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Credit: Komers

Film

'The Godfather' at 50: An indelible American masterpiece

@Russellisation
'The Godfather' - Francis Ford Coppola
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“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” – Don Vito Corleone

Gangster movies looked a lot different back at the dawn of commercial Hollywood cinema, as fedora-wearing chumps playing dress-up related more to the farce of Bugsy Malone rather than the intimidation of Don Vito Corleone. Legitimising the genre as an art form, it was the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic masterpiece The Godfather in 1972 that would change the fortunes of gangster cinema, with the ripples from its indelible impact still being felt in pop culture half a century since its release. 

Weaving together several plots, relationships and imposing hereditary expectations, Coppola, and his co-writer Mario Puzo, craft an intricate tapestry of the Corleone crime family that makes up a tangible, rich history. The imposing Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) sits at the head of the family-like an ageing monarch, becoming a figure of such striking power that he transcends into something more elegant, a God amongst men. 

Having to pass his organised crime dynasty in postwar New York City onto his reluctant youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), Coppola’s film follows this slow transition as Vito transfers his knowledge and proficiency onto the next generation without disturbing the order of business. Instilling a traditionally campy subgenre with a classical, lyrical narrative and a larger cinematic scope, Coppola’s Godfather became a profound cinematic triumph. 

A gangster film, family drama and a tragedy, Coppola pirouettes round his tale of familial honour and deceit with utter elegance, accessing a darker truth to the film that starts and ends with the relationship between Michael Corleone and his father. With steady, reflective pathos, the film slowly sheds the layers from these characters until what’s left is the mere human below, reflecting a Shakespearian dressing down in which the faults of particular characters are laid to bear. 

Imposing their own weight on proceedings, niggling the bond between Michael and his father is Sonny (James Caan), Vito’s eldest son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the family’s lawyer, and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), Michael’s girlfriend who each tug and coerce these two linchpins of the story in directions that fuel their own self-interests. It all works to create an intricate web of interlocking personalities who snake around each others’ feet and create an enthralling central narrative. 

Not only did the 1972 classic subvert the expectations of a gangster genre flick, but it also pioneered the future of Italian-American crime films led by Italian-American leads, with the likes of Martin Scorsese owing his early career to the work of Francis Ford Coppola’s film. Indeed, without the influence of The Godfather, Scorsese’s Goodfellas may have never seen the light of day, as well as HBO’s The Sopranos which, itself, evolved network television and heralded a new era for fiction on the small screen. 

After all, The Godfather, its elite sequel and even its mistreated third instalment, present one quintessential story about the American dream, a myth inextricably linked to the identity of the most fame-hungry nation on earth. Deconstructing this dream and questioning its place in an ever-modernising American landscape, The Godfather probed this concept and asked how Hollywood should approach the dream in the future.  

This is exactly why The Godfather remains such an indelible piece of national fiction, as whilst we are distracted by terrific performances and moments of romantic violence, under the table Coppola is tapping into the very heart of the American dream asking what it looks like in the modern world and whether it’s worth pursuing at all.

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