James Caan plays the eldest boy, Sonny, like the Don without his lid on. He feels that when he's indulging his appetites (for action and for sex), he's fueling the fires that protect his family. But his lack of control triggers a gang war that ends in his own death. Caan animates his body with a high-strung, barely controlled rage; when he lets go, kicking and bashing his wife-beating brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo), the effect is scary and exhilarating. He's like a Brando action hero on amphetamines. (Talia Shire, as Carlo's wife, Connie, gives a vividly unsentimental performance, expertly toeing the line between pathos and hysteria.) John Cazale's Fredo, who'd be next in line were it not for his weak nature, has the surprising nakedness and sensitivity Brando showed in movies like The Men. Even Robert Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Vito's German-Irish "adopted" son and consigliori, echoes Brando in his eloquent wariness, his furtive intelligence.
The film begins with a trumpet solo that sets off sad, comic and heroic vibrations. You may doubt a movie could live up to the music and create a resounding mixture of its own. But as the brass flourish turns into a waltz, Coppola and his co-adapter, Puzo, set inexorable dramatic rhymes to it. Courtship strolls and wedding scenes, church rituals and ritual murders, match up and enter into a brew that's heady, true, and devastatingly shocking. Part of the black magic of The Godfather is the way it depicts how Catholicism operates in the Corleones' world--as salvation and cover for evil. When Coppola intercuts a christening with a mass assassination, The Godfather brings us into the worldview of the wicked, where there is no God (only godfathers) and where the men who rule in His stead camouflage brutality with the rites of church and family.
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, from Puzo's novel. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With Marlon Brando,Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Sterling Hayden and John Cazale.