Godfather, The (1972): Coppola’s Best Picture Oscar, Highlight of American Cinema, Starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino

The phenomenal critical and commercial success of “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 revived Hollywood’s and the American public’s interest in the crime-gangster movies.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

More crime films were Oscar-nominated in the 1970s than in any previous decade. Moreover, three features won the Best Picture Oscar: the action-thriller “The French Connection,” in 1971, and the two Francis Ford Coppola crime sagas, “The Godfather” in 1972, and “The Godfather, Part Two,” in 1974.  In 1990, the third and last segment, “The Godfather, Part Three,” also secured Best Picture nomination.







Of the first two “The Godfather” movies, the first was more critically acclaimed and more popular at the box-office, grossing over $80 million in domestic rentals. But it was less honored by the Academy, winning a second Best Actor for Marlon Brando, as Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone, and screenplay, written by Coppola in collaboration with Mario Puzo, upon whose best-seller it was based.

A highlight of the American Cinema of the 1970s, The Godfather is a seminal film which is successful as mass entertainment as well as a more serious art films, a desirable combination that only a few Hollywood movies have achieved, past or present.

Mario Puzo claims that he had Marlon Brando in mind as Don Vito Corleone while he was writing The Godfather. He sold the rights to Paramount before the book was published for $35,000, and a promise that he would also write, or collaborate on the script for a fee of $100,000 and  percentage on the film’s grosses.

the_godfather_4_pacinoAt first, Paramount was not enthusiastic about The Godfather; the studio had recently lost money on The Brotherhood, a Kirk Douglas Mafia movie. They therefore instructed Puzo to write a contemporary crime story. The studio then allocated a modest $2 million budget and hired Al Ruddy as producer and Francis Ford Coppola as director, both young (in early thirties) and inexperienced.

Ruddy had been involved in TV and some minor films, and Coppola had directed You’re a Big Boy Now, Finian’s Rainbow, and The Rain People, none of which was a commercial or critical success. But Coppola was respected as a writer, having won an Oscar as co-scripter of Patton, which won the 1970s Best Picture Oscar.

Coppola persuaded Paramount to invest more money in The Godfather, after the huge appeal of Puzo’s book, which had sold half a million copies in hardback and 10 million copies in paperback.  At the end, the budget amounted to $6 million.

the_godfather_5_pacinoMarlon Brando rendered one of his most arresting performances, as Don Corleone, a tough old Sicilian peasant who has risen to the level of omnipotent chieftain in an empire of Italian-American crime.  The leader of one of the five families that control the Mafia in New York, he is also a family man–his sons and relatives are members of his operation and he expects total loyalty from them.

One of the fascinating contradictions of The Godfather is that although it is a story of crime, replete with violence and brutal killings, it is essentially a saga of a warm family adhering to its own moral codes, based on love and concern for each member.

The Corleones are a close-knit family, headed by Don Corleone as its undisputed patriarch; as played by Brando, he carries the authority and charisma of a religious leader. His voice is quiet and rasping, his chin sticks out, and men kiss his hand while seeking favors. But there is also remoteness and detachment–his watchful eyes reflect commanding and authority.

Opening Sequence: Wedding

the_godfather_2_caanThe opening shot of The Godfather sets the dark tone of the film, both thematically and visually.  The look is muted and dim, while Don Corleone listens to the undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Cirsitto), asks for help. Though his daughter was brutally raped by two non-Italians, the men have been pardoned by a judge, and Bonasera now pleads for justice. Listening without showing any overt emotion and stroking his white cat, Corleone reminds Bonasera of his previous lack of respect. Even so, But Bonasera is touching and the Don promises to “deal with” the rapists,” expecting the undertaker to return the favor one day.

The Don and his sons then go about the business of the day, attending the marriage of his daughter Connie (Talia Shire) to the bookmaker Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). The Corleone mansion and the gardens are full of guests enjoying a lavish banquet and dancing to an Italian band.

