The Godfather: Coppola, Brando and Pacino transformed Mario Puzo’s gangster saga into a mesmerizing meditation on power, succession and moral corruption

The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a strong candidate for the title of ‘the greatest American film ever made’. The film, adapted form Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel, tells the story of the fictional Corleone family and starred Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in lead roles.

When Mario Puzo set out to write his magnum opus novel, “The Godfather”, he had only one intention: to somehow write a bestseller; He had a big family to support and his gambling debts were mounting; also, his previous books hadn’t sold well, so he was desperate to make some money. Therefore, he chose to write a lurid potboiler centered around a Mafia family; which he was sure was going to make him a rich man. As he had intended, The book, “The Godfather,” was published, and it became a bestseller; not just a bestseller, but a phenomenon. The book’s screen rights had already been snapped up by Paramount Pictures. But despite the book being so popular, Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of film production, had a tough time lining up a director for the film adaptation. All the top directors of the time turned it down; saying that the book was trashy and it glorified the mob. Also, Evans wanted an Italian director for the film, because he realized that only an Italian could convincingly tell the story about a Mafia family. But the problem was that there was no major Italian filmmaker at the time in Hollywood; Sergio Leone, who had just made “Once upon a time in the West” for Paramount, turned down the offer to direct because he was planning his own mob-epic based on the book “The Hoods,” which he would later make as “Once upon a time in America (1984).” Finally, it came down to then 32-year old Francis Ford Coppola, who had till then made just one studio picture and a few Indies, to wield the megaphone for the film adaptation of “The Godfather.”

Coppola, at the time, was also suffering from heavy debts after his ambitions plans for running an independent movie company in San Francisco, named “American Zoetrope,” went bust. But despite being desperately in need of money, Coppola had severe reservations about making a Hollywood potboiler out of a pulpy bestseller. Coppola imagined himself to be an artist who made personal films, and this Studio project was against everything he believed in. But his friend George Lucas convinced him to take up this project, repeatedly reminding of their dire financial situation. But even when Coppola finally accepted the offer to direct the film, he did it only after he won the approval to make the film a ‘family chronicle’ – and not a generic gangster thriller – that would be a metaphor for American Capitalism. No sooner had Coppola signed on to direct, his fights with the studio executives started. Paramount had originally envisioned the film as a quickie set in contemporary times and to be shot in Kansas City (to cut costs) and release it when the book is still on the Top ten list. But Coppola wanted the film to be set in the 1940s and ’50s (as it is in the book); because he envisioned the rise of Corleone family to parallel America’s rise to superpower status in the aftermath of WWII. After some heated debates, and the fact that book itself was becoming enormously popular convinced the studios to allocate a larger budget for the film, allowing the director to make it as a period piece. Coppola, who was a great writer himself (he had just won an Oscar for writing “Patton”), quickly started rewriting Puzo’s original script to suit his vison. He imagined the film in Shakespearean terms, something like “King Lear” – a king and his three sons, who each inherited one aspect of the king’s personality; it was also going to be about power and succession, like “Henry IV” and “Henry V.” with a bit of “Richard III”- where a young heir grows up to be a responsible and mature (and even corrupt) king.

