‘The Godfather’ is quite simply one of American cinema’s finest achievements, an instant classic on its original release and a film that continues to improve with age. Its sequel, if anything, is even better.
Both films (let’s leave the occasionally inspired but mostly just average ‘Godfather Part III’ out of it) are about family, honour and loyalty. They’re also about how these concepts are variously rationalised, compromised and bastardised.
‘The Godfather’ opens with an extended set-piece in which Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) is obliged, on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, to grant favour to any who seek it. “I believe in America,” the craven Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) declares, then goes on to ask the Don to do violence on his behalf where the legal system has failed him. Like anyone else granted favour, he is counselled that “some day, and this day may never come, I might call upon you to do me a service”. All of this takes place in a darkened room, while the celebrations unfold in bright daylight outside. Still, even as a heart-throb crooner entertains the crowd and guests applaud the bride, tension is in the air: the Don’s son Michael (Al Pacino) has arrived – in uniform.
Unlike his natural brothers Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo (John Cazale) and his adoptive brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Michael Corleone has elected not to join the family business but enlist in the Marine Corps. And when the family business is crime and the credo, as the Don chastens Sonny early in the film, is “never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking”, this is a decidedly unSicilian thing to do. In fact, it’s downright American, patriotic and commendable. No wonder Michael’s the black sheep of the family. Oh, then there’s the matter of the white-than-white nice girl, Kay (Diane Keaton) he gets involved with.
Then there’s an assassination attempt on the Don and Michael finds himself filling the breech. What happens like is like ‘Richard III’ if the Richard III was quite a likeable and all-round kind of guy in the first act. Michael’s transition from war hero to mob boss, from hero to anti-hero, from humanity to villainy isn’t a gradual or incremental thing; it all hinges on one act. Michael proposes and carries out the execution of rival mobster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the guy who ordered the hit on his father, as well as Sollozzo’s partner, the corrupt policeman McCluskey (Sterling Hayden).
Michael is quickly whisked off to Italy while the heat dies down. Deserting Kay in more ways than one, he romances and marries local beauty Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). When she dies in a car bomb meant for him, Michael returns to America and glibly takes up with Kay again. Sonny’s betrayal and death at a toll booth ambush (I’m not bothering with any spoiler alerts in this post – really, if you haven’t seen ‘The Godfather’ there’s no hope for you), and the Don’s retirement following a reluctant making of peace with his enemies, sees the family business turned over wholesale to Michael.
Here’s where the real ‘Richard III’ stuff kicks in: Michael becomes corrupted by power and villainy, not in an egomaniacal or even necessarily a psychotic sense, by characterised more by an utter coldness and inhumanity; a complete moral and emotion disconnection.
One of the most quoted lines is “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business” – a sentiment Michael certainly adheres to, and with bitter irony since those were Sollozzo’s words to him following the unsuccessful hit on the Don.
Coppola continues to chart Michael’s heinous premiership of the Corleone clan in ‘The Godfather Part II’, contrasting his barren life against the rise to power of the young Don Corleone (Robert de Niro). The Don’s actions, while undeniably criminal, are socially motivated (his murder of a neighbourhood crime boss is done for the betterment of the community). The seeds of the first film’s focus on family and loyalty are sown here. And also cut down as Michael alienates his wife – after losing her baby, Kay confronts Michael with the truth: “It wasn’t a miscarriage, it was an abortion. An abortion, Michael … I had it killed because all this must end … this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years” – and, in the most shocking scene, orders the death of his brother, the weak-willed Fredo after he’s coerced into a business agreement than compels him to betray Michael. That he has this order carried out after feigning forgiveness and welcoming Fredo back into the household is the final bastardisation of everything his father held sacrosanct. It is this – and never mind the quasi-religious musings of ‘Part III’ – that completes Michael’s transition to the monstrous; that places him beyond redemption.