The Godfather Through Osmosis: A Half-Century of an Inescapable Mafia Movie

Movies Features The Godfather
The Godfather Through Osmosis: A Half-Century of an Inescapable Mafia Movie

In 1972 and 1974, Francis Ford Coppola collaborated with author Mario Puzo to adapt his best-selling novel The Godfather into two films. The first covered the parts of the narrative that take place in the 1950s; the sequel expanded that story and adapted the parts of the book taking place in the early 20th century. Puzo wrote the book because he expected financial success—the same as Coppola felt about the movie—but neither could know the first film alone would make more than a quarter of a billion dollars off a mid-seven figure budget. Sometimes a masterpiece just hits right.

The Godfather is a media artifact that represents a time in the movie industry—the New Hollywood of the 1970s—for which some now pine nostalgically as massive industry consolidation rapidly leads to vertical and horizontal integration. Fittingly, the film was already attuned to and grappling with nostalgia when it was created, set in the American postwar with a war hero (Al Pacino as Michael Corleone) as the second lead of its ensemble cast. It’s a movie about old ways, about traditions perpetuating and dying off, about the cost of modernization.

The Godfather became the template for modern mafia films like Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not just because Pacino stars in two of those in addition to all three Godfather movies, but because mafia films are all about the underside of the American dream. The grim necessities of an economic order dependent on violence. Scarface is about an immigrant who can’t generate income until he carries out violence and traffics drugs, killed because of the conflict between his principles and the consequences of his excesses. Goodfellas is about the gradual waning of the mafia order in the U.S., as structural inefficiencies bred greed and disloyalty. Donnie Brasco is about an agent of the state taking advantage of those inefficiencies to infiltrate that clandestine order, wondering in the end if his service to his country was worth his soul. But The Godfather encompassed all these themes, concerned as it is with the immigrant Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) attempt to create a path for his youngest son outside of his criminal empire, an effort cut down by the circumstances of their success as the former soldier’s sense of duty draws him to fight for his family.

The Godfather keeps its audience at an emotional middle distance, established in the first scene, where Don Corleone answers requests during his daughter’s wedding. We see but do not hear the request whispered to the Don. From this point on, we’re always close enough to intimate or speculate the innermost thoughts of the characters, but always must interpret. There’s no narration, and the Italian is selectively subtitled. The audience is always set as a third-person observer, close enough to be watching, but never fully embracing the perspective of any of its characters—nor their (warranted or unwarranted) violence. It’s a movie with action and blood, but its length, tone and content reflect a family drama and miniature historic epic. The fall, revival and transition of a great empire.

The Godfather was hardly the only good, or even classic, crime film to come out of the 1970s. The French Connection, known for its iconic car chase, came out the year before. The same year as The Godfather, Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway was released, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw (then-wife of Godfather producer Robert Evans). The year after The Godfather, Robert De Niro (who would star in The Godfather: Part II) led Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets while Robert Duvall (nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Godfather) starred in John Flynn’s The Outfit. In France, directors Jacques Deray, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Pierre Melville made a succession of well-regarded crime films, including Deray’s two Borsalino movies and Chabrol’s Violette Noziere. And back in the U.S., the mob was featured in the Sidney Lumet/Sean Connery film The Anderson Tapes and the John Milius/Warren Oates film Dillinger, among others.

But The Godfather’s craftsmanship and considerable length (177 minutes) gave it a leg up on standing the test of time. Coppola, Puzo, cinematographer Gordon Willis, editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner, and the cast created enough memorable moments—underlined by composer Nino Rota’s iconic score, the signature “Godfather Waltz” and all its variations—for the film to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay, and score eight more nominations. Even before the awards, The Godfather impacted a wide enough variety of audience members with its record-breaking run that it’s still everywhere in pop culture.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know The Godfather through osmosis, because the tendrils of its influence are everywhere—far beyond other crime films. The countless parodies of The Godfather include an episode of Seinfeld about a baptism that shows Jerry repeatedly doing a poor Marlon Brando impression and a last shot that evokes that of the movie. Modern Family recreated the climactic baptism scene in one of the more elaborate comedy homages, while The Simpsons has done several. How I Met Your Mother is one of several shows to copy the infamous horse head scene. Zootopia borrows the opening scene of the film, as My Wife and Kids did more loosely.

