*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 Poll Rank: #21 (tied with L'Avventura and Contempt)
Ask any American critic (or film buff, for that matter) to name some of the greatest movies of all time, and more likely than not, The Godfather will be one of the first ones mentioned. It's earned such a reputation as a pinnacle of cinematic achievement that the phrase "It's 'The Godfather' of…" has become synonymous with superior quality. Upon its release in 1972, it not only became the biggest box office hit of the year, but also briefly became the highest-grossing film ever in the United States. It would go on to win three Academy Awards - including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando (who famously refused the award) - and earned an additional eight nominations. Until a recent rule change dictated that films could not be grouped together as a single entity, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were considered together, and placed #4 in the 2002 poll (Part II will be covered in a later addition of this column).
Being this popular, of course, means that it has been poured over continuously. There's no shortage of analyses and interpretations of the film, many focusing on director Francis Ford Coppola's decision to use the story to comment on the state of American capitalism. That story follows a ten-year period - 1945 to 1955 - for the powerful Corleone family, who are faced with rival families looking into the narcotics business. Don Vito (Brando) is against this, and when an attempt on his life his made, his sons - hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) and college-educated war hero Michael (Al Pacino), along with adoptive son and consigliere Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) - seek vengeance against the powerful Five Families of New York.
When I was doing my undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill and working on my minor in Cinema Studies, one of the courses I took was called "American Independent Cinema," of which Coppola was a major component (I actually wrote my midterm paper on his cinematic project, linking Apocalypse Now with Youth Without Youth). Instead of doing what many others have done and talk about The Godfather thematically, let's take a look at its place in cinematic history.
The 1970s are largely considered a golden age for American cinema, particularly because of the idea of "new independent cinema." In particular, new directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Brian De Palma - among others - were among the first to consider film theory and attend film school, finding inspiration in European movements such as French New Wave and Italian neorealism. Many of their early films were "independent" in the truest sense of the term - Lucas' early short THX-1138, which would be adapted into a full-length feature, was a student film that was largely self-financed. This is not to imply, of course, that independent films did not exist before the 1970s in the United States - John Cassavetes' work in the 1960s stands out as a great example. Instead, the term comes more from the idea that these directors - "auteurs," if you will - were bringing a new cinematic sensibility to the Hollywood studio system.
The Godfather was a landmark film for this reason. First of all, it was an enormous popular success, which gave studios more incentive to try out new voices, since audiences were willing to see films that had different sensibilities than the routine studio fare (this appears to be a lesson that they have, sadly, forgotten in recent years). But more importantly, The Godfather represented a true changing of the guard within the studio system. Building on the precedent set by 1967's Bonnie & Clyde, the film didn't shy away from showing graphic violence, as well as the consequences that that violence begat. It didn't glorify the "family business" so much as demonstrate it's destructive nature, a major change from the gangster movies that it was inspired by (and subsequently inspired, by the way). The best example of this sea change, though, is in the casting: Brando was one of the biggest stars of "Old Hollywood," a classically trained actor who lived his characters. He's in charge until, suddenly, he's not; now there's a new generation in charge. Here come the Al Pacinos, the James Caans, the Robert Duvalls, the Diane Keatons (she appears here as Michael's girlfriend, Kay); actors of unconventional looks who take a different approach to acting. They are icons of the growing new counterculture, replacing the previous icons.
Though he had had a few studio films in the can already - including 1969's film adaptation of the musical Finian's Rainbow - Coppola had not been a well-known director in the lead-up to The Godfather. Afterwards, though, he was one of the decade's biggest names. He was given incredible creative freedom from the studio, allowing him to make The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now (amazingly, all four films - his entire 1970s output - were nominated for Best Picture at at the Academy Awards). It was the beginning of a trend: Coppola's success was followed by Spielberg's (Jaws), Lucas' (American Graffiti / Star Wars), and De Palma's (Carrie).
As with every golden age, it eventually came to an end, giving way to new trends (namely - and ironically - the rise of the blockbuster, as ushered in by Spielberg and Lucas). Yet The Godfather stands as that crucial turning point, where "independent" creative sensibilities thrived within the Hollywood system.
On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Gertrud (1964)