“The Godfather” explained in seven quotes
When Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” opened in New York City on March 15, 1972, critics immediately recognized the mob family drama as a masterpiece. But they couldn’t have foreseen how certain dialogue would become part of our collective memory, often becoming catchphrases separate from the film itself. In honor of the 50th anniversary of ‘The Godfather’, we asked seven fans – critics, actors, directors – to reflect on Don Vito Corleone, his sons Sonny and Michael, and henchmen like Clemenza and Tom Hagen, to reflect on the key lines.
“I believe in America.
(An undertaker asking Don Corleone to do him justice)
“I believe in America.” Those four words — spoken in a clipped, singsong rush on a pitch-black screen — are the first thing you hear in “The Godfather” after a short whine of music. The words hover on the screen without image, demanding your attention and preparing you for what is to come. But they are impenetrable (what does believe in a country?), and while they linger in the dark, Coppola lets your imagination roam the possibilities. Is it a pledge, an article of faith, a declaration of intent?
These words inaugurate Coppola’s masterpiece and set the grim and funereal scene 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 mostly loves – its violence on and off screen, and commemorated its outlaws as folk heroes, consecrated its marauders, erected statues of its slavers and elected its crooks. “The Godfather” is perfect from first frame to last, but its grandeur also seems of a different order: it speaks to a truth about American character that we can all recognize.
Back to “The Godfather”
The first film of the epic crime drama was released 50 years ago.
Because even though we don’t all believe in America, we do believe in its violence even though we understand that it can bury us. No wonder these words are spoken by an undertaker, the proud and hot-tempered Amerigo Bonasera (an unforgettable Salvatore Corsitto). His face is also the first thing you see, and right after he says his killer line, Coppola cuts a close-up of this man. It’s a stunning chiaroscuro portrait, with Bonasera staring straight into the camera, his pale sculpted face floating in shadow. It looks like a raptor, a skull; it looks like death. — Manohla Dargis, Times Co-Chief Film Critic
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
(Clemenza to fellow hitman)
I had always heard the story that the line had been ad-libbed by Richard Castellano, playing Clemenza. And then we realize the specificity of the work that the actors had done, creating a universe so strong that it induces behavior. Clemenza had a long list of things to do, as a trick, to get Paulie out. And as he scrolls through this list, he recalls something his wife asked him to do: have a cannoli. What was written was: “Leave your weapon. I like it because the writing was masterful, and you would only leave something that lived up to the screenplay masterpiece. This ad-lib tells you that the actor was aware of it, had fun with it. The simplicity of a husband checking off a to-do list becomes assassination. I wonder if Castellano, when he saw the movie, said, “Wow, they left it.” —Wendell Pierce actor
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly professional.
(Michael explaining to his older brother why revenge makes sense)
“Business Never Personal” is the title of a classic EPMD 1992 album, one of the shrewdest of the many hip-hop homages to “The Godfather.” The title evokes an 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, “Crossing,is an indictment of corporate salespeople and lackeys. More often than not, invoking “The Godfather” is a way of pointing the finger at what social critic Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism.
“Strictly professional” is how Tom Hagen describes the attempted murder of Vito by rival families. “Business” is also Michael’s justification for his proposed revenge, which includes the murder of a police captain. When the cold-blooded, un-Sicilian Tom argues that the family shouldn’t personally attack their patriarch, he tries to defuse the hot-blooded Sonny’s rage. He also suggests that the old world code of vendetta should give way to a more modern American approach. The family should put aside thoughts of revenge and make a deal.
Does Michael agree? He seems to twist Tom’s reasoning to an even more violent conclusion than Sonny envisioned. It is an exemplary gangster dialectic and the pivot on which the film (and perhaps the world) turns. Michael, a college graduate and military veteran, goes from little brother to killer, transforming the Corleones from a crime family into something like a transnational conglomerate. That doesn’t make them any less deadly. Rather the opposite.
In the next scene, Michael hears an echo of their debate in the words of his nemesis, Sollozzo, who explains that the hit on Vito was “una cosa di business”. Michael does not argue. To show how much he agrees, he puts a bullet in Sollozzo’s head. Nothing personal. — AO Scott, Times Co-Chief Film Critic
“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fish.”
(Clemenza to Sonny after receiving a shocking package)
They are not poets, although they often speak in code. Yet this little lyric gives Brasi’s flashy death and insect-eyedness a sweet, mythological postscript. Like a merman or a sailor in love doomed by a siren’s call, the garrotted gangster now sleep with the fish. The image, here claimed as a Sicilian expression, exists in “Moby-Dick” and “The Iliad”, not that Sonny, heir to his father’s cruelty but not his traditions, understands. It is therefore up to Clemenza to interpret, with words that spoil the fish, an elegy not only for Brasi, but for all the ways of the old country panting in the vice of the brutality of a new generation. — Jessica Kiang, critic
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.
(Don Corleone, explaining his, ahem, method of persuasion)
“This movie is such a sly, deep jab at the flaws in the American system wrapped around this idea of fighting for the American Dream. It was always very important to me, coming from England to the States in the early 70s, and even more so watching it all these years later. And it speaks to the duality of how the film is perceived, which is like this schoolbook, almost with Machiavelli, on how to succeed in American capitalist society and rise to the top. But at the same time, that statement is just loaded with the pathos and the sadness of where these people are coming from and what they’re trying to achieve here and how unachievable it is. This notion of tough guys jostling their way to a seat at a table that doesn’t want them – immigrants who arrive in the United States and fight 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 this image of these five crime families, the idea that if these five families got together, imagine the power of their punch. It’s one of my favorite moments because when we talk about power, we’re usually talking about who’s the strongest and who’s most capable of causing destruction. But I think what it shows very well is that power also depends on 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 to budding movie star Johnny Fontane)
We weren’t talking about toxic masculinity in 1972 – at least not in those specific terms. But many of the best films of the 1970s see their filmmakers grapple with what it was like to “act like a man” and the twisted and contradictory notions of manhood they had inherited from their fathers, and their fathers of theirs. When Don Corleone, both literal and symbolic patriarch, slaps and mocks his godson Johnny Fontane for breaking down in tears during his crumbling career, it reminds us of how tenuous the male self-image must be. Johnny needs his godfather’s help because he cuckolded a powerful studio boss; Michael risks his life and ruins his future because a police captain humiliated him; Sonny is drawn to death because he wants to defend his sister’s honor. Yet God forbids any of them to show the frailty of shedding tears; this would not be masculine. — Jason Bailey, critic and author, “Fun City Cinema”
Kathryn Shattuck has done interviews with Wendell Pierce, Alex Winter and Tayarisha Poe.