Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

(1972, 1974)

DIRECTED by Francis Ford Coppola
PRODUCED by Albert S Ruddy (I) Francis Ford Coppola & Gray Frederickson (II)
SCREENPLAY by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
BASED ON A NOVEL by Mario Puzo
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Carmine Coppola & Nino Rota
PRODUCTION DESIGN by Dean Tavoularis

When I was making this list and writing the essays, I tried to get started on The Godfather saga several times. Each time I got stuck. It’s a film that’s been discussed so much I really couldn’t think of anything new to say about it. I came very close to taking it off this list just because of that. But that’s not a good reason. So there’s nothing new to say; I’ll just do my best to say the old stuff as best I can.

You may not know or remember, The Godfather was not quite the plum assignment it seems in retrospect. The book was a big best-seller, but it was, frankly, trash. Coppola didn’t like it, and only agreed to direct after he was able to excise some of the trashier parts. Several big name directors passed on it. It was only after filming began, with Brando, that people began to realize the potential.

Harlan Ellison once told me he thought The Godfather was a disgusting fairy tale, or words to that effect. His point: real mobsters were the scum of the earth, not the semi-romantic characters portrayed by Brando and Pacino. I can’t disagree with him, but if you take it as more of a metaphorical family dynasty, more Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, which it is clearly meant to be, it works.

When you add in The Godfather, Part II, it works even better. At the end of Part II, Michael Corleone is a man who has sunk into a moral abyss so deep there is no possible way to get out. He has lost everything but his business, his money. He has lost his family, which was supposed to be the only thing important to him. He has murdered his brother-in-law, then his brother, whose only crime was to be weak. And he doesn’t seem to care.

I have seen the films separately, and in the re-edited Godfather Saga, and it works either way. That is so amazing. Every actor here is at the top of his or her form.

The Coppola family tragedy is that Francis was unable to complete the trilogy that could have made The Lord of the Rings seem like a trivial fairy tale in comparison. I mean, who cares about orcs and balrogs and Dark Lords when creatures like the Corleones walk among us, dressed just like human beings? Again, from Harlan … something like “aside from the sorry, pustulent heart of the movie … The Godfather, Part III is actually a pretty good movie.” Harlan’s sure got a way with words, hasn’t he? He was referring to the talentless Sophia Coppola, who single-handedly robbed me of the capability of appreciating anything that was going on around her affectless vacuity. Andy Garcia tried very hard, but was unable to coax so much as a ray of charisma from her. Francis, nepotism brought you down, just like it did the Corleones. If they’d trusted Tom Hagen, more things might have been different. But in the end, Tom was just a “Kraut/Mick” outsider. Fredo was too weak, Sonny was a loose cannon, and Michael in the end had no heart. And Sophia, though she’s become a good director, has no acting talent. The only performer in the entire trilogy who was not brilliant, and Francis casts her as the center of Michael’s undoing.

Oh, well. Two masterpieces out of three is more than we had a right to expect.

Remember all the uproar while the picture was shooting? How the Mafia (which John Gotti and J. Edgar Hoover and others said didn’t even exist) was rumored to be upset? Since then we’ve seen more realistic portraits of the Italian mob, pictures like Goodfellas, Prizzi’s Honor, and of course, The Sopranos. But The Godfather is the granddaddy of them all.