Once the script was completed, conflicts on casting began. Though this was a huge story that spans a decade, and had several characters in it, the two most prominent characters in it were Corleone family patriarch, Vito, and his son\successor, the Ivy League educated WWII hero, Michael. Mario Puzo already had Marlon Brando in his mind when he created the character of Vito Corleone, but since Brando was at the lowest ebb of his career at the time, the studio executives would not approve his casting. But when Coppola came in, and he also wanted Brando to play Vito, things became heated. The president of Paramount forbade Coppola from bringing up Brando’s name ever again, and Coppola had to fake a nervous attack to convince Paramount to at least allow him to test Brando for the part. Brando agreed to the test, and Coppola visited the actor’s house and videotaped him transforming himself into the ageing Italian. On the strength of the taped footage, Coppola was able to convince Paramount to hire Brando. But that was not the end of Coppola’s casting troubles; Casting the unknown & diminutive Al Pacino as Michael proved to be a an even more daunting task for Coppola. The studio wanted a young hot star like Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal or Warren Beatty for the part, but Coppola stuck to his guns and tested the actor countless times, until the studio gave in. With Brando and Pacino cast in the lead roles, Coppola surrounded them with his friends & regular collaborators like James Caan, John Cazale and Robert Duvall to play the rest of the men in the Corleone family. He also had his sister Talia Shire in the role of Vito’s only daughter, Connie, and had his father, Carmine Coppola, to arrange all the source music in the film. He also assembled an A-list technical team comprising of DP Gordon Willis, production designer Dean Tavoularis, Sound designer\editor Walter Murch and Music composer Nino Rota. If Coppola thought that all his troubles were behind him, then he was dead wrong, because even after shooting started, Coppola kept running into problems with the studio. The irrepressible Robert Evans, who was in the process of resurrecting the studio, was hell-bent on micromanaging everything, and he kept on second-guessing Coppola’s choices all through the film’s shooting and editing; to the point that he fired Coppola almost three times during the production of the film, and then hired him back.. Evans hated the dark visual palette that Coppola & Willis had conceived for the film, he hated the performances of the actors, he hated the music, and, in the end, he hated Coppola’s final cut, which ran some 130 minutes, which, according to him, had removed all the life and vitality out of the picture. Coppola claims to have made the cut only because he was told not exceed the 2 hr. mark, but Evans insisted on a three hr. version with all the human stuff put back in. There has always been debate as to who made the 175 minute cut of the film that was finally released; with both Coppola and Evans claiming credit for it, the issue has always remained controversial. What is unquestionable is the critical and box office performance of the film. The film was the first of the big blockbusters of the ’70s, grossing more than $200 million worldwide. Critically too it was hailed as a masterpiece; it won 3 Oscars- best Picture, best adapted screenplay and best actor for Brando.

Now coming to the film itself, well it’s hard to write about a film that usually gets ranked as the greatest American film of all times- in several polls and by great filmmakers themselves; Stanley Kubrick thought so, and so did Steven Spielberg, who, despite being close to Coppola, found the film to be so extraordinary at first viewing that he wanted to quit filmmaking right there; because he could never ever match up to that level of ambition and artistry. Ten thousand words wouldn’t suffice to convey all my feelings about this film, so I would write about a few things that struck me most deeply regarding the adaptation of the novel into film. Now, I read Puzo’s novel after I had seen the film countless times; and I was struck by the fact that how much (or all) of the film comes from the book. A lot of the things I was crediting Coppola for was actually originated in the book by Puzo. But what Coppola did as a screenwriter was a masterful case of ‘editing’; he removed a lot of the trashy, meandering aspects of the book – the Lucy Mancini stuff, Johnny Fontane’s Hollywood shenanigans etc. – and condensed it into tight family chronicle brimming with some serious themes; a lot of these themes were only hinted at or even buried deep inside the novel, but Coppola brought all those stuff to the fore. But what is most strikingly different about the movie is in the characterization of Vito Corleone and Michael, and in the performances of Brando and Pacino.

In the novel, Vito is a very outgoing family patriarch who talks a lot; he comes across as very masculine and powerful. But Brando and Coppola goes in a exactly opposite direction with his characterization in the film. Brando’s Vito Corleone is a soft spoken man, who, even at the beginning of the film, is rather frail and lacking in virility. He moves very slowly and measures his words when he talks. He treats his friends and foes gently and with graciousness. He never loses his cool except for once or twice in the whole film. All through the film, we see him indoors; inside his home, office or the hospital or the morgue. We first see him in the pitched darkness of his study, playing with a cat and listening intently to the grievousness of undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera- as a king listening to his subject. For most of the film we see him in darkness, and even when he steps out into the light, it’s on to the lawns of his family’s compound; whether it’s to attend his daughter’s marriage or to play with his grandchild. And the only time he steps out of this world, and into the outside word\in broad daylight, he is ruthlessly gunned down. It’s also interesting to note that when he finally dies, it’s on the lawns and in daylight. This is a man who starts out in the darkness of his home and ends his life in light, in the garden, playing with his grandson; which itself gives us a good indication to the kind of man he is and the life he has led. His home, his family was his whole world. Despite being a powerful mafia boss, he was a family man through and through, and he somehow managed to not let power corrupt him. For him, power was a means to an end: to provide for his family and his clan. In other words, Brando’s Vito Corleone is a very feminine character – more matriarchal than patriarchal; always spouting words of wisdom and lording over his friends and foes with his charisma and endearing yet powerful personality. He does not pick up a gun or fire a bullet in the entire film. We never even see him ordering the death of anybody; on the contrary when the undertaker asks to have this daughter’s abusers killed, Don Vito rejects it, saying that’s not justice. We also see him cry unabashedly when he he gets the news of his son’s death, and later, when he sees his son’s bullet ridden corpse in the morgue. Also, Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, despite being the title character, appears for less than a hour in this three hour long film. All these are not only a departure from the book, but also a huge departure from how Gangsters are usually portrayed in classic gangster films. James Cagney, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart played the gangsters in the Warner Bros. crime classics of ’30s and ’40s with an overwhelming energy- moving briskly through the screen, behaving brusquely with friends and foes, and spitting out words like bullets from a machine gun. Brando, who started out his career by asserting his strong masculine sexuality in films like “A streetcar Named Desire”, decided to put a very gentle, feminine spin on the gangster role that makes it stand out from all such roles\performances that came before and after this.