It’s touched hip-hop, where Kool G Rap pioneered mafioso rap in the late 1980s; his 1998 album Roots of Evil took part of its cover inspiration from The Godfather, and since 2011 he’s been part of a duo called “The Godfathers” with Necro. Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas and Rick Ross have all touched the subgenre. And, of course, stashing a gun behind a toilet before a crime was copied in the incredible opening of Belly. Chris Rock even referenced the movie’s most tragic scene, the death of Apollonia, in his 1999 comedy special Bigger & Blacker.

I originally absorbed the film through osmosis—catching scenes as I was passing through the living room while I wasn’t supposed to be watching it, borrowing the videogame from a friend in middle school and beating it twice (watching scenes rendered in the game engine or unlocked by collecting in-game film reels), renting the novel from the library after I’d read a biography of Al Capone. Years later, I’d read Raimond Catanzaro’s Men of Respect for a historiography paper on the mafia in Italy, where I’d learn that a key early operation of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra (from whence sprung most well-known Italian American crime organizations) was protecting and extorting the owners of citrus orchards—which gave a deeper resonance to Vito’s death.

My paper was called “Biographies of an Industry of Violence” because the Mafia manufactures violence to earn intimidating reputations, which perpetuate its earning power through extortion. The Godfather uses this industry and the court intrigue it engenders to tell a story about the incompatibility of nurturing familial relationships while prioritizing economic growth. That’s a theme that has remained prevalent in American media, from Christmas rom-coms like The Family Man to TV dramas like The Sopranos. Our endless pursuit of profit doesn’t leave time for much else, and compromising moral values for money drives a wedge in the personal relationships one holds dear. The Godfather’s singularity in capturing that theme is why all the imitation and satire exist, the reason why just a few glimpses as a child struck me with the desire to experience the film and to research the history that inspired it. Even now, it’s a film that might be called an inspiration for both Succession (the failures of the oldest son taking over for his sick father) and for House of Gucci (a business empire’s heir estranges his wife as he ruthlessly grows into the role he was born for). The parodies’ recreated shots always point to the evasively prestigious feeling of the original, and these thematic similarities—here seen in a dark comedy and a melodrama—point toward an economic system they can’t help but comment upon. That the drive to provide for your family can destroy your family is an inescapable reality in life under capitalism.

The Godfather remains a ubiquitous cultural touchstone, half a century on, because it illuminates so much of what we try to leave in the dark. It’s a film about taboos and accepted silences, illustrating patriarchal gender dynamics, domestic violence and the self-destructive nature of machismo. The Godfather is a fictionalization of 20th century trends that simultaneously uses that story to convey the “dark side” of the American dream and the advancement of American industry toward professionalism—all while demonstrating how an industry eats itself.

Just as Michael sees his enemies put down and taken over, massive companies smother or stomp their competition. Consolidation to the benefit of the few overruns collaboration for the good of the many. While capitalism is supposed to breed innovation, it frequently breeds imitation—as visible in everything from car designs to movie subject matter. Despite perpetual worry about the lack of an original idea in Hollywood, we never have to worry that the reverence for original successes will fade. Inimitable masterpieces certainly aren’t immune to capitalism’s drive to exploit, wringing IP for sequels and remakes, but sometimes it manifests differently, as behind-the-scenes documentaries and recreations. The Godfather’s constant cultural relevance has inspired two forthcoming dramatizations of its creation: The Barry Levinson-directed Francis and the Godfather starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Elle Fanning, Elisabeth Moss and Oscar Isaac, and the Paramount+ series The Offer starring Matthew Good, Miles Teller and Juno Temple. America isn’t changing anytime soon, and because of that, neither will our reverence for and awareness of The Godfather. We’ll still be talking about The Godfather and its relevance 50 years from now, when there may well be a documentary about the two biopic-style stories that celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest films ever made.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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