When Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” opened in New York on March 15, 1972, critics immediately understood that the mafia family drama was a masterpiece. But they couldn’t have foreseen how some of the dialogue would become part of our collective memory, often turning into slogans separate from the film itself. In honor of ‘The Godfather”s 50th anniversary, we asked seven fans – critics, actors, directors – to look back at Don Vito Corleone, sons Sonny and Michael, and henchmen like Clemenza and Tom Hagen, to reflect on important lines.
“I believe in America.”
(A undertaker who asks Don Corleone to bring him justice)
“I believe in America.” These four words—spoken in a clipped, lilting rush across a pitch-black screen—are the first thing you hear in “The Godfather” after a brief moan of music. The words float across the screenless screen, drawing your attention and preparing you for what’s to come. But they are inscrutable (what does it mean to… believe in a country?), and as they linger in the darkness, Coppola lets your imagination run wild through the possibilities. Is this a pledge, an article of faith, a declaration of intent?
These words herald Coppola’s masterpiece and set the foreboding, funeral stage for what is soon to come. They also herald one of the most fundamentally American films made in this country, which loves and condemns—though especially loves—the violence on screen and off, and has memorialized its bandits as folk heroes, enshrining its looters, statues of his slave traders established and elected his crooks. “The Godfather” is perfect from first frame to last, but its grandeur also feels of another order: it speaks to a truth about the American character that we can all recognize.
A Look Back at ‘The Godfather’
The first film in the epic crime drama was released 50 years ago.
Because while we may not all believe in America, we believe in its violence, even when we understand it can bury us. No wonder these words are spoken by a mortician, the proud, angry Amerigo Bonasera (an unforgettable Salvatore Corsitto). His face is also the first thing you see, and just after he says his killer sentence, Coppola cuts a close-up of this man wearing a choker. It’s a beautiful portrait in chiaroscuro, with Bonasera looking straight into the camera, his pale sculpted face floating in the shadows. He looks like a bird of prey, a skull; he looks like death. — Manohla Dargis, co-chief of film critic of The Times
“Leave the gun, get the cannoli.”
(Clemenza to his fellow hit man)
I had always heard the story that the line was advertised by Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza. And then you realize the specificity of the work the actors had done, creating a world so strong that it induces the behavior. Clemenza had a laundry list of things to do, like a ruse, to take out Paulie. And as he goes through this list, he recalls something his wife asked him to do: grab a cannoli. What it said was, “Leave the gun.” I think that’s great because the writing was masterful, and you’d only leave in something that lives up to the screenplay’s masterpiece. That ad-lib tells you that the actor knew about it, had fun with it. The simplicity of a spouse checking off a list becomes murder. I wonder if Castellano, when he saw the film, said, ‘Wow, they let him in.’” —Wendell Pierce, actor
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s purely business.’
(Michael explains to his older brother why revenge makes sense)
“Business Never Personal” is the title of a classic 1992 EPMD album, one of the most astute of the many tributes hip-hop has paid to “The Godfather”. The title implies unsentimental, amoral ruthlessness, a refusal to compromise in the pursuit of profit. But the music is anything but impersonal, and the album’s biggest hit, “Crossover,” is an indictment of salespeople and corporate front men. More often than not, invoking “The Godfather” is a way of pointing out what social critic Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism.
“Strictly business” is how Tom Hagen describes the attempted murder of Vito by rival families. “Business” is also the reason Michael offers for his proposed revenge, which includes the murder of a police captain. When cold-blooded, non-Sicilian Tom argues that the family shouldn’t take the attack on the patriarch personally, he tries to allay the wrath of warm-blooded Sonny. He also suggests that the old-fashioned code of blood feud should give way to a more modern American approach. The family must put aside thoughts of revenge and make a deal.
Does Michael agree? He seems to twist Tom’s reasoning into a conclusion even more violent than Sonny had imagined. This is exemplary gangster dialectic and the hub on which the movie (and perhaps the world too) revolves. A college graduate and military veteran, Michael goes from young brother to killer, transforming the Corleones from a crime family into something like a transnational conglomerate. This doesn’t make them any less murderous. Quite the opposite.
In the next scene, Michael hears an echo of their debate in the words of his enemy, Sollozzo, who explains that the attack on Vito was “una cosa di business”. Michael doesn’t argue. To show how completely he agrees, he puts a bullet through Sollozzo’s head. Nothing personal. — AO Scott, co-chief film critic of The Times
“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fish.”
(Clemenza to Sonny after receiving a shocking package)
These are not men of poetry, though they often speak in code. Yet this little lyric gives Brasi’s tasteless death with his eyes a soft, mythological postscript. Like a merman or a seaman in love doomed by the call of a siren, the jagged mobster is now sleeps with the fishes† The image, here claimed as an expression from Sicily, exists in “Moby-Dick” and the “Iliad”, not that Sonny, heir to his father’s ruthlessness but not to his traditions, understands. So it’s up to Clemenza to interpret, in words that make spoiling fish an elegy, not just for Brasi, but for all the old-fashioned ways that gasp in the noose of a new generation’s brutality. — Jessica Kiang, critic
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
(Don Corleone, explaining his, ahem, method of persuasion)
“This film is such a sneaky, deep stab at the flaws in the American system around this idea of fighting for the American dream. That was always very important to me, when I came to the United States from England in the early 1970s, and even more focused on watching it all these years later.And it speaks to the duality of how the movie is perceived, that’s like this handbook, almost with Machiavelli, on how to succeed in American capitalist society and get to the top. But at the same time that statement is just loaded with the pathos and sadness of where these people came from and what they’re trying to achieve here and how unachievable it is.This idea of tough guys making their way to a seat at a table who don’t want them – immigrants entering the US and fighting to be heard.” — Alex Winter, actor and director
“I want you to arrange a meeting with the heads of the five families.”
(Don Corleone to Tom Hagen after Sonny is ambushed)
“There’s something I’ve always loved about that image of these five crime families, the idea that if those five families just came together, you have to imagine the power of their blow. That’s one of my favorite moments because when we talk about power, we usually talk about who is stronger and who is more capable of causing destruction. But I think what that shows very well is that power is also about who is able to say, ‘Enough.’ Who is strong enough to say, ‘Let’s stop, let’s talk. I’m willing to lose right now so we don’t all lose in the future.’” — Tayarisha Poe, director
“You can act like a man!”
(Don Corleone becomes movie star Johnny Fontane)
Back in 1972, we weren’t talking about toxic masculinity—at least not in those specific terms. But in many of the best films of the 1970s, their filmmakers wrestle with what it was like to “act like a man” and the twisted, contradictory conceptions of masculinity that they inherited from their fathers, and their fathers from theirs. When Don Corleone, both a literal and symbolic patriarch, slaps and mocks his godson Johnny Fontane for bursting into tears over his crumbling career, it reminds us how feeble the male self-image must be. Johnny needs his godfather’s help for cheating a powerful studio head; Michael risks his life and throws away his future because a police captain humiliated him; Sonny is lured to his death because he wants to defend his sister’s honor. But God forbid any of them should show the fragility of shedding tears; Which would not be male. — Jason Bailey, critic and author, “Fun City Cinema”
Kathryn Shattuck contributed interviews with Wendell Pierce, Alex Winter and Tayarisha Poe.