Don Vito Corleone (Brando) is brutally persued when he refuses to sulley the family business with drugs. His eldest, Sonny (Caan), steps in to take the helm in his father's illness, but is riddled with bullets. It is up to Michael (Pacino), the war hero and beloved son, to step up redeem the family's honour.
It could be argued that Francis Ford Coppola's film of Mario Puzo's bestseller, at once an art movie and a commercial blockbuster, marked the dawn of the age of the mega-movie. Appropriately, the film is about a similar transition in organised crime, as the gentlemanly but sinister world of Don Vito (Brando) is eclipsed by the more brutal and expedient organisation represented by the doomed Sonny (Caan) and the calculating Michael (Pacino).
The old gangster movie is represented by Richard Conte and Sterling Hayden in bit parts, while Brando's cotton-cheeked patriarch represents everything about old Hollywood that Coppola aspired to. The younger generation is represented by the then fresh, exciting talents who remain respected names in their profession (Pacino, Robert Duvall, Caan, Diane Keaton). This is a film that has entered popular culture: even if you've never seen it, you know the lines ("Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes"), and some of the scenes (the horse's head). But there's more to it than moments imprinted on the psyche.
With a period setting evoked by amber-tinted photography and Nino Rota's elegantly decadent score, The Godfather has dated a lot less than most films of the early 70s. It paces itself deliberately, making its moments of action and horror more telling for the leisurely paths it weaves between them. With performances, style and substance to savour, this shows how it is possible to smash box office records without being mindless.
With performances, style and substance to savour, this shows how it is possible to smash box office records without being mindless.