If you visit the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and take a look at the list of the top 250 movies of all time (based on the votes of its registered users), you won't find "Star Wars" in the exalted number one position (it's actually #9). Neither will you find the American Film Institute chart-topper and critics' fave "Citizen Kane" (#6), nor the recent pop culture phenomenon "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (#3). Instead, the number one film is "The Godfather", Francis Ford Coppola's first installment in what would eventually become one of the most revered trilogies in cinematic history.
Since its release in 1972, "The Godfather" has become an indelible fixture in popular culture. It defined the gangster genre and continues to serve as a benchmark for all the films that would follow in its footsteps (such as "Goodfellas" or "Scarface"). Those who have not seen the film can recite a number of the film's iconic scenes, such as the horse's head in the bed, Marlon Brando's raspy voiced performance, or the tollbooth ambush. "The Godfather" is probably also one of the most referenced films in history, with nods appearing in diverse films such as "You've Got Mail", "Annie Hall", and "Scream 2". It is also probably the most parodied, such as the shot-for-shot recreation of Vito's attempted assassination in "Analyze This", or the pathologically unfunny "Jane Austen's Mafia!". Thanks to the recent release of a DVD boxed set, moviegoers can revisit "The Godfather" (as well as its two sequels), and once again appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of a film that truly stands the test of time.
Initiating a pattern that would be repeated in the rest of the trilogy, "The Godfather" opens up with a family celebration. Connie (Talia Shire, the director's sister), the daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, seen recently in "The Score"), is getting married, and as per Sicilian tradition, the 'Godfather' cannot refuse any request made of him on that day. As a parade of requests march in through Vito's study, his youngest son Michael (Al Pacino of "The Insider"), a recently returned hero of the Second World War, is enjoying the festivities with his new girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton of "The First Wives Club"). And unlike his older brothers Santino (James Caan, who parodies this role in "Mickey Blue Eyes") and Fredo (John Cazale, who also starred alongside Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon"), Michael wants nothing to do with the 'family business'.
Despite such sentiments, Michael soon finds himself drawn into the dark underworld of his father's domain. Vito, who has an old-fashioned sense of honor and morality, refuses an offer from a powerful drug dealer named Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) to get into the drug business. As a result, Sollozzo allies himself with a rival crime family and orders a hit on Vito, lighting the first sparks of what will be a deadly war among the New York families. Though Vito survives the assassination attempt, he becomes incapacitated, prompting Michael to step forward and exact vengeance. And though Michael will help reinvigorate the once-mighty Corleone crime family, his path will be stained with compromise, betrayal, and blood, and he will lose his soul in the process.
Despite its almost three-hour length, "The Godfather" never feels long or bloated. In addition to some steady pacing, the well-written script touches on numerous themes of universal appeal, giving the film multiple layers of interpretation and appreciation. In addition to the most obvious theme, the obligation to family, "The Godfather" also touches on the tug of war between tradition and change, the trap of power, and the place of morality in a changing world. Michael is a tragic hero in the Shakespearean sense, and his tragic flaw is his blind devotion to family. His startling transformation from innocent war hero to an even more ruthless Don than his father ever was echoes the downfalls of "King Lear", "Hamlet", and "Macbeth". The weight of this tragedy is most apparent in the film's final scene, where we see through Kay's eyes how far Michael has fallen, and the effect is as spellbinding as it is devastating.
In addition to establishing themes that would continue in the subsequent films, "The Godfather" also lays the groundwork for plot points and literary devices that would make their presence known throughout the trilogy. The story structure of "The Godfather", which opens with a family gathering that is soon followed by an attempted assassination and resolved with Michael becoming an even more tragic figure, would be repeated in Parts II and III. The placement of oranges in a scene as a portent for an imminent death or assassination attempt would also continue throughout the trilogy, providing fans an opportunity to create 'spot the orange' drinking games. The conflict with Moe Green (Alex Rocco, seen recently in "The Wedding Planner") over some Las Vegas casinos would create more trouble for Michael in "The Godfather: Part II", as would the weakness of his older brother Fredo.
Rounding out the top-notch script and production is the high caliber cast that Coppolla assembled for "The Godfather". It is difficult to imagine anyone else as Don Vito Corleone, yet it almost happened because of some bad blood between the head of Paramount Studios and Brando. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and Brando ended up winning a Best Actor Oscar for his iconic turn. By giving the aging patriarch the qualities of dignity and strength, Brando adds additional contrast to the tragic attempts by Michael to fill his shoes. Those familiar with Pacino's over-the-top performances in recent years (such as in "The Devil's Advocate" or "Any Given Sunday") will be surprised to find his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nominated portrayal of Michael to be rather low-key, befitting of his character's fall from grace. Of course, throughout the course of the two sequels, Pacino's portrayal of Michael would become appropriately more intense and cold. Caan also received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his memorable turn as the hotheaded Santino, as did Robert Duvall ("Gone in Sixty Seconds") for his solid portrayal of Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen.
"The Godfather" ended up winning ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1972, though it deserved far more, particularly Best Supporting Actor for Pacino's performance, Best Director for Coppolla, and Best Original Dramatic Score for Nino Rota's unforgettable orchestrations. As a standalone film, "The Godfather" is a well told, beautifully directed, and impeccably acted epic with universal appeal. However, the full impact of the film cannot be truly appreciated until one views it in the context of the entire "Godfather" trilogy, as it is only the first chapter in the damnation of Michael Corleone, who is too blind to see who his true enemy is.