The Most Important Line in ‘The Godfather’

By  · Published on May 6th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they vivisect the American Dream inside Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece of modern cinema while finding its most important singular line of dialogue.

In the #21 (tied) movie on the list, a young military man is drawn violently into his family’s business when war breaks out among the five major mobs of 1940s New York City.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Scott: So we’re talking about a movie whose poster is on 84% of college dorm rooms. It’s also one of the more famous films on the Sight & Sound list – a rare moment where deep quality was matched by widespread audience love. The talent involved is towering, but it also blends together two American interests: The American Dream and The Black Market Economy.

Landon: It does seem to be the quintessential American movie despite (or maybe even because of) its Italian cultural specificity. You’re right – this is probably the most iconic American film on this list in terms of the number of people who have seen it. But in revisiting it for this list and thinking of it in comparison to the other American S&S films, I found its thematic similarity to Citizen Kane striking.

At least in terms of the American Dream part of your equation.

Scott: And in the questionable ethics portion as well.

Landon: Yes – The Godfather as a series is about one man, Michael Corleone. It’s a classic “Gain the world, lose your soul” narrative, except the soul in this case isn’t an enigmatic sled, but tradition, culture and (most importantly) family.

Scott: Actually, if I can revise that, The Godfather feels like it has an element of “Gain America, Lose Your Soul.” Especially considering it’s set in the 1940s and released in the 1970s – there is a great Atomic Family-style challenge in operating the way that Michael reluctantly does while trying to hold together a pretty suburban version of the family.

Landon: True, especially as the world would include Italy, and Italy is something Michael arguably loses.

Scott: Right. It’s hard to gain the whole world without Italy. And, you know, without heritage and a connection to roots. America as a melting pot tends to blur cultural lines into something new.

And by the way, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Landon: I can’t believe they celebrate that in Germany.

Scott: We imported it since they’re not really using it all that much in Mexico.

Landon: Here’s how I view The Godfather as a series: this film is the first two acts (act II begins when Michael returns from Italy), Part II is the third act and the prologue, and Part III is the unnecessary epilogue about kissing cousins and George Hamilton.

Scott: If I acknowledged a third entry, I’d agree with that. Although making more products in a highly successful franchise line is right in line with capitalism, isn’t it? If you made a lot of money from the first and second, why wouldn’t you make a third?

Landon: I’m beginning to think Coppola’s vineyard is an “olive oil”-like front for the nefarious business of ill-advised sequels.

Scott: Leave the gun, take the residuals check. Even if it means losing the soul of your story, just keep making sequels. I like that parallel. Although I’m guessing you can find something more direct in the movie itself.

Landon: You’re right, the Godfather series has widely been read as a story of American capitalism. Coppola himself called it “capitalism in its purest form.” I don’t think he meant we should see it as a Milton Friedman biopic.

Scott: So what did he mean?

Landon: I think what he meant is that, both as represented in the film and the real history of American gangsterism, is a view of industrial competition in its purest form, completely free from regulation and oversight. What is a starker way to illustrate competition with entities which share private interests than to do so through literally ridding your competition of their lives? More so than a metaphor for a system, however, The Godfather is about how that competition changes the individual – compromises him, alters his priorities and view of the world in the pursuit of more.

Scott: Right. When the only goal is making more money, you’ll cut a horse’s head off to get it. But the goal can never be that singularly focused, because we have more desires than that.

It’s also interesting that a movie like this focuses so much on injury and loss inside the company/family, when movies about legally-run business scoffing at regulation usually focus Brockovich-style on innocent bystanders being taken advantage of.

Landon: That’s true – business here is always personal, and one is fighting with people inside their business just as they are outside. Carlo Rizzi seems to be the line Michael crosses that’s a point of no return, and it’s appropriately predictive of the events in the second film: when you kill your brother-in-law, there’s no turning back from that standard of behavior.

That’s why I think Salvatore Tessio, played by the great (and, amazingly, still alive) Abe Vigoda, has one of the most important lines in the film before he gets whacked: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.”

Scott: Hard to separate your competition from your blood enemy. That line and its mirror where Michael says, “It’s strictly business,” after explaining how he’ll kill Sollozzo and McCluskey are definitely the most important of the film. This is Michael’s philosophy, and Sal gets it.

