The Godfather kicks off Hyland's 2013 Retromania schedule

The Hyland Cinema starts off its 2013 Retromania schedule with one of the great movies, The Godfather (1972).

There may not be another movie as universally beloved that I can think of but then, whether or not gangsters intrigue you, The Godfather is an amazingly universal film. It is intriguing for a film that romanticizes the life of a crime kingpin to be so beloved, but it’s about nostalgia and stands as a classical intergenerational tragedy. It’s also quite long, but there’s never been a three-hour film that feels shorter than this one. Considering director Francis Ford Coppola’s later effort Apocalypse Now (1979) may be the longest three-hour film, in terms of how it feels to watch it, this is quite a compelling case for the entertainment value and pacing of the film.

In brief, The Godfather is the story of an ‘old school’ crime boss in his winter years trying to fend off the encroachment of drugs into his trade and a style of doing business in which he’s no longer comfortable. Vito Corleone has seen a lot of violence, but there used to be a code, and in a New York City crime boss coup d’état, the old guard unravels. Vito’s sons have to wrestle with how to steer the family along as the old man winds down and the empire is faced with a new era for which Vito wasn’t ready. Al Pacino is Michael, the youngest son, just back from the war with his innocent fiancée Kay (Diane Keaton), a school teacher, who doesn’t know how Michael’s family really got its money. Everyone is familiar with the setup even if you have never seen it all the way through, and I certainly won’t spoil how it unravels here.

In many ways the film was made at the apogee of the New Hollywood cinema of the 70s and is representative of the leeway given at the time to young directors like Coppola – surely the foremost of them all at the time – Spielberg, Scorsese, Ashby and De Palma to just name a few by studio execs like Robert Evans at Paramount. Yet this film has the feeling in its pace and breadth of an Old Hollywood studio epic, something like Giant (1956) with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, especially with its lush colour palette. It’s odd that some of the film's digressions such as a stop in Hollywood or the segment in Sicily, which would probably have been cut right out of most major movies, actually provide some of the most famous scenes in the movie and are critical in terms of character development.

It could be said that this film was in many ways a passing of the torch as Coppola took Old Hollywood style and gave it warm sendoff. Given his next film, 1974’s The Conversation, there was no looking back. This can also be said for the actors as this series introduced a whole new generation of stars like Pacino, Keaton, Caan, Cazale and Duvall, with Robert De Niro becoming a star in the film’s sequel two years later. Still though, Coppola injects the film with veteran crime film actors like Sterling Hayden and Richard Conte, and that gives the film a rootedness in gangster movie lore.

Of course there’s Marlon Brando, playing much older than he actually was at the time, in one of the all time most parodied and iconic roles as Vito Corleone. The cottonball padded cheeks do come off a bit campy at times, and Brando does ham it up, but there are genuine moments in his performance such as when Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) tells him about the fate of Sonny (James Caan) and Vito tells Pacino’s Michael there just wasn’t enough time. Clearly Vito wanted a different life for his youngest son and the sadness at not being able to stop Michael from entering the family business in his twilight years is beautifully expressed through Brando’s ailing patriarch. I don’t know whether he really deserved another Academy Award for the performance, and it is probably true that by the time they shot this film his craft was nowhere near as polished as the up and comers like Pacino, but I’m glad Brando’s career had a second act before devolving into fat jokes.

I remember reading Mario Puzo’s novel in high school and at the time I thought it was an easy enough read, but a step down from the film. There are several fairly graphic scenes of a sexual nature that Coppola excised, and while the film has its fair share of blood, I say again there’s a romance here that isn’t found in the book. I think that’s because Coppola was saying farewell to the ‘movie gangster’ and the genre of Cagney and Edward G. Robinson that he grew up watching and therefore cagily constructed a movie around classical dramatic themes like many of the old films such as Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). So, in that sense, this really is old time moviemaking.

Really the only point of dissention when it comes to appraising The Godfather is whether The Godfather Part II (1974) is better than the original. Conventional wisdom at this point, I think, would be that it is, but I still prefer this one slightly. That may say more about my own preference for narrative and melodrama, but Part II is almost an entirely different animal with its amoral protagonist Michael Corleone and its parallel narratives where De Niro builds his empire as the young Vito and Michael watches it disintegrate into the capitalist abyss. Part II is more of an effort at being the Great American Movie writ large with its themes about immigration, big business, and politics, and it has a heck of a case for the title being among the foremost contenders. But in The Godfather, we have The Great American Gangster Movie, and the perfect execution of one of Hollywood’s longest standing genres.

Wisely, the Hyland has scheduled two screenings of it for January’s Retromania (January 25 at 9:00pm & January 28 at 9:00pm), so go see it on the big screen. There’s no fathomable reason to pass that chance up.

Paul Hantiuk is a local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer

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