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By Rashmi Goel
In order to fully appreciate The Godfather's story and character development (or lack thereof), one must first take note of the incredible cast. Did you ever want to see Marlon Brando, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino together? That's the best you can get. Many subsequent ensemble films have tried and failed to recreate this magic. This may be a result of how much screen time each actor and his character received. The esteemed director Francis Ford Coppola, who co-wrote the film with Mario Puzo, did not try to shove everyone's storylines down the audience's throats before the credits. This is possibly due to the fact that he gave himself ample time to do so. With a running time of 2 hours and 55 minutes, the film covers a lot of ground. With two sequels following (one of which exceeded the three-hour mark), the almost three-hour time stamp seems a bit excessive.
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It is nevertheless noteworthy to note that The Godfather never drags, which is a remarkable storytelling achievement for any project, regardless of its size. The titular Godfather Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, is at the helm of this dangerous ship, turning something as benign as petting a cat into one of the most frightening things you will ever see. In 1945 New York City, he is a respected (but mostly feared) Sicilian crime boss of the very connected Corleone family. It is Vito who you should contact if you need anything, shall we say, "taken care of." Although he may not answer, you will be certain that he responds if he does. Brando's iconic look and sound make him the embodiment of intimidation through his portrayal of the character. As he speaks, he takes his time (mainly because he knows that whoever sits before him must listen to what he has to say) and stealthily reminds his prey of the times and situations when they have failed him. After hearing the urgent request of a family friend, he effortlessly executes this action in the opening scene. "I can't recall the last time you invited me to your home for coffee," Vito says as he strokes his feline companion. It is fair to say that your friendship with me was never a priority for you. You were afraid of owing me money.
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In spite of the fact that this is often cited as Brando's film, it is his onscreen sons who are the most compelling characters. The character of Sonny is played by James Caan, a stubborn hothead psychologically burdened by the fact that he is the oldest. He strives to adhere to the principles that his father so firmly established, despite his temper and ego often getting the better of him. When this occurs, Vito is sure to let him know, shoving him back into his subordinate position immediately. It is frustrating to witness Sonny's hypocritical behavior; one minute he is beating Carlo (Gianni Russo) for allegedly abusing his sister, Connie (Talia Shire), and the next he is cheating on and beating his wife without giving it a second thought. Sonny Corleone is one of the worst culprits when it comes to misogyny and racism within the Corleone family.
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Tom Hagen, Vito's unofficial adopted son, is played by Robert Duvall in an understated, but highly effective performance. As a result, he tells Vito who wants to see him and why, so the boss can decide whether all these meetings are worth his time. He also assists Vito with errands as his consignee. As a result of his non-threatening, borderline robotic temperament, Vito makes a very strong impression on the people that he is trying to influence. In the meeting with Hollywood executive Jack Woltz (John Marley) to ask for Vito's godson Johnny Fontane's role in his new movie, Jack becomes hostile quickly, hurling racial slurs at him with no end in sight. However, Tom maintains his cool, extends his hand for a handshake, and before leaving says, "I admire your pictures a lot." It was this unexpected compliment that convinced Jack to schedule a meeting with Tom.
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An amusing bit of comic relief comes from Fredo (John Cazale), the middle son. The overall contrast between him and Sonny and Tom is that he is neither loyal nor a leader. Michael, played by Al Pacino, is the youngest son and the most troublesome. In the beginning, he does not want to be involved with his father's shady business. Despite his innocent demeanor and his father's reputation, he has a queasy feeling about his father. In order to protect his doe-eyed girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) from the brutal reality, he is forced to teach her who's who while they attend a wedding for his sister. There's no denying Michael's reluctance to do so, however, as he is ashamed of his criminal heritage. It becomes evident after he clumsily attempts to change the subject to something they are all passionate about food. A childlike smile spread across Tom's face as he tells his origin story. “You like your lasagna? ”
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Pacino’s disturbing metamorphosis is the irregular heartbeat of The Godfather. He goes from being the literal laughingstock of his siblings to the one who calls the shots. What makes his moral descent so believable and scary is how slow said descent actually is. It’s a series of events and tasks that build on each other, subconsciously stroking his ego and beefing up his confidence. Michael whispering, “Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now,” to his bedridden father is probably the most blatant indication that his character was starting to shed his skin, but the nonverbal moments are much more powerful. The way he lit a cigarette with ease for Enzo following the potentially-deadly situation in front of the hospital highlighted Michael’s growing coolness under pressure. In other words, his transformation was earned.
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Michael also organizes a meeting between him, drug lord and rival Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), a crooked cop working under Sollozzo. The only person who would survive the meeting if all went according to plan is Michael. In response to this proposal, his brothers (particularly Sonny) laugh and find it funny that their little brother thinks he can be useful to the family. This mockery does not discourage him, but rather motivates him to take the necessary steps to prepare for this public meeting. Does he begin by asking Michael what his first order of business is? Shooting a gun is as natural to his siblings as tying a shoe. In this scene, Pacino's performance was particularly potent and revealing for his character. The sight of him grasping the gun was like watching a Little Leaguer grasping a baseball bat for the first time. His meeting was going to be a success once he pulled the trigger and got over how loud a gunshot is.
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Although some scenes in the second half of the film are predictable, there are plenty of plot developments and twists to keep the narrative lively and engaging. Despite being somewhat expected, Sonny's untimely death at the toll booth is a startling reminder that no one is safe in this line of work. It is an unsettling full-circle storyline for Michael to return to Kay after becoming fully invested in this corrupt world and eventually marrying her. Considering Vito shamed a man for crying at the beginning of the film, the tears he shed when hearing his son died to add a much-needed layer of humanity to the emotion-averse mobster. In combination with Vito's death in the tomato garden, while playing with his grandson, this is oddly poetic.
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As the movie ends, Michael is revealed to be his father's son, which neatly ties up the entire story. As his sister sobs over the death of her husband, he dismisses her as "hysterical." To his wife, he tells, "Don't ask me about my business." And then he is called "Don Corleone," an eminent title in the mafia. A crime drama with an Oscar-winning cast shows how greed, ego, and loyalty can corrupt the most unassuming of individuals. A movie like The Godfather is simply impossible to resist.