If The Godfather (1972) had come out a decade earlier than it actually did, audiences would have resisted it. You can imagine viewers asking: How are we supposed to get wrapped up in the internal disputes of this band of amoral brigands and murderers? Who is the good guy here? Doesn’t the film celebrate evil, or at least condone it? Why is Michael Corleone’s depravity rewarded instead of punished at the end?
Yet The Godfather, despite its R rating, became the highest-grossing picture since The Sound of Music and, adjusted for inflation, it is today the second-highest-grossing R-rated movie ever, after The Exorcist. It’s in the tiny group of films that have enjoyed both immense critical acclaim and huge box-office success. In the decades since its release, many a television channel-flipper has discovered that, once landed upon, The Godfather is more or less impossible to switch off. Why does it exert such mesmeric appeal? Why do we keep watching this movie whose every beat is familiar?
Much has been made of the film’s Shakespearean qualities, and of its wicked parody of the American dream. I’ll add that The Godfather (and The Godfather, Part II) are so re-watchable because we find something magnetic about their iniquitous milieu. They present a fantasy that grips and beguiles us.
One of George Will’s most sparkling aperçus is that football combines two of the worst aspects of American life: violence and committee meetings. Yet we watch football for the combination of bone-crunching brutality and strategic calculation — the violence and the committee meetings. The Corleones’ appeal is similar: a balance of meticulous planning and ruthless assassinations.
The Mafia world presented in The Godfather, which with its sequels has just been reissued in a Blu-Ray boxed set (it’s “the Omerta Edition,” so I can tell you no more) to mark the original film’s 45th anniversary, is set up like corporate America. During the five-family conclave, everyone sits around what amounts to a boardroom table, in suits, calmly discussing common interests even though the sons of two of the men present, and many others, have been murdered on the orders of men in the room. Don Corleone’s archrival Barzini says he would be happy to pay the don for his ties to friendly judges and politicians because “after all, we are not Communists.” Earlier in the film, during the interlude Michael spends hiding out in Sicily, there is a glimpse of a Communist poster. The implication is that America has avoided the Old World’s red disease, but gone too far in the other direction. You could — and one suspects that many liberals do —read the film as an oblique attack on “gangster capitalism.”
But there is a conservative angle to the film as well. Just two years before he co-wrote and directed The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for Patton, the rare war film that appealed to both hawks and doves. That same sly equivocation is present in the Corleone saga. The family members sense that America has gotten too complex, and that the complexity is a kind of corruption, one that keeps people like them on the outside. In a way, they represent opposition to the administrative state, or Trumpism avant la lettre. The system, they believe, is rigged against them — Don Corleone is nearly murdered in his hospital bed because the corrupt police captain McCluskey arrests the guards protecting him — so why be a sucker and play by the rules? By 1972, the sense that America was not necessarily being run on the square had serious traction. The Pentagon Papers had been published the year before. Vietnam seemed to be rife with dishonor. At one point, Kay says that, unlike Vito Corleone, “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” It’s a view nearly everyone shared in 1962, but by 1972 the audience’s sympathies were with Michael, who responds that Kay is being naïve.
Even today, as American life grows ever safer and more bureaucratic, there’s an atavistic pleasure in imagining a world in which problems are solvable by violence that can be controlled.
In the five-family sit-down, Barzini says, “Look, we are all reasonable men here. We don’t have to give assurances as if we were lawyers.” They carry out murders within a code that they see as more honorable and straightforward than the official legal system. In the opening scene (the first words spoken are “I believe in America”), Don Corleone is at first cool to his petitioner, Bonasera, because the man didn’t acknowledge the supremacy of mob justice: He went to the police rather than the Family when his daughter was savagely beaten, and the men who assaulted her were given only a suspended sentence. To an audience that was rapidly fleeing the cities because of chaos and disorder — there were nearly three times as many violent crimes in 1972 as there had been in 1960 — the Corleones’ decisive justice (as well as their own prescient move to the suburbs from New York City) would have struck a chord. More than one viewer must have thought, “If the Captain McCluskeys can’t or won’t maintain order anymore, maybe we should give Don Vito’s way a chance.”
Even today, as American life grows ever safer and more bureaucratic, there’s an atavistic pleasure in imagining a world in which problems are solvable by violence that can be controlled. The fantasy endures because there is some urge deep within to destroy our enemies, and I don’t mean with satiric putdowns on Twitter. Though crime in reality tends to be petty, sordid, individualistic, emotional, and poorly planned, in the Godfather films it’s the opposite of all these things.
What if you could lord over a thriving business empire while having the people you don’t like strangled with piano wire?