by William S. Pechter
In one of my earliest appearances in Commentary, I wrote in praise of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People, a film I had little company in finding favor with. Coppola is a young director whose career occupies a curious middle ground between a Peter Bogdanovich’s accommodation to the Hollywood Establishment and a Dennis Hopper’s rebellion against it. Before The Rain People, his first uncompromisingly “personal” film, Coppola had directed three films, of which two were low-budget “little” films and the other a big musical. After the critical and commercial failure of The Rain People, Coppola went on to win an Academy Award for co-authoring the screenplay of Patton (a film he didn’t direct) and has now directed The Godfather, a film which not only is Coppola’s first big popular success as a director but seems further destined to be among the two or three most commercially successful movies of all time.
And The Godfather is, furthermore, and by critical consensus, a stunning confirmation of my claims for Coppola’s talents: vividly seen, richly detailed, throbbing with incident and a profusion of strikingly drawn characters (and enacted with an ensemble brilliance that, but for Drive, He Said, has probably not been seen in American films since The Rain People). Beyond this, The Godfather is an incontrovertible demonstration of the continued vitality and artistic power of two things in films whose resources had increasingly been thought to be exhausted: of densely plotted linear narrative, and of naturalism—social observation and the accumulation of authenticating detail—as a method. And it possesses, moreover, that special excitement and authority available to a film which is both a work of artistic seriousness and one of truly popular appeal, a mass entertainment made without pandering or condescension.
The Godfather is all these things and more, with such immense skill and assurance that I feel almost impatient with my own inability to enjoy it more, to escape some nagging dissatisfaction. The basis of that dissatisfaction is perhaps best expressed by the compliment which has been paid to the film by one of its many admirers: that it is the “Gone with the Wind of gangster films.” Though The Godfather is far better than Gone with the Wind, one does sometimes feel, as with the earlier film, that the latter claims for itself a definitiveness partly on grounds of its being bigger, longer, and more richly upholstered than any other treatment of its subject, the defects of which virtues are such that, compared with The Godfather, even a less good film like The French Connection can seem to be lighter on its feet. But it is in its attempt at definitiveness in relation to its antecedents in a genre—as a gangster film among other gangster films—that my reservations about The Godfather chiefly lie. And despite all the novelty of its variations on familiar material, it is primarily as a genre movie that I see it, given my understanding of genres in American movies as being capable of evolution and the absorption of novel variations. Despite which, I am less inclined than is Norman Podhoretz to see that the genre has evolved so far from Robert Warshow’s famous exposition of it as now to present us with unambiguously affirmative images of worldly success.
At least, I’m far from prepared, as one who has watched (and shared) the responses of an audience as it assents to the killings by the Corleone family in The Godfather, to say that the appeal of the gangster in popular art has become one in which sadism no longer plays an important part. It may be that I speak here from a warped perspective, having devoured in my youth not biographies of captains of industry but crime fiction and, fascinated by their chronicles of brutality, Herbert Asbury’s three informal histories of our urban underworlds, The Gangs of New York, The Barbary Coast, and The French Quarter. But what we see of Don Corleone at work is not a man making business deals (except for that running joke of a deal someone cannot refuse—his submission or his life), but, no less than in Scarface, a man exercising the nearly limitless power to hurt and intimidate. Even were we given some more detailed picture of what the Corleones’ business entailed, it must surely modify our admiration for their success that it involves, if it is not actually based on, killing people; but, fascinating as a depiction of how the family’s fortune was acquired and how its businesses are run might be, virtually nothing of the sort is presented (aside from the family’s unlikely decision not to become involved in heroin traffic, the effect of which—like that of the family’s victims being only other gangsters—is merely to make the Corleones more acceptable to us). Instead, in Robert Warshow’s words, “Since we do not see the rational and routine aspects of the gangster’s behavior, the practice of brutality—the quality of unmixed criminality— becomes the totality of his career…. Thus brutality itself becomes at once the means to success and the content of success—a success that is defined in its most general terms, not as accomplishment or specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression. (In the same way, film presentations of businessmen tend to make it appear that they achieve their success by talking on the telephone and holding conferences and that success is talking on the telephone and holding conferences.)”
The effect of stressing that the Corleones are in business, but limiting our view of their business to the expansion and consolidation of their power by their liquidation of the opposition, is to create probably the most consistent depiction of business-as-murder since Monsieur Verdoux. But despite this, and despite the film’s sporadic gestures toward extending its trope of business-as-murder into the political sphere—the allusions to the Kennedys, to Lyndon Johnson (a meeting of rival mobs commenced with a sentiment about “reasoning together”), the remark by Michael, Don Corleone’s heir, to his fiancee that she is being naive in saying the power of the Corleones is to be distinguished from that of Senators and Presidents because the latter do not kill people—it is not primarily in their aspect of businessmen that we see the gangsters in The Godfather. Rather—and one sees here the inadvertent felicity of the notorious expunging of all mention of the word “Mafia” in the film—it is as members of a “family”: as godfather, father, grandparent, son, and brother. Though we see Don Corleone occasionally issuing an edict on his business affairs, our predominant images of him are not in his exercise of power but in his domestic role—officiating as father of the bride (in the film’s splendid opening sequence), shopping for groceries, playing with his grandchild; not as a Scarface in flashy suits and monogrammed shirts, but as an old man, almost vulnerable-looking in his rumpled clothes and with the trace of gray stubble on his face.
