I’ve always considered the phrase “I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse” to be an oxymoron. Inherent to the concept of an offer, I would contend, is the ability to reject said offer; is it not the case, then, that an “offer” one cannot refuse is simply not an offer at all? Might this indispensible “offer” in fact be a command? Regardless, saying “I order you to do this” or “I command you to do this” does not sound as nonchalant as “I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse”—a phrase so deliciously cynical that it entered the common vernacular instantly when it hit in 1972. It was just one of many contributions Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather made to popular culture. From it we crib almost everything we know about the Italian mafia. Even those who haven’t seen The Godfather inevitably know its famous lines, its iconic characters, and its general context. Our culture remains saturated in this picture, and with good reason: it’s a remarkable work. Volumes upon volumes have been written on it. Director Coppola does so much so well here, but there’s one thing he does that interests me most: he makes us care about this group of anti-heroes, this murdering, lawbreaking crime family. That is quite an achievement, and how he does it is brilliant.
The first thing that might surprise modern audiences is how quiet The Godfather is. It has perhaps five or six short phases of abrupt and explicit violence, but other than those moments—two stranglings by piano wire, a few murders by pistol, and a mutilated horse head—this is not a loud or forceful film. It’s certainly not in the vein of Scarface or a Scorsese mob flick. Its three leads are perhaps the most soft-spoken mobsters ever captured on film. Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) and Tom (Robert Duvall) are practically pacifists, and Michael (Al Pacino) only earns his gangster stripes mid-way through the picture. All three men deliver hushed performances; indeed, often this is literally the case, as their under-the-breath murmuring can sometimes be hard to make out (especially in the case of Brando—no surprises there).
But then, The Godfather should be quiet, because if we review what actually goes on in the film, we find it mostly deals with utterly mundane things. The film opens at a wedding and ends with a baptism; in between we are privy to family dinners, domestic dramas, hospital visits, funerals, and characters frolicking about in bucolic Sicily. This is hardly a picture where men are engaged in turf wars, hunkered down behind cover and frantically firing Thompsons at each other. Actually, Coppola does whatever he can to undermine that conflict-based narrative structure. When Michael visits his father in the hospital and finds that the guards meant to be protecting his father have been withdrawn from their post, we expect there to be trouble. Surely it’s a set-up; surely this is where it ends for the Don. But nothing of the sort happens. The only “action” that occurs is an automobile full of suspicious-looking characters rolling up outside the hospital, and then taking off moments later. It’s all a bit anticlimactic.
And that’s deliberate. Coppola realizes something crucial about his characters, something that other crime-related works (specifically The Sopranos) would go on to emulate. The audience does not care for abhorrent characters. We wouldn’t feel the same way about Michael Corleone if he was sneering, spitting one-liners, and shooting people left and right. We wouldn’t feel the same way about Don Corleone if he was ordering hits on everyone and dabbling in all sorts of illicit trades, and the same sentiment applies to Tom. So Coppola removes all that and provides us with the converse: he casts bad people in a positive light. And it works. We don’t see murders or pimps or drug dealers. We see family men. We see men that care for their children, that rejoice at weddings, and that put their own before anyone else. We see men that almost deify women and that do not tolerate any violence against women. Consider that the only objectionable act they perpetrate is murder—and even then, it is in retaliation for wrongdoings done against them. While we hear they’re caught up in prostitution and gambling rackets, we never actually see any of it, and in the case of narcotics, the Corleone clan actively lobbies against that ‘dirty,’ destructive business. In that way, the men we’re presented with appear to be good guys. Don Corleone is practically a god-like figure, helping out the commoners with their troubles, and exacting his own brand of retribution and justice where appropriate. Michael and Tom are saints—Michael only enters dangerous territory at the end of the picture, and Tom never raises a finger against anyone—and even the rage-filled Sonny (James Caan) means well, and does good by his battered sister.
Make no mistake: these are bad people. They do murder, and they do exploit others. This is not suddenly rendered untrue simply because we rarely see it happening. And yet, because we never see it, and because all we see are behaviors we identify as good, these men come off as heroes—albeit tragic ones. Because of that, The Godfather ends up breaking our hearts in appalling fashion several times over. Perhaps the most wretched scene of all is Sonny meeting his demise. The assassination is done so cowardly and so sickeningly that we cannot bear to watch (or, at any rate, I cannot bear to watch). Similarly devastating is how Michael turns and becomes a sinister figure, precisely the man we did not want him to become, and the man his father didn’t want him to become. One of the saddest moments in the picture is when Don Corleone reveals what he’d hoped his son would amount to: a high-ranking officer perhaps, or a politician—a Governor, a Senator. Instead—and this goes unspoken, though it is certainly implied—the Don realizes his son has become a reprobate, just as he. Neither of those moments would matter to us, or would affect us as they do, if we didn’t care about the characters. But we do care. Coppola has us ignore who they actually are, and we dive headfirst into the picture with them. The inevitable crash, when it comes, is devastating.
While Don Corleone and Tom retain their holy or virtuous veneer throughout, it is at the end where we realize that our assessment of Michael has been proved wrong and we have been betrayed. He is not as good a natured person as his father or his adopted brother. He is, in fact, the worst of them all, and we might even describe him as evil. We realize this when he lies to his wife and then shuts her out of his affairs. There’s something sinister about that final shot: his wife looking through the door at him surrounded by his inner circle, them kissing his hand, and one his men slowly closing the door on her and on us. This is a changed man. He has not reformed. Rather, he has devolved, and somehow, in this instant, Michael is the most evil character in the entire film, more so even than the bosses of the other crime families. Don Corleone never reveled in his power, but Michael does. He is no longer a family man. He is, in their terms, a businessman—and for the audience, he is no longer a heroic, sympathetic figure.
“It’s not personal, it’s strictly business,” is another aphorism popular culture draws from The Godfather. The characters utter it throughout as a sort of pretext for betraying one another. But it’s a sentiment that applies just as well to how the audience appreciates the characters. When we look at the Don, Tom and (for most of the picture) Michael, we look at them on a personal level, and we separate their misgivings as acts necessary for their line of work. We can love a family man. We cannot love a murderer. And this, I believe, is The Godfather’s most lasting contribution to film, and perhaps fiction in general. Making characters likeable and relatable is nothing new, but few works did it as good as The Godfather, and most works released after 1972 are, in one way or another, taking cues from Coppola’s character framing. The most immediate example of this (and one we raised in passing above) is The Sopranos. Most of The Sopranos is family life, and other mundane business. And, of course, we look at Tony Soprano as the quintessential family man. He’s a provider before he is a criminal. The crime is business. For the audience, the characters are personal. That is why we love them.
Next week, a double-header: the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the fifteenth anniversary of Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (called ‘Hana-Bi’ outside of North America).