The Godfather (1972)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #39

An offer you can’t refuse.

Country: USA
Language: English, Italian & Latin
Runtime: 175 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1972) | 18 (1987) | 15 (2008)

Original Release: 24th March 1972
UK Release: 18th August 1972
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now)
Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface)
James Caan (Rollerball, Misery)
Robert Duvall (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Network)

Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now)

Mario Puzo (Earthquake, Superman)
Francis Ford Coppola (The Great Gatsby, The Conversation)

Based on
The Godfather, a novel by Mario Puzo.

The Story
1945: Michael takes his girlfriend to his sister’s wedding, where she’s introduced to his family, including his father, Vito — the Don of New York’s Corleone crime family. Over the next decade, decisions made by the family lead to escalating gang war, and just as he thought he was out, Michael is pulled in to the family business.

Our Hero
A good college kid who dropped out to fight in World War 2, Michael Corleone has distanced himself from his family’s criminal activities… until a series of events find him drawn inescapably in.

Our Villain
According to the AFI, Michael is the 11th most iconic villain in film history. Of course, he winds up a Mafia Don, so he’s hardly a good guy in the traditional sense, but we’re surely on his side, at least throughout this film. Even in that context, I think you could argue the titular Godfather himself, Don Corleone, is the villain: his one son who tried to escape the life of crime is pulled into it after a string of poor choices and unfortunate incidents land the family in trouble.

Best Supporting Character
James Caan is Vito’s hot-headed eldest son, Sonny, heir apparent to the crime empire. Unfortunately, that very hot-headedness is liable to leave the position open…

Memorable Quote
“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” — Clemenza

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” — Don Corleone
(According to the AFI, this is the second best movie quote ever.)

Memorable Scene
The opening is the perfect scene-setter for the movie. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Don Corleone hears requests for favours. One man asks for retribution against men who assaulted his daughter, which he has been denied by the legal system. Corleone questions why the man didn’t come straight to him, but ultimately grants the grovelling father his wish. Here, the film has established its pace, its tone, and themes of family, respect, and the important point that these criminals think of themselves as the honourable ones.

Write the Theme Tune…
Italian composer Nino Rota composed the majority of the soundtrack (Carmine Coppola contributed some music), including the famous main theme. Apparently a Paramount executive described Rota’s score as too “highbrow” and urged it be ditched, but Coppola won out. Considering the music’s subsequent fame and familiarity, I think we know who was right.

Technical Wizardry
The dark but amber-tinged cinematography by Gordon Willis is gorgeous. It’s stuff like this that high definition was made for.

Making of
Cinematographer Gordon Willis insisted that every shot represent a point of view, placing his camera around 4ft off the ground and keeping the angle flat. Coppola persuaded him to do a single aerial shot, in the scene when Don Corleone is gunned down, by telling Willis that the angle represented God’s perspective.

There’s a first time for everything…
According to IMDb, “Coppola turned in an initial director’s cut running 126 minutes. Paramount production chief Robert Evans rejected this version and demanded a longer cut with more scenes about the family. The final release version was nearly 50 minutes longer”. Studios love extended cuts for DVD these days, but choosing to take up more time in theatres? Not bloody likely.

Next time…
Debate rages as to whether sequel The Godfather Part II is an even better film. Either way, it was the first sequel to win Best Picture (and still one of only two). In 1977, Coppola edited the two films together in chronological order, along with some deleted scenes, to form The Godfather Saga miniseries, aka The Godfather: A Novel for Television. (Although it’s not been released on home media since VHS, it has been repeated on TV in HD, meaning copies can be… acquired.) Over a decade later, Coppola turned his duology into a trilogy with The Godfather Part III. Although generally reviled whenever it’s spoken about, it has a not-bad 7.6 on IMDb and was also nominated for Best Picture, as well as six other Oscars. (Part III was later added to the chronological cut to make The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980.)

3 Oscars (Picture, Actor (Marlon Brando), Adapted Screenplay)
8 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), Director, Costume Design, Sound, Editing, Score)
1 BAFTA (Music)
4 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Marlon Brando), Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Costume Design, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Al Pacino))

What the Critics Said
“It seems that the first question everyone asks about The Godfather is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. […] So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about The Godfather: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone [however,] though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen.” — Tony Ortega, The Village Voice

What One Single Critic Said
“I don’t see how any gifted actor could have done less than Brando does here. His resident power, his sheer innate force, has rarely seemed weaker. […] Al Pacino, as Brando’s heir, rattles around in a part too demanding for him. James Caan is OK as his older brother. The surprisingly rotten score by Nino Rota contains a quotation from “Manhattan Serenade” as a plane lands in Los Angeles. Francis Ford Coppola, the director and co-adapter (with Mario Puzo), has saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings, which are among the most vicious I can remember on film. The print of the picture showed to the New York press had very washed-out colors.” — Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic (the one and only critical review on Rotten Tomatoes)

