An instant classic upon release, The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, has long been admired for its epic story, iconic performances and unprecedented glimpse into the mid-century workings of the Italian American mafia through the saga of the fictional Corleone family.
From an endlessly quotable script, a line that perhaps best encapsulates how the film allows for moments of brevity amongst the life or death stakes of the family’s operations is one that was actually improvised by Richard Castellano, based on a suggestion by his co-star and wife Ardell Sheridan. In a short scene involving the unfortunate dispatch of one of the family‘s heavies, the godfather’s right-hand man Clemenza instructs his accomplice to “leave the gun, take the cannoli”. In a pitch-perfect moment of black humour, we understand how these men are just carrying out their day jobs, which just happen to involve carrying out hits. It marks the turning point of the narrative, as shortly after this scene the action steps up and Michael Corleone begins to take a more active role in the family profession. The line also captures the importance of food in Italian culture and by extension in the close-knit family life of the mob. In another memorable food-related moment later in the film Clemenza takes some time to explain how to make a classic bolognese sauce as the crew plan the next move.
The Godfather is one of those fictional properties that has embedded itself into the wider cultural consciousness. Much of the general public’s understanding of the criminal underworld as represented by the Mafia has been informed by the films in Coppola’s trilogy. The films paved the way for a whole raft of gangster related films, some of which hold up (My Cousin Vinny (1992) and Get Shorty (1995)) more than others (Mafia! (1998) and Mickey Blue Eyes (1999)). But the biggest legacy of the film can be found in two works that followed, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and the HBO series The Sopranos (1999–2007) – a lineage explored in this excellent article.
Despite doubts from the team involved about the film they were making, including the studio Paramount Pictures, the film was successful upon release. It won a Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor Oscar for star Marlon Brando (which he infamously turned down), nabbed a raft of other nominations and topped the North American box office for 1972. The film is now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, appearing on countless best-of lists including ranking 2nd on IMDb’s list of Top-Rated Movies.