The Godfather changed everything. This milestone in cinema revived a genre that had languished for decades. Nearly every gangster movie produced since starts with The Godfather as its primary point of reference.
“It created the game,” said Chazz Palminteri, whose film, A Bronx Tale, centers on growing up around mobsters. “Any of us today who make a movie about organized crime should realize that without The Godfather, we never would have had the chance.”
But it did more than that. For better or worse, The Godfather changed how audiences view Mafiosi, elevating them from nasty thugs to a modern incarnation of Roman royalty. The Godfather does not present organized crime as an evil empire presided over by heartless men. Indeed, we never even see victims with lives destroyed by the mob’s illicit activities. The treachery only occurs against traitors within the business, and the mob is a family enterprise presided over by a sympathetic patriarch. Decades later, Vito Corleone would become Tony Soprano.
The Godfather made careers, most notably those of Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino, despite the fact that both of them were almost fired during production. All these years later, it’s still thrilling to watch Pacino as Michael, the Don’s youngest son, evolve from an innocent outsider among his own family into a stone-hearted killer. Watch Pacino’s eyes deaden over the course of the 175-minute film as he becomes the man his father never wanted him to be. It’s why The Godfather is, ultimately, a tragedy.
Of course, it also revived Marlon Brando’s career after he was deemed box-office poison. Brando’s Vito Corleone is one of cinema’s all-time greatest characters—gruff but charming, brutal but genteel. Brando and Coppola invented the persona—right down to the puffed-out jowls—and in doing so spawned a million imitators.
“It’s the underworld and it’s interesting to look on the dark side,” actress Talia Shire, who plays Vito’s daughter Connie, told Vanity Fair. “But in this darkness there is the Vito Corleone family. Remember when Vito says, ‘There’s drugs,’ which he didn’t want to touch? He’s a decent man on the dark side who is struggling to emerge into the light and bring his family there. That’s what still makes it dramatically interesting.”
Indeed, the movie has aged better than any Barolo. Filmed in 1971 and set in the period of 1945-55, The Godfather still amazes, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. The detail is awe-inspiring, from the beautiful tree-lined mountains of Sicily to that small moment when Enzo the Baker, after staring down assassins outside the hospital, cannot flick his cigarette lighter because of quavering hands.
There’s a brilliant balance of action and drama, perhaps best exemplified by the baptism-massacre scene. Notice the rapid shift between shots of Michael at his nephew’s baptism—vowing to renounce Satan—to shots of his enemies being gunned down all over town. The organ music swells as Michael becomes Godfather—by both definitions.
The Godfather is packed with rich characters, even in secondary roles. Clemenza (Richard Castellano), the jovial caporegime who teaches Michael how to cook the sauce. Fredo (John Cazale), the weakling brother who botches his father’s protection. Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), the blustery Vegas casino owner who tries to dismiss Michael (“I made my bones while you were going out with cheerleaders”) and ends up paying with a bullet through the eye.
Consider, too, what this movie brought to the modern vernacular: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Sleeps with the fishes.” “Go to the mattresses.” “This is business, not personal.” Even the word “godfather” had no real meaning in modern culture until this movie. Now Google lists over three million references that start with “the godfather of. . . .”
There is a scene in the movie You’ve Got Mail (a film you definitely won’t find on this list), where Tom Hanks’ character describes The Godfather as “the I-Ching . . . the sum of all wisdom.” Certainly, it provides life lessons:
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
“Don’t ever take sides against the family.”
“Women and children can be careless, but not men.”
Okay, maybe that last reference seems dated. But the rest are words to live by. Not everyone, however, has used those lessons for the greater good.
“It made our life seem honorable,” Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, of the Gambino crime family, told the New York Times in 2000. “I would use lines in real life like, ‘I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.’ And I would always tell people, just like in The Godfather, ‘If you have an enemy, that enemy becomes my enemy.’ It influenced the life, absolutely.”
Well, we wouldn’t endorse that. But if the real goodfellas buy into it, there must be something genuine there.
For all of those reasons, there is no doubt that The Godfather is the greatest gangster movie ever made. In fact, we would argue that it’s the greatest movie of any type ever made. But that’s for another book.
The Godfather was a sensation before its first scene was even filmed. Author Mario Puzo’s novel spent 67 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Unfortunately for Puzo, he optioned the rights to Paramount before his book’s release, getting a mere $12,500 advance, plus $80,000 more if a movie was actually made. Puzo later received more for cowriting the screenplay.
Despite owning the rights and despite the book’s international buzz, Paramount shuffled its feet. Overblown epics fared poorly in the 1960s and mob movies did worse. The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas as a Sicilian gangster, was a horrid flop in 1968.
