How Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola Made 'The Godfather' an Instant Classic

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From left: Producer Al Ruddy, Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola film Vito’s assassination attempt scene for The Godfather. When the film premiered on NBC over two nights from 9–11 p.m., the New York City municipal water authorities had issues with too many toilets in the city flushing at the same time after the film ended. PARAMOUNT PICTURES/RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE/ALAMY

This article, and others about The Godfather epic, are featured in Newsweek's special edition, The Godfather—45 Years of a Cinematic Masterpiece. This article originally ran in the March 13, 1972, edition of Newsweek.

There is no longer any need to talk tragically of Marlon Brando’s career. His stormy two-decade odyssey through films good and bad, but rarely big enough to house his prodigious talents, has ended in triumph. He is the Godfather, the centerpiece of what promises to be the Gone With the Wind of gangster movies—both in its artful, intelligent control of gaudy material and in its certain sensational box-office success. If it assures the careers of all those associated with it, it regenerates the career of Marlon Brando. His portrayal of the mafioso in Mario Puzo’s super-bestseller reverberates back to Brando’s brilliant performances of the 1950s in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront and as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Then he was hailed as the greatest actor of his generation. Now, at 47, the king has returned to reclaim his throne.  

At first, it is hard to believe that the paunchy, squat figure in the film’s opening shots is Brando at all. But the miracle of makeup has transformed the sinewy, athletic Brando into a man of 65, and the genius of the actor has done the rest. Tucked into a tight tuxedo, sporting a blood-red rose, he stares with those sad, knowing eyes straight into the camera. His face is flat as a rock, its surfaces carved with the small caves and shadows of corruption and time. His jaw is thrust forward from a lifetime of combat, and his rasping, uncannily quiet voice echoes decades of street survival. Vito Corleone is a complex and mysterious figure as Brando embodies him, at once father and killer, tender and lethal, the monster who cares, a mortal, vulnerable old man encased in the armor of acquired power.  

These paradoxes are used by 31-year-old director Francis Ford Coppola to structure the film itself. Coppola’s antiphony of themes of innocence and corruption, his artful mixing of domestic detail and cold killing, are what raise this film far above the ordinary gangland epic. The story of the fall of the Cosa Nostra Don Vito Corleone and the rise to power of his son, Michael, is as much a story of family loyalty as it is a saga of power struggles in organized crime.  

Coppola establishes the ruling tension of the film in the brilliant opening wedding sequence in which Don Corleone gives away his daughter and at the same time agrees to do criminal favors for his petitioners. As thugs dance gaily with children, Corleone agrees to bust up some young punks who have violated an undertaker’s daughter. Without transition we see the same Corleone as a proud father posing with his family, his tuxedo a symbol of the respectability that this Sicilian peasant turned underworld king has been seeking through all the years of gang wars and payoffs. Like any immigrant he dreams the American dream—he sees his son, Michael, becoming a senator, accepted and honored by “legitimate” society.  

The call of family, however, proves stronger than the drive for legitimacy. When the Don is shot down for his refusal to join in the postwar boom of drug peddling, Michael is drawn inexorably into the family’s lethal business. Al Pacino, an actor with a reputation for repeating the same itchy, hopped-up punk or junkie, here enacts with chilling inevitability the transformation of Michael from a smooth-faced, Ivy League, sheltered scion into a cool, suspendersnapping, black-suited young hood. This is a crucial performance; Pacino’s coolly intense acting covers up what is really an unconvincing conversion.  

The film, indeed, glitters with good acting. James Caan, as Santino, the Don’s oldest son, is appropriately explosive and eager to prove himself. His demise, in a fusillade of machine-gun fire at a highway toll booth, is a savage piece of footage, as are a number of garrotings, beatings and stranglings that populate this saga. (But, while the violence will no doubt help the movie’s box-office appeal, it does not carry the smell of blood for money that has characterized the recent trend in movie mayhem. How, after all, can you make a movie about gangland tribal wars without violence?) As lawyer Tom Hagen—the family’s adopted son and consigliere—Robert Duvall, in an acute, low-keyed performance, expresses the film’s vision of the Mafia as a caricature of corporate America, using murder instead of merger to attain monopoly.  

This is a view Brando himself holds. “I don’t think the film is about the Mafia at all,” the actor told Newsweek’s Steve Saler last week as he relaxed in the Left Bank Paris apartment he has rented (while shooting his next film with the virtuoso Italian director of The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci). “I think it is about the corporate mind. In a way, the Mafia is the best example of capitalists we have. Don Corleone is just any ordinary American business magnate who is trying to do the best he can for the group he represents and for his family.”  

It was a frenetic crusade but Coppola presided over it with commendable cool, imposing his understated style on the explosive material, battling over budget, shooting schedules and casting. “The controversy over casting was grueling,” says Pacino. “I went back for testing three times—a thing like that eats at your dignity. You’d arrive on the set, and someone who was there before suddenly wasn’t there any more. I’d ask someone, ‘Am I still here?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, Al, you’re still here.’ ” Coppola himself was almost fired three times. But Bob Evans stood behind him and Brando backed him up by threatening to quit if Coppola was canned.  

The young director and the reputedly temperamental star got along beautifully. “Everyone advised me to assert myself with him and say, ‘Now, Marlon, I’m the director, you just act,’ ” says Coppola. “That would have been suicidal.” Instead, Coppola listened. “I could understand how he got his reputation because his ideas were so bizarre, so apparently crazy,” continues Coppola, who now joins Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin as part of a young but classical and conservative new wave of American directors. “Yet without exception every one of his crazy ideas I used turned out to be a terrific moment.”  

This article from the Newsweek Archives, written by general editor Paul D. Zimmerman, was excerpted from Newsweek's special edition, The Godfather—45 Years of a Cinematic Masterpiece. For more on one of the most highly praised trilogies in history, pick up a copy today

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