The ‘Godfather’ movies are significant in the history of the gangster film in that unlike their antecedents from the 1930’s they differ in that they don’t provide the same strength of narrative closure with a clear moral compass, often these classic gangster films masqueraded as morality tales where criminals would invariably would get their just deserts. This was partially as a conseqience of the introduction of the Hays code. However, the details of the gangsters’ sticky ends are interesting. Before the introduction of the production code they were little more than exploitation films offering a voyeuristic pleasure in to imagined glamourous lives of plenty, and freedom for their largely economically downtrodden 1930’s working class audiences, this despite the claims in their opening title cards which claimed to reveal crime as a social problem requiring urgent action from the authorities (but offering no solutions).
The two most memorable examples were Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy 1931 US) and The Public Enemy (William Wellman 1931 US). In both these films, gangster are represented as outsiders from civil society. Even their demise remained remote from the authority of the law; at the hands of other gangsters, thus offering little by way of a moral compass for audiences. In many respects they are far more revealing of their time than gangster films made after the introduction of the production code in 1933 (these films were partially responsible for its introduction). This could be seen in the glamourising of the gangster, as succeeding in a distorted version of the American dream (exploitation and violent replacing enterprise and hard work). Where enterprise and hard work failed in the economic crash of 1929.
After the introduction of the production code gangster films, for example Michael Curtiz’s ‘Angels With Dirty Faces‘ (1938), which adopts the conventional narrative and ideological conventions that mis-guided youth in immigrant communities are too easily fated to become gangsters, if not set straight. In this case it uses the narrative device of a crucial choice made at a single point in youth, where the life of crime or religious vocation seemed determined. The twist which arrives with the gangster facing a choice between reclaiming his ill-gotten games, and seeking to reintegrate himsef into his community but no having the moral compass to do so. The tension arises in his ingrained corruption overseeing the path towards criminality of a group of underprivileged youths (the dead end kids). The moral counter to this narrative force is the representative of the other choice made earlier by his childhood friend Jerry Connolly, who has become a Catholic priest, locating the story within the conventional immigrant community. Compared to the Godfather, these films offered a pretty simplistic impression of the structural infiltration of criminal organisation into all aspects of American life.
The gangster film in the late forties and fifties appear to shift the narrative perspective towards innocents who fall into the path of sinister and shadowy criminal organisations (in film noir), which are perhaps mirrors of existential angst and are opaque, extensions of principals’ paranoia, shrouded in mystery with an almost metaphysical existence. Metaphors for the threat of mutually assured destruction. One exception would be White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949 US) in which James Cagney returns to the genre as Cody Jarrett, whose oedipal psychosis is explored.
The gangster movie went into decline in the late fifties and sixties, to be revived, by the end of the production code and by the interest of some film makers of the nouvelle vague, whose influence was significant on the film school graduate in the 1960’s Coppola’s Godfather films on the other hand adopt a view of criminal organisations within an idiom of late twentieth century corporate America, where sometimes murder is seen as merely as an alternative business strategy. For example, referring to threats and coercion as ‘making an offer they can’t refuse’ (a line used early in the Godfather film).
Coppola offers us a far more episodic closure suggesting that the narrative is on going even though the movie has finished. This serves a kind of symbolic representation of the permanent and central role of the ‘family’ in American society. This has implications for my main point that Coppola’s godfather Films are indices of their age and also part of a tradition where the gangster movie forms Hollywood’s central narrative of the twentieth century. The Godfather was an adaptation of the novel by Mario Puzo. The producer was Albert Ruddy, The screenplay was Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola also directed the movie. The Godfather Part II and III were also co-written by Coppola and Puzo, but Coppola both produced and directed these films. This essay attempts to examine how much these movies are indices of the time they were made.
Coppola plays a very important role in these films and therefore his preoccupations affect the underlying concepts on which the films are constructed. The film was made in 1972. In the film there was an outstanding performance by Al Pacino and strong characterisation by Marlon Brando in the title role; The Godfather (Don Corleone). The film displays excellent production values, is peppered with flashes of excitement and has a well picked cast. It won best picture, best actor (Marlon Brando), and best adapted screenplay at the 1972 Oscars. In the Godfather, the central focus of the narrative is one of the five “families” headed by The Don Corleone (Brando). This is a world where emotional ties are strong, loyalties are somewhat more flexible, and tempers run short. Brando as Don Corleone does an admirable job, portraying him as the lord of his domain. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, the youngest of the Don’s sons, is seen initially as the one whom the Don places his hopes for the future (wanting him to go more or less straight), but under the trauma of an assassination attempt on Brando, the murder of his Sicilian bride and a series of other personal readjustments, Michael matures and eventually we find him as king of his own mob.
