Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
The Godfather. It’s an intimidating movie to discuss because it’s so beloved and analyzed that coming at it with a fresh (let alone, comprehensive) viewpoint is difficult. So for this column, Rob and I are just going to see where the conversation leads us. It’s silly to review The Godfather at this point. It’s a great film. The Godfather is The Godfather. If you come across a person that doesn’t like The Godfather, it doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person, but it does mean that you probably shouldn’t seek their opinion on movies.
Since this is an Al Pacino series, I want to start with his performance as Michael Corleone. Pacino was early in his film career (he was better known as a stage actor) and I’m very impressed that he knows how he comes across on film. He is not playing his performance to the back row (like James Caan in his also excellent performance as Michael’s brother Sonny), but instead is acting a lot with his eyes. Pacino’s eyes are my favorite thing about his performance. In the early stretches of The Godfather, there’s warmth when he’s with Diane Keaton and a certain level of discomfort to them around his family. I think he knows (like an alcoholic at a bar) that he’s susceptible to the Corleone allure, which he’s tried to distance himself from. By the end of the film, Michael Corleone’s eyes are like a snake: cold, dispassionate, and lethal. My favorite moment of Pacino’s nonverbal characterization is in the infamous scene where he guns down Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Right before he fires, Pacino’s eyes are racing as he feigns listening to what Sollozzo has to say. This is the moment in the film where Michael crosses over fully into the world of organized crime and his physicality reminds me of something almost like a werewolf transformation. It’s a spectacular performance that rightfully cemented Al Pacino’s legend as a great actor. Rob, is this one of your favorite Pacino performances?
You brought up his rapport with Diane Keaton, which leads to my own favorite moment in the film: the Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) story at Connie’s wedding. Much like in the Sollozzo scene, Pacino has an understated menace to him that really foreshadows his eventual turn. You can tell that the Corleone legacy is something he’s aware of, something he’s coped with and has always done his best to distance himself from, but also that it’s something that will always carry that irresistible allure. When he talks about his father’s threat that either the bandleader’s signature or brains will be on the contract, you can see the pride in his eyes. When he says, “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me,” it’s clear that while he’s repeated that in the mirror every morning since leaving home, he hasn’t ever managed to fully convince himself.
That might sound like sacrilege to a lot of Godfather fans who believe Michael was pure at the beginning, but watch him in the hospital when the assassins come: he’s been listening and paying attention as much as Sonny or Fredo (John Cazale).
You mentioned Michael’s pride in how Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) handled the band leader and that touches on one of my favorite aspects of The Godfather, which is how the mafia handles their business interests. It’s a really fascinating strategy: you all at once offer vast reward or devastating reprisal. Tom (Robert Duvall) does it when he’s dealing with the studio head, too. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” is the shorthand and it’s such an iconic line that it’s easy to overlook it being the entire philosophy of the Corleone family in the 1950s. At least, that’s what I think Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo are positing. It’s almost embarrassing that Coppola made this film when he was in his early thirties. It has such confidence, mature characters and themes that I just feel like a helpless child trying to mull over such this genius level of talent. He juggles so many characters and develops the men (I say that with purpose; the women are underserved in the first Godfather compared to later in the series) with vast personality and depth. I have not read Mario Puzo’s novel to know exactly where everything is sourced, but the result is Coppola turning the material into cinematic poetry. Combined with other collaborators (e.g. Nino Rota’s score and Gordon Willis’ photography), the filmmakers take the story of the insular world of organized crime and turn it into a movie that’s just as much about how your family informs your identity regardless of the occupation you choose.
Rob: I have read The Godfather, and I’d compare its adaptation from trashy pulp to epic cinema to that of Jaws. Both novels have major issues that their films streamline or excise completely.
