There is no accounting for taste, and there is no accounting for those who maintain the fiction that the ’70s were anything other than the dreariest decade in the history of American cinema. There were, of course, some excellent films: Jon Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977), John Huston’s Fat City (1972) and Wise Blood (1979), Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975) come immediately to mind, along with the decade’s best American film, John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s stirring ode to the American labor movement, Northern Lights (1978). At the other end of the scale was a steady stream of nasty, violent movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is among the worst of these.
Adapted from co-scenarist Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel, Coppola’s lavish saga of the American Mafia past its heydey is inflated and vague, its tone and sympathies so far out of his control that Coppola felt driven to “correct” the impression it widely made; hence the sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), where he insists he isn’t pro-mob. One is thus reminded of D. W. Griffith who, to erase the (accurate) racist charge incurred against him by The Birth of a Nation (1915), made Intolerance (1916)—for Pauline Kael, the height of cinema; for most of us, a ho-hummer. In fact, one needn’t venture beyond the first installment of Coppola’s “epic”—a third, purely to fill coffers, arrived in 1990—to find Griffith’s heavy imprint; one example is the crosscutting crescendo alternating between church ritual anointing new life and bloody vendetta.
Spanked by the industry with (in light of the film’s promotion) a measily three Oscars, The Godfather is little more than a clichéd genre piece cruelly punctuated by mob violence. The “little more” consists largely of a vivid portrait of the dynamics and social rituals of Italian-American families. A family wedding, for instance, provides the occasion for the film’s most intricate set-piece, and there is fleeting charm and irony in scattered domestic glances—for instance, a mobster’s cooking spaghetti sauce from scratch in his home kitchen. Alas, this likeable glimpse of a meal preparation turns out to be mere set-up for a view of the sometime-cook, right after the kitchen scene, at work at his real job, where the benign red of sauce is replaced by spilt blood, leaving us with an aftertaste of manipulation.
The film, though empty, is very heavy, very self-important. But one can’t find in it the slightest concern for any of its characters. And it’s boring—but for one cold trick. It is this dramatic gimmick to ward off audience boredom that accounts for the film’s enormous popularity. With cruel calculation, Coppola keeps his audience in a state of heightened anticipation of each new eruption of violence. In short, he uses violence to stimulate and titillate. This method of captivating an audience with scenes of vicious carnage The Godfather helped make the highly profitable engine of a still chugging train of manipulative, mean-spirited “entertainments.” Like Griffith, Coppola is a pioneer of sorts.
To be sure, the film seems to possess merit. Early on, it can be visually entrancing, due in large measure to the contributions made by Dean Tavoularis, the production designer, and Gordon Willis, the color cinematographer. However, even the film’s loveliest images are decorative rather than expressive. Moreover, its best mise-en-scène so heavily leans on that of Luchino Visconti, a director whom Coppola (like Scorsese) admires, that the extent of the visual borrowing continually points up just how unsure of himself Coppola is.
Nor is Coppola much good with the actors, most of whom perform routinely. A favorite among his fellow actors because his reputation legitimizes big, feel-good histrionics, Marlon Brando indulges hammily in mimicry rather than pursuing truthful, detailed characterization. Nevertheless, his relatively small role of the Corleone family patriarch affords him an effective moment or two. And, hey, it’s Brando. Among the other actors—the cast is huge—only Diane Keaton, as Kay, prevails over Coppola’s ineptitude or indifference. Hers, by the way, is the one female character given sustained attention—and rightly so, since Kay has not quite been brought into the Corleone family yet, where women, no longer complete beings, function as childbearers, homemakers, and touchstones of family honor.
Of all the actors, the one who is most decisive for the film’s failure is doe-eyed Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. As usual, Pacino is dreadful; every gesture, every expression, every intonation is selfconscious and phony. There is no facet of the character that survives his mauling touch. Pacino bungles the college boy’s transformation into (with added ice water) a chip off the old block, and he passes over completely the contribution presumably made to this changeover by Michael’s stint at soldiering—a potential potent irony dulled, if not lost, given that Michael’s military moment later confers on him, in the eyes of the law-abiding, the status of hero. Neither this nor its implications seem even to have crossed the minds of either director or star.
The truth is, Coppola couldn’t care less. He placed his cynical (and winning) bet instead on his ability to get more and more Americans hooked on the recreational drug of violence, helping it to become his industry’s staple, for both domestic use and export. Coppola isn’t an artist. He is a merchant of mayhem.