The first gangster film was introduced to audiences in 1912, during the silent movie era. A succession of American crime films of this calibre followed, but it was not until the sound era, did these films truly rise in popularity. Among the first talking pictures released were the classic gangster films, Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). These movies marked the rise of the gangster film and established it as a genre in its own right. However, the unveiling of the Production Code in the 1930s proved an obstacle as the administration’s main concern was the censorship of crime movies.
The Production Code was a system of ‘self-regulating censorship’ guidelines, imposed by Hollywood itself. Although the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America adopted it in 1930, filmmakers relatively ignored it until 1934, when the Production Code Administration enforced it on studios. The administration disapproved of how earlier films had depicted both crime and violence in a positive light and how the gangster figures were represented as heroes. The committee believed that audiences were impressionable and feared that the public would attempt to emulate the characters’ behaviour. As a result, after 1934, gangster films were no longer given license to glorify the criminal and instead, scriptwriters were forced to clearly emphasize how one cannot prosper from a life of crime. Ultimately, the films influenced by the Production Code showed how these villains always died in the end. Consequently, the gangster genre later suffered a decline at the hands of the Production Code as Hollywood studios were increasingly pressurised not to produce this type of film. This all changed in 1968 when the Production Code was abolished, paving the way for the release of The Godfather in 1972 by Paramount Pictures.
Based upon the book by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather revised the existing crime genre. While earlier crime films focused more on the crimes committed by gangster figures, The Godfather explores in greater depth what this power can do to a man. Above all, the main theme of the movie is family, so much so, that the film can be categorised as a great drama about family tragedy. With the elimination of the Production Code in 1968, Coppola and Puzo who collaborated on the script were not forced to implement the main character’s retribution in the film. Instead, this occurred more so in the third and final film of the The Godfather trilogy.
During the course of this essay, I am going to discuss the theme of family in The Godfather, the first instalment of the trilogy. I will attempt to signify how the movie shows the importance of family, but also how family loyalty inevitably causes the main character, Michael’s, regression from respectable war hero to ruthless gangster.
The Godfather provides an inside look into the workings of a crime family. The narrative is centred around the Corleone family, who have chosen organised crime as a family business and a way of life. The opening scene of the movie serves as an introduction to the patriarch of the family, Don Corleone. It also invites the audience into the underworld of the mafia with ‘a highly restricted long take,’ revealing a point-of-view shot from the Don’s perspective. Firstly, a male voice declares, “I believe in America.” The screen then fades from black to show a close up of the undertaker, Bonasera, looking into the camera as he continues his speech. The focus on his face alone, gives him a sense of power. He announces, “America has made my fortune,” but then reveals how he was let down by the American legal system when his daughter’s rapists were freed. While he speaks, the camera slowly zooms out away from him to reveal a desk and another figure seated behind it facing Bonasera. As the camera moves further away, Bonasera becomes smaller onscreen. This creates the impression that his power is fading. This notion becomes clear from the moment Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, appears onscreen.
Positioned on the left of the screen, Don Corleone is much closer to the camera, hence emphasizing his sudden powerful presence. In fact, the reverse zoom and point-of-view shots reveal how it was he alone who possessed the power in this scene all along. His authority is unmistakable when Bonasera begins to weep which prompts the Don to make a gesture with his hand. Immediately, Bonasera is offered a drink by a mystery man who appears from the shadows on the Don’s command. For this reason, the opening scene is a clear exposition of Don Corleone’s importance, power and authority.
The dark interior of the Don’s office and low-key lighting create an appropriate mood and an air of mystery for the opening scene. More importantly, a great mystery surrounding the character of Don Coleone is established, he whose face we eagerly wait to see. Coppola makes us wait for this moment for we are not even given a glimpse of the Don’s face when he utters his first words, “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?” While he speaks, the camera is still positioned behind him in an over the shoulder shot. By positioning the camera from this angle, it provides the viewer with the Don’s point of view. Consequently, we too can see Bonasera’s facial expressions and body language, which reflect his respect and fear of Don Corleone. This indicates that Don Corleone, otherwise known as the Godfather, is an important figure in this gangster film, hence the title of the movie. The lighting in this scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie as the motif of dimly lit interiors and low-key lighting repeats throughout. These conventions emphasize the immorality and great secrecy surrounding the mafia as we find our view restricted by shadows, almost barring us from seeing all.
Coming soon: Part 2 of my The Godfather trilogy essay.