With several million hardcover and paperback books acting as trailers, Paramount’s film version of Mario Puzo’s sprawling gangland novel, “The Godfather,” has a large pre-sold audience. This will bolster the potential for the film which has an outstanding performance by Al Pacino and a strong characterization by Marlon Brando in title role. It also has excellent production values, flashes of excitement, and a well-picked cast. But it is also overlong at about 175 minutes (played without intermission), and occasionally confusing. While never so placid as to be boring, it is never so gripping as to be superior screen drama. This should not mar Paramount’s b.o. expectations in any measure, though some filmgoers may be disappointed.
Francis Ford Coppola directed the Albert S. Ruddy production, largely photographed in N.Y. Dean Tavoularis was production designer and Gordon Willis cinematographer (Technicolor) for the handsome visual environment, which besides World War II and postwar styles and props, is made further intriguing by some sort of tinting effect. There are people under 40 who grew up in the period of the film and who recall such color tones as evocative of 20 years earlier, that is, the end of the Roaring Twenties and the Depression. Evidently the artistic effect here is to show some sort of antiquity which no longer exists.
Puzo and Coppola are credited with the adaptation which best of all gives some insight into the origins and heritage of that segment of the population known off the screen (but not on it) as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. Various ethnic counter-cultures are part of the past and part of the present, and the judgment of criminality is in part based on the attitudes of the outside majority. Nobody ever denied that a sense of family, cohesion and order are integral, positive aspects of such subgroups; it’s just the killing and slaughter that upsets the outsiders.
In “The Godfather,” we have the New York-New Jersey world, ruled by five “families,” one of them headed by Brando. This is a world where emotional ties are strong, loyalties are somewhat more flexible at times, and tempers are short.
In makeup and physical movement instantly evocative of Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane,” Brando does an admirable job as the lord of his domain. He is not on screen for much of the film, though his presence hovers over all of it.
It is Pacino, last seen (by too few) in “Panic In Needle Park,” who makes the smash impression here. Initially seen as the son whom Brando wanted to go more or less straight (while son James Caan was to become part of the organization), Pacino matures under the trauma of an assassination attempt on Brando, his own double-murder revenge for that on corrupt cop Sterling Hayden and rival gangster Al Lettieri, the counter-vengeance murder of his Sicilian bride, and a series of other personnel readjustments which at fadeout find him king of his own mob.
In a lengthy novel filled with many characters interacting over a period of time, readers may digest the passing parade in convenient sittings. But in a film, the audience is forced to get it all at one time. Thus it is incumbent on filmmakers to isolate, heighten and emphasize for clarity the handful of key characters; some of that has been done here, and some of it hasn’t. The biggest achievement here is the establishment of mood and time.
Among the notable performances are Robert Duvall as Hagen, the non-Italian number-two man finally stripped of authority after long years of service; Richard Castellano as a loyal follower; John Marley as a Hollywood film mogul pressured into giving a comeback film role in a war film to Al Martino, an aging teenage idol; Richard Conte as one of Brando’s malevolent rivals; Diane Keaton as Pacino’s early sweetheart, later second wife; Abe Vigoda as an eventual traitor to Pacino; Talia Shire as Brando’s daughter, married to a weak and traitorous husband Gianni Russo; John Cazale, another son who moved to Las Vegas when that area attracted the mob, including Alex Rocco as another recognizable character; Morgana King as Brando’s wife; and Lenny Montana as a mobster.
Nino Rota’s fine score, plus several familiar poptunes of the period, further enhance the mood, and all the numerous technical production credits are excellent. So, at the bottom line, the film has a lot of terrific mood, one great performance by Pacino, an excellent character segue by Brando, and a strong supporting cast. That will be enough for some, only half the job for others.