By Pablo Lacalle Castillo
A Los Angeles producer awakes to find a severed horse’s head in his bed. An ageing crime lord’s son is torn apart by a hail of bullets as he jerks and twists in agony behind the wheel of his car. A door closes, cutting off a distraught woman in ways she could not possibly understand from her husband.
These scenes, ripped straight from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather are iconic in a way that is hard to put into words. 50 years now since the sprawling gangster epic first hit cinemas across America, The Godfather has reached a hallowed position in popular culture, held only by privileged few cut from the cloth of Star Wars or Jaws. Spoofed, referenced and homaged from 'The Simpsons' to 'Lost', The Godfather has become such a dominant movie in the cinematic history of the West that the overwhelming number of its population remains completely unaware that it was an adaptation of a Mario Puzo book to begin with. It has arguably transcended the medium of book or film altogether, ascending to a new monolithic form that encompasses and even eclipses all in its genre that came before it or after it.
Nowadays, it is impossible to think of the Italian Mob without the influence of The Godfather bleeding into public perception. Though the film itself was undoubtedly well researched (in fact, several actual mobsters cameo in small supporting roles), its artistic licence dominated the language of the American gangster for decades. To an extent, it still does: ask someone what they think of when they hear the word “Godfather” and they will undoubtedly picture Marlon Brando’s hollow-eyed Vito Corleone, jowls sagging as he makes an offer that cannot be refused. It has become an inescapable association: even updated, modernised takes on Italian crime families like 'The Sopranos' inevitably bring up the movie. Hard to believe that a film whose production history was riddled with disaster after disaster (I recommend the biography by The Godfather’s producer Robert Evans - “The Kid Stays In The Picture" - for a deeper look into the sordid background behind this classic) would now be the American Film Institute’s second-greatest movie of all time. Trends die and times change, but even with the arguable death of the American gangster movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s happiest accident continues to remain beloved to this day.
In recent years of modern television, gangsters have traded out the fancy dinners, lavish houses and chic suits for hard drugs, dilapidated neighbourhoods and handguns. The cinematic language of organised crime has shifted to reflect desperation and brutality, whether it be the tattooed thugs of 'The Wire' or the leather-bound Confederate flag sporting biker gangs of 'Sons of Anarchy'. Perhaps that is why we look so fondly on The Godfather and its blend of sophistication with savagery, a lens turned towards a bizarre time when murderers wore three-piece suits and diligently attended Sunday Mass.
It is this paradoxical combination of deep-rooted Sicilian Catholicism with opportunistic, venal crimes dished out in the names of personal profit that makes The Godfather so compelling. It acts as a time-capsule speaking to a decidedly American immigrant experience, yet nevertheless, one in which the immigrants in question weaponise the self same system that marginalised them to abuse their own communities. The operatic, Shakespearean scale of drama found in The Godfather, where blue-collar Italians scheme and plot to topple patriarchs and ruin empires, is as grandiose as it is deeply personal and tragically human.
At the core of its conflict stand age-old dilemmas of tradition vs. modernity, of loyalty to family over personal happiness, and of sacrifice. Of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, the ease with which victims become victimisers themselves, and how inherited wills thrust upon reluctant subjects ultimately destroy them. Michael Corleone’s journey from taciturn black sheep to crime lord continues to enthral viewers around the world, no matter how many times Al Pacino’s accent or mannerisms are lampooned in cartoons or sketches. 50 years later, and the cracks haven’t even begun to show on The Godfather.
The American Gangster movie as it was in the past may be sleeping with the fishes, but its greatest kingpin will always keep its seat at the table.