Many film lovers consider it the best film of all times: The Godfather (part one: 1972). The three-part mafia epic is based on the novel of the same name by Italian-American writer Mario Puzo. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Puzo.
Marlon Brando played the role of Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone in the film – in the role of Don Corleone, Marlon Brando delivered one of the best character portrayals of his career.
Al Pacino slipped into the role of Michael Corleone, youngest son of Vito Corleone. Diane Keaton played Kay Adams-Corleone, wife of Michael Corleone.
The Godfather is considered one of the most important works of cinematic art: in addition to the enormous success of the first film at the box office, the mafia epic still has great artistic significance today.
No Godfather without Robert Evans
Producer Robert Evans, who was instrumental in the filming of The Godfather, said in a 1977 interview:
“What I did with Godfather was totally developed by myself on a creative basis. I didn’t need anybody. It was a house-produced film. I didn’t have to give any part of it away. It wasn’t a package. I was the package. I found Mario Puzo. I gave him $5000 for a 30-page treatment called Mafia. I worked with him on the novel to get the book out. We owned the book for $50.000 and we had the hottest property in the business. I didn’t have to share anything with anybody.“Robert Evans in a 1977 interview
Robert Evans (1930-2019) was not officially listed as a producer on the film because he was unable to show up regularly for the shoot: At the time of shooting The Godfather, Evans was involved in nine other film productions. Nevertheless, without him, there would probably be no film version of The Godfather in its known form. In the 60s and 70s, Robert Evans was one of the most sought-after film producers and was involved in classics such as Chinatown, The Great Gatsby and Love Story. To this day, Evans is remembered for giving the directors of his films generous creative leeway: In doing so, he laid the foundation for the new style of New Hollywood cinema. The Godfather is considered one of the highlights of New Hollywood cinema.
Escape from the crisis
At the time of filming, Hollywood was in crisis: the system of traditional Hollywood studios was growing old and had long since passed its prime. New film material was needed that would lure audiences back into theaters.
The film material, which revolved around the Mafia, was extremely controversial at the time and there were numerous initiatives to prevent the film from being shot. But that was exactly what was needed to help Hollywood out of its crisis: Controversial films that had nothing in common with “old” Hollywood. What was needed were new plot ideas that opened up new creative scope.
Francis Ford Coppola had only made three films as a solo director before The Godfather: Coppola was hesitant at first because his films had previously mainly reached European audiences. Numerous prominent names were in the running for the director’s chair, including Sergio Leone, Peter Yates, Richard Brooks and Constantin Costa-Gavras: All but Coppola turned down the director’s chair.
Marlon Brando as a drawing card
There were also numerous discussions about the casting of the film: For the part of Michael Corleone, Paramount had initially chosen Robert Redford, since Al Pacino was still little known in 1972. In the end, it became Al Pacino’s first major role as a Hollywood actor. Francis Ford Coppola insisted that the role of Michael Corleone be cast with Al Pacino.
Vito Corleone is a man of about 65 in the film: Marlon Brando was 47 at the time of filming. That’s why Paramount was initially skeptical about casting Brando in the role of the Godfather. However, Brando’s competitor Laurence Olivier dropped out and Marlon Brando was given the role of the Godfather, which solidified his image as a well-established character actor.
The Godfather as the launch of the Mafia genre
Why is The Godfather a special work of art? The fact that The Godfather was one of the first films to take the Mafia as its subject helped to gain the critic’s praise before the launch. The Godfather was the beginning of a long line of Hollywood films that dealt with the Mafia. With The Godfather, Mafia stories became acceptable for a broad audience.
Furthermore, it is the acting of the main actors that defines the film: with Marlon Brando, an actor who already enjoyed Hollywood star status and was popular for his profound character portrayals took part. Al Pacino was a newcomer who starred in numerous Mafia adaptations in the following decades.
Composer Nino Rota
The sequels The Godfather II and The Godfather III continue the plot of the first film and explain the background of the Corleone family from Sicily in numerous flashbacks. All three films have one thing in common: Francis Ford Coppola as director and Mario Puzo together with Coppola as screenwriters. This guaranteed the artistic quality of the sequels and together the three films make up the Godfather trilogy, which to this day is one of the most important works in film history. Italian composer Nino Rota, who composed the music for the first two Godfather adaptations, contributed much of the film’s authentic atmosphere with his pieces. His works often borrow from traditional Italian music. The aria C’è la luna mezzo mare from Le Nozze de Figaro (music: W.A. Mozart, libretto: Lorenzo Da Ponte) is also recognizable.
No movie without a novel
Mario Puzo’s novel was a key factor in the film’s success: Although the novel was written with a film adaption in mind, the novel is a work in its own right and expands numerous plot lines that can only be touched on in the film. At just under three hours in length, it is an overlength film already: however, this in no way diminished its success. On the contrary, time flies while watching the film…
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: The Teatro Massimo in Palermo, one of the locations of The Godfather III, public domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Main sources: A 1977 interview with the producer Robert Evans, the novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo and various information accompanying the movie.