May 17th, 2020

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The Godfather: film and novel

The Godfather won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1972, and picked up another two - Best Actor, which was declined by Marlon Brando in protest at the treatment of Native Americans at Wounded Knee (and elsewhere); and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. James Caan, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret. There were three other categories where The Godfather lost to Cabaret, which still holds the record for the most Oscars for any film that did not also win Best Picture.


The other Best Picture nominees were Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants and Sounder; Cabaret is the only other of the nominees that I've seen. 1972 is not a good year for my cinematic education; I am pretty sure that the only other two films I've seen from that year are Slaughterhouse-Five (which I'll get to next, as it won the Hugo) and the very odd Lee Marvin/Sissy Spacek film Prime Cut. I'd rate The Godfather as the best of them, though Cabaret is also very good. IMDB users also rank it top film of 1972 on both rankings.

Here's a trailer.

We are in the middle of a crime wave at the Oscars at the moment, having just had The French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, Oliver! and arguably A Man for All Seasons, with The Sting and The Godfather II coming next. It's the story of Vito Corleone, boss of a massive organised crime network, and his son Michael who eventually takes over the family business. There is an awful lot of graphic violence. It's another story about white men. But it's really well told - I am struck by just how different I found it to Patton, made by the same director only two years before - and I'm putting it in the top third of my list, just below Oliver! but ahead of Ben-Hur. I had seen it once before, but I enjoyed the return visit.

The major returning actor from a previous Oscar winner is Brando himself, who also won Best Actor eighteen years ago for the lead role in On the Waterfront. Here he is iconically and convincgly made up to look like a Mafia grandfather and godfather. (The actors playing his sons are between six and sixteen years younger than him.)



Another returnee from On the Waterfront is Rudy Bond, who is Cuneo here (one of the other Mafia dons), and played Moose (one of the longshoremen) in the earlier film.


Sonny Grosso, whose story was the basis for last year's The French Connection and also appeared in it, plays to type again and is a briefly seen New York cop, but not seen clearly enough for me to put a picture here. And we have an actor from a Hugo-winning film, Sterling Hayden who is Captain McCluskey here and was General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove.


There are also a fair number of actors here who we will see again in future Oscar-winning films - not least (but not only) because the sequel comes up in two years' time.

This is yet another film about white men, as was Patton. I was feeling ill the day I watched it, so I did not keep track as closely as usual, but I don't think that there were many visible non-white faces and I don't think there were any non-white speaking parts. To an extent the Italians and Jews, and even perhaps the Irish, are to be understood as non-Anglo-Saxons, but it's not quite the same thing. Going back for another look, I did spot the stable hand who shows off the unfortunate Sultan.

The women are entirely present in terms of their relations with the men - the film obviously passes Bechdel One, in that there is more than one named female character, but I am not sure that it hits Bechdel Two (do any of them have an audible conversation with each other?) and definitely not Bechdel Three (the conversation is not about a man). Having said that, Michael's two wives are both pretty memorable. Simonetta Stefanelli absolutely glows in her few scenes as Apollonia, and Diane Keaton's Kay is sort of an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint character (we will of course see her again soon).


And yet, it's a really well put together film. The plot is complex, with a lot of characters running around shooting each other, mostly in New York but also farther west and in Italy, but I found no difficulty whatsoever in keeping track of it all. The script is lucid and the cinematography adds to the story without distracting from it. "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" is an unforgettable line (used in several variations). The acting nominations were all well deserved - Brando as the title charcter, Al Pacino and James Caan as his sons Michael and Sonny, and Robert Duvall as the conigliere Tom Hagen. Brando in particular carries his character's extra years effortlessly.




And the music is just tremendous. Here's a vid with the orchestral suite (including most of the good bits) set to some of the Sicilian scenes from the film:

Despite its flaws, I think this is a better film than Cabaret - the characters have more depth, there is more going on and the story is told better - and it deserved the Oscar that year. You can get it here.

Next up: The Sting.

I had also read the book long ago, and went back to it for comparative purposes. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
It was a short ride, not more than twenty minutes and when they got out of the car Hagen could not recognize the neighborhood because darkness had fallen. They led him into a basement apartment and made him sit on a straight-backed kitchen chair. Sollozzo sat across the kitchen table from him. His dark face had a peculiarly vulturine look.
The book is a cracking good read. The film sticks pretty closely to the parts of the original story that it wants to tell, but there are two significant (and enjoyable) sections that are not in the film - the adventures of Johnny Fontane in Hollywood, and the back story of Vito Corleone in Sicily and his early years in New York (though I think the latter thread informs the Robert de Niro sections of the sequel film). The book has space to go a bit deeper into the political economy of organised crime, in particular the role played (or not) by the police. It's also a bit better on the women characters (though this is not saying a lot), and has much more explicit sex than I remembered from reading it as a teenager. I can't pretend that it's a very deep read, but it's a very interesting juxtaposition with last year's The French Connection which also looked at organised crime in New York, from a rather different perspective. You can get it here.


1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)