Without a doubt, The Godfather is one of the most vital classic films ever made. Not only is it a towering, masterful cinematic achievement, but it also broke new ground for American cinema, ushering in a whole new wave of influential directors and screenwriters. There was truly nothing like it back then, and there still isn’t anything quite like it now. However, I would be lying if I said—and some of the following statements may be pretty controversial, so just try and stay with me here—it didn’t take me a little while to really love it.
Getting into an energetic, easy-to-follow thrillride like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another gangster classic I’d highly recommend) was easy. Getting into a slower, less straightforward epic like this, on the other hand, admittedly was a tad harder. Now, once I did get into it (which admittedly didn’t quite happen until nearly 45 minutes in—I know how bad I look for saying that, but it’s the truth), I was just as riveted as I was with Goodfellas, so matters like that were forgotten pretty easily. Even so, you do have to be in the right mood to really appreciate The Godfather all the way through, which can’t be said for Goodfellas at all.
Perhaps the best way to showcase how different the two films are (discussed in far more detail here) is by detailing how they both open. Goodfellas opens with a shocking, brutal murder, which, combined with Henry Hill’s gripping narration (including his immortal first line: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”), immediately pulled me into that film’s gritty, dangerous world. The Godfather, on the other hand, opens with a large, drawn-out wedding, and takes its sweet time before getting to any violence—or story, for that matter. Even when the infamous “horse head” scene happens, it’s not really grounded in any real storyline, nor any events that come into play later.
Then the central plot finally kicks into gear [POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD]. As an (indirect) result of refusing to get involved in the drug trade, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, in his second Oscar-winning performance)—the don of the Corleone mob family—gets gunned down in the street by a pair of enemy mobsters. Even though he manages to survive this, it’s still enough to start war between New York’s five crime families, soon leading to killings and mayhem all around. Eventually, Vito’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is forced to step in as the new don, despite his determination to avoid that kind of life. [END SPOILERS]
It stands as a testament to Coppola’s directing talent, as well as the excellent writing combination between him and Mario Puzo (the author of the 1969 book of the same name, upon which the film is based), that The Godfather doesn’t descend into gratuitous bloodshed from there, but maintains its intricate, patient steadiness. Instead of pointlessly drawing out any more filler-ish scenes, this steadiness is used to draw you into the Corleones’ ruthlessly violent “family business”, and the struggles Michael faces as a result of getting involved in it. His gradual transformation from a likable, clean-cut ex-Marine to a cold, unforgiving shell of a human being ranks among the most haunting character arcs ever written, and it promptly set the standard for all crime dramas that came afterwards.
Not surprisingly for a film of this scale (and length—if you thought Goodfellas was a bit long, you have no idea), its events can be convoluted and confusing, but are often quite effective. Choosing a singular example here is hard, but my personal favorite is Michael having to retrieve a planted gun from a downtrodden restaurant’s bathroom, then use it to suddenly take out two rivals having dinner with him. Considering how mean they were to him not long beforehand, you may question why they would even go there in the first place, but you won’t question how effectively jolting the resulting violence is. You just won’t.
The Godfather’s visuals, directing, and music are just as subtly effective as its writing. Paired with Nino Rota’s memorably horn-laden score, the dim, musty yellow color palette heightens the film’s beautiful old-timey atmosphere. Symbolism is present throughout, with oranges unforgettably preceding death—or at the very least, the very threat of it. Most strikingly of all, there’s hardly any of the graphic gore or constant swearing that drove something like Goodfellas, which would ordinarily stick out like a sore thumb, but works quite well for something as deliberate and unhurried as this.
So is The Godfather a perfect film? Obviously not—I still wish it was trimmed a little bit towards the beginning, and that it didn’t take me so long to get invested in everything going on*. All things considered, it probably deserves my highest rating anyway, just because of how undeniably brilliant the entire thing is. If you’re searching for something more accessible, however, I’d still recommend putting on Goodfellas instead.
**And on top of all that, we have that infamous “fake punch” moment that those online love to point out. I don’t blame them one bit.