Score: 99%

What the Public Say
“Few people could have anticipated during the course of adapting Mario Puzo’s best-seller The Godfather to the big screen that it would become a lasting legacy in cinema. Forty-plus years have passed since its theatrical release, yet it stands the test of time as not only one of the greatest depictions of a crime family, but as one of the best films ever made. […] That lasting popularity isn’t a fluke; the Godfather films stand the test of time because these aren’t just movies, they’re cultural touchstones.” — Colin Biggs, Movie Mezzanine


Has it really been almost eight years since the IMDb Top 250’s unshakeable #1 was usurped? The Godfather sat pretty at the top of that user-voted ranking for the best part of nine years, its balance between critically-acclaimed filmmaking finesse and quotable gangster machinations almost perfectly calibrated for that website’s prevailing demographic. (It’s since settled at #2, hardly a failure.) It’s not just IMDb users, though: The Godfather places 6th on the latest iteration of The 1,000 Greatest Films, the as-near-to-definitive-as-you-can-get poll-of-polls compilation. It’s for the same reasons, really: The Godfather combines thriller elements and striking violence with a strong understanding of character and a believable exploration of organised crime, a world as fascinating as it is morally repulsive, for a whole that is as artistically accomplished as it is palatable to the mainstream.

Sky Movies Select are showing the complete Godfather trilogy today from 4:30pm.

Next… you know the name, you know the number — it’s #40.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

2011 #43
Sidney Lumet | 120 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Director Sidney Lumet sadly passed away a week ago today. In tribute, I watched one of his many highly-regarded films…

Dog Day AfternoonOn August 22nd 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to raise money for Wojtowicz’s male wife to have a sex change operation. The ensuing hostage situation was watched live on TV by millions of New Yorkers. If you made it up people wouldn’t believe it — especially in the ’70s — which is why this film, closely based on those events, strives so hard for naturalism. And it succeeds, and then some.

There are multiple reasons it works so well, and I’m glad I for once got round to watching all the DVD extras because they reveal these factors very nicely. I’m going to use a liberal sprinkling of those facts as a way into my thoughts on the film, so if you’ve watched those features some of this may seem too familiar. Sorry.

Let’s start where all films do (well, should): the screenplay. Written by Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article about the true story, it was his screenplay that attracted both director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino to the project. It’s immaculately structured, from the excitement of the opening — a confused, amateurish bank robbery — through negotiations with police, emotional telephone conversations, and on to a nail-biting finale at JFK airport. The pace is well considered. It doesn’t rush through events but it never flags; the tension is maintained but important emotional scenes are never sped through. More on that in a moment. Importantly, the plot’s numerous reveals are well managed too — for instance, Sonny’s homosexuality and transgender partner are revealed quite far in, by which point we’ve already built a firm opinion of the characters. This was important for a ’70s audience (as Lumet suggests in his commentary), Sonnyto try to circumvent built-in prejudices that would’ve adversely affected an audience’s reaction too soon. It still works now — it’s not a twist, per se, but it is likely to change one’s perspective on the film and its characters mid-flow, which is always interesting.

The dialogue is also spot-on, but that’s not all down to Pierson. While rehearsing, Lumet was so keen to capture a realistic tone that he allowed the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was working so well that he had it recorded, transcribed, and Pierson rewrote the dialogue based on the cast’s improvisation. (His scenes and their order remained intact, just the words were changed.) This, coupled with additional improvisation techniques used on set, lends a believable tone to the characters’ actions and words — they’re not speaking dialogue, they’re just speaking.

In terms of performance, this is a real showcase for Pacino. As Sonny — the movie’s version of John — the whole film rests on his shoulders, and he’s more than capable of bearing the weight. Some roles allow an actor to subtly be good throughout the film; others allow a few grandstanding set-pieces where they can Act; but Dog Day Afternoon gives Pacino both. The latter are, naturally, easier to recall: the way he works the crowd (“Attica!”), the pair of draining phone calls to his wives; but most of all, the will-writing scene. As the climax looms, Lumet allows the time for Sonny to dictate his will in full to one of the bank girls. Pacino is brilliant, understated but — in a combination of performance and writing (though, in this case, the text is taken from the real-life will) — revealing, cementing some of the conflicting forces that have pulled on Sonny throughout the film.

BankIn trying to get a handle on the real Sonny when he was starting on the screenplay, Pierson talked to various people who knew him, but struggled to reconcile their conflicting accounts of the same man. The link he found was that Sonny was always trying to please people, and that’s what he used: in the film, he’s not just out for himself or his boyfriend, but also trying to placate and please his hostages, the police, the media, his partner, his mum, his other wife… Pierson and Pacino do indeed make him a different man to all of them, and this is one of the reasons Sonny is such a great character and a great performance: he’s genuinely three-dimensional. All of us behave differently, to some degree, when we’re with different people — we don’t necessarily realise it, because they’re all facets of the same us, but we do it — so to put that into a character is to make him real.

