Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series – at least, the first two movies – have long been held up as a kind of cinematic watermark. The Godfather is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made; in fact, The Godfather is widely considered the greatest movie ever made, period, whilst its follow-up, The Godfather Part II, is without question the greatest sequel ever put on screen. The third movie, The Godfather Part III, is the black-sheep of the family, and whilst nowhere near as strong as its predecessors, remains an interesting feature with lots of discussion points. The series, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969’s best-seller, has an infamous legacy and vast cinematic heritage, which means that it’s difficult to say anything new about these movies; they’ve been dissected and analysed thousands of times since the 70s. But after recently catching the entire trilogy again in the space of a long weekend, it seemed fitting to break the movies down, to try and summarise what makes them work so well, as a kind of overview retrospective of The Godfather Trilogy.
The Godfather is a sprawling, three-hour long crime epic, and what’s striking about the movie watching it again is how adult it is. They don’t make movies like this anymore; serious, grown-up movies which don’t talk down to the audience – The Godfather‘s plot can be complex, it never breaks down who is who, or how they relate to one another, and character motivation itself can be obtuse, difficult, and is rarely spelled out. It’s refreshing to rewatch The Godfather in this sense; like Taxi Driver, it belongs to a specific branch of adult American 70s cinema, a bolder, darker and more mature time for the art-form, before the studios began to cap down on everything unsellable. The first movie has the benefit of Puzo’s novel, which zips by in a series of shoot-outs and double-crosses, which on screen, gives the movie a spaghetti western element – long periods of character development punctuated by sudden and extreme violence. And the violence is intense and graphic; there’s a real desire to make these movies as realistic and authentic as possible, something Coppola would later repeat in Apocalypse Now. Coppola had been making movies, in some form, for a couple of decades prior to The Godfather but was still relatively young at this point. You’d never know this from the directing; this is an extremely confident, measured and wonderfully paced movie, almost pitch-perfect as cinematic art. The period setting, which the studio didn’t want, provides a great deal of authenticity and Nino Rota’s swirling, operatic score remains one of cinema’s most iconic. So much of The Godfather has become integrated into the cinematic language – before The Godfather, crime and mafia thrillers had focused from the outside looking in; here, for the first time, we’re presented with an internal view of the mob, and given an insight into a realistically functioning world of crime. The mafia here are literally a family, and we become very attached to the Corleones, watching them at the dinner table or watching them plotting; there’s always a great sense of honour and pride within them all, and we feel when we lose one of them.Kubrick called The Godfather the finest American movie, with the greatest cast, and it’s hard to disagree with him. The cast are amazing here – everyone gives a measured and controlled performance and no-one goes over the top. Marlon Brando gives an iconic turn as Don Corleone, the muffled and elderly assurance of a man at the heights of his power, with a philosophical and worldly element combining with a great deal of love for his family. Al Pacino begins as an idealistic soldier before rapidly and morally descending as his power increases. The scene outside the hospital, in which Michael’s hands don’t shake as he lights a cigarette, suggests that he may be more cut out for crime than he lets on. Rarely on screen has a character fallen into corruption like this and Pacino’s icy dominance is chilling; he goes from bright-eyed boy to shark and one of cinema’s greatest monsters. James Caan, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall are highlights too. In narrative terms, The Godfather deals with the shift in power from Don Corleone to his son Michael, and how Michael is ultimately corrupted by this. Whilst Don Corleone is all about respect, Michael desires legitimacy, but the corruption of the system renders him unable to adapt; he is assimilated into the machine and becomes worse than his father. On a thematic level, the movie can be seen as a commentary on the pollution of American capitalism, essentially that the bigger a business grows, the more powerful it becomes, and the more poisoned.
