The Godfather - What makes it a classic

What Makes Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” a classic?

Director Francis Ford Cappola’s 1972 gangster film ‘The Godfather’ is part of a trilogy based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, released in 1969.

The movie follows the Corleone family, who are Italian migrants over the course of ten years, and the reluctant rise to power of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) who had been a part of the marines during World War II. 

On 14th March 1972, ‘The Godfather’ premiered at Loew’s State Theatre before being released in the United States, widely on March 24, 1972. ‘The Godfather’ became 1972’s highest-grossing film in the US. 

The film won Best Actor for Brando, Best Film, and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 45th Academy Awards amongst seven other award nominations on the same night. 

The film has been regarded as ‘culturally, historically aesthetically significant by the US Film Registry. In addition, the American Film Institute regarded ‘The Godfather’ as the second-best film ever made in American Cinema, behind ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941).

After its release, the film released a lot of acclaim from all over the globe. The audience and the critics praised the film for every aspect, including screenplay, directing, score, editing, etc. In addition, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino were applauded for their performances, and the film also helped give their acting careers a different dimension. 


Even before Mario Puzo could finish writing the novel, Evans, the executive of Paramount Pictures, was eager to take up the novel right to make a film. 

Since the previous movie made by Paramount Pictures did not gross well, they were skeptical about the new project and thus decided not to invest much. 

Paramount realized they would take in an Italian director to avoid Italian-American lobbying and reduce the political backlash. Cappola, who needed work, was approached to make the film, although Cappola was reluctant as he thought the story was trash, so he took up the project.

Later on, as Cappola got into the process of getting the film adapted, a little excitement crept into his mind as he realized he could make the film into a ‘metaphor for capitalism in America.’


Don Vito Corleone is the patriarch of the Corleone family and runs the family business. The Corleone family is from Sicily and has migrated to America to live the ‘American Dream,’ and for this exact reason, Don Vito has to be a little detached from the family to run the business. The business, in turn, ensures its ‘American Dream’ comes true. 

What Makes Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" a classic?

Don Vito has three sons, and each of them has certain qualities. Sonny, the eldest, played by James Caan, is extremely reckless and hot-tempered; Fredo, played by John Cazale, is almost sweet, whereas the youngest, Michael, is calm, collected, and possesses intelligence.

Michael is an ex-marine, and his character is introduced as someone who stays away from the family business. He is almost treated as an outsider in the family business by his brothers. However, due to ‘obligations,’ he becomes the main face of the family business after Don Vito. 

Vito is a self-righteous man who, when given respect, treats one with kindness but answers disrespect with ruthlessness. He, in the film, refuses to take part in selling drugs, and thus a clash arises, and the reluctant Michael is forced to take up the business.

‘The Godfather’ mainly revolves around Michael’s rise to power, family, obligations, Italian immigrant conscience, and the ‘American Dream,’ amongst others.

Point Of View

In ‘The Godfather,’ I have noticed that the film speaks for itself. Cappola does not take an ‘on your face’ take.

A point of view of the film is established in the first sequence. The mafia, who are supposed to be ruthless people, are having the time of their lives at a family wedding. This tells us that we will take a look at their lives and business from within. They, like ordinary people, are dancing, singing, drinking, and eating. A close familial bond is also shown while the activities take place. There is nothing eerie about the situation; on the contrary, the environment is very warm and jolly, something one does not expect from a gangster film.


Even though there were many gangster films made before ‘The Godfather,’ one will agree that the film changed the gangster film genre forever. Coppola brought the Italian immigrant culture into the film, and since then, the world has seen several gangster films keeping the Italian immigrant culture in mind. ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) by Martin Scorsese is a notable example of such a film.

  • American Dream: 

America is a melting pot for cultures from all around the world. However, to date, people have migrated to the US to live the American Dream, i.e., make a lot of money, buy a house and a car, and have a flawless personal life/ family life.

American Dream in The Godfather

The American Dream pushes forth the idea of upward social mobility through equality, liberty, democracy, opportunity, and rights. The Statue of Liberty is a classic symbol for the idea of an ‘American Dream.’ 

The idea has been used in Hollywood movies from the start, and Hollywood is not slowing down on promoting the idea anytime soon.

When America was at its ‘greatest,’ Europe was seen as a place of hierarchy. Thus, fleeing to America to live an independent life with a higher position in the societal strata was the aim. 

“I believe in America”- are the first words one hears when the film begins, and thus, Capppola establishes an underlying theme. Vito Corleone is the patriarch of the Corleone family, and the words coming out of his mouth have weight.

Don Vito is also someone who provides justice; hence, in the opening sequence itself, we witness Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) asking Vito to find justice for him and his daughter as the law had failed him. 