As Paramount sat on the rights to The Godfather, others came sniffing around. Burt Lancaster, who loved the novel, tried to buy the property so that he could play Don Corleone. Eventually, Paramount executives decided to make the movie, but on a small budget. The template, believe it or not, was Love Story (1970), another Paramount project that had been filmed on the cheap and ended up turning a huge profit.
The first task was to hire a director. Richard Brooks (The Professionals, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) declined because he thought Puzo’s story glorified organized crime. Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) was committed to another film. Finally, after a dozen directors turned it down, Paramount approached Coppola. He was 31 years old and had yet to direct a major hit, although he was about to win an Oscar for cowriting the screenplay for Patton.
Coppola was also reluctant. He had read the novel and was put off by a major subplot involving Sonny’s girlfriend, Lucy, and her abnormally “loose vagina.” In the book, Lucy can only enjoy sex with the well-endowed Sonny. Coppola didn’t want to create a movie about that.
His friend and business partner, George Lucas, recognized the commercial opportunity of The Godfather and urged him to find an element of the novel he liked and could build around. So Coppola reread it and latched onto the family dynamics, viewing the tale of a father and his three sons as a Shakespearean tragedy. He further saw the element of the mob struggling to adapt after World War II as a metaphor for capitalism.
Paramount hired the young director—and the battling began immediately. Cost-conscious executives wanted the story set in modern times because it would be cheaper to shoot a movie in contemporary settings than to create elaborate sets for a period piece. And they wanted it filmed either in a studio back lot or in an inexpensive Midwestern city, like Cleveland. Coppola, meanwhile, foresaw an epic. He fought to remain true to The Godfather’s time period and to film it in New York and Sicily. He got the studio to agree to a $2.5 million budget—and then exceeded it by $4 million.
The combat continued throughout the process. Peter Bart, one of few Paramount executives who stuck up for Coppola, said afterward that the director was nearly fired five times—even as late as during the editing process.
The largest skirmishes were over casting. In Coppola’s mind, just two men—the two he considered the world’s best actors—could play Vito Corleone: Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. Sir Laurence was committed. And Paramount was adamantly against hiring Brando, calling him overbearing, overweight and over the hill. “I assure you that Marlon Brando will not appear in this motion picture,” studio CEO Stanley Jaffe wrote to Coppola. “And furthermore, I order you never to bring the subject up again.”
Jaffe preferred Ernest Borgnine or Anthony Quinn. George C. Scott and Richard Conte were considered, with Conte later landing the role of Don Emilio Barzini, Vito Corleone’s rival. Comic actor Danny Thomas was even discussed, in what would have become Make Room for Godfather.
Coppola stuck to his guns. He met with Brando, who had to overcome his own doubts that he could play an Italian. Finally, the studio capitulated, and signed Brando at the bargain rate of $50,000 upfront and a back end of the gross, not to exceed $1.5 million. To his eternal dismay, Brando later sold back the royalties for a measly $300,000.
Casting the role of Michael proved as nettlesome. Higher-ups favored a star for the crucial role, suggesting Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson or Robert Redford. Coppola wanted Pacino, who had yet to appear in a substantive movie role, but impressed the director by winning a Tony on Broadway. Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production, dismissed the five-foot-seven Pacino as “a runt.” And when Coppola pointed out that Pacino’s grandparents had immigrated to America from Corleone, Sicily, he was told that the actor looked “too Italian.”
“The war over casting the family Corleone was more volatile than the war the Corleone family fought on screen,” Evans wrote in his 1994 memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture.
To his credit, Coppola stood by his choice for each major role—James Caan as Sonny, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, John Cazale as Fredo and Diane Keaton as Kay. The only time he deferred was hiring his sister, Talia Shire, to play Connie. Coppola did not want to be accused of nepotism. He also thought she was too pretty for the character.
Brando studied for his role by meeting with people connected to the Mafia who were relatives of actor Al Lettieri (Virgil Sollozzo in The Godfather). He designed the wide-jowled mien for his character, saying that Vito should “look like a bulldog.” And he created the voice by listening to audiotapes of testimony from the 1950s Kefauver Committee hearings, which probed organized crime. “Important people don’t need to shout,” Brando concluded.
“I thought it would be an interesting contrast to play him as a gentle man, unlike Al Capone, who beat up people with baseball bats,” Brando wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. “I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement, a man of unerring instinct who just happened to live in a violent world and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment.”
Caan, who grew up Jewish in Queens, modeled his character’s mannerisms after gangsters he met over the years. He had a tougher time creating Sonny’s machine-gun speech pattern until coming upon an unlikely muse.
