At the height of his power, the Godfather, Don Corleone, grants wishes to people he protects during his daughter’s wedding ceremony. Thus, he sends Tom Hagen to Hollywood to intimidate a studio head so that he gives his godson a movie role. But when Don Corleone is sceptical about participating in the emerging drug traffic, his rivals attempt to assassinate him. The eldest son, Sonny, takes command. His youngest son, Michael, first prevents a second assassination attempt on Don Corleone, then kills a drug baron and a corrupt police officer, and takes refuge in Sicily where he marries Appollina, who will, alas, get killed. After Sonny is killed on the way to protecting his sister from her husband’s abuses, Don Corleone stops opposing the drug trade, which allows Michael to return. He marries Kay, takes over the family business, and promises to make it legitimate, but gets drawn more deeply into the feuds, finally orchestrating the deaths of his rivals, his traitor and his brother-in-law while standing godfather to his nephew and becoming the new Don.
‘I believe in America’, the opening line of the first Godfather film famously goes. Released in 1972, when Hollywood was barely coming out of a big financial crisis, directed by a mostly unknown Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather became one of the highest grossing films of its time. It also became a social phenomenon, often quoted and referred to in casual interactions, spawning two sequels (The Godfather, Part II was released in 1974 and The Godfather, Part III in 1990) and a TV miniseries that combined the first two films in chronological order (1977). It is said to have altered the self-image of the Mafia. And it became a crucial film for scholars to think about the function and effects of mass culture in general.
Despite the success of such late-sixties films as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), which included an unprecedented amount of violence and sexuality, tapped into the counter-cultural movement, and showed Hollywood how to live through a major cultural revolution, by the early 1970s the industry was still going through a major box office crisis. Unemployment reached an all-time high in March 1970, a staggering 42.8 per cent.1 The Godfather signalled the beginning of Hollywood’s emergence out of this crisis. In many ways the film is part of a number of socially progressive films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a desperate Hollywood gave more flexibility to directors who promised to tap into the mood of the time and especially into the new youth market (Hollywood’s redefined audience). Ironically, however, The Godfather also signalled the beginning of a new era in Hollywood marketing, fully achieved with cinema events such as Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), ‘calculated blockbusters [that] are massive advertisements for their product lines’ (Schatz 1993: 32) and that appeal to a wide mass audience. It may be because it is suspended between these two poles – a critical cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the mainstream blockbuster – that The Godfather remains so universally popular.
While The Godfather is an aesthetically much more conventional film than The Godfather, Part II, it nonetheless can be understood as a combination of European art film and American commercial cinema. At the very least, the film is characterised by a very careful aesthetic style. Many have called Coppola’s aesthetic theatrical, as defined by mise en scène – a subtle adaptation of theatrical features into cinematic language that allows actors to showcase their talent. Who could forget, for instance, the look on Kay’s (Diane Keaton’s) face in the very last shot of the film, as the door closes on her in medium close-up? Or the close-up of Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in the very first shot of the film, as he pronounces his faith in America, before the camera begins to zoom out to reveal the back of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)? Or the magisterial handling of the bright, outdoor space of the wedding and the dark, indoor office in the opening sequence, that establishes Don Corleone’s power over both, while also revealing the tension between a joyous social group and a secretive individualism?
Beyond working with actors and mise en scène, Coppola also manipulates conventional narrative. The sensational effect of Jack Woltz, the studio head, discovering his priced racehorse’s head in his bed, is achieved through both mise en scène (the incongruity/surprise of a horse’s head in a bed) and narrative. The entire sequence in Hollywood is marked by narrative ellipses that leave out crucial information – that Jack Woltz changed his mind after checking out Tom Hagen and invited him to his mansion, that Tom Hagen dropped his pleasant behaviour and had the horse killed. William Simon has argued that these missing turns in plot increase the surprise, and make us into active spectators. One editor, who would be fired from the film and who may have been motivated by selfish reasons, complained that Coppola had ‘no idea what continuity means’ (Browne 2000: 30). Such editing that tweaks classical continuity is also audible in the film’s soundtrack, worked on by Walter Murch, who would go on to create the field of sound design, using multi-channel sound tracks for the first time in Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979). When Michael (Al Pacino) shoots Sollozzo at Louis’ Italian-American Restaurant, for instance, the noise of the elevated train is less realistic and more an indication of Michael’s state of mind, an effect that disassociates him from his surroundings (see Jarrett and Murch 2000).
