I don’t think anything in cinema affects me in quite the same way as the opening notes of Nino Rota’s iconic score for The Godfather, first released in 1972. This same sentiment extends to the film itself, whose impact on cinema is just as iconic as its distinctive score. Hearing those first tremulous notes perfectly encapsulates the tone of the film, and acts almost as a warning call for the barrage of intensity, emotion and catharsis that you’re about to experience.
That in a nutshell is what distinguishes The Godfather from its gangster cohort: a willingness to engage with the sheer high-key drama of its source material, which focuses on the Corleone dynasty and their various involvements with the 1950s Mafia. Unlike Goodfellas, a more contemporary take on the gangster genre by the undisputed gangster movie king Martin Scorsese, The Godfather doesn’t seek to explore the nature of the gangster lifestyle, per se: instead, it uses this background of conflict to explore enduring themes of loyalty, family, betrayal, and your own sense of self.
Sure, Goodfellas is a kick-ass movie with possibly one of the greatest opening scenes of all time. I’m not trying to persuade you out of its talents as a gangster movie – but there’s something about it that just feels inauthentic in some way. Maybe it’s Henry Hill’s pervasive narration, which aims to let you into his inner thoughts, but instead just creates a barrier between you and the characters he interacts with, presenting them more as caricatures in his memories than fully rounded individuals.
In contrast, The Godfather features one of the most compelling characters of all time: Michael Corleone, brought to life by Al Pacino in what I believe is one of the greatest performances ever, portraying the breakdown of an optimistic young man into the paranoid and isolated Mafia Don he becomes. The absence of self-awareness to The Godfather’s plot and characters is actually what works in its favour: instead of interspersing intense scenes with Henry Hill’s bitter thoughts of hindsight like Scorsese opts to do, Francis Ford Coppola approaches The Godfather like the literature it is, or almost like a painter. The themes are carved out with intricacy and the dialogue is bold and instantly iconic (I’m thinking, ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli!’ or, of course, ‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse’), thanks to the courage Coppola had to get carried away in the rich narrative of these characters’ lives. We aren’t pulled out of this reverie by biting commentary by Ray Liotta – and because of it, we are engrossed for all three hours without feeling the time go.
Francis Ford Coppola didn’t set out to make a masterpiece of cinema – he didn’t even set out to make a good one; he just set out hoping to get the damn thing finished. Anyone who’s as big a fan of The Godfather as me will know just about the fraught production process that nearly led to Coppola’s firing several times, as well as other battles between crew and cast (Al Pacino nearly not being Michael, for one).
Perhaps it’s the serendipity and sheer chance involved in The Godfather’s production that allowed the end result to be such a phenomenal achievement. And perhaps it’s Coppola’s determination to embrace the saga’s Shakespearean scale of drama for all it was worth that lets The Godfather stand above the rest.
Don’t even get me started on Part II.