James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and John Cazale, in The Godfather
Everett Collection
March 4, 2022 1:27 PM EST

The Godfather is a movie about organized crime, focusing on one dynasty in particular. But it’s most specifically a movie about fathers and sons, which may be the quality that gives it such enduring power. Its violence is vigorous and brutal; in adapting Mario Puzo’s novel, Francis Ford Coppola gives us a portrait of domineering masculinity in overdrive. But there’s a strange tenderness at work in it too, all radiating from and toward Marlon Brando’s crime boss Don Vito Corleone. He wields power over every outsider who has come to—or been forced to—respect him. But his relationships with his sons by birth, James Caan’s Sonny, Al Pacino’s Michael and John Cazale’s Fredo, as well as his de facto adopted son, Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, generate the fierce energy that drives the film. He’s their sun king, the figure whose approval and affection they crave, a blazing light that can make or break them.

The movie opens with a wedding: Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), is the bride, though unlike most brides, she isn’t the center of attention. Instead, we get a crash course in the men of the family: The married Sonny can’t keep his hands off one of the shapely bridesmaids. Michael is a veteran, just back from the war with a nice girl on his arm (Diane Keaton’s Kay), and it’s clear he’s the pride of the family. Tom is busy behind the scenes, arranging some heavy-duty arm-twisting for Vito, who isn’t technically his father, but who took him in when he was a boy. And Fredo is practically a vapor—his job is to fade into the background and cause minimal trouble, because everyone accepts that he’s the family’s dim bulb. The boys’ mother, played by Morgana King, is a plump, anonymous figure in the background, a warm, nurturing somebody that they used to know. You get the sense she’s revered by her children, as Italian mothers almost always are; yet they barely address her. All eyes are on their father, always.

Salvatore Corsitto and Marlon Brando (Everett Collection)
Salvatore Corsitto and Marlon Brando
Everett Collection

As Vito Corleone, Brando is an imposing, unreadable figure rendered in guarded shadows, thanks in part to Gordon Willis’ famously muted cinematography. We often read actors through their eyes, but Brando’s Corleone doesn’t give us that luxury: His eyes are rarely visible—his sockets are like miniature grottos, velvety caves holding all the mysteries he prefers not to share. His intentionally garbled diction is so frequently mimicked that it’s easy to forget how strange and original it was in 1972. Brando makes even Corleone’s jocularity imposing. Late in the movie, as the aged, doting grandpa, he chases his adored grandson—Michael’s kid—around a patch of tomato plants, an orange peel stuffed into his mouth to simulate a gorilla’s grin. It’s all a game, but the child is terrified at first, and you can see why. Corleone is so used to intimidation as a way of life that lightness is beyond him, even when he’s trying to show affection.

No wonder his sons are so eager to please—in fact, all but Michael seem terrified by the possibility of not pleasing him. As Vito’s consigliere, Duvall’s Tom has everything under control every minute. His efficiency may seem effortless, but you understand that his life revolves around crossing every T and dotting every I for his boss and surrogate father, partly out of eternal gratitude but mostly out of duty. Their bond is one of affectionate practicality, but it’s strong as iron, as we see when Michael forces some distance between Tom and the family’s business.

Meanwhile, Sonny is the hothead, the womanizer, the one who needs the most reining in: after he expresses an unsolicited opinion during a business negotiation, his father gruffly sets him straight. Caan plays Sonny as the showboating son, the one with the shortest fuse, the one who’s trying hardest to please his father yet falling far short. What he feels for his father may not be affection; of all the members of the family, he’s closest to his sister, Connie, maybe because he doesn’t have to seek her approval. She looks to him for protection—he’s not afraid to beat the daylights out of her abusive husband—though ironically, his bond with her sets the stage for his downfall.

