Feature Articles

February 2002

The Godfather Saga : I Love It

By David Perlman

     A few weeks ago, David Foglietta attempted to trash the Godfather saga on this web site.

     All right-thinking people immediately said, "Marrone", and bowed their heads in amazement that anyone could be so misguided.

     For those of you who may still be in some doubt, though, I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss David's criticisms and to tell you why the movies, at least the first two, were among the best ever made. I won't even bother to dwell on the awards and acclaim these pictures have received. Instead, bada-bing...

     David's main attacks were on the performances of Pacino and DeNiro. He sees Pacino's Michael, in Godfather 1, as "weak", with "soft lips and passive eyes".

     In film, and in real life, men in "the life" tend to belong to one of a few basic types. There is the vicious killer, the Vito Genovese or the Carmine Galante, the Richie Aprile from the Sopranos, who loves inflicting pain and rules through fear. There is the showboat, the showoff, the dandy, the Big Man Around Town, the John Gotti, the Frank Costello, the Joe Adonis, the Sonny Corleone.

     And last but not least there is the quieter, milder, but by no means weaker type, exemplified by Carlo Gambino, and by Don Vito (Andolini) Corleone himself. Clearly Michael, as portrayed by Pacino, fits this last mold very well. David chides him for not reacting when Sonny berates and threatens him for joining the Army. When did Don Vito himself ever react immediately to a slight ? Like Michael, he is always soft-spoken and polite, especially to those he's planning to eliminate, like Fanucci and the Sicilian Don Ciccio who killed his father, brother, and mother. This model of mafioso is a figure in the community, a source for a loans, help with the bureaucracy, a strong arm in need. Just as Don Carlo used to hold court in Little Italy, Don Vito holds court, granting and calling favors. The baker's helper he helps to evade repatriation to Italy later shows up at the hospital, and, with Michael, helps execute a bluff to save the Don's life.

     Everyone comes to see that Michael is the toughest of the Don's sons, and the smartest, and the deadliest. He doesn't need to throw fear face-to-face - he just has his opponents killed. Sonny's in-your-face bravado has its' place, but it isn't as menacing as Michael's calm and willingness to wait, to eat his revenge cold, as when he has Fabrizzio killed years after the betrayal.

     As for DeNiro, regardless of his ability to speak Italian, his interpretation of the young Vito is absolutely flawless. We see Vito jobless with a sick child, moving into hijacking, then defending his minimal gains from extortion with bravery and cunning. We see him building a front company, doing favors for widows, building loyalty and, in a strange way, legitimacy.

     Everyone knows that Vito is someone who "knows how to remember a favor". DeNiro's toying with the weak spiteful landlord is classic. As the man sputters that he'll cut the widow's rent by five dollars, Vito just looks at him calmly, and he decides to cut it by ten... Like Michael, he never appears to get excited or angry, but when he speaks, things happen, and people fall all over themselves trying to make him happy.

     David also complains about the lack of realism. This one I really can't understand. The films, at least the first two, resonate with the period, the culture, the music, the smell of garlic and gunpowder, and the plotting is solidly based in history.

     In Godfather 2, Frankie Pentangeli's garroting by the Risottos, interrupted by a stray patrolman, is based on Larry Gallo's (older bother of Crazy Joey) garroting by the Persicos, in the Sahara Lounge in Brooklyn, also fortuitously interrupted. Then, in Frankie's final (live) scene, for he only time in the film, Hagen addresses him by his inevitable, mellifluous, marvelous street name: Frankie Five Angels. Redolent here of the famed Aniello Dellacroce (Gotti's mentor), whose name means Little Lamb of the Cross.

     The murder scene in a barbershop is exactly like the killing of Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia at the Park Sheraton Hotel.

     Vito's shooting while buying fruit is based closely on the shooting of Frank Scalise, Anastasia's underboss, also while buying fruit (watch out for those plums, boys !). The reason for the shooting, Vito's unwillingness to support a major new drug initiative, echoes Gotti's hit on Paul Castellanno, who was clamping down on babania traffic in and around Gotti's crew.

     Tessio's treachery has a parallel in Joe Columbo's betrayal of Joe Bonnano's murder plot to Gambino. Columbo's worked out a little better; he would up inheriting the Profaci family. Sal Tessio just gets killed himself for his treachery with Barzini. Barzini's ability to manipulate other Dons, especially Tattaglia, is reminiscent of Gambino's heyday, when he had some measure of control over his own family, the Luccheses through the marriage of their children, and the Columbos through Joe's C's indebtedness for his elevation, and supposedly, for a large loan to prime his loansharking pump, according to Cantalupo.

     Vito himself is a pastiche of Lucchese's political connections, Gambino's humility, and Bonnano's willingness to take on all the other Families. One could literally go on and on examining dozens of real life incidents captured, albeit with some artistic license in the films.

     But my favorite aspect of the saga is the way in which humanity keeps creeping in, despite the death and sadness and greed. Clemenza, in particular, seems to be a focus for basic humanity. After he and Rocco hit the rat Paulie Gatto, he says, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Later, in the midst of the War of the Five Families, he gives Michael a pretty darn good lesson in cooking marinara sauce.

     David has problems with certain characters as well. he says that Hogan, Moe Green and Fredo were "ciphers". Really ? Certain families have had long and profitable associations with non-Italians, notably the Lucianos and the Cleveland family, whose Don married a Jew and used her brother, Maishe Rockman, as a top advisor. Bugsy Siegel is well-drawn, in my opionion, as a big, raw, ambitious killer who didn't know when to shut up and agree to an offer he should have never refused. Fredo works for me. He's so weak he can't even get off a shot at Sollozzo's killers as they pump bullets into his beloved father, but he rats out his brother, setting him up for a hit, because they promise "something for me, Mike".

     Admittedly Godfather 3 isn't up to the others, although Andy Garcia does a wonderful job. Here Michael comes full circle, from the civilian in One, to the Don in Two, to the penitent looking for redemption.

     David, maybe you need to watch them just one more time...

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