Pacino is propped up by a spotless supporting cast, all of whom get their moment(s) to shine and use them to excel. Of particular note is John Cazale as Sal, the other robber. It’s a largely quiet role, but he nonetheless conveys an awful lot with it. Lumet says that Cazale always seemed to have a great sadness in him, which you can always see come out in his performances, and he’s certainly right here. We learn very few facts about Sal during the film, but we still know him, you suspect, as well as anyone does.

Chris Sarandon is also superb (and Oscar nominated) as Leon, the gay wife who wants a sex change. Lumet was keen to avoid presenting a stereotypical homosexual type, Leonthroughout the film trying to avoid turning any of these unusual characters into freaks, and Sarandon pitches it right. He plays the truth of a conflicted, confused character; a man who is perhaps easily led but hard to please, I think. As with the rest of the cast, the little touches he brings — such as starting a sure-to-be-emotional phone call to a man currently in the middle of a tense hostage situation with “so how are you?” — sell the reality of the piece.

Capturing reality is clearly Lumet’s prime concern — it’s reiterated multiple times across all the special features — and I think he succeeds admirably. Some things we might not even notice — the film is lit with natural light outside, the bank’s real fluorescent lights inside, and the nighttime sequences by a genuine police van reflecting off the white front of the bank — while other things, like the complete lack of a musical score, are more readily apparent. I say that, but that’s not readily apparent: one may well notice, but it’s such a perfect decision that it never rears it’s head. Lumet argues that having an orchestra chime in to underline an exciting or emotional moment would have broken the realism of what we’re watching, and he was right — there’s not a single scene here that could be improved by music, but several that would have been damaged by it.

The way the film’s shot supports this too. This is from the ’70s remember, before the craze for faux-documentary and everything being handheld, so it still looks like a film, but it’s not one that’s been precision-staged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Everything is kept loose — sometimes actors block each other’s shots, or talk over each other, or the handling of a prop goes wrong, and so on — but Lumet leaved it all in, even plays it up at times, and makes it work to his advantage. Rather than being the obvious “we’re trying to make this look real” Policeof today’s grainy shakycam stuff, this just feels real; the heart and truth of it come through, not the surface sheen of it being documentary footage. That’s more important.

There’s great editing by Dede Allen too, though most of the time it goes unnoticed: in keeping with the aim of letting the audience ‘forget’ this is a film, most of the cutting is simple and natural. Two examples leap to attention, however, and those are the two times (the only two times) guns are fired. Lumet and Allen recreate the confusion and violence of such an event with a smash of fast, sub-one-second cuts on both occasions. We see mindless fast cutting all the time now, but this incongruous example shows the effectiveness a fast montage can have when done by the right hands. The soundtrack also jumps with each cut, which is equally vital to the slightly disconcerting way it works — they’re not just smoothing over this series of flashing images, we’re being deliberately disorientated by them.

Remember earlier I mentioned Pierson’s pace? The editing plays a role in that too, naturally. After the film had been tightened for the final time, Lumet felt it had lost something, especially when it came to the will-dictating scene, which now felt slow. So with Allen he went back and added six or seven minutes of footage back in — as with his staging, making it a bit looser, more naturalistic, and in the process fixing the pacing issue and making the important will scene feel right again. Without being able to see that cut it’s hard to say just how necessary it was, but as the final result feels so right it seems his instinct was a good one.

SalPierson’s screenplay won at the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, but this was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so that took most of the big awards. That’s another of those all-time classics I’ve not seen, so I can’t offer my personal take. What I will say is that it goes to show (as most of us I’m sure already know) that the Oscars are as much about the year you’re in as the film itself: Dog Day Afternoon is better than masses of films that have won the same awards before and since, but clearly it got an unlucky year.

I’ve written quite a lot here but, brilliantly, I’ve still only got a certain way beneath the surface — there’s plenty more in there. That’s always the mark of a good film. And there’s certainly more memorable anecdotes and interesting directorial techniques I learnt from the special features that I’ve left out. Lumet set out to make a believable film about an unbelievable situation, and I do believe he achieved that goal. These are normal human beings with normal emotions — not like you and I, perhaps; taken to an extreme, certainly — but in a very bizarre set of circumstances. It was important to Lumet that they didn’t come across as freaks and, with the help of Pacino and the rest of his cast, I think they’ve achieved that too.

Coming outThe film treads a delicate line between drama, comedy and thriller, but doesn’t once tip too far in any direction. It’s got several genuine laughs, but none compromise its serious side or claim to reality — it’s tense and touching too. Anyone else making a film about an extraordinary situation, be it a true story or from the mind of a crazed writer, would do well to look at Lumet’s work here.

5 out of 5

Dog Day Afternoon is on ITV tonight, 19th November 2014, at 2:30am.

See also my review of the documentary short about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, which is also on the DVD, Lumet: Film Maker.