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The Godfather 1 (1972)

Broadly speaking, the first Godfather is a generic gangster film with arthouse trimmings and the second is an arthouse film with generic gangster trimmings, but both blockbusters encompass masterful American adaptations and appropriations of recent Italian cinema. The first and best sequence in the first film, built around a wedding, is indebted to the remarkable, protracted ball in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) while the stylish, nostalgic handling of period d├ęcor in the second appears to owe something to Bertolucci’s The Comformist (1971); and both would of course be diminished considerably without the catchy music drawn from Fellini’s habitual composer. The outsized success of both Godfathers helped to mark the eclipse of foreign film distribution in the U.S. for the sake of glossy American art movies, a little bit before Woody Allen’s (and Martin Scorsese’s and Paul Schrader’s) mining of similar fields started to take hold.

I’m certainly not claiming that Godfathers I and II lack moral ambiguity and nuance and that cherished hits necessarily lack such qualities.
Lambert made a very good case for those qualities in Gone with the Wind,
though I think he went overboard when he claimed—after conceding that “Thirty years will have to pass before we can know if The Godfather’s appeal is momentary or lasting”—–that, unlike its predecessor [Gone with the Wind], “the involvement [that The Godfather] demands never rises above the level of sensation, since its impact lies in showing the organization of violence, painstakingly detailed.” Surely the complex irony milked out of the interfacing of family values, capitalism, and remorseless murder—–a kind of irony shared with the much greater Monsieur Verdoux and Psycho—–also has a great deal to do with the dynamic impact of the first two Godfathers. But I don’t think Chaplin’s film or Hitchcock’s encourages any of the same complacency, which in the case of Coppola’s films amounts to a kind of political defeatism: in both Godfathers, Michael can’t break away from his awful family heritage of obligation, vengeance, and crime, including murder. Presumably neither can we when we accept his resignation. But there’s nothing remotely noble about this resignation, Shakespearean or otherwise; it’s a cowardly form of pathos, and one which Americans have been living with on an intimate basis for the past eight years.

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