If you want a film that exemplifies and honours the impossible, arbitrary and contradictory history and nature of moviemaking, look no further. Hollywood movies are an artform and a mass entertainment, the product of a singular vision and of a ruthless industry, the work of great directors and the alchemical result of a thousand collaborations, coincidences and backsagainst- the-wall snap decisions. The Godfather is all of the above and more – an unimaginably dark story that begins with the hopeful sentence “I believe in America,” a fat, full saga that, two years after its release, revealed itself to be merely the middle of a fatter, fuller saga, and a work the creation of which has generated its own mythic origin stories, from the director who wouldn’t compromise to the leading man nobody was sure could pull it off. It is enduring and defining art, alchemically transmuted from the pages of an OK bestseller and the imaginations of everyone involved, first among them its great co-writer and director Francis Ford Coppola. As James Caan’s Sonny Corleone says in one of the film’s most enduring scenes, “This is business, and this man is takin’ it very, very personal.” So much of the most brilliant work from Hollywood emerged from the conviction that a movie could be both. Every scene of The Godfather makes the case for that belief.
The movie exists on countless timelines – it was an early peak for its director, given his big studio shot at the unimaginable age of 32; a mind-blowing return to form for Marlon Brando; a stunning launch for Al Pacino; a benchmark achievement of New Hollywood; and a gauntlet thrown down by its cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose brown-black-and-blacker lighting and compositions changed the look of movies. Its most experienced actor made his debut in the 1930s; its newcomers are still working today. While no movie can be said to gather both the past and the future of filmmaking into itself, The Godfather comes thrillingly close. It’s a crime story, a family story that plunders the word ‘family’ for comedy, emotion and profound horror, an immigrant story and a cautionary tale about the American hunger for power; it contains multitudes. Were the screen suddenly to triple in size, as it does in Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon (a film Coppola reveres), you sense that a teeming world would reveal itself as always having been there. But the world within Coppola’s frame is big enough; half a century later, we can still walk around in it and discover something new about moviemaking and life with every visit.