Nowadays, crime movie is one of the most favorite cinematic genres, attracting audience’s attention with thrilling scenes, charismatic heroes, and deep meanings. In this respect, the film The Godfather is regarded as the greatest gangster film in the history of cinema, becoming a prominent event at its time and breathed a new life into an almost forgotten gangster genre. This paper aims at providing an in-depth, critical analysis of the film The Godfather through the prism of the auteur theory. The paper will also evaluate techniques and design elements applied in the film, including lighting, sound, composition of frame, shots, and angles. Finally, the author will explain the connection between this film and society and conclude about its effect.
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The Godfather is an epic gangster drama directed by Francis Ford Coppola and a screen adaptation of the best-selling 1969 novel of the same title by Mario Puzo, who was also a screenwriter. The film became a real opportunity for the young director to demonstrate his creative potential fully and, simultaneously, appeared to be the most challenging test of his career. The film’s cast includes Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Richard Castellano, James Caan, Sterling Hayden, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Richard Conte, among others (“The Godfather, n.d.). Their roles were designed and thoroughly selected with a clear aim to mirror the cultural context and overall criminal atmosphere prevailing in New York after World War II. Released in 1972 and with a runtime of one hundred seventy-five minutes and about $6 million budget, the film had grossed over $246 million worldwide and won awards at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973.
The Main Theme
Under a superficial view, The Godfather concerns the themes of criminality, power, justice, and revenge, which is typical for movies of such genre. The film is replete with bloody scenes, mafia’s firefights, collisions of interests, their murderous consequences. However, the central theme arisen in the film is family with its values, attitudes, traditions, rigid hierarchy, and views (Najjar, 2019). Most of the characters exhibit and emphasize the importance of the core principle, namely, devotion to their families, sparing no effort for their wellbeing. Moreover, the main hero Don Vito Corleone tries always prioritize his family business, despite its adverse impact on blood relatives. In this regard, loyalty, commitment, betrayal, camaraderie, responsibility, public and private life also accompany the central theme.
The film narrates a particular period in the life of the Corleone family – Italian Americans. Herewith, the term “family” implies not only ordinary relatives’ ties but also a mafia clan supervised by the head, who, according to Italian tradition, was called the godfather. The Corleone family was dominated by Don Vito, who was also the “godfather” and leader of the mafia clan that ran powerful criminal businesses from the east to the west coast of America. The plot starts with the return of Michael, Don Corleone’s youngest son, to his home after World War II. Before being immersed in the war of mafia groups, he first introduces his chosen one, Kay, to his father at the wedding of his sister Connie.
On Christmas Eve, drug lord Sollozzo asks Vito Corleone to invest in his drug business and provide protection through political connections. Vito refuses the offer, considering it to be unethical and realizing that he puts his family at grave risk. Indeed, after denial, five gangster families treacherously and unexpectedly begin an open, fierce war. In this context, Don Corleone’s own favorite phrase works against him – “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” (Coppola, 1972, 00:24:46-00:24:49). Consequently, Sonny, his eldest son, is cruelly shot, Michael has to head the criminal business against his will, the family is at the edge of annihilation, and the patriarch himself is almost killed. In this tragedy, the thematic plot is revealed the most explicitly, namely, the contradiction between family importance in its conventional sense and the business.
Concerning the differences between a film’s story and a film’s plot, the former implies the movie’s content (what occurs in a film), while the latter means the sequence of the events. In The Godfather, Francis Coppola arranges the story into the plot in a way that is the most beneficial to the logical development of the narrative and its emotional impact. In particular, the director starts from the happy event of the protagonist Vito Corleone, unfolds conflicts and confrontations, and shows the ascent of the family’s new head.
Techniques and Design Elements
In The Godfather, the cinematography of shadows attracts attention to sharp, contrast changes between light and dark, which uncovers the contradiction of good and evil and power and ordinary life. For instance, despite the daughter’s bright wedding celebration, Don Vito Corleone, along with his Sony, Tom Hagen, an adopted son and attorney, and other approximates, sits in an obscure room closed from the daylight and other people. According to the director’s conception, this scene apparently demonstrates the alienation of the criminal world from calm life and the need for it to hide its terrible activities and plans from prying eyes.
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Another illustrative example is the final scene when Michael entirely veils himself from his wife and severs any contacts with the legal future. When Kay stays in the hallway, staring at his husband, some men go to the door and close it. At this moment, just before the door shut, darkness gradually enters and fills in the frame. The combination of brass tones makes the movie retro and warm and helps the audience feel relatively tranquil, without fear, despite that the film replete with cruelty and violence. Finally, the director departs from the traditional lighting manner in filming and applies dome lighting (Lu, 2020). This technique allows for showing the complexity of Vito Corleone and his environment and gives him a specific mystery.
Coppola uses several sound effects to draw the audience focus on different themes and contexts, including violence, crime, or family. For example, when there is a need to induce suspense, fear, or tension, the director employs the sounds of explosions, gunfire, and train. The sound of a subway wheel emerges in the restaurant when Michael enters the bathroom to take the hidden gun. This noise mirrors Michael’s thoughts and emotional state at that point. The loud shot sound, which was deliberately amplified to make a strong impression, indicates Michael’s transformation into a Mafia man and a murderer. Moreover, opera music and soundtracks also highlight the crime theme and its severity.
In The Godfather, Francis Coppola also uses some visual metaphors associated with shots. The last scene showing a conversation between Michael and his wife can act as a clear example. When Kay tries to question the truth from Michael about the murders, he turns to his wife and denies all facts. Then, the wife breathes a relief sigh and abandons his office. At this moment, the shot transforms into a panoramic shot and focuses on Michael in the background. Further, the shot is changed into a long shot where several individuals come and kiss Michael’s hand. In the end, the screen slowly turns black as if it is closed like a door.
Francis Coppola’s masterpiece ushered a new era of gangster films, among which were impeccable such as Nicefellas by Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos by David Chase. Despite that many gangster films preceded The Godfather, Francis Coppola’s tremendous infusion of Italian culture and the depiction of gangsters as characters with impressive psychological depth and complicacy was unparalleled. Among the three films, the first part made the most significant contribution to the creation of the stereotypical image of Italian-American culture. The director managed to reveal the complicated relationships between immigrated Italians and the native population, their roots, and aftermaths. Overall, The Godfather became the personification of Italian organized crime, masculinity, and reverent attitude towards the family.
In conclusion, the paper has provided a comprehensive critical analysis of the film The Godfather through the prism of the auteur theory. Even almost fifty years after the release, the film continues winning the hearts of millions, despite the three-hour timing and an abundance of characters. Adjusted style, measured action, excellent acting, and outstanding music play an immense role in this regard. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the most substantial contribution to The Godfather’s creation was made by the director Francis Ford Coppola. This idea is directly supported by the Auteur theory stating that the director is the primary creative force and that any film reflects the director’s internal wealth.
Coppola, F. (1972). The Godfather [Motion Picture]. Paramount Motion Pictures
Lu, J. Interpretation of the film The Godfather from sound effect, movie frame, filming technique and narrative. In 2020 International Conference on Language, Art and Cultural Exchange (ICLACE 2020) (pp. 11-13). Atlantis Press.
Najjar, S. K. (2019). A stylistic analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy movie The Godfather. Hebron University.
The Godfather. (n.d.). IMDb. Web.