Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Godfather Films: Eradicating Insult

I’ve always been strangely sympathetic to the Michael Corleone character in The Godfather films (played by Al Pacino, of course). I don’t think I ever really understood why until I re-watched Parts 1 and 11 recently and it struck me that the whole 6 ½ hour saga (let’s just forget part 111) is about trying to maintain a world of courtesy and respect, a world without insults. You could see this as just a response to the main decades the films are set in - the 40’s and 50’s - which were getting ruder and cruder following the violence of World War Two (ironically Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) was one of the symbols of that change in American society). Or perhaps it was also informed by the changes going on in the 1970’s, when the films were made, and the 60’s when the book was written. But Michael is surely one of the most intriguing anti-heroes of all time because, though he’s clearly a terrible person, he is somehow sympathetic. He’s hung up on people showing him respect but he doesn’t do it in the way of some annoying braggart rapper, he just says: ‘Treat me the way any decent man deserves. Don’t insult me. I don’t need you to big me up. I just need you to not put me down’. That is true at least until near the end of Part 11, and probably Part 111 never worked exactly because by then the character no longer had the sympathy of the audience.

Of course it’s always been clear that the films were packed with vicious revenge killings, most of them arranged by Michael, but once you look beyond the spectacle of the violence, it’s interesting to consider how sane or insane these actions are. There’s Paulie, the bodyguard to Vito Corleone (Brando) who suspiciously skips work the day he is shot, and police captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) and Sollozzo, killed by Michael personally in the restaurant, and members of the Tattaglia family, hit in a pre-dawn raid arranged by Sonny (James Caan), and Moe Greene and Tessio and Don Barzini (Richard Conte) plus Carlo, Connie’s husband, and probably a few others I’ve missed. That’s all in Part 1. Then in Part 11 Michael has Johnny Ola  and (eventually) Hyman Roth killed and gets Frankie Pentangeli to commit suicide whilst in protective custody on the understanding that if he does so his family won’t be wiped out. After banishing his brother, Fredo (John Cazale), Michael allows him to return at the end but then has him killed too. He also cuts his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), out of his life and probably would have had her murdered too if he’d thought it could be done without upsetting their children. His sister, Connie (Talia Shire) comes perilously close to getting on his bad side and near the end of Part 11 his adopted-brother Tom (Robert Duvall) has to defends himself against the charge that he might have even considered doing something that ‘went against the family’.

In fact by the climax the only person Michael seems to trust or like is his bodyguard/chief assassin Al (Richard Bright). Though Al hardly says anything throughout the two films, he’s implicitly quite an important part of the story. When Michael embraces Fredo shortly before the latter’s death, in a display of affection designed apparently just to placate Connie, Al looks on and is clearly embarrassed. It’s as if Michael is momentarily betraying the bond between them, their mutual promise to be harsh and ruthless and to spurn all affection for the masculine security of knowing that nothing can touch them.  

So, Michael is clearly a monster, and to be part of his family would be to live in a horrible atmosphere of oppressive fear, but I’m sure I’m not the only one, male or female, who identifies a little with his desire for ‘masculine security’, if not with his methods in achieving it. He’s a reactionary, an ultra-conservative who believes in a code more suitable to his father’s time, and whenever the non-Italian America intrudes into the family’s life it’s usually viewed with contempt, whether it’s black narcotics users and Irish policemen in New York in the 40’s, or Connie’s disrespectful boyfriend and the whore-happy Senator Geary in Nevada in the 50’s. But doesn’t the film make us feel that there’s a part of Michael that’s right to want to retain a code of honour and respect for tradition in the face of this other America?

Michael really becomes Michael the moment he’s punched in the face by McCluskey halfway through Part 1. Shortly after that we see him take control of a ‘war-room’ in his father’s house and suddenly he seems to have much more maturity and natural authority than Sonny and Tom and all the experienced killers sitting around him. It’s the first time he sits in a chair with his legs crossed in that special cold, menacing way he has, that we’ll see again and again in Part 11. For the five hours of the film that follow, his life is about very little else except avenging the insults done to him, by Sollozzo, who tried to kill his father, and his co-conspiratorMcCluskey, by Pentangeli, who almost testifies against him, by Hyman Roth, who plans his assassination, by Carlo, who set up Sonny, and so on and so on. It’s all a bit extreme and unforgiving, you think to yourself as you watch this, but then most of these people did commit grievous crimes against the Corleones. The killing of silly, naïve Fredo, whose ‘crime’ was to talk to a business competitor (he gave away information that led to a murder attempt on Michael but he certainly knew nothing about it) is one of the few times in the film a murder is completely unfair. Another is when a prostitute is killed just to set Senator Geary up.

Of course in Part 11 as we’re following Michael’s story we’re also cross-cutting back to his father, Vito, as a young man, played by Robert De Niro. We see two murders he commits. One is certainly justified: it’s of the old man Tommasino in Sicily who had Vito’s father, mother and brother killed. The other is of Don Fanucci, the white-suited Italian-American gangster in early 20th century New York. His only crime is to extort money from people, but hey, he’s part of a criminal syndicate, he’s a menace, and we’re not sorry to see him go. (The Corleones are also later a ‘criminal syndicate’ of course, but they have a lot more charm than the oleaginous Fanucci, and in movies charming criminals always distract us from a true moral accounting of their deeds).

In the DVD commentary for Part 1 I was surprised at how often Francis Ford Coppola talked of feeling insecure in is role as the director of the first film, of not really knowing what he was doing. The film is such a magnificent achievement and his career in the 1970’s, with five masterpieces (The Godfather 1 and 11, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now plus Patton, which he wrote) was so amazing that I always thought of him as a towering figure, a natural leader of men, and a bit like Michael in that respect. In fact it sounds as if at that time and maybe now too Coppola is more like Fredo, nervous and very unsure of himself. Perhaps Michael was just the cool, self-assured guy Coppola always wanted to be. I wonder how he felt about Michael’s ability to eradicate disrespectful people from the world, the ones who insult others because they have no class, no honour, no understanding. Bobcat Goldthwait’s character in God Bless America (2011), gunning people down for taking his parking space, is perhaps the messy modern equivalent of Michael (in a way he’s on the same kind of mission: to punish insults and bring back a culture of respect). But surely there’s a way to achieve a respectful world again which doesn’t involve mass murder!

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