I like what you said about the film’s operatic depiction of the mafia and its operating procedures. There’s a royal elegance to their power structure that many real-world mafiosi would later copy (and which Scorsese would later deconstruct with Goodfellas), and there’s a Shakespearean quality to their viciousness that truly makes it feel like they’re exercising the will of god. I love the way the film introduces both in the “I Believe in America” sequence. The undertaker comes to Don Corleone for justice after his daughter’s abuse. Corleone points out that until now, the undertaker has distanced himself from Corleone and his business because of their reputation. He’s only coming to him now because the American justice system failed him. A bit hypocritical, isn’t it? Corleone knows that he has him by the balls before the conversation even begins. He then explains that while he’ll get revenge for their sins, he’ll not kill the boys who hurt the daughter because they did not kill her. This shows his clear sense of justice and the clear methodology of his practice. He then winces at the undertaker’s crass question about payment and demands (in his subtle way) that he bow down to Corleone, call him Godfather, and promise to return this service with no questions asked. The man walks into Corleone’s office thinking that he’s the upright citizen and Corleone is the trashy criminal. Corleone then demonstrates his dominance and class while exposing the undertaker’s low character. It’s drama and character development at once. It’s beautiful.
Adam: I mentioned on the podcast recently that I’m in a big Robert Duvall mood lately and Tom Hagen is fan-freaking-tastic. His character is really interesting because even though he’s an insider, he’s outsider enough (because he’s not a Corleone or Italian by blood) to be the audience surrogate in that he and the audience both want to be involved in this family at some measure. He is the classy side that doesn’t get too dirty, the bridge between the civility and the underbelly. Like Pacino, this is a performance of Duvall’s where he doesn’t layer on the quirk he indulged in later in his career. I like both looks. He’s maybe my favorite character in the film. It’s the most Will Patton-y of all the performances.
Rob: TANGENT! One of the first short stories I ever wrote was about the meeting of Tom and Sonny as kids. My friends and I had this writing club (because we were cool, tough, masculine dudes) and I was on this Godfather kick and wanted to tell the story of how the two met. It was basically ten year-old Tom running through the streets like Aladdin, avoiding cops and other thugs as he tried to feed himself. He gets cornered in an alley by some bullies, and Sonny comes to his aid. The story ends with the two telling each other their names (I saved the reveal for the end because, again, I was super cool) and Sonny telling him that he was going to be okay. I might still have it.
Adam: Wow. When was the first time you saw The Godfather? Was it always the same movie to you or has it grown for you as an adult? For me it’s always been the same movie. It announces its greatness and is an example of those rare times when a brilliant film is also extremely mainstream. I saw it for the first time when I was 17. It was one of my five free rentals one week when I worked at Blockbuster Video. I started the movie at 7am and felt like I didn’t even blink for 3 hours. I was absolutely riveted. The other two Godfather films weren’t love at first sight, but both have improved for me over time. The original is still my favorite.
Rob: I don’t remember a time before I saw The Godfather. It’s been a family favorite my entire life (especially of my maternal grandfather, the one taught me how to collect and organize movies), and some of my favorite family memories involve watching and talking about it. Maybe it’s the Italian thing. Who knows?
ANOTHER TANGENT: One of my favorite debates we ever had (this was pre-internet, remember) was whether it was “Luca Brasi” or “Lou Cabrasi.” I don’t remember who said what, but I remember laughing a lot.
YET ANOTHER TANGENT! (Sorry, JB): Clamenza puts sugar in his gravy (I know, I know. Most of you call it “pasta sauce.” It’s gravy), which I’ve never heard of outside of this film. I don’t use it, but I always considered trying because of The Godfather. Any Italians want to weigh in on this in the comments?
Adam: Or Jewish people. I’ll answer any comments from my tribe.
Rob: I’m sure we’ll talk about the sequels at some point, but I should go on record agreeing with you that the original Godfather is the best in the series. I’ll also say that I’m far kinder to Part III than many people. Andy Garcia is spellbinding in that movie.
You mentioned the film’s treatment of women, and I was wondering what you thought of Diane Keaton in the film. Also, do you have other favorite supporting performances?
Adam: I like when they say “Joey Zasa” in Part III so much that I want it as my ringtone. Diane Keaton is pretty good in the first film, but I think her more interesting character developments come from Part II and III. In the original, she’s kept in the dark by necessity and while in the era (era) of the film it makes sense she would wait around for Michael, nowadays it’s frustrating and you have to suspend your modern-day sensitivities to go along with it.