  • ·        Family VS Business 

The first sequence of the film establishes the point of view and the contrasting parallels it deals with. On the one hand, Bonasera is asking for justice from Don Vito, which portrays the business while, just outside, Vito’s daughter’s wedding party is shown.

American Dream In The Godfather

Conversation between Bonasera and Vito intercut with the wedding, and the familial bond shows the contrast between the two worlds. However, what connects both the scenarios is when Vito peeps out the window.

Vito peeping out of the window is an important moment in the film, especially when establishing the underlying themes. It directly shows the contrast between leisure and obligation.

In the concept of the ‘American Dream,’ Vito’s family is leisure for him, whereas the mafia business is his obligation. Vito is shown unable to attend to the pleasures of family life because of his business. His inability to spend time with his family is a constant thing.

The film shows how Vito and later on Michael, along with the other members, have to fulfill the obligation to achieve leisure. 

Michael explains to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), his girlfriend, the wedding sequence, that he isn’t part of the family business. Hence, his later development into a vital part of the family business is almost ironic.

During the sequence of Luca Brasi’s (Lenny Montana) murder, Michael utters the words. “it’s not personal- it’s strictly business”- and this, I feel, is almost like a turning factor in Michael’s transition from a reluctant ‘outsider’ in the family business to a raging mafia. This moment also defines how one had to fulfill obligations to gain leisure and keep the family well protected.


‘The Use of Light, Shadow and Contrast’

Before ‘The Godfather,’ German Expressionism and Film Noir had already brought in the concept of darkness in films through films like ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920), ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958), ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), etc. Thus, the dark aesthetic had long been explored, but it was only done so in black and white.

However, to ‘The Godfather,’ we owe the modern dark cinema approach to deliberately using low exposure cinematography. Gordon Wilis, the cinematographer of the 1972 masterpiece, is rightly called the ‘Prince of Shadows.’

What Makes Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" a classic?

Harsh contrasts, dimly lit or half-lit faces with dark shadows are typical of ‘The Godfather.’ It is done deliberately in order to portray the shadowy world of the Corleone’s.

The film begins with a close-up of Bonasera’s darkly lit face and slowly zooms out to showcase the shadowy setting and the silhouette of Don Vito, i.e., the Godfather, staring down at Bonasera from a position of power. The darkly lit face of Bonasera, the slow zoom out into the dark mise-en-scene, along the huge silhouette of the Godfather all plays a vital role in setting up the tone of the film.

Half-lit faces are an indication of an unknown presence. Such lighting techniques are used to tell the audience that we never really get to know who the characters on screen really are. It is noteworthy that till the end, no one, not even Vito himself, gets to figure out who he is.

The dark mise-en-scene, high contrast lighting, and use of shadows all showcase the duality that exists within each character and within the story itself. All the deals and tasks are completed in the shadows.

Wilis also deny the face of eye lighting most of the time. Since one could say that the eye shows us what is truly inside, we, as an audience, are never able to look into the eyes of the characters, thus, never really knowing them.

The contrasting scenes in the opening sequence, where on one hand we are introduced to a bright wedding and on the other to a dark world of business taking place inside, both literally and metaphorically represent that we do not know what is on the inside.

The wedding shows a strong family coming together, but what leads them to come together and be a strong family is what most are unaware of. From the outside, the world is bright; however, it is full of shadows from the inside.

When Michael is first introduced in the movie during the wedding with his girlfriend Kay, both their faces are brightly lit. This is done because none of them have any association with the shadowy business of the family, and neither do they have any interest in taking part in it.

However, as the movie proceeds and Michael starts getting more involved in the family business, his face starts to be shown in dim lights, shadows, and high contrasts. The more he gets involved, the more his face is denied proper lighting. By the end of the film, we witness a Michael who is the polar opposite of the Michael everyone had witnessed at the beginning of the movie.

However, the only time within the movie’s run time, other than the opening when Michael is seen relatively warmly lit, is during the romantic escapades in Sicily. This is a fantasy of happiness and romanticism of, Michael. However, this fantasy image soon crumbles to the ground when he is forced to face reality.

What Makes Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" a classic?

Michael, by the end, has become almost cold-blooded and bound by the duties of obligation, and this is portrayed not only through his actions but also through the lighting as his face is almost entirely immersed in darkness. This showcases how Michael finally becomes the Godfather after Don Vito.

Kay, Michael’s girlfriend and later on wife, has a similar change. By the end of the film, when Kay finally accepts who her husband is, her face is also in the shadows.

On the contrary, Sonny, the eldest son’s face, is almost always neutrally lit. Probably, because he seldom could be mysterious and think. Sonny would rather punch his way through life out in the open than think and live in the shadows like Michael or Vito, and this was one of the main reasons why he could not qualify to be Godfather.