It’s August 1945 and the Don’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) has just returned home from WWII service, wearing the decorated uniform of a marine captain.  Michael is accompanied by his WASPish girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). College-educated and mild-mannered, Michael is his father’s hope that he will rise to legitimate prominence in politics.

the_godfather_1_brandoThe wedding party is enlivened by the arrival of the popular crooner, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), who sings a love song for the newlyweds.  The mood changes when he asks Don Corleone for a favor, wishing to get an important part in a Hollywood film. The part will lift his career, but the producer has refused to cast him. The Don sends his right-hand man, legal adviser and adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), to negotiate with producer Jack Woltz (John Marley), who still refused to consider Fontane. The next morning Woltz wakes up to find the severed head of his horse in his bed. Fontane gets the film.

Hagen arranges for a meeting in NY between Don Corleone and Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) of the Tattaglia family. Sollozzo offers the Don to join him in a new, promising avenue, narcotics in America. Don Corleone flatly refuses to partake of a crime he believes to be bad and dangerous. However, his son, Sonny (James Caan), is not as morally scrupulous. Weeks later, Don Corloene is gunned down in the streets, as a way of eliminating him in order to do business with his son. The old man survives and when he recovers, Michael, previously uninvolved, decides to follow the family trade. He agrees to meet Sollozzo and a crooked police captain, McClusky (Sterling Hayden). But instead of making a deal, he kills the pair.

the_godfather_6_brandoFor his safety, the family sends him to Sicily, where he lives for two years and marries a local girl, Appollonia (Simonette Stefanelli). The idyll is ended when his wife is killed in a car explosion, a reprisal engineered by a bodyguard. Michael returns to New York, fully committed to a career in the underworld.

The rival families compete for the control of the criminal enterprises of New York and its environs. The aging Don meets with his rivals and states his position on cooperation. They seemingly agree, but it’s a false front and they continue to manipulate the business. Sonny is trapped and shot to death, forcing Michael to assume command of his family. He marries former  girlfriend Kay, and settles down to a life similar to that of his father. Don Corleone, playing with a grandson in the garden, is stricken with a heart attack and dies.

Once Michael Corleone becomes the new Godfather, he shows that he is tougher and more ruthless than his father.  With precise planning, he arranges the elimination of all his enemies who have harmed his family, all his opposition.

Closting Sequence: Baptism

The Godfather ends with a striking montage of multiple slaughter, cutting back and forth from a baptism service in a church, attended by Michael, and the various locations in which his men kill his rivals. The murders restore the Corleones to supreme leadership in the underworld, cementing the position of  Michael as the most powerful chief in American crime.

An epic film boasting a running close to three hours (175 minutes to be exact), the appeal of The Godfather derives from its intricate storytelling involving characters, bloody violence, and affectionate portrayal of family relationships.

Coppola set out to redeem his faltering directing career, having made of three minor and mediocre films.  As a result of his ambition, burgeoning talent, and luck,  he was able to cast major American actors of the decade, such as Brando, Pacino, Duvall, Diane Keaton, and James Caan, and to blend them effectively with great character actors, such as John Marley, Al Leitteri, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, and Richard Castellano.

Within weeks of initial release, it became a blockbuster–one of the most profitable films ever made. It recouped it 6 million budget within a matter of weeks. By the end of 1972, The Godfather has grossed more than $100 million

The critics were uniform in praising the film for its resonant narrative, visual style, magnificent composition, flawless acting, and brilliant direction.  But they wondered: How could they, as critics and gatekeepers, and the public, be so entertained by a film about the politics of organized crime?  For thier part, the filmmakers claimed in response that it is not a documentary or condemnation of the Mafia, but a fictional story about people in a certain section of society.

The movie was a curious, but successful mix of creative fantasy and disguised facts, made even more bizarre by the well-publicized facts that dozens of hoodlums died in internecine warfare in New York, while the film was being made. The picture supported the familiar claim of the underworld, “We only kill each other,” which regrettably happens to be far from the truth.

The Mafia seemed to enjoy The Godfather as much as the general public, which alarmed some sociologists concerned about the moral impact of the film. Initially it was the Italian-American groups in New York who were most opposed to the film.  Members of the underworld made known to Paramount that if the company expected to be able to shoot the film in New York, they would make it impossible unless the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” were not used in the screenplay.

The Italian-American Civil Rights League staged a rally in Madison Square Garden and raised $600,000 for the purpose of stopping the film. Interestingly, Frank Sinatra was a member of that movement, though the role of Johnny Fontane is widely believed to be patterned on his career.

