, Kay?"
But when Michael says his father's way of doing things is finished, he is being naive. And the way Pacino plays him, you can tell that deep down he knows the vortex of mob violence has sucked him in. Pacino's performance is so intimately felt-out that each milestone (or in Kay's view millstone) on his path both catches you by surprise -- and registers indelibly. There's the moment he stands guard in front of the hospital and realizes that his hands aren't shaking (though the good-hearted baker's helper next to him can scarcely hold onto his cigarette); there's the chilly air of corporate homicide he adopts to prove to his brother, Sonny, that his plan to kill his father's would-be murderer and a crooked cop is "strictly business," it's not personal; and there's the volcanic eruption of the actual double homicide.
What makes this arc both horrifying and seductive is that we're not just seeing the hardening of a killer, but the strengthening of a young man who's getting back to his roots. That becomes clear when he hides out in Sicily and marries a local beauty named Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). It's as if blasting the dreams of a straight life and getting scarred in single-warrior combat have reconnected him to the earth. When he returns to New York, he continues to be in the second-generation tradition, more coldblooded and intellectual, more Organization than Family. But he now has the authority of someone who's touched psychic bottom. He has as much control over himself and his loved ones as his father did in his prime. By the time he's taken over the business, he (and Pacino) have found the deceptive emotional reserves of Don Vito -- and Brando.
To this day it's jolting to see Brando as Don Corleone -- the receded hairline, the gray pencil mustache, jowls hanging off a twisted mouth, and a voice cracked from years of command. Brando makes the character extraordinarily complex largely through his physical expressiveness. He walks as if his shoulder blades were pinned behind him (which emphasizes an old man's paunch in front). But the sensibility beneath the authority is surprisingly agile: The Don can suddenly break into mimicry, or turn his daughter in a waltz with a slight protective bent that catches sentiment in movement. Brando puts so much substance into his relatively few scenes, blowing hot and cold with equal eclat, that he enables Coppola to draw parallels between his sons and himself through nuances at once fleeting and concrete.
James Caan plays the eldest boy, Sonny, like the Don without his lid on. He feels that when he's indulging his appetites (for action and for sex), he's fueling the fires that protect his family. But his lack of control triggers a gang war that ends in his own death. Caan animates his body with a high-strung, barely controlled rage; when he lets go, kicking and bashing his wife-beating brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo), the effect is scary and exhilarating. He's like a Brando action hero on amphetamines. (Talia Shire, as Carlo's wife, Connie, gives a vividly unsentimental performance, expertly toeing the line between pathos and hysteria.) John Cazale's Fredo, who'd be next in line were it not for his weak nature, has the surprising nakedness and sensitivity Brando showed in movies like The Men. Even Robert Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Vito's German-Irish "adopted" son and consigliori, echoes Brando in his eloquent wariness, his furtive intelligence.
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