Some movies never grow old. They exist outside of time and space, always there, always waiting for us to return.

Case in point: The Godfather Part I and II. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s saga tells the story of the Corleone crime family, whose evolution and expansion are mirrored in the true history of 20th century America. The patriarch, Vito (played by Marlon Brando in Part I and Robert De Niro in the flashbacks of Part II), flees Sicily for America and quickly learns that the law of the land is not designed to protect the tired and the poor. Instead, the New York boroughs are ruled by the mob, and rather than paying out graft, Vito becomes the mob. He is wiser than most and quickly rises to the level of Don in his neighborhood.

These scenes comprise half of Part II and are lovingly shot in a warm romantic sepia tone by the master of photography, Gordon Willis, contrasting the dark visuals of Part I, which takes place in the present tense (1946). At this point, the Corleone family is a business in itself, and it is yet to be decided who will take over the role of the new Don. The eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), is a hot-headed brute and most likely to succeed. The middle child Fredo (Jim Cazale) is not clinically slow, but certainly not smart—despite his pleas to the youngest brother, Michael, played by Al Pacino in a performance that has haunted every gangster film since. Even though Michael rejected his family’s business and Vito claims that he wanted more for his son, it is apparent that ancient forces have conspired to force Michael into the role, a role he wears all too well.

The Godfather Part II. Images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Taken as singular entries, the Godfather movies are complete stories, as good as anything made by human hands. Placed side-by-side, they elevate to the status of masterpiece, a tale as viable as anything crafted by Homer or Shakespeare. Screened alone, they show the rise and fall of the Corleone family. Viewed together, the two become the creation and destruction of Michael Corleone. Just watch the final scene between Michael and Vito: Vito feels guilty; Michael was meant for more, “Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone…” but here he is, taking over the family business. Michael nods, “We’ll get there, pop.” And then… Vito’s demeanor shifts entirely and gives him advice about a traitor. Vito may have wanted something better for Michael, but Michael was the smart one all along. “We’ll get there, pop,” is Michael accepting his fate. Coppola then baptizes Michael in one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema, making Michael the symbolic godfather to his niece and the literal Godfather to the business in one fell swoop.

Famed director Howard Hawks once described a good movie as “three good scenes and no bad scenes.” The Godfather saga has more than three, and, amazingly, no bad ones. They are, in a word, perfect.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Godfather (1972)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Based on the novel by Mario Puzo
Produced by Albert S. Ruddy
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Richard S. Castellano, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 175 minutes, Premiered March 14, 1972

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Godfather Part II (1974)
Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Based on the novel by Mario Puzo
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 202 minutes, Premiered Dec. 12, 1974

An version the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 46, “A revival you can’t refuse.”