At the same time, The Godfather’s thrust is not only aesthetic but also social. Like other films from the period, it is critical of America, especially American politics and American capitalism. In a Playboy interview conducted after The Godfather, Part II came out, Coppola declared, ‘Like America, Michael began as a clean, brilliant young man with incredible resources and believing in a humanistic idealism. Like America, Michael was the child of an older system, a child of Europe. Like America, Michael was an innocent who had tried to correct the ills and injustices of his progenitors. But then he got blood on his hands’. Coppola then went on to suggest that the main characters ‘could have been the Kennedys’. In this sense, The Godfather becomes a ‘horror-story statement’ about where American politics and American capitalism could go (Browne 2000: 181).
It is no coincidence that The Godfather revised the gangster genre, for the original gangster films from the 1930s (such as Scarface (1932)), being produced at the height of the Great Depression, were likewise understood as allegorical treatments – and indictments – of the excesses of American capitalism, with the gangster cast as a capitalist gone bad. In this context, it is good to remember that even the early gangster films’ attitude toward the gangster were ambivalent – both critiquing and glorifying him. Nonetheless, one of the biggest differences between the early gangster films and the Mafia films starting in the 1970s has to do with the fact that the descendants of immigrants were now directing the films. Unlike Scarface, The Godfather often gives us Michael’s point of view (as in the restaurant shooting). And the family, dysfunctional at best in Scarface, now assumes a crucial function, so that the gangster film has effectively been fused with the family melodrama. And the family, we should note, is not only defined by blood, but can be asserted via adoption, marriage or employment.
The influential cultural critic Fredric Jameson has taken The Godfather’s mixing of the crime film with the family melodrama as a starting point to reflect on the function of mass culture more generally. According to Jameson, mass culture simultaneously serves two functions, appealing to a utopian wish fulfilment while also performing an ideological operation. The Godfather, on the one hand, contains a pointed critique of American capitalism, uncovering the violence and deterioration of family and social life attending its development: ‘I wanted to destroy Michael’ (and by extension capitalism), Coppola said of the final image of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, which shows a successful Michael sitting utterly alone, abandoned by everybody (Browne 2000: 181). On the other hand, the substitution of the Mafia and the extended Sicilian-American family for big business allows the film to fantasise about a utopian, social collectivity – the possibility of the survival of a complex familial organisation. This utopia becomes most apparent in the brightly lit Sicilian sequences and the operatically staged family rituals that take place in the USA. Nonetheless, a closer examination of these sequences also reveals more complexity. For one thing, the repetition of family rituals invites us to compare them with each other, possibly asking us to diagnose a decline – or at least a transformation.2 For another, as Thomas Ferraro has argued, family, violence and business are so intricately linked that they cannot be disassociated from each other. The Americanisation of the strong-willed Appollina (the first wife), and her eventual demise, as well as the crosscutting between the baptism of Connie’s son and a series of killings in The Godfather’s climactic scene make this abundantly clear. Family business is bloody business.
