Finding New Meaning in The Godfather on Its 50th Anniversary

The GodfatherThis movie is about organized crime and focuses on one particular dynasty. But it’s most specifically a movie about fathers and sons, which may be the quality that gives it such enduring power. Its violence is vigorous and brutal; in adapting Mario Puzo’s novel, Francis Ford Coppola gives us a portrait of domineering masculinity in overdrive. But there’s a strange tenderness at work in it too, all radiating from and toward Marlon Brando’s crime boss Don Vito Corleone. He wields power over every outsider who has come to—or been forced to—respect him. But his relationships with his sons by birth, James Caan’s Sonny, Al Pacino’s Michael and John Cazale’s Fredo, as well as his de facto adopted son, Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, generate the fierce energy that drives the film. He’s their sun king, the figure whose approval and affection they crave, a blazing light that can make or break them.
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The movie opens with a wedding: Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), is the bride, though unlike most brides, she isn’t the center of attention. Instead, we get a crash course in the men of the family: The married Sonny can’t keep his hands off one of the shapely bridesmaids. Michael is a veteran, just back from the war with a nice girl on his arm (Diane Keaton’s Kay), and it’s clear he’s the pride of the family. Tom is busy behind the scenes, arranging some heavy-duty arm-twisting for Vito, who isn’t technically his father, but who took him in when he was a boy. And Fredo is practically a vapor—his job is to fade into the background and cause minimal trouble, because everyone accepts that he’s the family’s dim bulb. The boys’ mother, played by Morgana King, is a plump, anonymous figure in the background, a warm, nurturing somebody that they used to know. You get the sense she’s revered by her children, as Italian mothers almost always are; yet they barely address her. Their father is always the center of attention.

THE GODFATHER, Salvatore Corsitto, Marlon Brando, 1972
Everett CollectionSalvatore Corsitto, Marlon Marko

As Vito Corleone, Brando is an imposing, unreadable figure rendered in guarded shadows, thanks in part to Gordon Willis’ famously muted cinematography. We often read actors through their eyes, but Brando’s Corleone doesn’t give us that luxury: His eyes are rarely visible—his sockets are like miniature grottos, velvety caves holding all the mysteries he prefers It is not to share. His intentionally garbled diction is so frequently mimicked that it’s easy to forget how strange and original it was in 1972. Brando makes even Corleone’s jocularity imposing. Late in the movie, as the aged, doting grandpa, he chases his adored grandson—Michael’s kid—around a patch of tomato plants, an orange peel stuffed into his mouth to simulate a gorilla’s grin. It’s all a game, but the child is terrified at first, and you can see why. Corleone is so used to intimidation as a way of life that lightness is beyond him, even when he’s trying to show affection.

No wonder his sons are so eager to please—in fact, all but Michael seem terrified by the possibility of notHe will be pleased. As Vito’s consigliere, Duvall’s Tom has everything under control every minute. Although his efficiency seems effortless, you will quickly see that his entire life revolves around his boss and surrogate dad. This is partly because he has an eternal gratitude, but also out of duty. Their bond is one of affectionate practicality, but it’s strong as iron, as we see when Michael forces some distance between Tom and the family’s business.

Sonny, on the other hand, is the hothead and womanizer. His father scolds him after he makes a comment during a business negotiations. Caan plays Sonny as the showboating son, the one with the shortest fuse, the one who’s trying hardest to please his father yet falling far short. What he feels for his father may not be affection; of all the members of the family, he’s closest to his sister, Connie, maybe because he doesn’t have to seek her approval. She looks to him for protection—he’s not afraid to beat the daylights out of her abusive husband—though ironically, his bond with her sets the stage for his downfall.

THE GODFATHER, Al Martino (microphone), Talia Shire (wedding dress), 1972
Everett CollectionAl Martino and Talia Shire

Vito Corleone expresses affection for Sonny only after his death: his grief manifests itself in the way he commands the undertaker to make his son’s bullet-ridden body presentable for the boy’s mother. Subtext: he is unable to bear the sight. It is Vito’s father-son relationship with Michael that is most troubling. This scene, however, can be seen in just one section. Tom gives Vito a detailed account of what happened during his long recuperation from the attempted assassination. Vito can barely speak, but we see him mouth the words, “Where’s Michael?” When Tom explains that it was Michael who carried out the murder of drug baron Sollozzo (Al Lettieri ) and the crooked cop McCloskey (Sterling Haden), Vito’s face clouds over with anguish—we can see it even in those impossible-to-read eyes. But he doesn’t want to leave his children. This prideful man wants to be left alone with whatever it is he’s feeling; maybe he doesn’t even know that it’s despair.

Michael Corleone might be the Corleone who could lend the family some standard respectability. But even beyond that, he’s clearly Vito’s favorite, and the bond between the two is mutual. Michael, despite his hatred for his family’s business, steps in to it even though he almost lost his father. The café sequence, in which he ultimately does away wiTh Sollozzo and McCloskey, represents one of the most wrenching turning points for a character in late-20th-century cinema. This is also the day Al Pacino’s third movie role. arrives: if, in 1972, Brando was one of our greatest living film actors, Pacino’s performance in The GodfatherHe is seen standing up for the crown.

We meet the Michael in the first part of The Godfather gives every appearance of being conscientious and principled—he’s too good for the family’s dirty work, and everyone, including his father, seems to know it. His emotional vulnerability is evident, and he may be open to the possibility of a normal, unstructured life with Kay. But the Michael who pulls the trigger in that café—the ruthless one, the one who’s always thinking two steps ahead of his enemies—is the true Michael, and Pacino’s brilliance lies in the seamlessness of that flip. When Michael pulls off that assassination, his jaw has recently been broken (by McCloskey, who’s obviously not going to get away with it). His diction is now similar to his father’s, and he uses the same cadences. Pacino wired his jaw while he was playing the scenes. However, it is possible to achieve a similar effect by simply acting. The openness in Michael’s soft brown eyes is gone, replaced by perpetual calculation. He’s becoming his father before our eyes—which makes you wonder if maybe, in his heart of hearts, Vito hadn’t once harbored a desire for a different kind of life, a simpler and happier one. Michael was the last vestige of that vicarious urge.

THE GODFATHER, Al Pacino, 1972.
Everett CollectionAl Pacino

And what about Fredo, the hapless son who can’t be trusted with even the least complicated task? The one who’s shipped off to Vegas, as both an excuse to get him out of the way and to protect him, given his tendency to mess everything up? Fredo is left in the dust if Vito and Michael have a bond of simpatico devotion.

In the freezing cold and in the most painful way. John Cazale, the brilliant actor and play Fredo died at 42 from lung cancer after appearing only in five movies. (The Godfather)His first. Fredo’s fragility, even as he tries to prove he’s as tough or as smart as anyone in his family, is right there on Cazale’s face: Fredo tries to keep up, but you can tell he has trouble following the trajectory of a sentence. There’s no way he’s cut out for the world he’s been born into—and therefore, he’s nearly invisible to his father, a truth that hits home in one fleeting but piercing moment. As Vito lies in bed, having just learned that his favorite son has set down a path that can’t be reversed, Fredo leaves the rest of his family, still partaking of a boisterous Sunday dinner, and steals back to his father’s room. He sits down at a remove—though it would hardly matter if he’d settled right by his father’s side—and gazes watchfully, protectively, at a man who doesn’t even see him. Although this is only a moment in a movie full of great moments, it’s a very sad one. Vito Corleone has the respect and admiration of all his family, which includes his sons. He’s a man to be feared. He withholds his love, which is one of the most destructive and blunt weapons.


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