by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
There is no doubt that The Godfather is the cultural phenomenon of the season. Five movie houses in New York City play it day and night; sometimes extra performances are added at two in the morning. Critics rave; box-office queues twist around the block and wait patiently in the cold for the performance-after-next; audiences become deeply involved, cheer, cry, shout back at the screen; sometimes fights break out. One fan, no doubt inspired by the film, held up the box office and took off with the evening’s proceeds.
The movie casts a spell far beyond its merits. Warner Brothers would have made it thirty-five years ago as a hundred-minute feature, lively, brilliantly paced, and economical. Now, in the reverent hands of Francis Ford Coppola, it has swelled into an overblown, pretentious, slow, and ultimately tedious three-hour quasi-epic. Gangsters at last have their Greatest Story Ever Told, but minus George Stevens. Inflation does not always assure survival. My guess is that three years from now we will still remember scenes from Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939) while The Godfather will have become a vague memory.
The tone is a mixture of the sentimental and the violent with the heavily ironic. The Mafia—or at least our family (the other families are amply villainous)—comes over as a group of amiable businessmen, a little rough in their methods, true (though no worse, one line of dialogue gives us to understand, than Presidents or Senators), but still loyal to that crusty old do-gooder, the Godfather, rendered by Marion Brando in his Lionel Barrymore mood. Why the Italian-American Civil Rights League should have raised such a fuss about the movie is a puzzle; these defenders of Italian virtue should have subsidized it. It is only when the Godfather’s sons take over that things get out of control, which leaves the impression that America has corrupted the Mafia as it has everything else—an impression heightened by a series of lyrical, and rather boring, scenes showing the Godfather’s son under Mafia protection in Sicily.
The director evidently tried to offset the sentimentality by “ironie” juxtapositions and cross-cutting. The film opens with the words “I believe in America” as a man tells a tale of horrid violence. The heads of the various families meet around a table in a boardroom as if they were the directors of General Motors. A man at a christening renounces the devil and his works while his henchmen gun down his competitors all over town. But the irony is a little too labored to redeem the film from its general commitment to glorification. The audience weeps when the Godfather keels over dead in his tomato patch, and they were intended to do so, intended to perceive him as a heroic embodiment of some vanishing form of style, integrity, larger-than-lifeness.
Why the impact? Nostalgia is, I think, a part of it. The Godfather has a nice period sense, and it reminds us happily both of the films of the thirties and of the scenes of the forties. Here are all those old familiars—the gangster, the mouthpiece, the hoods, the rival mobsters. It is reassuring to see them again at play and at work, riding around in their glossy black cars and rubbing out their competitors. And The Godfather wears its rue with a difference. By putting it all in the frame of the Mafia, the old stereotypes are freshened and renewed. The gangsters’ code was always a basic element in the old films; here the code becomes ritualized, exotic, and adorned with sentiments, however degraded, of honor. The anthropological detail delights our curiosity. And it promotes the inflation, too. These are more than the rough-and-ready gangsters of our youth. They are mythic figures not only by the power of the performance (Robinson, Muni, Cagney, and Bogart created mythic figures, too) but by their participation in ritual.
But nostalgia is only part of The Godfather‘s appeal. The film shrewdly touches contemporary nerves. Our society is pervaded by a conviction of powerlessness. The Godfather makes it possible for all of us, in the darkness of the movie house, to become powerful. It plays upon our inner fantasies, not only on the criminal inside each of us but on our secret admiration for men who get what they want, whose propositions no one dares turn down. If a crooner in decline wishes a part in a movie, the Godfather has only to wave his wand and the part is his (though the wand-waving is one of the least convincing and most repellent scenes one can recall; how in the world did even the Mafia get that severed horse’s head into a sleeping man’s bed?).
The world of The Godfather, moreover, is the world New Yorkers think they perceive every day—a world haunted by a sense of personal insecurity and vulnerability, with violence waiting behind the normalities of life, the jolly meals, the weddings, the christenings. The visible cops are crooked, too. Perhaps it is consoling to suppose that the Mafia can establish a world of order within the world of violence. Perhaps; but a nation is surely in some confusion when it turns its crooks into heroes.
Still, let us not indulge in inflation of our own. The Godfather is a phenomenon of passing cultural interest; it does not prove that society is on the verge of moral collapse. The world has glamorized its destroyers from the beginning of time, and the world has somehow survived. The Godfather carries on, if a little floridly, a sturdy tradition. And only the Godfather will be able to get you in to see it.
Vogue, May 1972