For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MY DISCUSSION OF THESE FILMS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
TL;DR: The gangster movie might be film’s Great American Genre.
Yeah, until January 2016 I’d never seen The Godfather. Hold your derision, please.
And from this vantage point, what can I possibly say about The Godfather? Film critics and scholars and pop culture enthusiasts have been writing about it for forty years, dissecting every lighting choice and every movement of Marlon Brando’s heavy gaze. Even people who’ve never seen the movie crack jokes about “an offer you can’t refuse.”
Organized crime isn’t unique to America, but The Godfather‘s particular breed of Italian mobsters is: They’re immigrants, drawn even closer to their family by their adopted country’s strangeness, trying to carve out their piece of the pie in a society that considers them distasteful, like a bad raisin in a fruitcake. But they’re good Americans – they hate the blacks and the Communists, they’re businessmen above all else, and they send their youngest son to war.
That’s how we meet Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), attending his sister’s wedding fresh from World War II. (Isn’t it interesting how pristine soldier’s uniforms are often a symbol of innocence?) He has an American girlfriend and counts as a “civilian” in the eyes of his mob-connected relatives and their rivals. But crime films are more often about the fall of good men than the redemption of bad ones.
There’s a lot of history behind that last sentence. The 1960s and early 1970s broke a lot of taboos around what could and could not be shown in popular American film, including the idea that criminals had to pay for their crimes. Sure, Vito dies at the end, but Michael takes his place without losing his good looks, the love of his family, or his American wife. It’s something far less tangible that he loses, something that’s mostly in the eye of the beholder.
Or maybe you can’t be innocent when you grow up in the mob. (It’s Michael who tells us the first story about how Vito had someone shot, tells it with a smirk on his face; it’s Michael who suggests that he be the one to commit his first murder.) Michael spends part of the film hiding from his family’s enemies in Sicily, a simpler place where he dresses rougher and teaches Italian girls to drive on rugged dirt roads. At one point he and his companions/bodyguards are passed by army vehicles full of occupying American soldiers. “Hey, GI!” one of the Sicilian boys yells. “Take me to America! Clark Gable! Rita Heyworth!” These shimmering old Hollywood stars cede the floor to something darker, and America loses an innocence that it never really had in the first place.