Al Martino and Talia Shire (Everett Collection)
Al Martino and Talia Shire
Everett Collection

Vito Corleone expresses affection for Sonny only after his death: his grief manifests itself in the way he commands the undertaker to make his son’s bullet-ridden body presentable for the boy’s mother. The subtext is that he can barely bring himself to look upon it. But the most wrenching father-son triangle is the one between Vito, Michael and Fredo, and it plays out in one delicately rendered section of the film. After Vito is finally brought home to continue the long recovery following his attempted assassination, Tom fills him in on all that happened while he was unconscious. Vito can barely speak, but we see him mouth the words, “Where’s Michael?” When Tom explains that it was Michael who carried out the murder of drug baron Sollozzo (Al Lettieri ) and the crooked cop McCloskey (Sterling Haden), Vito’s face clouds over with anguish—we can see it even in those impossible-to-read eyes. He waves his sons off, but not because he wants to rest. This prideful man wants to be left alone with whatever it is he’s feeling; maybe he doesn’t even know that it’s despair.

Michael is the one Corleone who might have lent the family some conventional respectability. But even beyond that, he’s clearly Vito’s favorite, and the bond between the two is mutual. Despite his distaste for the family business, Michael steps right into it after his father is nearly killed. The café sequence, in which he ultimately does away with Sollozzo and McCloskey, represents one of the most wrenching turning points for a character in late-20th-century cinema. It also marks the moment Al Pacino, in his third film role, arrives: if, in 1972, Brando was one of our greatest living film actors, Pacino’s performance in The Godfather shows him sidling up to take the crown.

The Michael we meet in the early part of The Godfather gives every appearance of being conscientious and principled—he’s too good for the family’s dirty work, and everyone, including his father, seems to know it. He also seems emotionally vulnerable, or at least open to building an honest, uneventful life with Kay. But the Michael who pulls the trigger in that café—the ruthless one, the one who’s always thinking two steps ahead of his enemies—is the true Michael, and Pacino’s brilliance lies in the seamlessness of that flip. When Michael pulls off that assassination, his jaw has recently been broken (by McCloskey, who’s obviously not going to get away with it). As a result, his diction now resembles that of his father, with the same mouthful-of-marbles cadences. (For extra realism, Pacino had his jaw wired while playing these scenes, though he probably could have pulled off a similar effect just by acting.) The openness in Michael’s soft brown eyes is gone, replaced by perpetual calculation. He’s becoming his father before our eyes—which makes you wonder if maybe, in his heart of hearts, Vito hadn’t once harbored a desire for a different kind of life, a simpler and happier one. That vicarious impulse saw its last flicker in Michael.

Al Pacino (Everett Collection)
Al Pacino
Everett Collection

And what about Fredo, the hapless son who can’t be trusted with even the least complicated task? The one who’s shipped off to Vegas, as both an excuse to get him out of the way and to protect him, given his tendency to mess everything up? If the bond between Vito and Michael is one of simpatico devotion, where does that leave Fredo?

Out in the cold, and in the most heartbreaking way. The brilliant actor who plays Fredo, John Cazale, died of lung cancer at age 42, after appearing in only five films. (The Godfather was his first.) Fredo’s fragility, even as he tries to prove he’s as tough or as smart as anyone in his family, is right there on Cazale’s face: Fredo tries to keep up, but you can tell he has trouble following the trajectory of a sentence. There’s no way he’s cut out for the world he’s been born into—and therefore, he’s nearly invisible to his father, a truth that hits home in one fleeting but piercing moment. As Vito lies in bed, having just learned that his favorite son has set down a path that can’t be reversed, Fredo leaves the rest of his family, still partaking of a boisterous Sunday dinner, and steals back to his father’s room. He sits down at a remove—though it would hardly matter if he’d settled right by his father’s side—and gazes watchfully, protectively, at a man who doesn’t even see him. This is just a small moment in a movie filled with great ones, but its sadness cuts to the bone. Vito Corleone commands the respect of everyone, including his sons. He’s a man to be feared. But the love he withholds is the bluntest, most damaging weapon of all.

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