‘The Godfather’, 50 years later
The timeless charm of pinstripe suits, violent redemption, and large Italian men eating stewed meat.
Fifty years ago today, The Godfather was released in theaters nationwide. In the beginning, it seemed as if the movie would never happen. Director Francis Ford Coppola had to be urged by friend George Lucas to even read the script, and then fought relentlessly with the studio, producers, and cinematographer Gordon Willis, himself an exacting genius. Martin Scorsese recalled once stopping by the set during the filming of a funeral scene and finding Coppola sitting on a tombstone, crying. Paramount thought Al Pacino was too unattractive and wanted Robert Redford for the part of Michael instead. Brando, at that point in his career, was so volatile and enigmatic that when Coppola suggested him for the Don, the president of Paramount told him “I assure you Marlon Brando will not appear in this motion picture, and furthermore I order you to never bring the subject up again.” The Godfather was, for a time, the highest grossing film ever made. Years later, Pacino would say in an interview, quoting a Robert Browning poem, “Francis is a good example of the saying, ‘Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’”
There are almost no new Godfather stories left to tell, but here’s my best shot.
About halfway through the film. Don Corleone (Marlon Brando, sighing and annoyed, moving like an old elephant) has convened the bosses of the Five Families. The camera scrolls across a long, gleaming table. Round men in double breasted suits with big lapels, puffing on cigars and stabbing hors d’oeuvres with tiny forks. Untouched piles of fruit sitting like a Cezanne still life. Everyone’s face with a sheen of sweat, warm and orange in the glow of pre-fluorescent chandelier bulbs. Don Barzini, the scheming rival, pinches a cigarette in his fingers at the head of the table while Brando sits behind a bowl of chestnuts.
Corleone’s oldest son, Sonny (James Caan, a grease fire in suspenders and two-tone wingtips), has just been assassinated. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino, calm as a lullaby), is living in exile in the hills of Sicily. The Don has brought everyone here today to put an end to all this madness.
Barzini and the rest of them need Corleone’s political influence to help move heroin into the country. “It’s not like the old days, where we can do whatever we want,” Barzini says, and eventually Corleone consents, there is a hug and some applause, you are familiar with all of it by now and probably many times over.
But, there is something else. As the scene cuts out to everyone sitting at the table, a dozen resplendently tan bald heads all in frame now, behind them covering the entire wall we see a framed painting of a locomotive, the “Empire State Express,” pulling a string of passenger cars along the Hudson River. The room the scene was filmed in was the boardroom of the old Penn Central train company, in the Helmsley Building on Park Avenue. Six years after The Godfather was released, Penn Central, at one time the sixth largest corporation in America, filed for bankruptcy, necessitated by infrastructure problems and capitalism’s insatiable appetite for growth, and then a fatal blow from a scavenging investment firm who’d come in to pick the bones clean.
Soon after, the boardroom was gutted. The leather chairs and the chandeliers and the framed portrait of William Vanderbilt and the mural of Empire State Express too, all of it gone. Goldman Sachs owns the building now and it is used partially for “tasting events” for small batch whiskey distilleries and branded evenings for realty groups.
For years train enthusiasts shared tips on message boards on the whereabouts of the train mural. It was discovered eventually that it was in the possession of the Pennsylvania State Historical Museum, but in 2014 they decided they didn’t need it anymore either, so it was put up for auction. The painting sold for just $1,000 to an anonymous buyer. Here, the legacy of a once-valuable enterprise: a financial catastrophe and some trinkets scattered into obscurity, and on its grave yet another venue for something that will, at best, annoy you and at worst steadily work to make your life miserable.
Earlier this month I saw The Godfather again, this time in theaters, every square of lace upholstery and every boutonniere blown up in absurd detail, and I believe that what it offers most abundantly is a fantasy where these things — bankruptcies, cons, the vandalism of your sacred world — can not happen to you, only outsiders, only to the chumps beyond the stone walls of this compound in Long Island.
“I believe in America,” says Bonasera to Don Corleone in the film’s opening scene, shivering and desperate, eyes like black olives, begging for salvation. He believed in the myth, in the fraud the mayors and presidents and Vanderbilts sold to him, he believed in America but it has failed him and he knows it now. Brando, slouched in a chair and appearing from the darkness like a mustachioed, omnipotent god can answer all your questions if you’ll just ask for it, just call me godfather. Here is shelter from the grim realities of real life. Outside these windows Johnny Fontaine is arriving to the screech of young women, Clemenza is wheezing and calling for more wine, there are little mountains of pastel pink and blue cookies on every table and the band is just getting started. All of it can be yours.
