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The enduring legacy of The Godfather – 50th anniversary special


In an age where gangland shenanigans are a staple on streaming platforms and audiences devour podcasts and YouTube videos by retired mobsters, The Godfather, on whose shoulders countless gangster films in myriad languages stand, is a cultural cornerstone.

Daniel Pinto

"I believe in America. America has made my fortune," the visibly distressed supplicant prefaces before relating the harrowing incident and subsequent miscarriage of justice to which he has been callously subjected.

The desire to be a good American or the fear of incurring a terrible debt notwithstanding, the aggrieved gentleman, whose accent indicates he is an Italian immigrant, had come to this conclusion after being humiliated for naively reposing faith in an all-too-alien system — to obtain justice, he must turn to Don Vito Corleone, an outstanding community figure with powerful friends.

As the camera zooms out ever so slowly, the object of his supplication enters the view, albeit in silhouette. The don, played by the magnificent Marlon Brando, cuts a suave and regal figure as he patiently hears out the petitioner, Bonasera, who, we learn later, is an undertaker by trade.

Gently upbraided by Don Corleone for not having approached him in the first place as a friend, and properly paying the respect due to someone of his standing, Bonasera is eventually afforded the storied magnanimity displayed by a Sicilian on his daughter's wedding day.

"Someday, and that day may never come, I'll ask a service of you," Corleone informs the beneficiary of his justice on his way out, foreshadowing a tragic, rather than sinister, development.

This arresting sequence kicks off the tour de force that is The Godfather (1972), establishing simultaneously the shadowy world in which men such as Vito Corleone preside as well as his tremendous influence among politicians whom he carries in his pocket like so many nickels and dimes, to quote Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a mobster backed by a rival family who wants the ageing don to come on board his narcotics racket.

The iconic opening scene had its genesis in a friend of director Francis Ford Coppola feeling underwhelmed by the film's original introductory scene, which was set in the riotous wedding reception that takes place outside the don's dimly lit den. On reading the script, he suggested that Coppola come up with something akin to the opening of Patton (1970), the screenplay of which had fetched the filmmaker his first Oscar.

The godfather's eldest son, the mercurial and impulsive Santino aka Sonny (James Caan), seems poised to take over the family business, which revolves around unions and gambling. The crime family is counselled by its adopted member Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who is also its advocate, and its bidding is carried out by the able caporegimes or captains Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) and Sal Tessio (Abe Vigoda).

Sonny's bumbling and feckless brother Frederico aka Fredo (John Cazale) is a part of the inner circle, but his youngest brother Michael, a bright college-educated war hero, has, by design, not been initiated into a life of crime.

Steering clear of the family's less-than-legitimate activities, many of which he is privy to, Michael prefers to spend his days in the company of his non-Italian sweetheart Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). The youngest Corleone sibling, Constanzia aka Connie (Talia Shire), is married to the abusive Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who, somewhat like Michael, is not part of the family business.

After Don Corleone politely turns down Sollozzo's request to finance and provide legal protection to activities which the former considers dangerous in the long run, the family falls prey to forces that violently attempt to consign it to history.

From the very first scene, where Bonasera makes the audience his confessor, to the last, where an inexorable transformation reaches its terrible conclusion — and all the unpredictable twists and turns, Byzantine intrigues and bloodletting in between — The Godfather continues to captivate as few films have.

At its core a Shakespearean tale of succession, the period film was one of the first to shed light on the inner workings, mores and taboos of Cosa Nostra in the 20th century by offering viewers an insider's perspective into the mob life, paving the way for modern-day classics such as The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders. Also featuring morally ambiguous protagonists that are entrenched in the world of organized crime, these shows, like The Godfather, touch upon themes such as family, power, trust, betrayal, honour and revenge.

In an age where gangland shenanigans are a staple on streaming platforms and audiences devour podcasts and YouTube videos by retired mobsters, The Godfather, on whose shoulders countless gangster films in myriad languages stand, is a cultural cornerstone.

The painterly manipulation of shadow, light and colour by cinematographer Gordon Willis, nicknamed the Prince of Darkness for his bold use of underexposure, stands out to this day while the film's warm tone has become synonymous with the era depicted in it. Dean Tavoularis's evocative production design beams viewers into this bygone era while Nino Rota's sublime melodies, which tie in to the film's timeless themes, conjure a sense of nostalgia. His iconic 'Love Theme' enjoyed a second life as a chart-topping pop song and was even purloined by the Hindi film industry.

Coppola, who was all of 29 when he signed on for the project, imbued the film with authenticity by adding elements that were familiar to him as an Italian-American. He also pulled off a masterful feat of condensation and distillation, building upon Mario Puzo's compelling story while excising the bestseller's sensational bits such as a sub-plot revolving around a female character's private parts, which accounts for an alarming number of pages of the novel.

While shooting the film, which was wrapped up in 62 days, the filmmaker was constantly haunted by the spectre of being sacked for driving up the cost of production. Were it not for Coppola's insistence, the film would have been a $2.5 million potboiler set in contemporary times.

It was his persistence that resulted in Pacino and Brando, who was Puzo's first choice for the role of Don Corleone, being in the film. While the former was considered too short and the studio wanted someone better known for the part, the latter was feared to be box-office poison and a hell-raiser who would derail the project to boot.

But a surreptitious screen test carried out by Coppola, which captured Brando's transformation from the 40-something he was at the time to an ageing mafioso, put paid to such fears and the legendary actor went on to deliver a celebrated performance that exudes authority and commands attention.

The Godfather abounds with masterful performances. Pacino, who proved naysayers wrong with his immense range and commanding presence as the cool-headed Michael, wonderfully contrasts the volcanic nature of Caan's character. The cold-blooded pragmatism of Lettieri's sinister Sollozzo, which drives the plot, puts him among the best villains of cinema.

While Cazale, Shire, Duvall and Keaton also shine, it is in the next film, where their roles are greatly expanded. Sadly, Castellano, who brought so much colour to the first film, did not reprise his role as Clemenza as Coppola refused to accede to his agent's demand for complete control over the character's dialogue.

With a miniseries depicting the landmark film's tumultuous journey from the page to the big screen in the works, one thing is clear: 50 years on, no one can refuse The Godfather.

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