In the history of cinema, there have been only a handful of films that can legitimately take claim as the greatest film of all time, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is most certainly one of them. In fact, even today The Godfather was named the best film of all time in a poll by Empire magazine, with participants including directors such as Quentin Tarentino and Perdro Almodovar, and other respected directors and film fans (“The Godfather Named ‘Best Movie’”). While this is another great honor for the movie, it is just another in a long line of accolades, a trend which began as soon as the release of the film in 1972. In the thirty-six years since Coppola made his masterpiece, it has not only remained one of the most respected film of all time, but has influenced scores of directors and contribute to the success of the noveau gangster film movement.
When The Godfather came out in 1972, it was emerging into an American cultural landscape that was virtually devoid of hope or creative spirit. The only bright light seemed to shine from the crop of young filmmakers, including Martin Scorcese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Coppola. Each was ambitious, young, and about to change the way people look at films. While each director achieved modest critical acclaim with their debut films, the talented writer, Coppola had yet to achieve the success of his peers, and in fact was in danger of being phased out of directing. Paramount Production Chief Robert Evans had faith in the relatively unproven Coppola’s directing ability, and attached particular importance to the fact that he was Italian-American, saying the thirty-one year old director, “knew the way these men in The Godfather ate their food, kissed each other, talked. He knew the grit” (“The Making of The Godfather” 1). Coppola would then work with author of the book from which the movie came, Mario Puzo, to make the film the vision that he saw at the outset, saying: “It was my intention to make this an authentic piece of film about gangsters who were Italian, how they lived, how they behaved, the way they treated their families, celebrated their rituals” (“The Making of The Godfather” 2). With this knowledge in hand and goal in mind, perhaps only the film’s creators had any idea it would become an American icon in motion pictures.
The gangster genre had largely disappeared in film of the 1970s, reaching their peak decades earlier, far before the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. Audiences became too sophisticated to truly get into fast-talking gangsters like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, with vengeance on their minds and killer dames on their arms. The violent realism of movies such as Bonnie and Clyde had completely changed the rules of film, and gangster films had yet to make their back to movie theaters. However, when Coppola released The Godfather, he would reinvent the genre that had been largely dormant in popular culture and reinvigorate America’s love affair with organized crime and the men who perpetrate it.
The story of the Corleone family is a story of the American dream, with a dark and violent underbelly. Michael Corleone could be any son of a success, not sure if he should get involved in the family business or strike out on his own. Circumstances dictate his decision and his fate, as well as the attention and careful tutelage he receives from his powerful father, Don Vito Corleone. The story of the Corleones is one of family loyalty, power, and the pursuit of all that is American, but it is the lavish manner in which this story is portrayed that puts it at the tops of so many lists and polls.
The success of The Godfather is due in large part to all the elements of good filmmaking come together to create a near perfect film. The taught script is complemented by the striking visuals that seek to make the film look as authentic as possible. The feel of the 1940s and 1950s is captured perfectly, in the street scenes of New York and throughout the movie. Combine this with spot-on costume design, amazing acting of some of American film’s best performances by Al Pacino, James Caan, and the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, and a dramatic score that remains one of the most recognizable tunes in cinematic history. This attention to detail and moviemaking perfection was recognized during the following year’s Academy Award ceremony, where the film was nominated for 11 awards and won 3, including Best Actor for; Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium; and Best Picture. It was also nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, three acting Oscars, and Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola (“Awards for The Godfather (1972)”). By the time the sequel came out two years later, with many claiming it as the greatest film of all time, the legend of the first film was already cemented.
The influence of The Godfather was felt during the rest of the seventies, and into the eighties. Few directors stayed as loyal to the new gritty, realistic style of filmmaking, and mafia themes as Martin Scorcese would, making movies featuring Italian-American gangsters in movies like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. The gangsters of Scorcese lacked much of the romance of the Corleone saga, as family loyalty and ambiguous morality gave way to unrestrained greed and a culture of deception. Gone was the almost mythical respect given to Don Corleone, and the world of Henry Hill and Frank Costello was one in which no one could trust even their closest friends. However, elements of The Godfather are seen in the realistic violence, rich dialogue, and nonchalant attitude towards crime as just another way to make money. And, in this new generation of mafia films, one attribute of The Godfather continues to permeate in the form of the American dream. Just like Don Vito and his family trying to achieve the American dream of the 1940s, characters like Tony Soprano continued to quest for the same comfort, success, and love for his family as the original Godfather, and continue to remind viewers of the immense creative achievement the original film really is.
“Awards for The Godfather (1972).” Internet Movie Database. 2008. 24 Sep 2008.
“The Godfather Named Best Movie.” BBC News. 24 Sep 2008. 24 Sep 2008.
“The Making of The Godfather.” Time. 13 Mar 1972. 24 Sep 2008.