On the basis of the first hundred pages of The Godfather, Mario Puzo was paid $80,000 to finish the novel. By the time the film was ready, the novel had sold a million copies in hardback and twelve million in paperback.
Francis Ford Coppola was assigned to The Godfather because of his Italian-American background, which was supposed to assuage the expressed sensitivity of the Mafia to seeing Mario Puzo’s book filmed.
Tellingly, the unmentionable words are never heard. No one dares speak of the “Mafia” or the “Cosa Nostra” in the film, despite the fact that it tells a tale whose roots are at the heart of organised crime. The contents are categorised by another word: “Family”.
There was much anxiety during the shooting. Paramount were worried about the casting of Marlon Brando, partly because of his volatile reputation and partly because he had not had a box-office success for over a decade.
The studio was also concerned about the track record of director Coppola, who normally made intimate art movies.
The film seemed to have everything against it – It’s three hours long, it gets awfully dark in places (the lighting, not the plot), you can’t understand much of what Brando is saying, and it is possible to get totally confused just towards the end.
But Paramount’s fears proved ungrounded. The film opened in New York in an unseasonably late snowstorm on 15 March 1972, and the lines outside the cinema were six abreast and blocks long.
The film was a triumph – A brilliant and exciting epic crime drama masterfully fashioned by Coppola.
By the time its first US run was concluded, The Godfather had netted $86.2 million in domestic rentals – which not only revived Paramount but also acted like a jolt of electricity to an industry which was still awakening from the half-decade-long coma that began after The Sound Of Music (1965).
The engrossing plot follows the career of Don Vito Corleone (Brando) and the struggle for power between his family and the four rival family organisations in the New York area that control the gambling, prostitution, bootlegging and protection rackets.
The Godfather’s right-hand man, his adviser and Consigliere is his adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), but it is doubtful who will succeed the old man as Godfather.
His eldest son, Santino (James Caan), hot-headed and passionate, is a born Mafia man but possibly too foolhardy to become the boss. Nor the middle son, Fredo (John Cazale), a foolish wastrel who is given a casino in Las Vegas with which to amuse himself.
The film is exceptionally well cast with superb acting throughout, and the drama, suspense, and character development are of the highest order.
Relative newcomer Al Pacino, as the Don’s academic war hero son, Michael, who has no desire to enter the family business – but who will ultimately succeed his father – comes close to stealing the film altogether. It is a meticulously constructed, awesomely controlled performance.
Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman were all offered the part of Michael Corleone, but all refused.
The other New York families close in on the Corleone family, resentful of their strength and obstinacy. One day, just before Christmas, the Godfather steps out of his car to buy some fruit in a street market. Two gunmen appear, and Don Corleone slumps to the ground.
Many moments in the movie have become legend: The severed horse head that soaks the bedclothes of a recalcitrant movie producer in blood; the murder in the restaurant which seals Michael’s blood relationship with his Mafia family; the hospital siege, and the extraordinary baptism scene near the end when Michael is acting as godfather to his sister’s child (the actual baby being baptised in the film is Coppola’s infant daughter, Sofia).
At the same time that he is explicitly renouncing Satan and his world, a series of vicious murders organised by him are being committed to confirm his position as “godfather” in the other sense.
The extreme violence of the movie excited and shocked many, provoking a great deal of comment. It was also said that The Godfather glamourised gangsters – but it’s more than just a compelling gangster saga; it’s also a fascinating study of the struggle for achievement and success in America.
The Godfather won the 1972 Best Picture Academy Award, while Brando declined his Best Actor Oscar and scandalised the Oscars audience by sending Sacheen Littlefeather on behalf of an organisation called the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee (which he appeared to have made up) to decline his Oscar, in the name of Wounded Knee.
The movie was followed by two superb sequels to make one of the most fascinating and well-made trilogies in movie history.
Oh . . . and the horse head in the bed . . . it’s real.
Don Vito Corleone
Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone
Constanzia ‘Connie’ Corleone
Fredrico ‘Fredo’ Corleone
Don Emilio Barzini
Francis Ford Coppola