Says producer Al Ruddy, “We had to get the word out to the Italian-American community in a very bona fide way that we had no intention of doing a schlock exploitation gangster film.” Ruddy met with prominent citizens and convinced them of his purpose, and in making the picture he received very little hindrance and considerable help.

The scene of Brando being gunned down in the street took three days to film the sequence. Dozens of other locations were used in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Richmond, where a side street in a residential area of Staten Island was used as the Corleone Family Mall. The location was further isolated by building an eight-foot wall around the garden of the house that was leased as the home of the family.

The interiors of the home were shot at the Filmways Studio in the Bronx, and the producers secured permission to film scenes in Bellevue Hospital and the New York Eye and Ear Clinic. In addition to the New York locations, which account for the bulk of the film, the company spent two weeks on location in a small village in Sicily.

The Godfather offers a dark commentary on certain aspects–business world–of American life. He feels that it might even be taken as an allegory on corporate thinking, and that don Corleone is a somewhat perverse manifestation of the American Dream.  He told Newsweek: “In a way the Mafia is the best example of capitalists we have. Don Corleone is just an ordinary business magnate who is trying to do the best he can for the group he represents and for his family… unlike some corporate heads, Corleone has an unwavering loyalty for the people that have given support to him and his causes and he takes care of his own.”

Bold and frank, Brando stated that he didn’t see much difference between the tactics of the Mafia and the American government, which brought him criticism. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that there must be a difference between the Cosa Nostra and Gulf and Western, who own Paramount, and a difference between machine-gunning or garroting someone, and hiring a detective to trail him.

If The Godfather is a glorification of free enterprise gone mad, the film also offers evidence that capitalism still works.  The movie suggested (explicitly to some, implicitly to others) that the career of a gangster is not that different from that of a legit businessman or mainstream politician.

Indeed, one of Coppola’s major accomplishments is to offer a seemingly contradictory perspective, both an inside and outside look of the Corleone family and its dynamics of operation.  The inside, largely sympathetic view showed the love, respect and warmth of most of the family relations among credibly constructed individual characters, grounded in a particular socio-historical reality.  On the other hand, the outside look offered a critical analysis of a criminal clan, motivated by dubious ethics and the use of illegitimate means (bloody violence) to achieve and maintain its dominance.

This kind of ambiguous morality and duality in perspective struck a chord in the early to mid seventies due to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal; President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, the same year that The Godfather, Part Two was released.

Oscar Context











The film’s major competitor in 1972 was Bob Fosse’s exuberant musical “Cabaret,” which captured the largest number of awards, 8, including Best Director. The two Godfathers broke new grounds in several ways. For years, until “The Departed,” in 2006, they were the only crime-gangster movies to have won Best Picture. “The Godfather Part II,” won the largest number of awards, 6, thus becoming the only sequel to have received an Oscar.


An Albert S. Ruddy Production, released by Paramount Pictures.

Produced by Albert S. Ruddy.

Associate Producer: Gary Frederickson.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo.

Photographed in Technicolor by Gordon Willis.

Art direction by Warren Clymer.

Edited by William Reynolds and Peter Zinner.

Musical score by Nino Rota.

Running time: 176 minutes.



Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)

Sonny Corleone (James Caan)

Clemenza (Richard Castellano)

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)

McCluskey (Sterling Hayden)

Jack Woltz (John Marley)

Barzini (Richard Conte)

Kay Adams (Diane Keaton)

Sollozzo (Al Lettieri)

Tessio (Abe Vigoda)

Connie Rizzi (Talia Shire)

Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo)

Fredo Corleone (John Cazale)

Cuneo (Rudy Bond)

Johnny Fontane (Al Martino)

Mama Corleone (Morgana King)

Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana)

Paulie Gatto (John Martino)

Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto)

Neri (Richard Bright)

Moe Greene (Alex Rocco)

Bruno Tattaglia (Tony Giogio)

Nazorine (Vito Scotti)

Theresa Hagen (Tere Livrano)

Phillip Tattaglia (Victor Rendina)

Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero)

Sandra Corleone (Julie Gregg)

Mrs. Clemenza (Ardell Sheridan)

Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)

Fabrizio (Angelo Infanti)

Don Tommasino (Corrado Gaipa)

Calo (Franco Citti)

Vitelli (Saro Urzi)

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