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Film Review: The Godfather

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“It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.”

The Godfather

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Plays at the Charles Theatre Nov. 9 at 11 a.m., Nov. 11 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 14 at 9 p.m.

Moviegoers of 2013 are as familiar with the caricature of Al Pacino as with the actor himself: the token verbose, blood pressure-raising freakouts, the sardonic one-liners with the trademark gruff “heh heh heh” tossed off at the end of every other sentence, the line delivery that makes it seem as if Al Pacino might be trying to do his own Al Pacino impersonation. To be fair, a lot of these ticks have been used to great effect in one of the best careers of any actor in Hollywood history (Dog Day Afternoon, ...And Justice For All, Serpico, Glengarry Glen Ross, Scarface, Scent of a Woman, and on and on).

But this reputation is somewhat surprising when you consider his breakout role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, where we see Michael’s evolution from a kindly war veteran detached from his family’s mafia network to an autocratic don seeking to step on the necks of the other New York families. Pacino’s outstanding performance—possibly still his signature role—is built on restraint, and there is depth in that restraint.

When Michael offers to avenge the attempted assassination of his father for his family, he lays out a plan to kill the men in a matter-of-fact tone. While he speaks to his brothers, Michael’s face remains completely calm and assured. The camera slowly zooms in, bringing Michael more and more into the frame, until he is the last Corleone onscreen, a sign of his eventual ascendancy to the throne. Coppola cuts to big brother Sonny (James Caan), who smirks as two family associates laugh at the idea of doe-eyed Michael getting involved. Sonny stands over his little brother, makes a gun with his finger, and puts it to Michael’s temple. Michael raises his hands defensively but reaffirms his position. The tone of his argument is aggressive and assertive until it seems he’s starting to win. Then he focuses intensely on his brother and coolheadedly asserts, “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.”

That confidence, though, belies Michael’s very real trepidations. Just before he carries out the plan to kill the two men, at Louis’ Restaurant, he briskly leaves their dining table for the bathroom to retrieve a gun that’s been planted there. Once the revolver is in his hands, Michael places his hand over his forehead before nervously running both palms over his head. He pauses before returning to the table, looking a bit like a deer in the headlights. When he sits down, he looks withdrawn, eyes down and darting. Everything is in the eyes: fright, uncertainty, the realization there is no going back. Pacino conveys so much here—without much dialogue or gesticulation—about Corleone’s conflicted headspace and his moral fortitude.

Once Michael gains control of the family, we see precisely how cold, aloof, and vicious he has become. Pacino acts the part with a steely cool, a disaffected demeanor, as he orders the murders of rivals and traitors, including his sister’s husband, Carlo. It’s not just that he puts out hits on people, it’s that he seems so nonchalant about it. His sister Connie storms into Michael’s office in tears. Michael tries to comfort and hug her, but it looks robotic and forced. His wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), confronts him to see if the accusations that he had Carlo killed are true; Michael’s temper flares momentarily. But he then calms himself and says, “All right, this one time I’ll let you ask about my affairs, one last time.” “Is it true?” Kay asks. “No,” he replies, after a long pause. He looks her in the eyes as he lies to her face; the ease and casualness of his gaze attest that the Michael from the film’s start is a speck in the rearview.

Pacino’s ability to wordlessly show Michael’s utter transformation has unmistakable brilliance. There are few hints in his performance as Michael of the Pacino we’ve come to know since then, and maybe that’s why it stands out the most in his body of work.

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