“I started thinking of Don Rickles,” he recalled to Vanity Fair in 2009. “Somebody was watching over me and gave me this thing: being Rickles, kind of say-anything, do-anything.”
It shows through in Sonny’s best line: “What do you think this is, the army, where you shoot ‘em a mile away? You gotta get up close, like this—and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” Caan says that “bada-bing,” which became an iconic mantra, wasn’t in the script. “It just came out of my mouth,” he told Vanity Fair. “I don’t know from where.”
Improvisation like that played a huge role in The Godfather’s success. Consider, for example, Don Corleone’s hard slap across the face of singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) and his barked instruction to “act like a man.” That unscripted moment occurred because Brando felt Martino was acting stiffly, so he tried to get a rise out of him.
As the movie was being filmed in New York, an actual mob war broke out, initiated by Crazy Joey Gallo. The same week that the crew shot scenes of Michael ordering the execution of his enemies, real-life Mafiosi Joe Colombo Sr. was shot in the head at a Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle. Colombo (as you will read further down) had fought against The Godfather’s production until forging a deal with Paramount. He slipped into a coma after the shooting and lingered for seven years before dying in 1978.
The mob war only added to the buzz around the movie. The Godfather opened nationwide in March 1972 and, within months, became the highest-grossing film of all time, a distinction it held until “the summer of Jaws” in 1975. Stock in Gulf + Western, which owned Paramount, jumped $97 million within a month. Ticket prices, which averaged $1.50 at the time, were doubled or tripled for The Godfather. NBC bought the television rights for a then-record $10 million and later broadcast the film to an audience of 42 million Americans.
The Godfather won the Oscar for Best Picture. Coppola and Puzo won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Brando was announced as the Best Actor Oscar winner, a moment most remembered for Brando’s sending of a faux-Native American named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award on the actor’s behalf in protest. Overall, it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Pacino, Caan and Duvall all got bids for Best Supporting Actor, but split the vote—allowing Joel Grey to take home the prize for his work in Cabaret.
Perhaps the person most shocked at the film’s success was Coppola, who had been told throughout that his dream would fail. “I fantasized that Mephistopheles popped out of the bushes and said: ‘Francis, how would you like this movie to be the most successful movie ever made?’ “ Coppola said in The Annotated Godfather. “Something like that must have gone down, because the idea that this disastrous movie would be successful and remembered and even in the annals where it would be compared to movies that I thought were among the greatest, is so surprising.”
HIT: One of Coppola’s last fights was to keep intact the haunting score composed by Nino Rota. Fortunately, he won that battle, too.
MISS: There’s nothing that misses in this epic film—except, perhaps, for the whiff of a punch Sonny aims toward brother-in-law Carlo as he beats him in the street. You’ll hear the sound of a smack, but the swing misses Carlo by a solid foot.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “They have put pudding in Brando’s cheeks and dirtied his teeth, he speaks hoarsely and moves stiffly, and these combined mechanics are hailed as great acting. . . . Like star, like film, the keynote is inflation. The Godfather was made from a big bestseller, a lot of money was spent on it, and it runs over three hours. Therefore, it’s declared important.”—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic
GOOF: The horse’s head under movie producer Jack Woltz’s silk sheets does not appear to be the head from his prized thoroughbred Khartoum. In an earlier scene, Khartoum is shown with a white patch between his eyes. The disembodied head in the bed is solid brown.
The head, by the way, is real and was supplied by a dog-food maker after earlier shots with a fake head looked, well, fake. The blood soaking Woltz’s bed is made from Karo syrup, a technique conceived by makeup man Dick Smith. In his director’s notes for this scene, Coppola wrote to himself, “If the audience does not jump out of their seat on this one, you have failed.”
REALITY CHECK: On his way to getting gunned down, Sonny’s car radio is playing the October 3, 1951 broadcast of the Dodgers-Giants playoff game, which ends with Bobby Thomson’s famed “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” Only problem is the scene takes place in 1948. That’s one hell of a radio Sonny’s got.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: We’ll take our cue from the great Pacino. “It’s funny,” he said in a 2004 interview, “but anytime I see it on TV, I still stop and watch it.”
PIVOTAL SCENE: Young Michael’s plan, of course, is to stay out of the “family business.” That changes when his jaw is broken by corrupt police Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) outside the hospital where Michael’s father is recuperating.
The Corleone sons know the Don’s enemies, while calling for reconciliation, will stop at nothing short of killing him. So a plan is concocted where Michael (“the nice college boy,” as Sonny calls him) will agree to a meeting with McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), and then assassinate them.
