The story of Vito Corleone, the first Godfather, unforgettably played by a hardly recognizable Brando, has become part of folk-lore and lexicon. Often classed as one of the best ever, I can at least say it had me glued for three hours, in my third viewing over the years. It is thriller-noire, a dark, brooding, elegantly violent, solidly constructed chunk of celluloid. To compare it with Part 2 is unnecessary since they are very different kinds of movies. The canvas of 1 is tightly knit and is confined to the bloody feuds of the "five families" who control the illegal businesses. Part 2 is more ambitious in it's portrayal of the immigrant's experience as it takes us across several generations. 2 is a vivid picture of the rich complexities that constitute the US.
The palette is sepia and it is a film of darkness and golden brown. Nina Rota's melancholy score goes well with the lives of these very human creatures eking out their own survival and ambitions in the crevices of society. The Don yearns for the day when the family will buy it's way to the daylight of legitimacy, maybe even become Senators. Michael wants to steer clear of the family business, but destiny sucks him into becoming it's most ruthless practitioner. This is Brando's film, even though he is on the screen only for a few small intervals. He rarely shows emotion (twice, in fact, to chastise his godson Johnny and eldest son Santino). His voice rarely rises above a purr as he straightens his hair in a contemplative gesture, a picture of leashed power. He does not directly order a single killing. He even has the magnanimity to forgo revenge for the brutal assassination of Santino, in the larger interests of "business" and the safety of his youngest son Michael, his ablest offspring and successor to be. One of the most dramatic sequences is the Summit where the bloody lords of the gang-world assemble to negotiate a truce and settle the differences around the narcotics trade. Another memorable sequence is the Don's grief when he learns of Santino's killing, his veins bursting as his lips spread out in a silent sob. Or the glad smile bursting through his semi-consciousness when Michael tells him that he will hereafter be part of the family business. And the heart attack that strikes him down finally as he childishly plays with his grandson.
It is difficult to lay one's finger as to where the magic of the movie lies. Perhaps the dish of violence has been served with refinement and artistry without passing judgement. The characters ring true and authentic and it shows us the world in all it's complexities which goes beyond simple categories and descriptions. Perhaps it is a a voyeuristic delight to gain admission into an inaccessible world, like the British aristocracy.