While Brando’s performance as Vito Corleone is a masterpiece of consistency: a man who ages from his 50s into 60s, but still retain a lot of his trademark mannerisms, body language and speech patterns; and it’s also a very externalized ‘performance’ in a theatrical sense; all that heavy facial makeup, accent and body padding; Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone is a masterpiece of internalization and modulation. Physically, Michael changes very little in the course of the ten years the film spans – his hairline recedes a bit, and he puts on a little bit of weight, but emotionally he undergoes a 180 degree transformation. When we first see Michael, it’s in broad daylight: he is seen walking into his sister’s wedding dressed in full American army uniform, with his American girlfriend, Kay Adams, on his arms. He’s the ‘outsider’ in the family, who’s trying to carve his own destiny far away from the ‘family business,’; even when he talks to Kay about his father and his criminal affairs, it’s with a sense of detachment; as if he’s not part of it. At one point He even says it out loud: “That’s my family Kay, that’s not me.” We see that he was very little interaction with the rest of his family members- he has no one-to-one interactions with his father until he meets his father in the hospital, when the latter is fighting for his life; even when they take the family photograph at the wedding he stands at the edge, and even pulls in a reluctant Kay into it; a premonition of what’s going to follow later in the story.

After his initial appearance at the wedding, we don’t get to see Michael until his father is shot. He receives the news of his fathers death when he is having a romantic night out with Kay in the city. This is going to be a life-altering event for him, though, initially, his elder brother Sonny, who’s the head of the family now, and adopted brother\consiglieri Tom Hagen do their best to keep him out of the family business. In their ‘family discussions’, we see him sitting at the edge of the screen (with his back towards the Godfather’s chair), and is repeatedly told to ‘stay out of it.’ The first instance of change in Michael’s life (and character) is triggered by a very harmless visit he undertakes to the city- to meet his girlfriend and to see his hospitalized father. At the hospital, he finds out that his father’s life is in danger; that his father has been set up for a ‘hit’ by the rival Mafia men. Without being rattled one bit, he decides to defend his father all by himself. Though he gets help from a visiting baker, we see him use his ingenuity and courage (gained under fire in WWII) to good use, as he takes charge of the situation to hoodwink the assassins; and then, later, stand up to the corrupt Police Captain who’s in cahoots with father’s rivals. Though he gets his jaw broken by the Captain, he has successfully defended his father, who’s still alive only because of him. This is where we first realize that there’s more to this fresh-faced, idealistic college kid than what meets the eye. But it’s really the next scene that truly seals Michael’s fate, and in which his real nature comes fully to the fore. As the senior family members are debating as to what to do with family enemy, Virgil Sollozzo and his protector, Captain McCluskey, Michael insists on killing them immediately, no matter the consequences; and he volunteers to kill them himself. Now with a broken jaw, Michael’s disfigured face takes on a demonic dimension that suits his character-transformation. The scenes of him preparing for his ‘first kill,’ and the actual execution of it, brings out the best in Pacino as an actor. Reportedly, this was the scene that saved both Pacino and Coppola from being fired off the picture- the unsure executives were mulling firing both of them even when the film was well into production, but this scene assured them that both of them had it what it takes to pull off the film.

