Following the success of his Pulp Fiction (1994), Miramax wrote Quentin Tarantino a blank check.
Using that carte blanche, he shot Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), which this critic would argue are his masterpiece, even though Pulp Fiction is the more successful movie.
Paramount did the same for Francis Ford Coppola after The Godfather (1972), and that artistic freedom, so fleeting in show business, gave us The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound picture since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927).
And, as with Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, The Conversation is the auteur’s masterwork, even though The Godfather is the more influential.
If you don’t know what to watch next, The Godfather is available on Amazon Prime. The crime film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning three, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The filmmaker himself cowrote the script with Mario Puzo, who originally penned the 1969 novel of the same name upon which the movie is based.
Set in 1945 New York, Don Vito Corleone (Best Actor Marlon Brando), head of a crime family, is gunned down in the street when he refuses to invest in as well as provide political protection for drug lord Virgin “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri).
His firstborn boy, Sonny (James Caan), takes over the family business, while middle son Fredo (John Cazale) seeks shelter from Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) in Las Vegas and youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) flees to Sicily as a gang war erupts between the Five Families.
With Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), married off to the abusive Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), the Corleone power vacuum faces further destabilization.
The Godfather is popularly regarded as one of the greatest releases ever made. While its importance is indisputable, the same cannot be said about its merits.
As a three-hour intergenerational, international period piece masquerading as a pulpy gangster drama, it is mainstream claptrap for a wide audience.
Nino Rota’s romantic score, though a classic, is out of place in what ought to be a gritty crime saga, and this tonal inconsistency is what kneecaps the text’s greatness.
It belongs in the same class as Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939) or David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), not when it should be the next William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). It’s unethical because it quite literally romanticizes the Mafia for young men.
Pretensions aside, The Godfather redeems itself through Brando. His performance in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) is a masterclass in method acting, and he is iconic as the eponymous Godfather.
It’s not only his dialogue but also his delivery, that makes Vito Corleone such a moment of a character.
And Puzo and Coppola’s screenplay is peppered throughout with quotable lines. They do weave a mythological tapestry rich enough to inspire two epic-length sequels, and it could have been as genius as The Conversation if not for the commercialization of its style.
Make no mistake, The Godfather is a studio production, which is why Coppola didn’t win Best Director; as it stands, anybody else could have made it just as well, if not better.
But the film is a mile marker for Italian American representation.
It’s not altogether positive representation, but it’s a cast of Italian American actors (well… except for Caan) playing Italian American characters under an Italian American director according to a script written by two Italian Americans, and it was a cultural phenomenon.
One of the reasons The Godfather Part II (1974) surpasses its predecessor is because it unpacks the oppression Italian Americans face, as well as the extenuating circumstances that backed a slim minority of them into a corner where there was no way out but organized crime.
Without The Godfather, we wouldn’t have Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), or, for that matter, The Conversation, and, for that, it is a worthwhile piece of cinematic history, warts and all.
A mailed-in directorial style is better than an unwatchable one, and an ambitious title is always welcome in an industry that favors the safe over the gutsy.
Frustratingly, however, The Godfather is a groundbreaking work that plays it safe (unlike Goodfellas), but, then again, maybe it had to, to break new ground.