Podhoretz examines a cinematic classic

Wow. Forty years old. After all the talk in this forum about Star Trek, Star Wars, John Carter, and such, it seems only to fair to share John Podhoretz‘s Weekly Standard piece on one of the greatest movies ever made.

How could a somewhat disreputable work of literary hackery, this whoring after sales, be the source material for something enduring? Certainly The Godfather was good, but it was good of its kind; it was not an elevated work and could not therefore be elevated itself into any kind of pantheon.

Not to mention that The Godfather was an extraordinarily violent gangster movie, among whose memorable scenes was Sonny Corleone being riddled with 56 bullets at a toll booth, Luca Brasi’s hand pinioned to a bar by an icepick and the life choked out of him in closeup, Michael Corleone shooting a police captain in the throat, and Moe Greene getting it in the eye on a massage table. How could such admittedly well-staged horrors be part of anything that could be called art?

In retrospect, the achievement of The Godfather is that it is the summa of all great moviemaking before it. It combines the shock and sizzle of the 1930s gangster movie with the epic scope of the films of John Ford and David Lean. It blends the youthful power of the French New Wave of the 1950s with the generational subject matter of the great family melodramas of the postwar Italian master Luchino Visconti. And while its source material might have been Mario Puzo’s readable junk, it declared its medium’s arrogant ambition to supplant literary fiction as the chronicler of the national story with its opening line: “I believe in America.”

I could go on about the movie’s effect on the culture—among other things, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s dark palette and evocation of Life magazine photography of the 1940s literally changed the way Americans picture the country’s past. But in the end, The Godfather matters not because of what it did, or the alterations it helped bring about in our culture, for good and ill. We can see in its standing today, as an American classic, that it matters because it is the most impressive achievement of imaginative storytelling in the most important cultural form of the 20th century.

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