THIRTY YEARS ON: Francis Ford Coppola's mob masterpiece is still as popular as ever. BRIAN VINER chronicles the impact of influential Mafia movie The Godfather, once accused of turning the Mob into men of honour
Just over 30 years ago, Francis Ford Coppola called "action" on The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo's nigh-on unreadable novel. Coppola's film was released a year later, and a little after that, a reformed mobster called Dominick Montigleo settled down to watch it in a cinema in Berkeley, California.
Dominick was the nephew of Nino Gaggi, an under-boss in the Gambino family. Uncle Nino ran the Roy DeMeo crew in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, reputedly the most vicious gang of mobsters in the United States.
Dominick had been part of the DeMeo crew. But he had tired of threatening to cut people's nuts off. He wanted to make sweet music, dammit. So he scarpered to California, determined to become a famous rock musician. Then, in the spring of 1972, he settled down to watch The Godfather.
Dominick was enraptured. A shiver ran down his spine when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) said to his weedy brother Fredo (John Cazale): "Fredo, you're my elder brother, and I love you, but don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again ... ever!" The loyalty, the tradition, hell, the nobility of the Mob. Not to mention the meatballs. Right up on the big screen.
Dominick soon packed up his things and returned to Uncle Nino's embrace, and his meatballs. The Godfather was the best recruiting tool the Mob ever had.
"It made gangsters men of honour instead of what they really are killers without honour," says Jerry Capeci, who used to write a column about the mob for the New York Daily News and now runs www.ganglandnews.com.
"The film made joining the Mob palatable, even attractive, to young Italian-Americans. And gangsters have always enjoyed gangster movies. They even like (Martin Scorsese's) Goodfellas, which portrays them more accurately."
They also like The Sopranos, the brilliant television series shown on RTE and Channel 4, as we know from the FBI's secretly taped conversations between Anthony Rotundo, reputedly a soldier in the DeCavalcante family, and Joseph 'Tin Ear' Scalfano, so-called because he wears a hearing-aid.
The transcript of the tape, which led to the arrest of 41 New Jersey mobsters in 1998, included several references to The Sopranos. "Is that supposed to be us?" asked Scalfano.
And just as art imitates life, so life imitates art. Capeci tells me about another hoodlum knocking around Brooklyn in the seventies, Joey Gallo, who modelled himself shamelessly on Richard Widmark in the 1947 film Kiss of Death. Gallo even had a Hollywood-style demise. He was shot to death in Umberto's Clam House in Manhattan's Little Italy neighbourhood, thereby taking a tad too far his enthusiasm for dramatic endings.
But then the distinction between Mob fact and Mob fiction has always been blurred, thanks not least to George Raft, the actor with supposed underworld connections who played Paul Muni's sidekick in the 1932 classic Scarface and later parodied himself in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot.
The Godfather's impact on the Mob, however, was something new, something different. According to a former Pennsylvania cop called Frank Friel, every mobster's house he ever raided contained a cherished set of Godfather videos.
Such status within the Mob was not what Coppola had in mind for his films. In fact, it must now strike him as decidedly ironic, given the production problems created for him by the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which was represented by known mobsters, who complained somewhat disingenuously that The Godfather perpetuated a hurtful trend of linking Italian-Americans with organised crime.
Coppola can at least take comfort in the fact that Dominick Montigleo later enrolled in the FBI witness programme, and is now a TV repairman called Donald Moore living blamelessly in Yancy, Oklahoma (or something like that). Nevertheless, the Mob owes plenty to The Godfather.
"It gave wiseguys a quick view of history," says Allen Rucker, who, as author of The Sopranos A Family History, is also interested in the film's other legacy, its impact on screen mafiosi.
"The Godfather introduced moral ambiguity into the story of gangsters. Gangster films had always been about good guys and bad guys, with the bad guys played by Jimmy Cagney and Edward G Robinson. Suddenly, with The Godfather, there were good bad guys and bad bad guys. And the cops had no place at all. In The Sopranos we hardly know the cops. We never go home with them. In fact, The Sopranos has taken The Godfather's moral ambiguity to its ultimate level, because there are not only good bad guys and bad bad guys, there is good Tony and bad Tony."
He refers, of course, to Tony Soprano, the ruthless but angst-ridden crime boss so superbly played by James Gandolfini. And he is right; the legacy of the Corleones looms large in The Sopranos. Like many real mobsters, Silvio Dante, Tony's devoted but none-too-bright henchman played by Steven Van Zandt, is nuts for The Godfather. He refers constantly to scenes in "GF one" and "GF two".
The Soprano crew's range of killing methods even includes "a Moe Greene special" affectionately named after the Las Vegas casino owner in The Godfather who gets shot in the eye because he won't sell his business to the Corleones.
As befits dramas about the Mob, with their emphasis on family ties and traditions, there is a strong lineage running from The Godfather to The Sopranos via such films as Goodfellas. Sometimes this takes the form of in-jokes.
Christopher Moltisanti, the psychopathic hothead who in series one of The Sopranos maliciously shoots an innocent bakery assistant in the foot, is played by Michael Imperioli the actor who in Goodfellas played the kid shot in the foot by Joe Pesci's psychopathic hothead Tommy de Vito.
But The Sopranos saves its loudest homage for The Godfather. Even its casting methods echo those of Coppola, who dared to give mobster parts to real mobsters. In The Godfather, Lenny Montana, a former wrestler fresh from a spell in Riker's Island prison, was cast as the Corleone soldier Luca Brasi. Similarly, Tony Sirico, who plays Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos, has five years in prison under his belt, and it shows.
In the US The Sopranos has gone on to series three, and there the eminent film writer David Thomson is hooked. "We are four weeks in and there is more emphasis on the family than ever," he says.
Thomson is an unashamed devotee of The Godfather and The Godfather II (said to be the only film sequel better than the original, a glorious evolution that came to a shabby end with The Godfather III). He once argued persuasively that Michael Corleone became a role model not only for mobsters but for movie executives, too.
"There are Hollywood people who hold The Godfather as their Gideon," he wrote. "They recite and abide by the film's axioms: 'We'll make him an offer he can't refuse'; 'this isn't personal, it's business'; 'the one who brings you the message will be the betrayer."'
Thomson stands by this today. "There is no doubting its impact on Hollywood executives. That self-conscious way they have of speaking in which everything is a line that comes from The Godfather."
If only Coppola had known what he was unleashing when he started his camera rolling on March 29, 1971. He was certainly determined to create something special, otherwise he would not have faked a heart attack on completing his passionate speech in favour of casting Brando as Vito Corleone.
According to Michael Schumacher's 1999 biography of Coppola, Paramount president Stanley Jaffe had wanted Ernest Borgnine in fact, anyone but Brando. But so unnerved was he by the sight of Coppola writhing on the carpet that he caved in an example of life anticipating art.
The horse's head scene, the most memorable of many memorable scenes in The Godfather, offered a startling example of the lengths to which influential men can and will go. And that, believes Allen Rucker, was the film's underlying message, one shaped by the turmoil of the age, delivered to a nation ruptured by the Vietnam war and set to confront Watergate.
"The Godfather is really about corporate America," he says. "When Michael says to Kay that his father is no different from any other powerful man, for some that's the film's governing statement."