If one Paramount exec had his way, Don Corleone would have been played by Danny Thomas. Fortunately, Francis Coppola had no interest in turning Mario Puzo’s novel into Make Room For Goddaddy. No one complained about the casting of the horse’s head, which was played by the real thing, courtesy of a local dog food company.
Francis Ford Coppola’s screen version of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is showing at five houses in New York, and lines form at each of them for every performance. I don’t want to draw from that too severe an inference about hysterical enthusiasm for a three-hour chronicle of corruption, savage death and malignant sentimentality. Among other things, The Godfather is a strongly nostalgic film. Its period is post-World War II, but its flavor is of at least a decade earlier–it is a “big” picture, a Hollywood extravaganza of the sort that used to bring out the truck-mounted searchlights on opening night and the stars fluttering from autograph book to autograph book. It is what we remember the golden days of the giant studios to have been like, and industry romance draws a crowd.
But, that said, the success of The Godfather is deplorable, if you believe that popular entertainment both reflects and modifies social morale. In a sentence, the picture forces you to take sides, to form allegiances, in a situation that is totallywithout moral substance. It chilled me to hear an audience roar its approval when a young gangster on “our” side blew the brains out of two gangsters on “their” side. The ethical problem is to choose between typhus and cholera and I found that flogging about for three hours in that quagmire was spiritually debilitating and a crazy waste of time.
The authors of this film would say that they do not pander to vice, and I would agree at least that they do not intend to. They describe the society of Sicilian crime in America in the bleakest possible terms.
It is shown to be rich but tasteless, powerful but enslaved, formidable without security, feverish, claustrophobic, strangled in rituals of spurious dignity, respect and love. There are ritual celebrations in The Godfather, but none of these people ever plays. Yes, just once: old Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) romps in the garden with a grandchild – and falls dead of a heart attack.
In this respect, The Godfather is probably more scrupulous than the classic gangster films of the Muni, Raft, Cagney era. But it is also more persuasively internalized than I remember those movies to have been. It is not a view of crime but a view from deep within crime. You live with the Corleones in their most secret moments, sharing their passions, privy to their schemes, exulting in their coups, flinching when the bullets cut them down. There is no one in the picture to provide a bench mark of normality (the non-Italian, suburban wife of the younger Corleone might have done so, but Diane Keaton is given no chance to develop the role). Nor is this the theatre of ideas, wherein the audience weighs and judges from some distance; it is lust theatre– blood, genital and mawkish lust – and you are compelled to take sides or flee.