Brando’s performance as Don Corleone stands apart from the rest—perhaps inevitably, given all the advance publicity—as a tour de force of mimicry and makeup, but there are few if any other actors whose very presence carries the immense personal authority to be able to play Don Corleone in this peculiarly subdued, almost passive way while making credible the sense of his being the architect and administrator of his power. (And despite the sense one has of Brando’s power being kept largely under wraps in what is basically a glorified character role, when Don Corleone dies, the absence of Brando in the film is felt as a loss of at least the potential for unleashing his special kind of power.) And it is essential to the film’s conception of its subject that Don Corleone be played in this way: not as a Verdoux, using his family as the excuse for his zeal in business, but as a man amassing power to provide for his sons and dependents, and finding happiness in the serenity of his garden. If The Godfather is most unmistakably of its genre when Don Corleone’s regular chauffeur fails to report for work and one knows immediately that an attempt will be made on his employer’s life, so the one single thing that most distinguishes The Godfather from other gangster films is that Don Corleone is not a doomed overreacher but a man who dies, in effect, in bed.
What is this family whose claims override all others in The Godfather? It is, for one thing, a patriarchy, and the story the film has to tell is basically not Don Corleone’s but Michael’s: a story of his initiation into the family by an act of murder, of the succession of the youngest, most assimilated son to the patriarchal powers and responsibilities and the ethnic mystique of his father. The audience approves Michael’s initiation—the narrative thrust of the film is such that it cannot do otherwise—and is made to see the family as to some considerable degree admirable in its colorful ethnicity and fierce loyalties, the strength of its ties that bind. But is The Godfather an unambiguous celebration of this family? For a time, while its members are barricaded together from their enemies under the interim reign of Michael’s brother, Sonny, there is, even in the sweaty, suffocating togetherness of their confinement, a real sense of Gemütlichkeit. But Sonny is a false godfather: hot-headed, bellicose, given to acting impetuously on his feelings without letting the family’s interest temper his personal pride; he is, in the classic generic mold, an overreacher, and he is killed by what is perhaps the genre’s most sustainedly savage hail of machine-gun fire. Under Don Corleone and, later, under Michael, what we are aware of instead is a large house whose dark interiors convey no sense of spaciousness, a feudal deference to rank and the lordly granting of dispensations, the suppression of dissent (so as not to give aid and comfort to the family’s enemies), and a foundation of blasphemous hypocrisy (Michael swearing devotion to God in church while his underlings massacre those who have acted against the family and all others standing in its way). The film’s final image is of the new godfather’s ring being kissed by a petitioner while a door closes, shutting out Michael’s wife, to whom, in denying his implication in a killing he had ordered, he has just lied.
Coppola at one lime described his work on The Godfather as a commercial chore, distinguishable from his direction of a “personal” film like The Rain People, and yet, when one thinks back to The Rain People‘s ambiguous sense of family life as something whose responsibilities, however burdensome, could not be simply left behind, it almost seems that The Godfather is a film the director was fated to make, and to make in this way, into a more personal film than he is perhaps aware. But though the degree of emphasis on family life which Coppola brings to The Godfather is new to gangster films, the family and familial piety are by no means unknown to the genre (nor—vide the Manson “family”—to recent crimes of fact). This is so not only of such late examples as Bonnie and Clyde and The Brotherhood, but of others as early as The Public Enemy, in which one already sees a full-blown instance of that sentimentalization of mothers which drifts in and out of the genre and finds its grotesque apotheosis in White Heat; and if fathers have generally fared less well as chiefly weak, rebelled-against authority figures, the gangster’s mob itself can be seen to be a species of patriarchal family.
What The Godfather does is to literalize this similarity: the gang’s chieftain is no longer like a patriarch, he is a patriarch; the gang no longer resembles a family but has become one, and not just one more fragmented family among others but virtually the realization of that ideal of the nuclear, fortresslike family with whose images our movies have provided us from the Hardys on up, until, in thrall to newer pieties, they abandoned earlier ones to television. (Thus the importance of situating the Corleones mainly in the forties; as one of the old men in the film says, “Young people don’t respect anything these days. Times are changing for the worse.”) But is this image of gangsters as the fulfillment and embodiment of our discarded ideals—as the family next door in the forties—a celebration of the values of which those ideals consist? I think it is rather more like a criticism of them, but a criticism of a peculiarly bland and muffled kind, a criticism to be found less in the content of the film than in the phenomenon of our response to it: in our ability to accept gangsters as embodiments of such values. Within the film, the ambiguity of its celebration of family life is never violated: thus the rightness of Brando’s decision. reportedly on his own initiative, to refuse to speak (to the Corleones’ lawyer) the line, “A man with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns”; any such betrayal of conscious cynicism would fatally tip the scales in which the film is so precariously balanced. But the effect of domesticating the genre in this way is less to subject familial values to a criticism than to strip the gangster of his mythic dimension and his tragic meaning for us: to convert him into only one more of those “good husbands and fathers” so familiar to us from the crimes of bureaucrats and obedient soldiers. The gangster has here ceased to be, in Warshow’s words, “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become,” and has become instead only another instance of the banality of evil. Who is this good husband and father, this man who must occasionally kill people in order to provide? He is only a man, not unlike us, who has gone perhaps a little too far; and if our families are less the invincible fortress than is his, we have at least the comfort of knowing that our crimes are small in comparison; we can, with equanimity, cultivate our gardens. But at its best —whether in a Scarface‘s conceit of the Capone mob as the Borgias in Chicago or a Quick Millions’s sardonic version of capitalist enterprise or a White Heat’s vision of the gangster as wife-nagged, mother-fixated, “tension-headache”-wracked, upwardly mobile striver—the effect of the gangster genre was to press us to a recognition of the source in us of the gangster’s disturbing hold on our imaginations. What are we that in this outsize, driven figure and his terrible excesses we can see an image, however extravagant and distorted, of ourselves?
Commentary, July 1972; pp. 88-91