It probably doesn’t seem like a particularly novel idea that if you put the right director and cast together, you can turn a mob film into an acclaimed hit. But just as James Gunn noted back in 2019 when debate raged over the artistic merit of superhero movies, there was a time when the most discerning critics and film buffs considered gangster flicks to be nothing but gratuitous trash. One of the biggest reasons that changed is 1972’s The Godfather directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The 3-hour epic established Coppola as a powerhouse director, and catapulted the careers of many of its stars including that of 32-year-old Al Pacino. No doubt in part because of the series about the making of the film — The Offer, starring Miles Teller as Godfather producer Albert S. Ruddy — The Godfather is finding new life on Paramount+, where it’s cracked the top 5 movies streamed.
Based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, The Godfather opens in 1945 at the wedding of crime boss Don Vito Corleone’s daughter. But the movie doesn’t start at the ceremony or the reception, but in the Don’s office. “I believe in America,” is the first line of dialogue in the film, spoken by the vengeful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who wants the men who beat his daughter murdered for their crime. Marlon Brando plays the thoughtful but intense Don Vito, who eventually agrees to not murder the men but to have them beaten, but not for money — for the promise of a favor, and for respect.
If you’ve never seen The Godfather, then the Al Pacino you meet in the film will likely not be one you’re familiar with, and not just because he’s younger. In spite of the more boisterous characters he’s known for like Scent of a Woman‘s Frank Slade or Heat‘s Lt. Vincent Hanna, as Michael Corleone, Pacino is soft spoken with all of that fierce energy the actor is known for simmering beneath the surface. When we first meet him at his sister’s wedding, Michael is a war hero who’s still set on staying out of the family business. All of that changes after an attempt on Don Vito’s life. A sprawling, brutal conflict follows whose scope travels all the way from New York City to Las Vegas to distant Sicily.
The cast of The Godfather all on its own should make you want to watch it as soon as you can. Along with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now) stars as the Don’s consigliere and adoptive son Tom Hagen. James Caan (Misery) is Michael’s hot-headed older brother Sonny and Talia Shire — known best as Rocky Balboa‘s wife Adrian — is his tragic sister Connie. First oblivious and later a prisoner in her own marriage — in a very literal sense — is Michael’s lover Kay, played by Diane Keaton (Annie Hall). Counted among Don Vito’s most trusted capos is Tessio, portrayed by the late Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller).
If you like mobster movies, The Godfather is absolutely at the top of your list for mandatory watches. It creates the vocabulary for more contemporary gangster fare. Without it there could be no Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps the biggest difference between The Godfather and more modern mobster stories is that it looks at things from the top down. While characters like Goodfellas‘s Henry Hill or The Sopranos‘ Tony Soprano contend with more powerful forces, when The Godfather begins, the Corleones are the powerhouses of the underworld, and that’s part of the point. The Godfather is a tragedy in the classic Shakespearean sense in that it chronicles not only the slow fall of one man or even one mob family, but of the mafia itself.
The Godfather is currently streaming on Paramount+ and it’s a perfect time to check out Al Pacino and the other amazing actors in it. If you like it, make sure to also make some time for the 1974 follow-up The Godfather: Part II. The final chapter in the saga — 1990’s The Godfather: Part III — is not on Paramount+ and really, that’s okay. You don’t have to see that one. No one does.