One of the more troubling effects of mid-century family life has to do with the ways in which it mobilises (consciously or unconsciously) a gender politics that already seemed outdated at the time of the film’s release. We have already mentioned the film’s ending with the exclusion of the wife from the male sphere of decision. Kay, of course, is Michael’s non-ethnic wife, who sometimes asks a few questions too many, especially about Michael’s business. Intriguingly, Appollina may be the most interesting female character, while Connie often seems all too masochistic. We would do well to remember that The Godfather was released during the height of second-wave feminism. It is thus hard not to understand The Godfather as a reaction to – and negotiation of – the women’s movement. In fact, something similar could be said about the film’s ethnic politics. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, in the wake of race riots in American cities, The Godfather almost seems to embody ‘the wish for an all-white militant group’. 3
An all-white male militant group. The Godfather had all kinds of (sometimes strange) effects. For one thing, it is said to have captured the myth of the Mafia exceptionally well. As Alessandro Camon has pointed out, the Mafia itself based its image on a myth. Its advocacy of a mysterious masculinity, a paradigm of ‘power balanced by fairness, virtue, and control’, seemed to dovetail well with efforts in the 1970s to construct an alternate masculine image (Browne 2000: 63). But the film itself changed the Mafia, which became much more media-conscious with dons transforming themselves from inconspicuous characters to celebrities, locking themselves into a cycle in which media and crime feed each other. (By the early twenty-first century, media-conscious terrorists often replaced the media-conscious mafiosi.) On the level of the film industry, The Godfather showed the way to a different future: by the late 1970s, Hollywood would be dominated by well-calculated blockbusters that advertised a series of related products and that appealed to as wide an audience as possible. The financial success of The Godfather paved the way for this development, although it was not entirely in this paradigm yet. (That The Black Godfather – a lowly blaxploitation precursor to American Gangster (2007) – was produced in 1974 suggests that film entrepreneurs were still thinking in terms of niche marketing as a way out of the economic slump.) Coppola himself went a somewhat different path: the 1974 sequel to The Godfather, more resolutely innovative in style, is often called an art film, not least because of how it messes with chronological storytelling. While less extremely successful at the box office than The Godfather, the sequel cemented Coppola’s reputation as a director – and the emergence of the director as a star – to which we owe today’s reverence for directors as well as the fascination with the ‘director’s cut’ and directorial DVD commentary.
1. Jon Lewis, ‘If History Has Taught Us Anything. Francis Coppola, Paramount Studios, and The Godfather, Parts I, II and III’, in Browne 2000: 23.
2. Naomi Greene, ‘Family Ceremonies: or, Opera in The Godfather Trilogy’, in Browne 2000: 138.
3. Vera Dik, ‘The Representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’, in Browne 2000: 96.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Paramount Pictures. Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Screenplay: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by Mario Puzo. Producer: Albert S. Ruddy. Cinematographer: Gordon Willis. Editors: William Reynolds, Peter Zinner. Music: Nino Rota. Cast: Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), James Caan (Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone Rizzi), Gianni Russo (Carlo Rizzi), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Simonetta Stefanelli (Appollina Vitelli Corleone), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Richard Castellano (Peter Clemanza), Richard Conte (Emilio Barzini), Tony Giorgio (Bruno Tattaglia), Al Lettieri (Virgil ‘the Turk’ Sollozzo), Salvatore Corsitto (Bonasera), Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene).]
Nick Browne (ed.), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
John G. Cawelti, ‘Myths of Violence in American Popular Culture’ (1975), in Mystery, Violence and Popular Culture, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004, pp. 152–72.
Thomas J. Ferraro, ‘Blood in the Marketplace: The Business of Family in The Godfather Narratives’, in Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in TwentiethCentury America, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 18–52.
Fredric Jameson, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, in Signatures of the Visible, New York, Routledge, 1992, pp. 9–34.
Michael Jarrett and Walter Murch, ‘Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, Spring 2000, pp. 2–11.
Thomas Schatz, ‘The New Hollywood’, in Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins (eds), Film Theory Goes to the Movies, New York, Routledge, 1993, pp. 8–36.
William Simon, ‘An Analysis of the Structure of The Godfather, Part One’, Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1983, pp. 75–89.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.