The key to my argument is located in the final scene of the first movie, here the camera adopting the point of view of Michael Corleone’s second wife pans back from Michael discussing business with other members of the ‘family’, this is viewed through a doorway, which is firmly closed as the film concludes. Coppola here has made direct reference to the last scene of John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’, but has inverted the meaning. Ford’s movie positions the audience as included within the space of the ‘family’ where Ethan (John Wayne), the chief dramatic force of the film, is excluded. In many of Ford’s movies the ‘family’ is used as a metaphor for the nation. In ‘The Godfather’ the audience is positioned with Michael’s wife, outside the room and is excluded from the ‘family’ business. In doing this, Coppola makes a number of points; firstly, he highlights the paradox and irony of Michael’s ‘family’, his loyalties to the ‘business’ are stronger than to any conventional family. The second and perhaps most important point is that Michael, and his co-conspirators, are viewed in a room through a doorway; they therefore, by making direct references to Ford’s intention, are the ‘included’ group, ‘the family of the nation’, something that we, the audience are excluded from. This is also the case of most of the mechanisms of corporate America. This idea is supported throughout the film. It opens with a large set piece family event, a wedding celebration. Here members of other criminal families pay tribute, they are received by Don Corleone as a kind of feudal lord. Implied in this is that there is a peace between the families, but that this peace is fragile imposed by the forces of self-interest against mutually assured destruction, a kind of ‘cold war’.
The wedding celebration is interrupted by an undertaker who seeks a favour of justice from Don Corleone. The undertaker’s daughter had been raped and the perpetrators had been acquitted on the technicality that she was too frightened to testify. Don Corleone assures the undertaker that his request will be attended to, but that he will owe the ‘family’ a favour. This hints at a darker side of the sympathetic character of Don Corleone. He appears here to be serving the function of the state, or perhaps he may be seen as a metaphor of the state, receiving tribute and dispensing justice. Early in the film an explanation is offered of the Don’s title ‘The Godfather’. He explains that many people ask him to be godfather to their children, he seems to feel that this is a natural state of affairs as he is powerful, and as such should look after the interests of the less powerful. This could be seen as a type of public service within the community and seems to be expressed as a paternal responsibility which could perhaps be paralleled to that of ‘Uncle Sam’. The audience are positioned so that Don Corleone is seen favourably throughout the film, this may also be the case with the mythical ‘Uncle Sam’ at that time.
The ‘Cold war’ rivalry breaks out into open conflict with the attempted murder of Don Corleone; one of the earliest acts of violence in the film. There is some irony where Michael’s elder brothers express some unease at Michael’s resolve to undertake the revenge (given his later actions) a double murder on corrupt cop Stirling Hayden and rival gangster Al Letteri. Michael takes refuge in Sicily. Counter-revenge is inflicted on him when his new Sicilian wife is killed in a car bomb. This event changes Michael, and unleashes dark forces within him, which were until now contained. On his return to the States he plans and initiates a series of clinically executed, brutal murders. These are ostensibly justified by the Corleone’s family’s interest in moving into more legitimate businesses. However from this time we see a blurring of the distinction between murder as a business strategy and what appears to be a personal agenda. This war of revenge occurs when the power in the ‘family’ has largely passed to Michael, the aging Don having withdrawn from the ‘family business’. Here we might draw some historical parallels, firstly; the change in the ‘family’s’ criminal activities during the late forties and fifties to more efficiently organised legitimate businesses could parallel the growth of national chains; supermarkets, etc., large impersonal organisations pervading the life of the nation rather than the sometimes haphazard ways that local and even regional concerns operate. Secondly; Michael’s succession could be seen to parallel that of Johnson’s to Kennedy’s incomplete presidency. Michael’s distorted family loyalties are forced in sharp relief when he assumes the role of Don (out of succession, he is the youngest son), and it is at this time that we see the first glimpses of his psychoses (themes developed in the second film). These glimpses into Michael’s motivation could extend the Johnson/Kennedy analogy further, from the ‘cold’ war observed at the wedding early in the film, a parallel to the uneasy peace and superficial optimism of Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ presidency, to the open hostilities which the United States undertook in Vietnam under Johnson (Coppola’s fascination with this conflict which became evident later, supports the argument to some degree).
“The Godfather II”, far from being a spin off from the 1972 Oscar winner is an excellent epilogue drama in its own right, indeed the film won five Oscars in 1974 in its own right, including best picture and best director. This film’s production costs were about two and a half times the original at $15 million. The scenes in this movie alternate between Pacino’s gambling rackets in Nevada, and the young Vito Corleone’s (Robert De Niro) early life in Sicily and New York. Al Pacino is again outstanding as Michael Corleone, his performance, if anything, is equalled by De Niro’s. A natural break occurs in the movie when we are required to readjust when the young Vito Corleone (De Niro), who until now has only been involved with petty crime, brutally assassinates Gaston Moschin, the neighbourhood crime boss without a shred of conscience. In this movie Michael Corleone, as the result of an attempted assassination, becomes more and more paranoid. We witness the break down of the ‘family’ – He separates from his wife and finally, orders the murder of his elder brother Fredo (implicated in the assassination attempt). As Michael’s isolation and paranoia increase so too does his ‘family’s’ violence, we witness the ‘family’ carrying out acts of revenge with disproportionate brutality, further blurring the distinction between violence as ‘business’ and Michael’s more personal agendas.
