One of the main elements of the gangster movie genre is an ambivalence toward the protagonists. On the one hand, we identify with the gangsters. We want them to succeed. They’re not such bad guys deep down, just earning a living. On the other hand they earn their living through intimidation, murder, extortion and a variety of other crimes. Crime must be punished and these gangsters always have some fatal flaw that brings them down. These movies allow us to root for the gangsters while understanding why they must get what’s coming to them.
I came to The Godfather with some ambivalence. I have seen it before and liked it. The central conflict is the generation gap between Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his sons Sonny (James Caan) and Michael (Al Pacino). What always bothered me was Don Vito’s morality as opposed to his son’s immorality. Does it make Vito a better person that he offers his friendship before putting the screws in when he doesn’t get what he wants? How can we feel that he is morally better than his sons when he is overseeing criminal activities? He may prefer to avoid bloodshed but that doesn’t stop him from ordering it. Why is Michael going to hell for doing what he feels he has to do while Vito dies in peace? Don Vito is still a criminal.
The only way to reconcile this, it seems, is to accept that this is the way the world is. If crime syndicates are going to exist, who better to lead one than Don Vito? He doesn’t want to get into the drug trade even though it means a loss of money and power for his family. He is willing to compromise with his adversaries and maybe sacrifice a little pride if it will end a gang war. He plays rough when he has to but he believes in friendship, honor and loyalty. At a gangster summit, when Vito swears on the souls of his grandchildren that he will stop the vendettas, you believe him, because he truly is as good as his word. When Michael, the new Don, tries to get his brother-in-law, Carlo, to admit betrayal, he says he will not have him killed. You very much want to believe that Michael, a nice smart young man, is telling the truth. It is disappointing but not surprising, to find out that he is lying.
While The Godfather may have broken the mold of gangster movies, it still holds tight to the conventions of the genre. Even though young Michael gets sucked into the family business, we still want him to succeed. But he is a little too willing to murder; he is a liar; and even though he doesn’t go down at the end of the movie, we know that someday he will. — by A. Birgers