Spoiler Warning – the entire Godfather trilogy will be discussed and many spoilers given
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Godfather, a film that exists in the highest echelon of cinema, that is always a contender for the greatest film ever made, and is usually cited as the best Mafia film in existence. So good is The Godfather that one of the few Mafia films that are considered its equal, or even better, is The Godfather Part II.
The cast of The Godfather is stunningly fantastic. Al Pacino and Marlon Brando give Oscar-winning performances in the two central roles (only Brando actually won an Oscar but I’m hereby switching Pacino’s Oscar from being for Scent of a Woman to The Godfather) but there is gold throughout. James Caan is great as the impetuous Sonny, who has one of the all-time legendary cinema deaths, Robert Duvall understatedly shines as Tom Hagen, the more measured and calm member of the inner circle, John Cazale as the weak and ineffectual Fredo is brilliant, only to top this in the sequel, Diane Keaton as the innocent Kay is great, it is through her eyes we see Michael’s transformation from noble war hero to a ruthless crime boss. I could go on but I think this demonstrates the strength of the cast.
The Godfather is surely one of the most quoted and referenced films ever made as well as having an incalculable influence on cinema. Like the Bible and Shakespeare lines from the film have passed into everyday parlance. I have heard people being called a “Fredo” an insult meaning they are weak and useless, everyone knows that an offer a person can’t refuse is not because it’s so good, it’s because of the bad things that will happen should you turn it down. Not only has every Mafia film made since been compared to it – every film has! It is as good a yardstick as you’re going to get.
While some of the greats of cinema are critics choices, The Godfather is hugely popular with critics and the general movie-watching public, it can be enjoyed as an epic crime-drama or you could watch it for the subtle changes in Pacino’s performance throughout the film. The Godfather is ranked number 2 in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of greatest films, it is number 3 on Empire magazine’s list, it’s number 2 on IMDb’s Top 250, Rotten Tomatoes has a critics score of 97% and audience score 98%. I would argue it is the film that most brings together critical and popular acclaim. If there was one film to showcase American cinema both in terms of quality and a film that represent both what critics and cinemagoers praised it would be this film.
Crime Movies Since
I have already stated the huge impact on films and crime films The Godfather had but it’s worth going into its tremendous impact on this genre. Our cinematic understanding of organised crime comes from The Godfather and even a film like Eastern Promises which is about Russian organised crime is very much still in the shadow of The Godfather. The best gangster film since the Godfather films is almost certainly Goodfellas, a grittier film focused primarily on one character, who isn’t even in the Mafia. We actually see quite little of the upper management in Goodfellas.
The Sopranos is a tv show that has been influenced by The Godfather both in terms of the structure and style of the show and on the characters themselves. Silvio often pulls out his Al Pacino impression from The Godfather Part 3 and Paulie’s car horn plays the theme music of the film. Tony often laments the fact that things aren’t what they were and a lot of this nostalgia is not from reality (or even the show’s reality) but from The Godfather. The mythical golden age painted in The Godfather is often left alone by filmmakers and instead focusing on the collapse of the system portrayed in the film.
In any number of crime tv shows and films, characters emulate and admire Vito Corleone for his noble leadership or Michael Corleone for his utter ruthlessness, perhaps the two great exemplars of how to be a successful crime boss. Perhaps the most famous line from crime masterpiece The Wire is “You come at the king, you best not miss,” and in The Godfather assassination attempts against both Vito and Michael go wrong and with horrendous consequences for the plotters.
The Godfather is as much a film about the pursuit of power and what needs to be done to achieve and hold onto that power as it is about crime. The setting of The Godfather could change to something else entirely and Game of Thrones TV show is clearly influenced by the film. Is Eddard Stark simply a Michael Corleone who wouldn’t do what was necessary to hold onto power?
50 More Years
It is beyond question that The Godfather will be remembered as one of the great films of the 20th Century and a milestone in filmmaking. The characters, themes and even single lines of dialogue are indelible parts of the culture and I’m sure in another fifty years we’ll still be talking about it.