ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

In late 1940′s New York, one man is both feared and revered above all: Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the “Godfather” and head of the Corleone family. At his side are his eldest son, the hot-tempered Santino aka “Sonny” (James Caan), his middle child, the insecure Fredo (John Cazale), his adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) and his caporegime Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano). His youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), viewed a bit like an outcast for rejecting the family “business” and joining the marines has recently returned home, a decorated war hero, with his non-Italian girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to attend the wedding of his sister Connie (Talia Shire).

Things forever change for Michael, though, the moment his father is nearly shot dead by a rival mob family. Fearing an all-out war amongst the Five Families, Michael decides to volunteer in avenging his father’s attempted murder. From there, it’s no turning back.

Come on. What’s to be said that hasn’t already been about this film? Get ready ’cause I’m about to gush like a little girl.

It’s hard to imagine what this film would look like if Paramount Pictures went with their first choices. What we could’ve seen was The Godfather directed by Sergio Leone, starring either Laurence Olivier or Ernest Borgnine as Vito Corleone (initially, Paramount refused to cast Brando), Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal as Michael, Paul Newman as Tom Hagen and Robert De Niro as Sonny (De Niro would later be cast in Part II, which earned him his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as a young Vito Corleone).

Thankfully, studios don’t often go with their first choices (not to take anything away from the aforementioned men in regard to their tremendous talent). One of the many excellent qualities of this film is the pitch-perfect casting of each character.

The late, great Marlon Brando has perfectly embodied many roles in his lifetime. Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (which earned him his first Best Actor Oscar), Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, Stanley “Stella!” Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Jor-El in Superman, Col. Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, you name it, Brando could play it with ease. Make no mistake, though. Brando is Vito Corleone. When we’re first introduced to Vito, he’s not running down a rival mob family in a hail of gunfire. He’s calmly sitting in his office chair, quietly stroking the fur of his pet cat. Yet, he still manages to command both fear and respect. We don’t need to see the ruthlessness of Vito play out. We see it in the eyes of those that approach him (such as Luca Brasi anxiously practicing what he will say when he meets the Don). The voice, the mannerisms, his calm yet fearful demeanor over even something as simple as stating, “You never once invited me over for a cup of coffee”, Vito was not only a “comeback” role for Brando at the time (earning him his second Best Actor Oscar, which he notoriously boycotted), it’s his most iconic.

It’s hard to believe as iconic and career defining of a role Michael Corleone was for Al Pacino, it was only his third film. Just like Brando, you can’t picture anyone else playing Michael and it’s hard to think of another character out of Pacino’s resume as perfectly portrayed by him like Michael. Showing restraint for most of the film, which we’ve come to not expect from him over the years, Pacino gives us one of the most memorably complex character transformations in all of cinema (further developed in Part II). Career defining roles for Pacino such as these also make it much more heartbreaking to see him wasted away in crap like Jack and Jill nowadays. Seriously, Al… why?

With all due respect to Robert De Niro, as great of an actor as he is, James Caan was the right choice for Santino. If you watch any of the audition tapes (a special feature that comes with the DVD series), De Niro has the typical cockiness that defines Sonny, but it also comes with that trademark smug smirk of his too. That’s fine in the roles we’ve seen him play, but it’s not Sonny. Caan brought just the right amount of cocky confidence blended together with a hot-tempered demeanor without the smugness. Say what you want about Sonny: impulsive, ill-tempered, womanizing, cheats on his wife, yes. Smug though? I never got that. In spite of all his flaws (you gotta commend his wife for somehow sticking with him), though, if there’s any honorable character trait Sonny does have, it’s this: you don’t mess with his family.

I could go on and on about Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Alex Rocco, Al Lettieri and Talia Shire (who would go on to play another iconic film role, Rocky Balboa’s girlfriend Adrian) as well. Just take my word for it. It’s an amazing cast.

What makes this film such a cinematic masterpiece is the character transition between father and son. As the film progresses we begin to see more of the humanity Vito has always been capable of and the utter ruthlessness an honorable war hero like Michael is capable of. We never see any of the ruthless mob acts Vito has committed, but hear them retold by others. One of the most poignant moments in the entire film is Michael and Kay eating at the wedding reception. Explaining to Kay how his father got legendary singer Johnny Fontane his big break (by making an offer his prior manager couldn’t refuse), he tells her his father had Luca Brasi hold a gun to the head of Fontane’s manager and assured him either his signature or his brains would be on the release form. It’s that small moment that sums up both characters ’cause we not only realize the brutality of Vito’s mob regime, but also how ashamed Michael is of it at first. “That my family, Kay. That’s not me.”, he assures her.

Oh, but the hearts of men are easily corrupted.

SPOILER ALERTS: Halfway through the film, though, we start to witness a change. As the story unfolds more and more, we begin to see not Vito the ruthless mobster, but Vito the concerned father. When Vito is told by Hagen that Michael avenged his attempted murder by killing Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, he says nothing but looks away in quiet sadness, fearing his son with the most potential was now tainted by an act that promises no return. “I never wanted this for you, Michael.” It’s that statement where we see Vito understands he himself is lost, Sonny is lost, Fredo is weak, but he always hoped for something better for his youngest child, and now he realizes it might never be.

No greater moment of humanity though is shown than when Vito goes to identify his murdered son Sonny’s body. Tearfully looking back, he says to his friend, “I don’t want his mother to see him this way… Look how they massacred my boy.” There, it’s not Vito the feared mob boss we see. It’s Vito the father, grieving over the death of his child.

It may seem like I’m giving a lot away to you, but there’s much more that I haven’t mentioned. Much, much more.

If you’re looking for the crowning achievement in all of cinema (and I’m hoping those that haven’t seen this is a small, small minority), The Godfather would be it. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful direction combined with Mario Puzo’s riveting story, Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola’s stirring and memorable score, Gordon Willis’s breathtaking cinematography, the universally spectacular performances, what more needs to be said, people?! Even with a running time that’s just shy of three hours, the story, narrative and richly written characters have you so captivated, you don’t even feel the length of time go by. This is the film that forever shaped my taste in movies, and no matter how many times I watch it, I always find a new, hidden gem revealed to me.

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