On March 15, 1972, The Godfather was unveiled in theaters in New York City. The Francis Ford Coppola film would go on to win three Oscars at the 45th Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Reducing a fat, thick, best-selling novel to manageable screenplay terms has always been a major problem for any filmmaker blessed (or cursed) with the assignment. What do you include? What do you leave out? Perhaps even more important, how do you cast to anticipate the expectations of the millions who have already read the book?
The best answer to these knotty problems would seem to have been provided by producer Albert S. Ruddy on this almost three-hour version of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. You cut where you can, condense where you can, and cast for excitement rather than any preconceptions of how each character should look. Otherwise, how do you get Marlon Brando for the titular role?
Brando, with the first part that he would really sink his teeth into in years, emerges as the hero of this production. Spanning a quarter of a century, the film traces the career of this (forgive me) Mafia capo from the years of his undisputed ascendancy immediately after World War II, when he indignantly refuses to become part of the growing traffic in drugs, to his dignified stepping down late in the ‘50s to make room for his youngest son. In a marvelously inventive and affecting scene, Brando turns from the godfather to grandfather — and dies in the process.
Not far behind him is Al Pacino, last seen in Panic in Needle Park, and virtually a double for Dustin Hoffman. As the youthful Michael Corleone, destined to inherit the mantle of the Godfather, he progresses convincingly from a naive, decorated G.I. just returned to the bosom of his family to a nerveless, ruthless killer in sole charge of a domain that comes to include drugs, prostitution, Las Vegas gambling and political fixes. His multifaceted portrayal should catapult him to stardom.
But even though each of the featured roles in The Godfather has been cast to perfection — with veterans like James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley and Richard Conte playing them — the strength of the Mario Puzo-Francis Ford Coppola script is the unbelievable interaction of all these characters as they span the years.
Without undue emphasis, it shows the closeness, the warmth of family ties. The scenes are filled with wives and squalling babies, festive weddings and equally festive funerals, spaghetti prepared in the kitchen … There is the flavor of Italian home life that few gangster films have attempted.
At the same time, there is also a specificity in the persona that few films have dared. Which crooner was separated from whose orchestra on a friendly suggestion from the Godfather? And which movie producer was induced to hire him for a war movie by finding the head of his favorite horse in bed with him one morning? (Here, literary hyperbole may have embellished the facts, but it makes an effective, blood-curdling scene.)
Director Francis Ford Coppola, with a strong assist from cameraman Gordon Willis, has done an extraordinary job of capturing period and place. Very few of the New York exteriors appear to be stock shots; most have been re-created with an incredible attention to detail. Interiors have the rich, burnt-umber look of photographs taken decades ago; while the exteriors — whether representing a garden party in New Jersey or an amorous interlude in Sicily — are drenched with color and sun. A “Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis” billboard in Vegas or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the soundtrack (while a gangster dons his bulletproof vest) also add their own wry grace notes to the passing years.
This is a curious film. One comes to understand, even to condone, the activities of the Godfather and his clan. And even though it frankly portrays the underworld’s influence in the sacrosanct worlds of Hollywood and Las Vegas, there is the feeling that, with young Michael there, these will be better worlds. Essentially, The Godfather is the projection of a myth, not a fact. But it is myths — not facts — that make a fortune. — Arthur Knight, originally published on March 8, 1972