Active Ingredients: Duvall and Cazale; Themes of ambition and corruption
Side Effects: Michael’s sudden turn towards the Family
One of the most interesting aspects of The Godfather—whose mammoth reputation threatens to swallow whole a work that is still compelling, alive and occasionally troubling— is its stylistic positioning as a classical work in a modern cinematic landscape. Its nostalgic auburn hues, novelistic scope and stately compositions must have felt nearly old-fashioned in a time of “easy riders and raging bulls.”
This anachronistic elegance is of course the same as the Corleones’. The family sits in their palatial estate, away from the noise and grime of New York City where Vito made his name as a young man, and conducts a business burdened with decades and even centuries of bloody rites and traditions, the Sicilian code of loyalty or omertà. Characters reminisce about the old days (in each of the three films) because they are all still stuck in the past, doomed to perpetuate a false destiny that will leave them all wealthy, but terribly broken.
The Godfather, like any gangster film, will always be accused of glamorizing crime, but the glamour of the film is central to its ironic statement towards the twinned forces of American ambition and American corruption. Those two forces are inextricably linked to our own creation myth and cultural heritage as a nation of immigrants and capitalists, and the Corleones are the bitter fruit that they bear. They’re Americans par excellence, like it or not.
Coppola and Puzo explore this connection between ambition and corruption through the family’s dealing with politicians and Vito’s plans for Michael’s future, but the connection is also implicitly made in the anachronistic formal elegance that defines The Godfather as a cinematic experience. You can see it in the inky shadows of Gordon Willis’ bold cinematography, you can hear it in Nino Rota’s beautiful but nefarious and melancholy waltz. The Godfather doesn’t glamorize violence, but it does demonstrate that the most monstrous part of America is that it rewards ambition and corruption, generation after generation.