The Godfather Part II
Sequels were unheard of at the time of The Godfather Part II, but the studio pushed Coppola, who realised there was more story to tell and obliged, on the condition that the studio, who had meddled during the first production, backed off completely. As such, the film, which retains much of the original cast and crew, feels like a natural follow-up, and Coppola is able to organically extend the original tale. Fittingly, though the second Godfather made sequels acceptable, the movie isn’t a sequel as such, more a complete narrative continuation. The Godfather Part II doesn’t tell its own story, and in narrative terms, is not its own product, though this isn’t a bad thing; the effect essentially is that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II should be viewed as one epic movie, telling the tale of Michael’s fall. It’s perhaps not as exciting as the first movie, but it is, when all is said and done, a stronger movie overall, and without a doubt the finest follow-up of all time.Part II is considerably more complex than the first movie. It lacks the narrative thread of its predecessor – the switch of power from Don Corleone to his son – which makes it harder to grasp as an overall story. The bulk of the plot, which is intercut with Don Corleone’s backstory, also requires a general understanding of the history of the Cuban Revolution. The result is that The Godfather Part II can be hard to follow – this is a more complex movie than the first, and even more geared towards adults; essentially, the movie is a very detailed character study, the fall of Michael Corleone, and has more in common with great theatre than film. Michael’s slide into corruption and power goes further than the audience would ever expect, and Al Pacino gives not only the performance of his career here, but also, one of the strongest cinematic performances of all time. Seriously, this actor becomes this character, and he’s frightening and cold and cruel, managing to portray blinding fury with just a look; this is a man gone, a man with no soul, and the Michael character remains one of the richest to ever grace the screen. Robert de Niro gives a wonderfully assured performance as a young Vito Corleone (even more impressive when you consider it’s all in Italian) showing a great deal of likeability, intelligence, and cunning. The early years with Vito are fascinating, perhaps the most exciting scenes in the movie, and though they initially feel like an odd fit (pad out the plot with leftovers from the original’s backstory) it soon becomes apparent that the flashbacks work as a kind of narrative counter to the Michael story; both tales reflect one-another, but whilst Vito grows to be respected and loved, Michael grows to be feared and hated.
The Godfather Part III
The problematic movie. Most people hate this one. The Godfather Part III was released decades after the second movie and audiences and critics ripped it apart at the time. After Apocalypse Now, Coppola became a somewhat weaker director, and though the third Godfather is technically very well made, it’s considered a cash-in from a down-and-out director looking to regain his former glory. The plot and acting were ridiculed and ultimately, Part III was considered an unnecessary continuation, and one of the most disappointing sequels of all time. It’s not that bad however, and The Godfather Part III is a movie in need of critical reappraisal. If The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were one story, then Part III is the epilogue, in which Michael’s crime’s finally catch up with him. There’s a lot to love; the movie draws from real-world conspiracies involving the Catholic church, who become the villains here, running with the idea that money corrupts everything. There’s a great shoot-out with a helicopter, and the ending is very powerful, a fitting close for the series and thematically very relevant. This is a sad and tragic movie – one which plays into the famous Nietzsche about staring into the abyss and having it stare back, in which Michael is called to order for his crimes against morality and his family, and suitably punished. It’s impressive that Coppola and Pacino can make us feel sorrow for such a despicable character, and one of the reasons that The Godfather Part III doesn’t appeal to audiences as much as its predessors is that it’s such a downer; the first two closed on cold, chilling notes, but there was none of the desolation and pain experienced in the final moments here.Al Pacino had become a very different kind of actor by this point (louder, basically – Scarface really twisted his career) but for the most part reigns it in; his Michael is not as strong as he was in Part II, and it’s strange to see Michael Corleone so philosophical, open and conversational, but the new approach does give the character a theatrical quality which plays into the movie’s Shakespearean tragedy vibe. Andy García is good in his role – likeable, impulsive and stupid, yet assured and powerful when he needs to be. Talia Shire is the highlight, with Connie Corleone moving from abused house-wife to cunning, controlling monster; she’s the backbone of the family, and the one pulling the strings – it’s quite a change in her role, and nice to see a woman in a position of power in this series. Sofia Coppola isn’t very good, but she doesn’t derail the film like people say.The problem with The Godfather Part III is that it feels more like a Part IV at times. Michael is already remorseful when the movie opens; we don’t see what turns Part II‘s Michael into Part III‘s directly, the idea being that old age and regret have slowly crept in, but it can feel like we’re a little behind, and a lot of the screenplay follows suit, as though we’re coming in late having skipped a chapter. It’s understood that Coppola had a stronger plot in mind involving Rovert Duvall’s Tom turning against Michael, but this was sadly dropped when Duvall didn’t appear in the movie. For what we get, the second act drags horribly, and with so many of the main cast members missing (to be fair, most of the characters are dead by this point) the third movie can feel a little Godfather lite – it’s certainly not as important in cinematic terms as the first two movies, but it is nice to see this world again, and we do get some narrative closure.
The Godfather – 10/10
The Godfather Part II – 10/10
The Godfather Part III – 8/10
Possibly the most important series in cinema and one of the most influential – this is for the most part, filmmaking at its very best.