Contemporary films during the 1970s were all brightly lit to have easy drive-in movie access, so when Wilis showed Paramount how he was shooting the film, Paramount had almost lost all hope. However, what they did not know at that time is that this particular cinematography and lighting technique of Gordon Wilis will shape cinema and shows till eternity.


‘The Godfather Waltz’

‘The Godfather Waltz’ by Nino Rota is another driving force of the film and has even turned out to be Rota’s most notable work.

‘The Godfather Waltz’ explores and connects the complex duality of the father-son relationship of Michael and Don Vito along with Vito’s struggles and the reluctance of passing down the shadowy, dark family business to Michael, who initially wanted nothing to do with it.

A trumpet is used in the waltz; the trumpet is used to signify Vito and his power. We hear the trumpet for the last time when Vito is shown. The trumpet fades out to cut into the next scene to show Michael leading a ‘normal’ life, away from the family business, but him being so close to the trumpet that signifies Vito is not coincidental.

Soon after, Michael has to take up the reins, and the trumpet is not heard anymore; instead, an oboe is heard, and this begins to signify Michael. The way Vito was put into the sidelines, the trumpet from the waltz is also kicked out.

It is noteworthy that even though ‘The Godfather Waltz’ is the movie’s central theme, it is used rarely. This is mainly because the idea behind the waltz was to show the relationship between Vito and Michael, and since they hardly share much screen time, the music is also rarely used.

‘The Godfather Waltz’ is never used during the solo screen times of Vito or Michael but rather between scenes when transitioning from Vito to Michael or vice versa. This use of the waltz during the transitions is an attempt to bring the father and son together through some form of connection.

When Michael is hiding out in Sicily, the presence of ‘The Godfather Waltz’ is completely absent. During this part of the movie, Vito is upset over Michael’s actions. Hence, the absence of the waltz here signifies how Michael and Vito separated not only physically but also emotionally. Therefore, it re-establishes the importance of the soundtrack.

When Evans, the then Paramount executive, heard ‘The Godfather Waltz,’ he was against using the music in the film. Still, Cappola convinced him to use it in the film, that too as the main theme, and look where that landed the music of ‘The Godfather’ in the present day.

Baptism Scene

One cannot talk about ‘The Godfather’ and not mention the famous Baptism Scene. Whether you have watched the movie or not, the Baptism Scene is the most easily recognizable scene in all of film history, and rightly so.

This is the part where Michael plans to murder the head of the rival families before they get to him. It starts off in a church where the lighting, again, the dark, and Michael’s face is half-lit. A piece of simple church music is heard along with the priest reciting lines off of The Bible.

This is intercut with the murderers getting ready with their weapons. These aspects are shot in broad daylight to signify the recklessness of Michael’s plan. The previously heard church sounds are joined in by the everyday diegetic sound of a city.

As the murderers close in on the targets, an organ starts playing, and one must assume that it is completely non-diegetic because of the loud nature of the sound. Now, one can hear the church sounds, the everyday diegetic sound of the intercut murderers, and the organ altogether.

To put it easily, the Kuleshov Effect says that meaning is derived out of separate pictures put together. Cappola here uses the Kuleshov Effect. The intercut of the murders taking place with Michael’s half-lit face tells us that it is Michael who is behind the murders of the individuals.

While the murders are taking place, Michael is in a church, which is supposed to signify peace and honesty. Instead, he is standing and lying during a baptism while others do the dirty work for him. The particular aspect gives Michael a God-like demeanor. The contrast between the mise-en-scene of the two is particularly noteworthy.

The baptism that is taking place is more than just a mere baptism of the baby. It is the baptism of Michael as well because now, he has completely changed as a person and is being born as a new personality.

The Michael we saw during the wedding who had high moral values and is clean no longer exists. He is just as dark as Don Vito and puts obligation first in order to protect his leisure, i.e., family.


Mario Puzo, single-handedly with a bit of push from Cappola, created the idea of a ‘Godfather’ being present in the mafia families.

I watched ‘The Godfather’ almost three years back when I got into film school, and must I mention that the movie blew me away. However, when I rewatched the movie with a bit of experience, I realized the kind of masterpiece the movie really is.

With his 1972 classic, Cappola really changed the Hollywood film scene and paved the way for many such gangster or mafia films to be made that took a different perspective than the one’s made before ‘The Godfather.’

To this date, one cannot deny the remarkable influence ‘The Godfather’ has left on films and pop culture. ‘The Godfather’ fandom has every little line and detail memorized and analyzed at the top of their fingers. Some people even have the habit of quoting dialogues of power play from the movie.

The movie lived on to be a classic, and it surely will live on to be a classic in times to come.

About the Author

What Makes Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" a classic?

Shanaia Debasmita Mondal

Shanaia is a film student, enthusiast, and a student filmmaker currently in her third year of film school. She aims to leave a relevant mark amidst the film community with her contribution.

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