Fifty years ago today The Godfather hit theaters nationwide. At first it looked like the movie would never happen. Director Francis Ford Coppola had to be urged by his friend George Lucas to even read the script, then fought tirelessly with the studio, producers and cinematographer Gordon Willis, himself a demanding genius. Martin Scorsese once recalled stopping on set while filming a funeral scene and finding Coppola sitting on a tombstone, crying. Paramount thought Al Pacino was too unattractive and wanted Robert Redford for the role of Michael instead. Brando, at this point in his career, was so unstable and enigmatic that when Coppola suggested him for the Don, the president of Paramount told him “I assure you that Marlon Brando will not appear in this film, and more I order you never to take up the subject again.” The Godfather was, for a time, the highest-grossing film ever made. Years later, Pacino would say in an interview, quoting a poem by Robert Browning: “Francis is a good example of the saying, ‘Man’s reach should exceed his reach, or what good is a paradise?’
There is almost no novelty Godfather stories to tell, but here’s my best shot.
About halfway through the movie. Don Corleone (Marlon Brando, sighing and annoyed, moving like an old elephant) summoned the bosses of the Five Families. The camera scrolls over a long shiny table. Chubby men in double-breasted suits with large lapels, puffing on cigars and stabbing hors d’oeuvres with tiny forks. Heaps of untouched fruit sitting like a Cézanne still life. Everyone’s face with a sweaty glow, warm and orange in the glow of the pre-fluorescent chandelier bulbs. Don Barzini, the scheming rival, pinches a cigarette between his fingers at the end of the table while Brando sits behind a bowl of chestnuts.
Corleone’s eldest son, Sonny (James Caan, a grease fire in the suspenders and two-tone wingtips), has just been murdered. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino, calm as a lullaby), lives in exile in the hills of Sicily. The Don brought everyone here today to end all this madness.
Barzini and the others need Corleone’s political influence to help bring heroin into the country. “It’s not like the good old days, where we can do whatever we want,” Barzini says, and finally Corleone agrees, there’s a hug and applause, you know all that now and probably many times.
But there is something else. As the scene cuts to everyone seated at the table, a dozen tan-glowing bald heads, all framed now, behind them spanning the entire wall, we see a framed painting of a locomotive, “The Empire State Express’, pulling a chain of passenger cars along the Hudson River. The room in which the scene was filmed was the meeting room of the former Penn Central railroad company, in the Helmsley Building on Park Avenue. six years later The Godfather was discharged, Penn Central, at one point America’s sixth-largest corporation, filed for bankruptcy, necessitated by infrastructure problems and capitalism’s insatiable appetite for growth, then a fatal blow to a salvage investment firm that had come to pick up the bones clean.
Shortly after, the meeting room was emptied. The leather armchairs and the chandeliers and the framed portrait of William Vanderbilt and the Empire State Express mural too, all of that is gone. Goldman Sachs now owns the building and it is used in part for “tasting events” for small whiskey distilleries and brand parties for real estate groups.
For years, train enthusiasts have been sharing advice on message boards about where the train mural was. It was eventually discovered to be in the possession of the Pennsylvania State Historical Museum, but in 2014 they decided they no longer needed it either, so it was put up for auction. The painting sold for just $1,000 to an anonymous buyer. Here, the legacy of a once-valuable business: a financial disaster and a few trinkets scattered in the dark, and on his grave yet another place for something that at best will bore you and at worst will steadily work to make your miserable life.
Earlier this month I saw The Godfather again, this time in theaters, every square of upholstery lace and every buttonhole bloated in absurd detail, and I believe what it most abundantly offers is a fantasy where these things – bankruptcies, scams , the vandalism of your sacred world – cannot happen to you, only strangers, only fools beyond the stone walls of this complex on Long Island.
“I believe in America,” Bonasera tells Don Corleone in the film’s opening scene, shivering and desperate, eyes like black olives, begging for salvation. He believed in the myth, in the fraud sold to him by the mayors, the presidents and the Vanderbilts, he believed in America but it disappointed him and he knows it now. Brando, slumped in a chair and appearing from the darkness as a mustachioed, omnipotent god can answer all your questions if you ask, Just call me godfather. Here is a shelter from the grim realities of real life. Outside these windows, Johnny Fontaine arrives to the screams of young women, Clemenza whistles for more wine, there are little mountains of pastel pink and blue cookies on each table, and the group is just getting started. All of this can be yours.
