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The beginning of The Godfather is its end. You are not so much tracing the transformation of Michael Corleone from college-educated war hero to cold-blooded crime boss as they are retracing the same steps that his father Vito walked to turn the Corleone family into what it would become by the time Michael was ready to take over.
This is interesting because there is a sequel – The Godfather, Part II – that seems halfway unnecessary when you think about it in those terms.
It is also interesting because it suggests that even someone with a sheltered upbringing -- someone that is every bit the embodiment of the American Dream -- can not outrun his backward family. Turns out, he might not even want to.
The Godfather is considered a (the?) great American film, and it’s easy to understand why. An immigrant leaves behind a brutal existence and carves out a better life for himself and his family in the olive oil business (etc., etc.).
This – the Land of Opportunity -- is part of the American Dream. But another component of it – it’s essence, I would argue – is giving your children a better life than the one you had. The life’s work of Vito Corleone is a hollow and total failure in this way.
Sonny ends up murdered. Fredo is a colossal and helpless fuck-up (and ends up murdered too). Connie is first physically abused and then made a widower at the hands of her younger brother. Michael, meanwhile, the one who was supposed to be different, winds up as a darker avatar of his father – his ruthlessness borne out of what, exactly? It’s certainly not the desperation his father felt as an immigrant in a new land.
This is a tragedy, not a triumph, and it certainly doesn’t suggest that the Corleone family would have been worse off had they stuck around Sicily and lived in relative poverty. Indeed, fugitive Michael’s jaunt to the motherland after the slaying of Sollozzo and McCluskey suggests that they might have all been happier in an alternate reality; Appollonia’s fate is a grisly reminder that the path Vito Corleone chose all those years ago poisons everything that might seems joyous for his family.
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” Vito tells Johnny Fontaine when he shows up at Connie’s wedding to beg for help in getting a movie part.
The first time you hear it, or maybe the first 10 times, or maybe still now, it is a platitude that fools you into respecting the Corleones. Sure, they might be thugs and murderers, but at least they have a code. Family is important to them. It makes them seem human even as they are completely inhumane.
The rest of the film exposes that sentiment as empty bluster.
Around the same point, Michael tells Kay the story of how Vito and Luca Brasi got Johnny out of a contract that helped launch his career.
“That’s my family Kay, that’s not me,” he says in an attempt to soothe her frayed just-found-out-my-boyfriend’s-family-are-murderers nerves.
It winds up being a lie, but it needn’t have been if Vito had actually lived by what he told Johnny.
Just whose idea was it to put the severed head of the prized race horse Khartoum in Hollywood producer Jack Woltz’s bed? Depending on your answer, the entire tone of the film could be subtly altered.
There are really only two people whom it could have been – Vito Corleone, of course, and the man he sent out to Los Angeles to take care of Johnny Fontaine’s problem, Tom Hagen.
The natural assumption is that it was Vito. I’m told that it is an even more natural assumption if you read Mario Puzo’s source material. But even if you haven’t, there is the story Michael tells Kay at Connie’s wedding about Vito jumpstarting Johnny’s career with the barrel of a gun situated just right. There is Vito’s pledge that he will extend Woltz an “offer he can’t refuse.” And then there is the whole rest of the film, where Vito is painted as the brains of the operation and Tom is told multiple times that he is “not a war-time consiglierie.” There is Michael, as he takes the reins of the family business and exiles Tom to Nevada, telling his lieutenants, “besides, if I ever need help, who’s a better consiglierie than my father.”
“That’s it,” Michael says.
Put another way, Tom Hagen is a well-meaning and loyal errand boy with a fancy college education, yes. But he is not capable of the ruthless and bold strategic thinking that a true Corleone is.
And yet only Tom could have understood Woltz’s affection for his race horse. Only he could have perceived the devastating message slaughtering Khartoum would send. Perhaps it wasn’t solely his idea, but surely he played a part.
If he did, it vindicates him in some small way. It proves he does have what it takes to be a war-time consiglierie, no matter how the Sicilians that took him in look down at him.
It also sets him up as the film’s most complex character. It’s easy to understand his steadfastness. Shrewd legal advice seems a small price to pay for all that goodwill the Corleones bestowed upon him.
But Tom is also brought up in a world where honor and respect are supposed to be everything. Over and over again, and for no real reason, he receives none of the latter despite his faithful service to the Corleone family -- a family of which he is supposed to be part – and his clear capability.
Diane Keaton’s Kay Adams is an apparition
She is a mile marker more than she is a representation of a real human being. As Michael’s date to Connie’s wedding, she is the clearest thing other than his uniform that he is different from the rest of his family, that the family business is not meant for him.
The distance Michael puts between himself and her when Vito is nearly killed and the Corleone family enters crisis mode represents the abrupt and dramatic change to his life.
His reconciliation with her upon his return from Sicily and after the death of Appollonia is the first signal that the Michael we first met has been washed away, replaced by a cold, cynical, brutally effective leader of one of New York’s Five Families.
It’s always bothered me that the conversation between Sollozzo and Michael at Louis’ Restaurant isn’t subtitled. So …
Sollozzo: (indicating Michael's broken jaw) I'm sorry.
Michael: Are you serious?
Sollozzo: You must understand that what happened between me and your father was a business matter. I have great respect for your father, but your father is an old-fashioned man. He doesn't understand that I am a man of honor.
Michael: Don't tell me these things. I know them.
Sollozzo: You know? You know, I have helped the Tattaglia family. I think, we can come to an agreement. I want peace. And let's stop all that nonsense.
Michael: Do you want to play ... um
Michael: How do you say…? What I want, what is most important to me is that I have a guarantee.
Tendrils of steam curl up from a cup of fresh coffee. A half-eaten sandwich lies on the table. Michael Corleone realizes he is alone. He realizes his father, almost slain by a rival family just hours ago, is also alone. His guards have been sent away, and now Sollozzo’s men are coming to finish the job.
The best scene in The Godfather is straight out of a horror film, which makes more sense than it might seem at first. This is an unrelenting and depressing downward spiral, after all. Its aesthetic is also that of a post-apocalyptic drama, as if all of humanity has suddenly fled the Earth or been purged from it by disease or aliens or some other world-changing force.
The tension builds as Michael’s realization that his father is in danger results in action. There is the pitter patter of ominous footsteps in the shadowy halls of the hospital. There is the scramble to get Vito relocated to another room. And there is Michael’s great bluff – the signal to Vito’s would-be assasssins that their target is still protected.
Like all great films, part of the brilliance of The Godfather is its ability, through great writing, to transcend genre. It is more than just a high-minded family soap opera or a crime drama or a mafia flick. To categorize it as one or even as all three feels inadequate.