The Human Face Behind the Trigger

by Louis Reyna on November 28, 2005

in Uncategorized

In the last thirty years much has been written about “The Godfather” films and their social relevance, Part I having been released toward the end of The Vietnam War, and Part II being released just after the Watergate scandal blew up. It’s been said that the Corleone family’s story is an allegory for Big Business in America and also The American Dream in general; that the films helped usher through the most cynical generation- my generation.

The Godfather Trilogy
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I’d been with Barnes & Noble about a year, working part-time in the music and DVD department. I was ringing a purchase for a young man. He was wearing a tie and slacks. He appeared to be in his late twenties- a businessman, probably on his lunch break. While I was scanning his CD’s he looked over my shoulder, at the wall of DVD box sets behind me. After a moment he furrowed his brow and lifted his chin. “How much for the trilogy?” he asked.
I looked behind me, confused. For a second, I thought, The Star Wars Trilogy? I turned back to him. “Which trilogy?”

He let out a deep, frustrated sigh. “‘The Godfather’,” he replied. And then he added, in a condescending tone: “When someone refers to The Trilogy, they’re talking about ‘The Godfather’”.
I was both stunned and offended.
There I was, forty-two years old. I had seen “The Godfather” on the big screen- when it first came out. Since then I have seen Parts I and II at least 100 times each. I can quote whole passages from both films. Hell, I could even tell you that the actor who plays Genco Abbandando in Part II is an extra in Part I, just a face in the crowd in the scene where Sonny beats the crap out of Carlo. Yet that morning I was being educated by a twenty-something on the finer points of ‘the trilogy. He probably first saw the films when he was a teenager, on USA Network during a holiday marathon.

I shouldn’t have been offended, though. He was a guy. And “The Godfather” is a guy thing. Ever since it shot out of the gates in 1972 as a blockbuster, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films continue to be a cultural phenomena among men. And the reason why is because it portrays serious men doing serious business for high stakes, namely big money and murder. And all of this business is done outside of the law. As much as “The Art of War”, “The Godfather” films have become a primer for conduct and strategy among businessmen, from gangsta rappers to Trump-style boardroom exec’s. Who among them aren’t familiar with the phrases “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer” or “It’s business not personal”? Sure, “The Godfather” romanticizes violence among those ‘businessmen’, much the same way “Saving Private Ryan” romanticizes battle among soldiers. But in “The Godfather” films there’s a reason behind the murders. There’s even a reason for how the victims are killed: Paulie Gatto’s body is left in the car (poetically, with The Statue Of Liberty in the distance) to be found as a message that the Corloeone’s knew he was a traitor. And even the Don’s oldest son Santino’s massacre is a message from his enemies: he was a violent man in life. It was only fitting he should suffer a violent death.

But more than being a cultural phenomena, “The Godfather” (Part I) is just plain and simply a GREAT FILM. And for many reasons. It’s a great story told in sweeping, operatic style: After the opening wedding sequence, the villain- a shrewd drug trafficker named Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri)- exploits the crime family’s weakness by attempting an assassination on the aging and myopic Don (Marlon Brando) in an attempt to open up the heroin trade on the east coast. Because of that assassination attempt, the youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is inexorably drawn into the family business, a life he had chosen to reject, setting him on a course where he finds his One True Destiny.

In addition to the logic behind the bloodletting, there’s also the human element in the films. Yes, there had been many fine gangster films before “The Godfather”, but none of them had so effectively contrasted the business of murder with the family lives of the men pulling the triggers. There are small touches: the way Vito brushes the face of the little boy as he’s taking his daughter out to the dance floor during the wedding scene; when Clemenza tells Rocco Lampone to watch out for the kids while they’re backing out of the driveway… the get well cards strewn on the Don’s bed after he’s brought back home from the hospital. But the most effective scene is when the Don is gunned down on the street outside of his office. A lesser director would have ended the scene when Vito finally slumps to the ground. But Coppola shows Fredo, the wimpy son who had been subbing as the Don’s bodyguard, weeping openly over the body of his father. Sure, Fredo was ‘weak and stupid’, but he was also a soldier in Clemenza’s regime, yet there he was, sitting on the curb and sobbing like a child. It’s a touching and tragic scene because of the performances of Marlon Brando and the late John Cazale.
Which brings me to the acting.

There’s an old saying that acting is REacting. And this is true in “The Godfather” films. If you’re an aspiring actor- or if you’re an actor whose career is going nowhere because you suck- then study the actors faces in the films, especially the scene at the beginning of Part II, where Michael is pleading with Connie to stop whoring around and stay at home, close to the family. Connie knows that Michael was responsible for her husband,Carlo’s, death- which is exactly why she’s whoring around. In the scene, Talia Shire’s face is pregnant with both longing and contempt- longing because she wants to do what Michael is asking, and contempt for his calculated and ruthless tactics.
The films, especially Part I, are a clinic for acting and writing. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, read the book and then compare what Coppola did with the script; how he took Mario Puzo’s sprawling pulp novel and made it into a lean, efficient film. There aren’t many three hour films that clip along as easily as this one.

In the last thirty years much has been written about “The Godfather” films and their social relevance, Part I having been released toward the end of The Vietnam War, and Part II being released just after the Watergate scandal blew up. It’s been said that the Corleone family’s story is an allegory for Big Business in America and also The American Dream in general; that the films helped usher through the most cynical generation- my generation.

I can’t write authoritatively about any of that. All I know is that “The Godfather” Parts I and II are immensely entertaining. They’re filled with great acting, writing, drama, action, intrigue and scandal. People get shot up and shit gets blown up. The films taught me, at an early age, to “try to think the way people around you would think” and that “behind every great fortune there’s a crime”. They also taught me that behind every trigger there’s a human face with a family that they love, and that they may weep openly or quietly if a member of that family is harmed- and avenge that harmful action, either with cool calculation or wild ferocity.

Oh, yeah… and the films also taught me that a director should not cast a not-so-good actress in a lead role in the third installment of a film series that has become a cultural phenomena- even if that actress is family.

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