Coppola adds on the tension in this famous restaurant assassination scene by making Michael delay shooting the villainous duo, and then also in leaving the gun at the spot. After this double assassination, Michael escapes to Sicily. And, when we next see him , he’s enjoying the outdoors of sunny Sicily in the company of his two well-armed bodyguards. His broken jaw has left a permanent scar on his face that seems to resemble the permanently altered state of his life. He would later gets his jaw fixed, but by then his emotional scars run so deep that his character (or life) will never return to its former state. But for a brief while there in Sicily, it seems that Michael has not only found peace, but also love – in the form for a virginal Sicilian girl, Appolonia; Michael courts her and marries her, but their blissful married life is cut short, as his wife falls prey to the trap set by his family enemies for him. Michael is betrayed by one his bodyguards, who plants a bomb in his car. But instead of Michael, it was Appolonia who was driving the car when the bomb explodes. This betrayal and wife’s murder (and also his brother’s murder in the interim) alters Michael completely; there’s no going back for him now, as his father call him back to New York to take charge of the family business. So, the next time when we see Michael, he’s already the ruthless, cold-hearted Don Michael Corleone. We see him visiting his old girlfriend Kay and proposing to her; but there’s nothing remotely romantic about the proposal, it almost feels like a business proposal- he wants children to take the family forward, and that seems to be his primary motivation in marrying her. And then in the subsequent scenes with capo-regimes, his older brother, Fredo, and his final conversation with his father, we repeatedly see him asserting his power. After his father’s death, he becomes truly immoral, as he not only orchestrates the death of all his family rivals, but also kills his brother-in-law, after standing ‘Godfather’ to his sister’s child; Michael’s demonic state accentuated by the baptism sequence where he is seen repeatedly lying to the priest about renouncing Satan, when he’s embracing the devil with all his heart. The film ends with Michael accepting tributes from his ‘family’ members in the darkness of his father’s study, after shutting out his wife to whom he has unscrupulously lied. Unlike Vito Corleone, Michael starts out in the ‘light’ and ends in ‘darkness.’ ; though he has succeeded in becoming the most powerful gangster in America, he has been corrupted beyond redemption by the same power.

In Puzo’s book, Michael’s kind of special and tough right from the beginning; he even had a long monologue about ‘everything being personal’ just before he goes out to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. But Pacino’s performance & Coppola’s screenplay\direction creates a true arc for the character, so that we can see the convincing transformation of a good guy into evil. The casting of Pacino itself is part of this agenda; he’s not a Robert Redford-type, but, on the contrary, a very inconspicuous, diminutive figure, who’s the smallest guy in the family’ he’s the guy who gets dwarfed by everybody else in the room, and to see him gradually transform into this most powerful, demonic figure; that’s really where the film tops the book. Pacino makes this transformation concrete by resorting to very subtle techniques, like the way he slumps into a chair at the beginning, and the way he is seated expansively with one leg on the the other by the end. He also appropriates a lot of Brando’s mannerisms too by the end, like scratching his face, or speaking the famous line “I’m gonna make an offer he can’t refuse.” Coppola is definitely one of the greatest (and purely based on his ’70s output ‘the’ greatest) actor’s director(s) ever. He not only made sure that each character in the film has a specific tic, but also they blend in and be convincing as part of the same family (tribe\nationality). He also had the power to realize the strengths and weaknesses of an actor, and make sure to project their best side. Brando’s best performances like “On the Waterfront” and “Reflections in Golden Eye” had a perfect mix of masculine and feminine; and that’s what he tried to tap into here, and keeping in with actor’s advancing age, he concentrated more on his feminine side (by the way Puzo actually modelled Vito’s character on his mother). I had already written eloquently about the subtleties of Pacino’s performance in another piece; I have also written about it in the piece on “The Godfather Part II“. So, I don’t want to expand more on what i believe to be one of the greatest screen performances of all time. In many ways, his performance is far greater than Brando’s in the film, even though we really need Brando’s legendary persona and his magnetic charisma to hold the film together. But Pacino should have been nominated in the best actor category for this film (he was nominated for supporting actor category, which he had rejected) and should have won it too (ironically, Brando, who won that year, rejected his Oscar). “The Godfather” is no way a two actor ‘duet’; it’s a grand ensemble ‘opera’ with every member of the cast performing at the height of their powers, and I hope to get back to that, and the other great aspects of the film in another piece, but for the time being I will just restrict myself to this. Anyway, “The Godfather,” which released in March of 1972, is completing 50 years, and it’s a testament to its greatness that it still remains the most revered and discussed American film of its time (perhaps, of all times).

2 thoughts on “The Godfather: Coppola, Brando and Pacino transformed Mario Puzo’s gangster saga into a mesmerizing meditation on power, succession and moral corruption

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