Daddy of ‘em all: the phenomenal success of The Godfather – archive, 1972 | The Godfather

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Whatever else can be said about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, it is, to use Paramount’s publicity phrase “now a phenomenon.” It is, in fact, an event – the likes of which one hasn’t seen here since Gone with the Wind. It has been playing now in New York for a fortnight, in five cinemas, and according to Variety it has already grossed almost a million dollars. I went to see it on a week-day afternoon and had to stand in line for half an hour. In the evenings and on the weekends, the wait averages an hour and a half.

But numbers and dollars don’t tell the whole story. Unlike Love Story which everyone went to see but didn’t much talk about, everyone – at every level – is talking about The Godfather. What’s more, everyone, almost without exception, thinks it’s great.

And, in its way, it is. It’s your big commercial film which, without advancing the art of the cinema a millimetre, without a real directorial presence behind it, is nonetheless an extremely satisfying three hours. Old-fashioned? Of course. From the beginning with the wedding of the godfather’s daughter serving as set-piece backdrop for a myriad of short expository scenes which effectively get us into the story, to its slam-bang penultimate sequence with the baptism of the new godson intercut with a flashy montage of the slaughter of the family’s enemies (we cut from “I renounce Satan” right into the most brutal of slayings) the film is sheer economical story telling.

What is unusual is that unlike blockbusters of the past, it boasts only one real star: Marlon Brando who plays the ageing Don Corleone. It took me about 10 minutes to get adjusted to his performance, because at first it looked as if he were imitating Orson Welles. His mouth is stuffed with cotton wool, the jaws sag all too convincingly, and the diction is pretty far out.

But then the magic begins to work, and one forgets the obvious “acting” and to notice the real acting that’s going on underneath. Brando is best of all in his scenes with his favourite son Michael, charismatically played by Al Pacino, who some will remember from Panic in Needle Park. Pacino has got the makings of a star, and it was particularly heartwarming to see him in his sequences with Brando. Neither tries to hog, to steal scenes. In fact, each is at his best when playing with the other. And as Pacino uncannily and almost imperceptibly begins to resemble his father, the effect is all the more telling.

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather, 1972.
Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather, 1972. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/Allstar

As Vincent Canby of the New York Times neatly summed it up, this is “the year’s first really satisfying, big commercial film. One of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment …”

The success of the film does not entirely lie in its cinematic qualities. Mario Puzo’s novel is supposed to have sold here as well as the Bible, and this has contributed much to the film’s popularity. But the subject matter has had a lot to do with its success, although you’d never know it from the film, it’s about the mafia. But nowhere are the words “mafia” or “Cosa Nostra” mentioned.

The Italian-American League had no objections to ethnic slurs like “wop,” “dago,” or “guinea” which pop up quite frequently – but mafia – never. Without coming to grips with the problem, the film occasionally, and obliquely, attempts to “explain” it in terms of an immigrant morality. When the Italian undertaker comes to the godfather for the vengeance the courts refused to grant him, Corleone doesn’t miss the chance of rubbing in the fact that the undertaker was mistaken in thinking that American justice and institutions were strong enough to take care of him. The point he is making is that just as the mafia arose as an attempt to deal with problems that the various invaders of Sicily either couldn’t or wouldn’t handle, justice in America is also neither universal nor impartial, and the mafia is there to “supplement” it.

Later in the film Michael’s WASP girlfriend expresses horror at his decision to go into his father’s “business,” he makes the point that there is little difference between his father and traditional American power-figures. The point is never argued; she calls him naive, and he retorts that it is she who is being naive – but while audiences may not agree, they will at least accept the argument as valid. We have come a long way from the Frank Capra populist days: almost every day one reads of scandals like the Beard/ITT affair, or the more recent earth-shaking indictment of such a bourgeois bulwark as Dun and Bradstreet for fraud.

On the other hand, there is an undeniable fascination with the romantic side of the mafia. In a time when court cases drag on inconclusively and people are beginning to have less and less faith in American institutions, an organisation like the mafia has the appeal of directness – an eye for an eye, and all the rest of it.

Then, too, the code is simple, dramatically simple and in an age where justice seems lost in interpretative waffle, and the supreme court is upsetting cherished prejudices, is a dangerous nostalgia for law and order, even in the particularly brutal form dear to the mafia.

Some people have questioned the morality of the film; I think it simply reflects current unease and fears of anarchy, but I don’t think it panders to them. On the other hand, this is also why Canby was right in circumscribing the film within “the limits of popular entertainment,” for surely that is one of the differences between art and entertainment: the latter reflects; the former provokes.



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