'The Godfather': An Intellectual's Daydream About Revenge Without Remorse
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March 16, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 11
films in focus
By Andrew Sarris
It seems that the first question everyone asks about "THE GODFATHER" is concerned with Marlon Brando's interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. More exclamation, in fact, than explanation. More than one whisperer intimated that Brando's make-up (by Dick Smith, the auteur also of Dustin Hoffman's Shangri-La face-furrows in "Little Big Man") was so masterful that the Brando we all know and love had disappeared completely beneath it. I must admit that some of the advance hype had gotten to me by the time I sat braced in my seat for the screening of "The Godfather." I was determined to discern Brando beneath any disguise mere humans could devise.
The picture opened with a face outlined against a splotched blue background with no spatial frame of reference, a background notes much abstract as optically mod with a slow zoom to take us into the milieu by degrees. But that face! I was stunned. How had Brando managed it? The eyes, the ears, the nose, the chin. It didn't look anything at all like Brando. And the voice was equally shattering in it unfamiliar pitch. I began groping for adjectives like "eerie" and "unearthly." Gradually the face began to recede into the background, and I heard a familiarly high-pitched voice somewhere in the foreground. I suddenly recalled the plot of the novel and thus I realized that the face looming in front of me did not resemble Brando's simply because it wasn't Brando's. (I learned later that the face and voice in question for the role of Bonasera belonged to a 20th-billed actor named Salvatore Corsitto who gets no points for looking like himself.)
When Brando himself finally materialized on the screen as Don Vito Corleone, I could see it was Brando all the way. There was no mistaking the voice even with the slow-motion throaty whine Brando used to disguise it. Brando's range has always been more limited by his voice than his Faustian admirers cared to admit. That is why his best roles have always played against the voice by negating it as a mechanism of direct communication. Brando's greatest moments are thus always out of vocal psych with other performers. Even the famous taxicab scene with Rod Steiger in "On the Waterfront" operates vocally (though not physically or emotionally) as a syncopated Brando soliloquy, a riff on the upper registers of sensitivity and vulnerability resonating all the more in counterpoint to Steiger's more evenly cadenced street glibness and shrillness. Curiously, Brando has come to embody, often brilliantly, a culturally fashionable mistrust of language as an end in itself. The very mystique of Method Acting presumes the existence of an emotional substratum swirling with fear and suspicion under every line of dialogue. Hence, it is surprising that Brando has not played gangsters more often. The Machiavellian bias of the Method is ideally suited to the ritualized conversations of organized criminals.
So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about "The Godfather": Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone, a role Lee J. Cobb could have played in his sleep without any special make-up. Brando's triumph and fascination is less that of an actor of parts than of a star galaxy of myths. Which is to say that he does not so much lose himself in his part as left his part to his own exalted level as a star personality. The fact remains, however, that though Brando's star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone's non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone has much the biggest and most challenging role in the film, and gives the most problematical performance. It is with Pacino's role that fact and fantasy come most discordantly into conflict. And it is with the characterization of Michael Corleone that both director-scenarist Francis Ford Coppola and novelist-scenarist Mario Puzo seem to drift away from the rigor of the crime genre into the lassitude of an intellectual's daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability.
There were many ways to adapt Puzo's novel to the screen. (There is no question here of fidelity to a text that was merely the first draft of a screen treatment.) Puzo quotes Balzac no less in a foreword conveying a Brechtian implication: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Brando claims to have been representing a typically corporate personality from the ruthlessly American capitalistic system. But "The Godfather" as a whole does not sustain this particular interpretation as effectively as did Kurosawa's "The Bad Sleep Well" some years ago. That is to say that Kurosawa and his scenarists came much closer to conjuring up the quasi-criminal ruthlessness of a conglomerate like ITT than do Coppola, Puzo, and Brando. Coppola's approach tends to be humanistic, ethnic, and almost grotesquely nostalgic. There is more feeling in the film than we had any right to expect, but also more fuzziness in the development of the narrative. "The Godfather" happens to be one of this movies that can't stay put on the screen. There are strange ghosts everywhere like Richard Conte's authentically Italian gangster kingpin Barzini evoking memories of "House of Strangers" and "The Brothers Rico," and Al Martino as Johnny Fontane (alias Frank Sinatra) reportedly walking off the stage of a New York supper club just before "The Godfather" opened and apparently disappearing into that thick mist of forbidden fictions.
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