The Rear-View Mirror: The Godfather (1972)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You could easily forget how reluctant Michael Corleone initially is to take over the family business. There are many reluctant heroes in the movies or in literature; reluctant villains are much rarer and often don’t see themselves as villains. They are set to do what seems necessary, blaming the times or the circumstances, acting for the greater good – and it’s their definition of ‘necessary’ that movies like Coppola’s The Godfather are really about.

Coppola’s preparation for the movie was meticulous. He threw out everything that he couldn’t use from Mario Puzo’s novel, first of all the doctor who is interested in vaginal rejuvenation. This happened with Puzo’s permission because they co-wrote the screenplay. Coppola also made a list for every single scene, describing the ways in which it could go wrong, putting down how to shoot it, but also putting down how not to shoot it.

There is a clarity to The Godfather that is so blatant that it often goes unnoticed: There is the family and its associates, and there is everyone else. If there are enemies at the door, someone, in this case Michael, has to eliminate them. And then he has to leave for Sicily. His son’s baptism does not just provide him with an alibi; it’s also one moment where he knits his family closer together while getting rid of many of his enemies. The conundrum that The Godfather deals with is that, when in doubt, your closest friends might be traitors. And in a story that is about clarity, doubt and betrayal have no place. It’s a movie that is easy to understand; at the same time, it makes organized crime look like an inevitability. No wonder so many mobsters recognized themselves up there on the screen, and styled themselves after the movie.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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