We might find a number of historical parallels in his character’s development. The first point is that the origins of and increasing involvement of the United States in the Vietnam war were a product of cold-war anti-communist paranoia. The second point is that America’s involvement avoided the statutory need to receive the approval of Congress being more or less entirely the decision of one man, the president. It is the second of these historical analogies which I wish to pay attention to first. ‘The Godfather Part II’ was being shot and edited throughout the period doubt over the honesty of the Nixon Presidency, and it became clear that Nixon himself was becoming more and more isolated, and as each of his co-conspirators testified at the senate hearings, it has been stated that the Whitehouse developed a ‘siege mentality’ not dissimilar to paranoia. At the same time the brutality in Vietnam continued, in particular the expansion of the conflict in the secret bombing of Cambodia.
One further series of events might be worth investigating. When “The Godfather II” was being made, levels of paranoia among the American troops were so great that they behaved in more and more psychotic ways, performing acts of unnecessary violence on innocent civilians and even opening fire on their own side (points which form the central narrative of Coppola’s later ‘Apocalypse Now’). In the light of this a metaphor we could apply to Michael is that of American youth, drafted into Vietnam, he didn’t really want to become part of the ‘family’, but once his loyalties were mobilised, dark forces were released. Al Pacino said of Michael:
“I always felt that Michael had a kind of disdain for gangsters and always wanted to turn it all back to before he got into trouble”
The American troops in Vietnam were there largely against their will, and those which had volunteered returned with a different perception of ‘Uncle Sam’. A number of points carried over from the first film should be dealt with in the light of the above. Firstly; Michael’s role, on inheriting the leadership of the family (at Vito Corleone’s death), he adopts the metaphor of ‘Uncle Sam’, but his uncle Sam is apparently far more dangerous, less benign than Vito’s. Much of the belief in the benign nature of ‘Uncle Sam’ was lost with the demise of the Nixon presidency, and the conduct of the troops in Vietnam. Our parallel here might be the break up of the Corleone family with the realisation that the American ‘family’ was more truly made up of many conflicting groups and interests, made a single coherent body by the power of the Presidency, in the case of the Nixon presidency a head which was clearly sick, the undermoning of the naivete implicit in John Ford’s mythical ‘family of the nation’. Secondly, by allowing us to witness Vito Corleone’s brutal rise to prominence, Coppola seems to invite us to reassess American History. How benign, if at all is ‘Uncle Sam’, after all, how did he get to be so powerful.
In “The Godfather III” different forces applied. This films $55 million production costs exceeds both its preceding movies. The Hollywood studios had changed beyond all recognition by the time Coppola came to make hi final film in the trilogy. They had become run by corporate executives more familiar with balance sheets than with narrative techniques, and, as a consequence of both this, and perhaps his commercially disappointing productions of the years directly preceding the making of it, Coppola was under pressure to make a film which would appeal to the most profitable audience, who had been brought up on a diet of low grade horror movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street. This quite naturally limited the potential scope of the film which ended up largely as a repeat of the first movie, though naturally it lacked its predecessors in narrative intensity and epic scope, it still managing to attain a degree of the cinematic beauty seen in the earlier films. Like the original, part three opens with a large set piece celebration, this is interrupted by back room dealings. Michael Corleone, like his father before him receives tributes though ironically this time a Corleone is being honoured by the Catholic church; for his abundant charitable activities. Michael hopes to bring his family closer together, he dotes on his daughter (Sofia Coppola), and becomes disturbed by her affair with her cousin Vincent (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate Son of Michael’s late brother Sonny. Vincent is impulsive and prone to violence. He has been working unhappily for Joey Zasa, an old style thug who had taken on some of Michael’s less savoury holdings. The Bad blood between the ruthless Zasa, and the Corleone family mounts immediately after Michael attempts to buy a controlling interest in a European conglomerate, ‘immobiliare’, would cement Michael’s business legitimacy and financial future (may be Coppola is hinting at the stasis/stability which Michael seeks in this name).
The narrative is uneven and, in places, incoherent, halfway through the film the action switches to Italy, where Pacino and Eli Wallach’s old Don can’t help scheming against one another. Even Coppola’s masterly staging of several murders to the backdrop Michael’s son performing Cavalleria Rusticana on his opening night fails to lift what is an otherwise disappointing and limited conclusion to works which at time are so multilayered in their potential meanings as to truly deserve the label as great art. In the 1990 Oscars “The Godfather III” was nominated for best picture.