Landon: This is a man who grew up with Vito and helped make the Corleone family. Strangely, it seems to me that Tessio’s betrayal, regardless of what Michael does, changes the terms of competition – because it’s a betrayal of loyalty and culture.

Scott: It’s a betrayal, but in this case it’s also like an employee spying for another company because they can get a better rate, if we’re keeping it strictly professional. It’s still corporate espionage, but the Corleone family doesn’t have access to pink slips.

Landon: Exactly – that’s why the business meeting between the five families is almost comically direct in its portrayal of criminal enterprises as, basically, corporations.

Scott: Simultaneously portraying and denying two sweeping characterizations lends itself really well to irony.

Landon: It’s a lot like the scene in Fritz Lang’s M that alternates between the criminals meeting and the police meeting.

Scott: The parellels at core levels are impossible to get away from. And, I mean, it’s romantic to think of Tessio as a “Caporegime.” But he’s really just middle management.

Despite a notable lack of a short-sleeve button-up and bad tie.

Landon: True, it’s not the most significant event in the film (I think that moment exists mainly to deliver that line), but I think it’s more important than Carlo Rizzi’s murder, even though that murder gets more lip service. Rizzi was always an asshole, and was never really a member of the family. And he was key to Sonny’s death. In the amoral universe of The Godfather, it’s easy to sympathize with what happens to him.

That said, I think the film’s critique of American business works much better if you look at the first two films as one giant story. But what about if we watch The Godfather alone as audiences saw it in 1972? What are some of the major themes of this film alone?

Scott: I think we’ve smothered the main ones, but there’s something underneath the surface that’s bubbling up again here in 2013. Over at Slate, Joanna Weiss wrote an excellent piece on TV shows like Breaking Bad and Homeland fueling our desire to understand real-life bad guys. It’s a smart assessment, but it’s also true that we’ve always been fascinated with bad guys.

We definitely were back in 1972 when crime was epidemic, existential crises were high and we were in the 564th year of Vietnam.

Landon: Yeah, movies have always been a place to explore vice. And gangsterism, specifically. The Godfather’s legacy goes back to Musketeers of Pig Alley and The Public Enemy. But in the Cagney movies, gangsterism was seen (partly because of censorship) as a social problem to be solved – specifically, as a problem manifested on the individual level.

The Godfather taps into a collective sense of angst that you mentioned, but does so through portraying vice as an organized system. It sees America’s problems as systemic, not individual. It’s still very much a movie of the New Hollywood era in that regard.

Scott: And why it was, and is, so successful. Instead of treating gangsterism as a vice, it delivers/celebrates/condemns escapism – assuming we’re all daydreaming about what it would be like to be that rich and powerful.

And what we would do to get there.

Landon: But what of honor and principles within the Corleone family? Does The Godfather see Vito’s way of doing things as with some merit, or is this a vague preview of Colonel Kurtz’s mania?

This would be a major difference, I think, between Vito Corleone and Walter White.

Scott: Ah, the joy of gray areas and complexity in studio filmmaking. Remember that?

Landon: Whatever man. Optimus Prime has layers. Under that robotic exterior, he’s also a truck.

Scott: I’d almost forgotten about that.

And when it comes to movies like The Godfather, I tend to recognize but dismiss largely unethical behavior as part of that escapism. We’re safe in that liminal space where we want Michael to succeed. We want them to go to the mattresses. We want to be challenged by the allure of power and the question of what rules/bones we’ll break to get it, while being able to drive home afterward to a fairly normal existence where we’d never dream (let alone get the opportunity) to live out the fantasy and its brutal consequences.

Landon: Good point – that’s exactly why this film was the incredible cultural phenomenon it is. It’s an example of great filmmaking, fantastic storytelling, stellar acting, and resonant themes, but it’s also a hugely entertaining nose dive into an (arguably romanticized) alternative to conventional daily life. The Godfather was the big hit of the New Hollywood era – the blockbuster before the blockbuster mentality.

Scott: Its release year had a lot to do with that too, but also had a lot to do with it getting made in general. You can almost imagine Michael yelling “I’m mad as hell! And I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Even somewhat ironically.

Landon: And it was such a hit that they even made that Second Sequel We Shall Not Mention 18 years later, in which you can imagine Coppola saying, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

Next Week: Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.

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