The editing of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather surprises most younger viewers. Used to the furious cutting, slick transitions, and time manipulations of Slumdog Millionaire, Inception, Memento, and a host of other contemporary films, plus the jumpiness of animations, adventure stories, and the whole Avatar-CGI thing, they enter The Godfather having been told it’s often ranked as one of the 10 greatest films of all time and are stunned—some have actually been bored—by its glacial pace. It moves slowly, steadily, and with a patience long gone from most American films.
Much of this pace comes from Marlon Brando himself. Even during the famous opening scene—so many scenes are famous it seems silly to pick just one—where Coppola swings back and forth between the dark interior of the Godfather’s office and the bright exterior with his daughter’s wedding celebration in full swing, Brando is so quiet, so deliberate, that he single-handedly slows everything down. Or back. Everyone’s excited: Sonny (his oldest son) itches for a tryst with one of the bride’s maids, the FBI poke around, a famous singer shows up. The formal wedding picture needs taking, but Brando rasps, “Where’s Michael?” and when informed his youngest hasn’t shown up yet he simply walks away, the whole forward-moving energy outside being held back by his insistence on doing things exactly right. He also demands this exactness in the business dealings he’s conducting in his dark office, the only real break coming when Robert Duvall (playing Tom Hagen) says Luca Brasi wants to come in to say thank you. As Luca pays his stumbling tribute to his Godfather, the look of tender, amused indulgence on Brando’s face is priceless. That moment, a tiny break from the film’s relentlessness, has become more important to me each time I watch it, as has the moment a few minutes later when Brando exhales against the door after shooing out his god son Johnny Fontane.
Back outside Michael finally does show up, and it’s soon clear that Brando-Pacino is one of the great pairings in movie history. Amid the wedding hubbub, Pacino, too, is quiet, deliberate, slow, Brando’s mirror image. Michael even says one of the movie’s first famous lines (again, so many great lines), “He made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” so quietly and deliberately it might go right by the viewer the first time. Other great lines go by like this, too. For example, Clemenza’s “Leave the gun, take the cannolis” comes casually after a long, slow sequence building up to Paulie’s murder.
The Godfather is all about offers you can’t refuse—or consequences that refuse not to follow a character’s actions, a character’s character. Carlo is going to get beat up, Sonny is going to meet the end he does (as does Carlo), the Godfather—always preaching the importance of family—is going to die not by an assassin’s hand, but in a garden with his grandson. Most of all, there’s Michael. When he tells his girlfriend Kay about the offer his father makes Johnny Fontane’s band leader (the offer he couldn’t refuse: that is, release Johnny from his contract or we’ll blow your brains out), he says, “That’s my family, Kay. It isn’t me.” But with glacial certainty, his whole life, the life of the whole movie, leads inexorably to the offer he himself can’t refuse. There are, of course, explosions of violence throughout the film, but even when they surprise us they finally do not alter the film’s slow, steady style. The family finally is Michael. He will take his father’s place. The film’s pace makes us feel his certain, inescapable fate.
(1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 175m, R. 4 stars, of course.)