They head to an Italian restaurant in the Bronx, where Corleone spies have planted a gun in the men’s room (“I don’t want him coming out of that toilet with just his dick in his hands,” says Sonny). The backdrop is perfect—a neighborhood joint with a checkered tile floor and linen tablecloths. The three men sit around a small table and the waiter uncorks a bottle of red wine. “All I want is a truce,” Sollozzo assures Michael.
As planned, Michael excuses himself to go to the bathroom. After a few panicked moments of groping for the hidden gun, he pulls it from behind an old box-and-chain toilet and tucks it into his belt.
Michael returns to the table. Sollozzo begins to speak, now in fluent Sicilian. His tone is reassuring, but his face is menacing. “Al [Lettieri] was perfect,” Coppola says in the film’s DVD commentary, “such a strong villain for Michael to play against.”
An elevated train screeches by, obscuring Sollozzo’s words. You also hear Michael’s heart pounding. Suddenly, he pushes back from the table, stands and fires. A pink mist sprays from Sollozzo as the bullet burns through his forehead. Michael then turns on the dirty cop, firing twice and killing McCluskey as he lifts a forkful of veal (“the best in the city”).
In that moment, the young man whose father dreamed of him being a doctor or senator has become a cold-blooded executioner. The smartest of the Corleone sons has taken his first step toward becoming Don.
The turning point for the plot was also a turning point for Pacino. Before this was filmed about a week into shooting, Paramount executives were displeased with what they saw from the young actor, and considered firing him. But his evolution in this scene—“kindly to menacing in a few minutes,” says Coppola—floored everyone involved in The Godfather. “Al really showed his stuff,” Coppola says.
One more note: Pacino sprained his ankle fleeing the restaurant and missed the next three days of shooting. If you spot a cane in the background of other scenes, it’s the one he used between takes.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The use of oranges as an omen of impending doom. There are six separate shots of oranges during The Godfather, and each time one of the characters in the scene winds up dead. See if you can spot all six.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE II: The words Mafia and Cosa Nostra are never spoken in the film. This was part of an agreement between producer Al Ruddy and a pressure group called the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which was headed by the aforementioned Colombo.
CASTING CALL: Robert De Niro, then an unknown 27-year-old, was cast in the small role of Paulie, the traitorous driver who calls out sick the day Don Corleone is shot. De Niro was released from his contract when he signed to appear in another mob movie, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which proved to be a dud. Obviously, had De Niro stayed in this picture, he would not have been able to play young Vito in The Godfather: Part II.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: One of the amazing aspects of The Godfather is its ability to veer from beauty (say, the opening wedding scene) to brutality (Woltz awakening with the severed horse’s head). Make no mistake; this is a bloody, sometimes sadistic film.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Lenny Montana, who plays Luca Brasi, was a former professional wrestling champion who fought under the name “The Zebra Kid.” He also reportedly worked for a time as a bodyguard for the Colombo family. Montana’s fumbling of his lines when he thanks Don Corleone during the opening wedding scene was not rehearsed—it was the genuine result of a non-actor feeling intimidated sharing a scene with the great Brando. The shots of him nervously rehearsing were added later.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW II: Caan was furious when he first saw the finished film, saying that more than 30 minutes of his scenes were cut out. Among those deleted was his personal favorite, which showed him too unnerved to sit in his father’s power chair after Vito gets shot.
BEST LINE: It’s too easy to pick, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The one we find ourselves repeating, often for no apparent reason, was improvised by actor Richard Castellano as Clemenza: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
“I KNOW THAT GAL”: The baby “boy” being christened is actually Francis Ford Coppola’s infant daughter, Sofia. She appeared in all three Godfather films—as a child on the ship crossing the Atlantic in Part II and in the larger role of Michael and Kay’s grown daughter, Mary, in Part III. Her subsequent acting career was not as impressive as her work as a director in such films as The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation.
The Godfather is quite the Coppola family affair. In addition to daughter Sofia and sister Talia Shire, Francis’ father, Carmine, wrote some of the music and appears as the piano player in the “go to the mattresses” scene. His cousin sings the aria at the wedding, and his mother appears as an extra during the christening.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980, Coppola’s 1993 re-editing of all three Godfather movies in chronological order. It runs 583 minutes and includes scenes edited out of the original movies. Our favorite added moment has Vito Corleone and his sons visiting the deathbed of wartime consigliere Genco Abbandando.
BODY COUNT: Seventeen—fourteen by gunfire, two by garroting and poor Apollonia, who gets blown up in the car.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]