The first challenge in talking about The Godfather is whether to consider each of the parts as discreet entities, or to evaluate all three as one big film. The three parts obviously are linked by themes, actors, even locations. At least in terms of qualitative achievement, however, the differences are far greater than the similarities. So it makes sense to talk about the parts separately.
My feelings about part one have been remarkably consistent. I just don’t understand why this movie is so highly regarded. Certainly it’s a compelling story, ably told. That’s about as far as I’d take it, though, and it’s hardly the only movie that can make that claim. At most you can say it represents a triumph of style, but aside from the fact that many of its techniques are borrowed (from directors like Renoir and Visconti), the self-conscious presentation gives so much weight to events that you keep expecting there to be more, some justification for the heavy-lifting. That something never arrives (unless you want to say it does so in part two). In that sense, The Godfather may be one of the most pretentious and inflated movies ever made.
I’ve also never understood the praise of Brando’s performance. He’s no better than scores of other actors could have been in the part. Richard Conte’s performance as Barzini demonstrates how an actor of less stature might have been more effective as Don Corleone. It is not even Brando’s best performance at that low point in his career. His appearance in the otherwise disastrously received Burn!, made shortly before The Godfather, shows more variety and imagination, for example.
If there is one major innovation in the film, it is the extreme emphasis on family life and Italian ethnicity. The film wallows in ethnic “color,” in a kind of glib demonstration that “Gangsters are people too.” Domestic details are laid on with a trowel, as if stuffing the formulaic story with enough spaghetti, cannoli and caterwauling babies will give events greater depth. Those details certainly give the story more texture, but ultimately they’re just frosting for a single-layer gangster movie.
The key to my bemusement may accidentally have been captured by a blurb on the DVD packaging. When Paramount’s publicists claim The Godfather is “one of the best American films ever,” they’re saying more than they realize. For The Godfather is a perfect example of American cinema’s over-emphasis on story. The heavy stylistic sauce poured over it may momentarily distract from the film’s fundamental hollowness, but ultimately the very skill of the presentation exposes the movie for what the story limits it to being—popular trash. The Godfather demonstrates how much can be achieved by thinking that film is “all about the story,” but it also reveals how little that achievement counts when the material isn’t worth the effort expended on it. That, in a nutshell, is Hollywood.