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The Godfather Revisited and Reinterpreted for Today

Scorsese: Inspired Director of The Godfather - David Shankbone
A novel and film 40 years old still thrills, chills and excites imitators. This seminal work set the benchmark for crime family drama. People love it.

On his American Movie Classics (AMC) website, Senior Editor and Film Historian Tim Dirks composed a fulsome commentary of 1972’s masterpiece, The Godfather, in three parts, portraying the mafia as integral part of the fabric of 20th century American society. In a sense, their business became part of the ‘American Dream.’

Dirks styled it: “superb, a mythic, tragic film which contributed to resurgence in the American film industry.” Part 1 was the era’s highest grossing movie. Director Francis Coppola collaborated with Mario Puzo, author of the best-selling novel (1969) about a Cosa Nostra dynasty. The catchphrase “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” (i.e., with a gun to his head) became a classic, with “never tell anyone outside the Family what you’re thinking,” a close second.

Taking his family name from his central Sicilian birth town, ‘Don’ Corleone established a hierarchy of irresistible, strangely empathetic family and anti-heroes. The movie was showered with three Oscars (Best Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Picture), and seven nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Director, Sound, Film Editing and Costume Design.

Totally Believable Plot and Character

Dirks contended that the depth of character study was remarkable, the photography beautiful, with authentic period recreation, rich score and a bittersweet romantic subplot. The actors were of high quality and included Marlon Brando in the title role (he refused his Oscar), Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, Richard Castellano, Al Martino and Lee Strasberg.

At a meeting of New York clans, the aging Don, upholding his view of an ‘honorable’ crime family (prostitution, protection and gambling), felt threatened by rising modern criminal activity, the ‘dirty drug trade.’ His refusal to assist others with that led to his attempted assassination, war among the Five New York Families and the death of his hot-headed son, Sonny, trapped by his weakness for women. Family loyalties were strained; bloodletting, revenge and power-mongering were major strengths in the story.

Part II (1974) was sequel and prequel. It won eleven Academy nominations, regarded as the better work. Featuring Robert De Niro as the young Don Corleone fleeing Sicily, it showed him gradually setting up his Family (as a kind of Robin Hood figure) in New York. It was the back story, but in the Director’s Cut version (1990), Coppola put his epic into chronological order, 1901-1959.

Crime Family Values

He also said he’d always thought of The Godfather as “the story of a great king with three sons, like Shakespeare’s King Lear. The oldest was given his sweet nature and childlike qualities; the second his passion and aggressiveness; and the third, his cunning and coolness.” There was also a long-suffering, loyal sister.

It was the youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), who was drawn semi-reluctantly into the family business, becoming the new Don with a ruthlessness that was clinical, chilling and credible, as he legitimized his crime kingship. In so doing, he paid the price with his humanity (soul) as he cut off the mother of his children and had his own weak, easily led brother, Freddie, murdered.

Part III, set about 20 years later, didn’t arrive till 1990 and saw Michael Corleone buying his way to respectability (while continuing to murder to uphold his position). He died of an ironically peaceful heart attack, but not before seeing his precious daughter butchered and his illegitimate nephew ‘making his bones’ to take over the family business. This was not the strongest in the trilogy.

Insightful Sociological Study

Dirks’ view was that above so much more, it was a study of violence, power, police corruption, honour and obligation. The terms mafia and Cosa Nostra were not used; ‘The Family’ was the understood euphemism. Even the lowliest foot soldier on the criminal ladder who was part of a given crime syndicate belonged to that family, owing loyalty unto death and silence, the unspoken omerta.

He pointed at romanticised domestic life scenes at home, eating and drinking, a family wedding, shopping, a baptism, a funeral, juxtaposed with acts of brutal violence and death. The severed head of his $600,000 prize racehorse placed in the bed of the sleeping movie mogul who refused to assist a Corleone protege was one of the most memorable.

It was about repaying debts. Partly, these were acts of revenge, a son for a son, like the Biblical ‘eye for an eye.’ Equally, debts were material. The undertaker who asked the Don for revenge against thugs who nearly raped his daughter was later told to repay what Corleone’s men did by cleaning up Sonny’s body before his mother saw it. It was all couched in terms of ‘asking a favour, for a friend.’ The Sicilian way.

The Mafia Genre

There were more strands, issues and ideas: the rise of Las Vegas and gambling; the U.S. Grand Committee system; husband-wife trust in a marriage of Italian-American to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP); white historic ‘superiority’ over Italian immigrants; the Roman Catholic Church; tradition versus modernity and the depth of integration of old mafia into American society.

Other movies in the same game as The Godfather include: Goodfellas (1990) by Scorsese, based on a real mobster called Henry Hill; the same director’s Casino (1995) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), another epic spanning generations of New York’s organised criminal underworld, showcasing friendship, love, loss, greed and, of course, violence.

Donnie Brasco (1997) was also based on truth about infiltrating a crime family. The Departed (2006) and Carlito’s Way (1993) were crime thrillers, while Scarface (1983) revealed Miami’s ‘wise guys.’ Some have it that movies like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), Jackie Brown (1997), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Boondock Saints (2000), Analyze This (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002) were mafia genre films.

They also included Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), The Usual Suspects (1995), Chinatown (1974), Snatch (2000), Kill Bill (2003), Fight Club (1999), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Eastern Promises (2007) and The Dark Knight (2008). Even The Shawshank Redemption (1994) should be included.

The violence, the codes of honour, the distortions caused by misplaced loyalties, were symptomatic of mafiosi movies. The Sopranos (1999-2006) put the genre onto television. Whether directly or indirectly about Sicilian Mafia in American, Russian, Mexican, Eastern European, Oriental, South American versions, people enjoy getting involved. It’s getting in touch with the dark side. That’s what movie makers offer audiences. Few can refuse.

First published on Suite 101, 27 February 2011.

Photo: Scorsese: Inspired Director of The Godfather – David Shankbone

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