America is a ravenous, uncompromising beast but here is a world where even that beast knocks politely at the door.
To say that The Godfather is making an explicit political statement would ignore its more deliberate and obvious charms — violent redemption, fathers and sons, a glimpse into the forbidden rooms of organized crime, large Italian men eating stewed meat. But in the Five Families scene, gangsters playing dress-up in pinstripe suits, eating in the laughable, ziggurat excess of a boardroom meant for “honest” men with honest jobs, next to paintings of Great Americans while they conduct the drug trade with businesslike focus, mocking America as a silly, dainty notion they otherwise disregard with impunity … Well, what else would you call that?
Godfather is about the real man at the wheel and what a powerful comfort it is to realize that he is your friend. It is about the forces we are at the mercy of, governments and our lineage, and a dream of some secret club that is beyond their grasp and impervious to their laws and limits. America is a ravenous, uncompromising beast but here is a world where even that beast knocks politely at the door. There are senators helping you out at the grand jury and getting your deferment from a World War, sending envelopes of cash to your daughter’s wedding, along with their apologies.
Everything in their world is warm and small, not claustrophobic but impenetrable, almost some prehistoric cave where there is no one besides you and your family, a place only accessible by messengers, protected by button men and gates and towers, where you can tell even the FBI in the driveway to take a hike. There are dens so quiet and still you can hear the tick of the clock and the bubble of the fish tank. Baseball on the radio, Luca Brasi’s watch band choking his ridiculous, mortadella loaf forearm, tomato paste spilling up over the top of the little can. The sheer size and density of every torso on every anonymous wise guy dripping with sweat at the wedding, the way their stomachs seem to hang off them as separate entities altogether and at a tremendous orthopedic cost. James Caan eagerly fidgeting with the anisette glass during important meetings. The texture on the hydrangea bulbs at the funeral, the roses on the casket, James Caan’s shoulder hair, everything happening always at night in the dark, invisible to civilians. Tight cramped cars, playing pinochle, eating Chinese together.
In the notes he handwrote in the margins of the script during filming, director Francis Ford Coppola wrote that the scene where Clemenza and Michael rehearse the Solozzo assassination should feel “like being with a favorite uncle in his workshop.” All of it feels like a world that’s happening underground, in abandoned diners in Brooklyn, a hospital on 14th that seemed unoccupied by anyone else, a suite with room service in the St Regis Hotel. The sound in small rooms where you can hear every wooden creak in a chair. The revolver blast reverberating for a full second and a half in an otherwise silent basement.
Even the motivations of the characters are only partially understood, foreign to us. It is not the rabid mayhem in Goodfellas or the neanderthal incompetence of The Sopranos. The mafia here is powerful and illicit but something more private, there are times when it feels like an opera in a language you only partially understand, the score itself looming as a character in a paternal way that feels both menacing and like a protective embrace.
He did not become one of the chumps who lost the train company but maybe even worse, he became the type of person who might help to destroy it.
"Love" does not exactly exist in The Godfather. There is duty, lust, territory disputes, and extravagant ceremony. The characters want things but almost always as a matter of vengeance or cold transaction. Speaking to Playboy in 1979, Al Pacino said, “In the first Godfather, the thing that I was after was to create some kind of enigma, and enigmatic-type person. So you felt that we were looking at that person and didn’t quite know him. When you see Michael in some of those scenes looking wrapped up in a kind of trance, as if his mind were completely filled with thoughts, that’s what I was doing. I was actually listening to Stravinsky on the set, so I’d have that look.”
What is partly so chilling about The Godfather: Part II is the way it expands beyond these rooms, into the unknown, into the America Bonasera came looking for. Michael pulled them out of the olive oil business and Long Island and moved to Lake Tahoe. He built a bigger compound, they built casinos and started skimming money from them and then tried to open them in Cuba too. He did not become one of the chumps who lost the train company but maybe even worse, he became the type of person who might help to destroy it. Back years ago in Sicily, he once met a girl who he decided would be his wife. He smiled at the wedding then with his hair flopping almost in his eyes, and back home was a father who would say, your problems are our problems. There is a breeze in the tomato garden and an orange in the dish next to you. Barzini said, “It’s not like the old days,” but out there it could be the old days forever.