The Killing, which is an utterly fantastic movie that Sterling Hayden destroys in, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove) and he makes me crack up because he’s so Sterling Hayden-y in The Godfather. There are two moments of his I like most: one is when he asks how the Italian food is in the Italian restaurant and the other is his belabored death after he gets shot. I can picture Coppola seeing it on set and being like “What the hell is he doing?” It’s so weird, but since The Godfather is a masterpiece, I feel like everyone is afraid to mention how bizarre it is. Another strange moment is after his death when we get the newspaper montage, there’s a brief shot of spaghetti being thrown away into a garbage can. I never noticed that before this watch.
A few other things I love about this movie:
1. The entire sequence of Michael and Apollonia's (Simonetta Stefanelli) courtship and marriage. It’s not “romantic,” but it’s so irresistibly Italian that it’s romantic. Not sure if that makes sense.
2. The look on Pacino’s face when he walks out the department store carrying a bunch of wrapped Christmas presents. It makes me want to celebrate Christmas with Al Pacino even more than I normally do.
3. The scene at the hospital where Michael teaches Enzo how to look like a gangster.
4. The relationship between Sonny and Connie, which goes a long way to give a rooting interest for a creep like him. It’s the Taken blind spot, where you’ll forgive a brother or a father of unspeakable things if it’s in the service of protecting his sister or daughter.
6. Marlon Brando’s invisible Dick Tracy acting. He’s so fucking good in this movie that you completely forget it’s even an actor giving a performance. It shouldn’t work and yet it completely does. It’s a magic trick.
Do you have any supporting performances or little moments you are drawn to?
Rob: There are so many little moments, but one that’s always stood out to me (I’m not saying I like it; I’m just saying it stood out) comes during the short dinner scene with Sonny at the head of the table. Connie says something like, “Pop never talked business at the table,” and Carlo tells her to shut up. Sonny immediately scolds Carlo, but Mama Corleone (the great singer Morgana King) interjects, telling Sonny not to interfere. It’s so indicative of gender roles both in American and Italian society that I can’t help but marvel at it a bit. It’s such a throwaway moment, and most films wouldn’t bother with it, but it’s incredibly important to the larger story. Yes, Connie is Sonny’s sister and Carmela’s daughter, but she’s now Carlo’s wife, so Carlo is in charge. It’s sad and tragic and wrong, but it’s accurate for the period and the culture.
Speaking of Sonny, I really found myself captivated by James Caan on this rewatch. You mentioned the awesome street fight that points to all of the little ways in which Sonny was a terrible Don. Sonny was what many on the outside thought mafia guys were, but he never had the class, intelligence, or temperament to last in the job for very long. He didn’t learn from his father the way the others had. All he saw was power and attitude. Man, this movie rules so hard.
What else? I love when Michael says, “Don’t tell me you’re innocent. It insults my intelligence and makes me very angry.” I use that on students all the time.
Two more: The way Apollonia says, “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday…” and the moment where Kay sees the car wreck and Tom says, “Oh, that was an accident, but no one was hurt!”
Adam: I forgot about that. What a great little moment. James Caan in this movie reminds me of a baseball GM who has to make trades constantly or he’ll die. It’s just action-reaction over and over with no stability.
Rob: He’s like Pitt working the phones in Moneyball meets Liotta seeing helicopters in Goodfellas.
Adam: Random question for you to close us out. Many mafia and gangster movies are considered classics, but is there one you know is second-tier or below that you still really enjoy? For me it’s American Gangster. I could watch that any time it’s on cable.
Anything else you want to say about The Godfather before we wrap up?
Adam: Not really. I’m sorry The Departed isn’t good enough for you :-)
Rob: I love it! I was just trying to think of a movie that goes outside of the usual gangster boxes. Vera in that movie? Fuhgettaboutit. What are we watching next week?
Adam: I’m sorry I didn’t hear a single thing after you said Vera Farmiga. Bella bambina! Ti penso sempre.
Rob: Let’s continue our run of Heavy Hitters here at Reserved Seating and go with Field of Dreams. I’ll bring the dogs. You bring the beer. Until next time…
Adam: Posti riservati!