by Richard Schickel
The Godfather is a film of second chances and, perhaps, a last chance. It provides Mario Puzo, who collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on the screenplay, with an opportunity to shape his ungainly, if gripping, best seller into something more symmetrical. It gives Coppola, whose previous record as a director is undistinguished, a shot at a work with powerful characters and a substantial structure. Most important for some of us, it gives Marlon Brando a role in which, at long last and in the nick of time, he can reassert his claim as the greatest screen actor (and presence) of his generation. All of them have risen to the challenge The Godfather is a superior work of popular entertainment, a piece which reminds us of the vanished pleasures of the old-fashioned gangster movies without in any way emulating their style.
The screenplay severely compresses the last half of Puzo’s novel—the part where he stopped writing and started merely typing. No significant detail of “family” life, the stuff that made the book so fascinating, is lost, and there is a gain in dramatic impact. Coppola’s direction never seems hurried or sketchy, however. The film runs three hours and that allows him plenty of time to linger over his big scenes—the wedding with which it begins, funerals, baptisms, “business” meetings, beatings, rub-outs and all the rest. Everything he shows us—the faces of the mobsters and their loved ones, the furnishings of their homes, the very pasta on their tables—looks and feels right. And that dumb-shrewd, tough-tender dialogue!! If real hoods don’t talk this way, they ought to.
In the title role, Brando has somehow puffed out his face and turned his flesh into the parchment of age. Eschewing the conventionalized accents of the Italianate tough guy, he’s found a rasping whisper that resounds with contradictions: power threatened by mortality; intelligence and a sort of morality aware of the challenge posed by historical change. The drive is not to force a judgment of this character, but to force an understanding of him. One can scarcely praise Brando too highly as once again he asserts his craft and his pride after years of mislaying them.
The quality of his work is matched by James Caan, as the hot-blooded son who succeeds him without success, and by Al Pacino, as the coldblooded one who has inherited his father’s skill in this peculiar line of work. Indeed, it seems to me that everyone concerned with this film understands, as Robert Warshow long ago observed, that the movie gangster has traditionally been a tragic hero. He is a man finally undone by believing not wisely but too well that his activities are merely the extension of the free enterprise ethic into territories unexplored by more conventional (or chickenhearted) businessmen. That is why, it has been argued, they exercise such a strong hold on the American imagination. The dark side of the dream of success and all that.
If true, all that helps explain the commercial success of Puzo’s novel and the fascination of this film. Both explore the means by which criminals, like conventional businessmen, made the historical transition from primitive, acquisitive capitalism to the smoother corporate style that marks our epoch. Both treat the subject in human (and therefore inevitably sympathetic) terms. But neither romanticizes or recommends the criminal life. This, oddly, is something you cannot say about all those cheerful caper films we’ve been enduring for the last few years. The Godfather demonstrates the contrary—that all that shooting is merely to support a dully bourgeois life-style. There’s nothing fun or funny to be found here. It offers us only the absorption of good acting and good storytelling combined with a plausible anthropology of a strange, terribly relevant culture. What more could we possibly want from a movie? How often, these days, do we get anything like all that?
Life, March 10, 1972; pp. 40-44