America is a voracious and uncompromising beast, but here is a world where even that beast knocks politely at the door.
Say that The Godfather making an explicit political statement would ignore its more deliberate and obvious charms – violent redemption, fathers and sons, a glimpse into the forbidden halls of organized crime, big Italian men eating cooked meat. But in the Five Families scene, gangsters dress up in pinstripe suits, eat in laughable excess and ziggurat out of a meeting room meant for “honest” men with honest jobs, next to paintings of great Americans so that they run the drug trade with businessmen concentrating, mocking America as a silly, tricky notion that they otherwise ignore with impunity… Well, what else would you call it?
Godfather is about the real man behind the wheel and what a powerful comfort to realize he is your friend. It is about the forces we are at the mercy of, governments and our lineage, and the dream of a secret club that is beyond their reach and unresponsive to their laws and limits. America is a voracious and uncompromising beast, but here is a world where even that beast knocks politely at the door. There are senators who help you on the grand jury and get your adjournment from a world war, sending envelopes of cash to your daughter’s wedding, with their apologies.
Everything about their world is warm and small, not claustrophobic but impenetrable, almost a prehistoric cave where there is no one but you and your family, a place only accessible by messengers, protected by men with buttons, gates and towers, where you can even tell the FBI in the driveway to take a hike. There are dens so quiet and you can still hear the clock ticking and the aquarium bubble. Baseball on the radio, the strap of Luca Brasi’s watch smothers his ridiculous forearm in mortadella bread, the tomato paste spilling out of the little tin can. The size and density of each torso on each anonymous sage dripping with sweat at the wedding, the way their stomachs seem to suspend them as separate entities and at enormous orthopedic cost. James Caan persists in playing with the anisette glass during important meetings. The texture on the hydrangea bulbs at the funeral, the roses on the coffin, the hair on James Caan’s shoulders, it’s all still happening at night in the dark, invisible to civilians. Cramped narrow cars, playing pinochle, eating Chinese together.
In handwritten notes he wrote in the screenplay margins during filming, director Francis Ford Coppola wrote that the scene where Clemenza and Michael rehearse Solozzo’s assassination should feel “to be with a favorite uncle in his studio”. It all feels like a world happening underground, in abandoned restaurants in Brooklyn, a 14th-century hospital that seemed unoccupied by someone else, a room-service suite at the St. Regis Hotel. The sound in small rooms where you hear every creak of wood in a chair. The gunshot rang out for a second and a half in an otherwise silent basement.
Even the motivations of the characters are only partially understood, foreign to us. It’s not the raging chaos in Freedmen or the Neanderthal incompetence of The Sopranos. The mafia here is powerful and illicit but something more private, there are times when it sounds like an opera in a language you only partially understand, the score itself looms like a character in a paternal way that feels both menacing and like a protective embrace.
He didn’t become one of the fools who lost the railroad, but perhaps even worse, he became the type of person who could help destroy it.
“Love” doesn’t exactly exist in The Godfather. There is duty, lust, turf disputes and extravagant ceremonies. Characters want to things, but almost always out of revenge or cold compromise. Talk to Playboy in 1979, Al Pacino said: “At the first Godfather, what I was looking for was to create a kind of enigma and an enigmatic type person. So you sensed that we were looking at this person and didn’t quite know them. When you see Michael in some of these scenes seeming to be wrapped up in some sort of trance, like his mind was completely filled with thoughts, that’s what I was doing. I was actually listening to Stravinsky on set, so I had this look.
What’s partly so scary about The Godfather: Part II is how it expands beyond these rooms, into the unknown, into the America that Bonasera came to find. Michael pulled them out of the olive oil business and Long Island and moved to Lake Tahoe. He built a bigger complex, they built casinos and started taking money from them, and then tried to open some in Cuba as well. He didn’t become one of the fools who lost the railroad, but perhaps even worse, he became the type of person who could help destroy it. Years ago in Sicily, he once met a girl whom he decided would be his wife. He smiled at the wedding, then with his hair almost falling in his eyes, and at home there was a father saying, your problems are our problems. There’s a breeze in the tomato garden and an orange in the dish next to you. Barzini said, “It’s not like the good old days,” but over there, it could be the good old days forever.