Cast: Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), James Caan (Sonny Corleone), Richard S. Castellano (Clemenza), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Sterling Hayden (Capt. McCluskey), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Richard Conte (Barzini), Al Lettieri (Sollozzo), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Talia Shire (Connie), Gianni Russo (Carlo)
Directors: Francis Ford Coppola
My rating: 9.5 / 10
In 1945 New York City, at his daughter Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding to Carlo (Gianni Russo), Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the don of the Corleone crime family listens to requests. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), who was a Marine during World War II, introduces his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), to his family at the reception. Johnny Fontane, a popular singer and Vito’s godson, seeks Vito’s help in securing a movie role; Vito dispatches his consigliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), to Los Angeles to persuade studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) to give Johnny the part. Woltz refuses until he wakes up in bed with the severed head of his prized stallion.
Shortly before Christmas, drug baron Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), backed by the Tattaglia crime family, asks Vito for investment in his narcotics business and protection through his political connections. Wary of involvement in a dangerous new trade that risks alienating political insiders, Vito declines. Suspicious, Vito sends his enforcer, Luca Brasi, to spy on them. Brasi is strangled to death during his first meeting with Bruno Tattaglia and Sollozzo. Later, Sollozzo kidnaps Hagen, then has Vito gunned down in the street.
With Corleone first-born Sonny (James Caan) in command, Sollozzo pressures Hagen to persuade Sonny to accept Sollozzo’s deal, then releases him. The family receives fish wrapped in Brasi’s bullet-proof vest, indicating that Luca “sleeps with the fishes”. Vito survives, and at the hospital, Michael thwarts another attempt on his father. Michael’s jaw is broken by NYPD Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), Sollozzo’s unofficial bodyguard. Sonny retaliates with a hit on Tattaglia’s son. Michael plots to murder Sollozzo and McCluskey; feigning a desire to settle the dispute, Michael meets them in a Bronx restaurant, where after retrieving a handgun planted by Clemenza, a Corleone capo, he kills both men forever now linking Michael to the mafia life.
Despite a clampdown by the authorities, the Five Families erupt in open warfare, and Vito fears for his sons’ safety. Michael takes refuge in Sicily and Fredo is sheltered by Moe Greene in Las Vegas. Sonny attacks Carlo on the street for abusing Connie and threatens to kill him if it happens again. When it does, Sonny speeds to their home but is ambushed at a highway toll booth and violently murdered by gangsters wielding submachine guns. While in Sicily, Michael meets and marries Apollonia, but a car bomb intended for him takes her life.
Devastated by Sonny’s death and realising that the Tattaglias are controlled by the now-dominant don, Barzini (Richard Conte), Vito attempts to end the feud. He assures the Five Families that he will withdraw his opposition to their heroin business and forgo avenging Sonny’s murder. His safety guaranteed, Michael returns home to enter the family business and marry Kay, promising her that the business will be legitimate within five years. Kay gives birth to two children by the early 1950s. With his father nearing the end of his life and Fredo too weak, Michael takes the family reins. He insists Hagen relocate to Las Vegas and relinquish his role to Vito because Hagen is not a “wartime consigliere”; Vito agrees Hagen should “have no part in what will happen” in the coming battles with the rival families. When Michael travels to Las Vegas to buy out Greene’s stake in the family’s casinos, he is dismayed to see that Fredo is more loyal to Greene than to his own family.
In 1955, Vito suffers a fatal heart attack. At the funeral, Tessio, a Corleone capo, asks Michael to meet with Barzini, signalling the betrayal that Vito had forewarned. The meeting is set for the same day as the baptism of Connie’s baby. While Michael stands at the altar as the child’s godfather, Corleone hitmen murder the other New York City dons and Greene. Tessio’s treachery leads to his execution. Michael extracts Carlo’s confession to his complicity in setting up Sonny’s murder for Barzini with the promise he won’t be killed; later however Clemenza strangles Carlo to death. Connie accuses Michael of the murder, telling Kay that Michael ordered all the killings. Kay is relieved when Michael finally denies it, but when the capos arrive, they address her husband as Don Corleone and she watches them pay reverence to Michael as the newly installed don as they close the door on her.
What’s to Like
The iconic scenes (the horses head, toll booth killing) and phases (make him an offer he can’t refuse), the stellar acting, the music.
What’s not to Like
The film is based on Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which sold over nine million copies so provide the film a solid base of fans before it was released. The film highlights the brutal reality of mafia and gangster life along with the pull of family responsibilities overriding personal desires for Michael. While Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award I feel that Al Pacino’s role does not get enough respect and arguably he was the male lead being in more scenes than Brando.
The is one of the mostly highly rated films of all time and rightly so. The long run time (over 3 hours) doesn’t actually seem to be long, and it allows you to better understand the characters and their motivations. Respect and power are central to the mafia life and to retain both you must kill. Carlo’s death highlights that he was really family having married into the Corleone or if he was his lost that privilege when abusing and cheating on Connie. Carlo’s fate was probably always going to be fatal after what he did to Connie but it was sealed after playing a role in Sonny’s murder.
A complex and ambitious film and one of the best of all times.
- Best Picture – Winner
- Best Actor in a Leading Role (Marlon Brando) – Winner
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – Winner
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (James Caan) – nominee
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Robert Duvall) – nominee
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Al Pacino) – nominee
- Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola) – nominee
- Best Costume Design – nominee
- Best Sound – nominee
- Best Film Editing – nominee
- Best Music, Original Dramatic Score – nominee