Throughout the Cold War, the Western genre exemplified America both to itself and the rest of the world. It was, as the cowboys say, our brand. The Western, the critic Robert Warshow concluded in a 1954 Partisan Review essay that has become canonical, put forth “a certain image of a man.” The paradigm was the hero of the quintessential Western, High Noon. These days the film that American presidents and presidential candidates regularly cite as their favorite is The Godfather.
Amy Klobuchar may have named The Sound of Music but, like our last and current president, Tulsi Gabbard digs The Godfather. Likewise Pete Buttigieg. Ditto once presidential wannabes Marco Rubio, Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Herman Cain (for 10 years the CEO of fast-food chain named Godfather’s Pizza). America loves The Godfather—and not just America. Released in a pirated print in 1974, The Godfather was the biggest box-office hit in Cuban history, although Fidel Castro really, really loved The Godfather Part II for its depiction of gangsters and crooked pols fleeing corrupt, mob-controlled pre-revolutionary Havana.
The shift in preference from High Noon, in which Gary Cooper’s Marshal Kane sticks to his guns and basically faces down a trio of bad guys alone because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and besides, he knows he’s right, to the saga of a criminal family enterprise in which decorated war hero Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) succeeds his father (Marlon Brando) as capo di tutti capi, or, in the words of Cuban critic Mario Rodríguez Alemán, “a vengeful torturer and assassin,” tells us something about the shift from official, if not actual, civic-minded altruism to blatant self-interest in 21st century America.
Movies are based on cycles—the Western has been eclipsed or rivaled before. During the Great Depression, before the implementation of a new production code regulating on-screen behavior, gangster films in the mode of Little Caesar and Public Enemy were so popular they accounted for nearly one-fifth of studio productions.
The Godfather, which used the epigraph (attributed to Balzac) that “behind every great fortune there is a crime,” was something new—not least in its reception. Published 50 years ago last spring, Mario Puzo’s novel, an unabashed commercial project undertaken by a hitherto serious middlebrow writer, was perceived as perfect movie fodder. “This genial tale of filial piety, true friendship and uncompromising loyalty has instant celluloid currency,” Roger Jellinek wrote in The New York Times, predicting the story’s universal appeal.
A second notice in the Times Book Review began by comparing Michael Corleone to another contemporary good boy gone bad, Philip Roth’s perpetually horny Alexander Portnoy: Neither “wishes to enter his father’s line of work. Each of them falls for a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant girl.” This seemingly facile analogy conceals a deeper truth. Two types of wiseguy, Alex and Michael were self-conscious, overachieving ethnics of immigrant stock seeking a way to assimilate American notions of freedom and social mobility while ignoring culturally acknowledged norms of propriety. In a time of cultural ferment with the so-called establishment continually called into question, both the anxious, sexually obsessed Portnoy and the uptight, murderous Corleone, one a secular Jew, the other a lapsed Catholic, were new anti-heroes.
The Godfather spent 64 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. As filmed by Francis Ford Coppola and released in March 1972, it was a nearly unprecedented cinematic event. Pickets protested The Godfather as earlier groups had the original Scarface in 1934. So what? Audiences lined up to see it. Thanks in part to enhanced ticket prices (raised to $4!), The Godfather bested Gone with the Wind as the highest-grossing Hollywood movie ever.
But, although The Godfather reigned as Hollywood’s top-grossing film until The Exorcist knocked it off its perch a year later, it was not universally embraced. The Italian‐American Civil Rights League, founded by crime boss Joseph Colombo (killed in a mob hit while The Godfather was in production), had strenuously organized against the movie, ensuring that the words “mafia” and “cosa nostra” would never be uttered. Commenting on The Godfather soon after it opened, William Buckley called it “positively embarrassing” and he predicted that, “far from surviving (as the publicity promises) as the Gone with the Wind of gangster movies, my guess is that The Godfather will be as quickly forgotten as it deserves to be.”
Others, however, found the movie all too true. After attending the premiere, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Paramount production head Robert Evans that The Godfather reminded him of Washington, “just different names, different faces.” President Richard Nixon screened the movie nine days after it opened and Norman Mailer, in writing about the 1972 presidential election, would affix Nixon with the Godfather sobriquet.
Coppola’s skillful adaptation notwithstanding, what made The Godfather special? Like any great myth, the movie reconciled great contradictions. Building on Bonnie and Clyde and the other righteous outlaws of the late 1960s, the gangsters of The Godfather are more sympathetic than the cops. Unlike previous gangster films, The Godfather focused on a family and even more topically in 1972, referenced and resolved the so-called generation gap by having Michael end his rebellion against his father and indeed taking his place as the head of the family business.
Taking post-Vietnam cynicism for granted, it compared organized crime to the U.S. government, not least in its power to assassinate. (Michael calls his wife’s belief that the government is above murder “naïve.” Indeed, The Godfather even flirts with the idea that the mob might have some culpability in the killing of John F. Kennedy.) Yet the movie was also nostalgic, set in the late 1940s in a cultural moment when a longing for the innocent ’50s was palpable. It harked back to an Old Country past as well as more presumably courtly forms of criminal behavior.
But mainly, The Godfather redefined the success we call the American dream. Almost a trailer for itself, the movie immediately established the Italian immigrant Don Corleone’s power over popular culture (namely Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood) before settling in to dramatize his son’s Faustian bargain to revive the family’s criminal fortune. Michael Corleone’s success might be tragic, but unlike Little Caesar or Scarface, he didn’t end up dead in the gutter. Brutal, single-minded, and cunning, consistently underestimated by established authority, he was a winner, king of the world.
The Godfather not only provided real and wannabe wiseguys with ready-made one-liners and role models, it suggested a template for the plutocratic family dramas and immigrant miniseries that dominated network television well into the 1980s. The Corleones succeeded the Kennedys as America’s royal family. Westerns had entered a period of intense genre revisionism—epitomized by the most lucrative Western ever, one as transgressive as Portnoy’s Complaint, Blazing Saddles—although, into the 1970s, they were still 1 out of every 10 Hollywood movies. But the hero of High Noon had mutated into the legal vigilante, Dirty Harry, shifting our origin story from the frontier to the period of the great immigration. The Godfather—with its sense of universal corruption, identification of crime with market capitalism, and privileging the family above society—emerged as a new national narrative in which white ethnic immigrants took America as they found it.
Unlike any other sequel, Godfather: Part II actually improved the original—although Americans, unlike Cubans, tend not to distinguish between the two, seeing them as a single work. (The third installment is scarcely more than a footnote.) Indeed, more than a novel or a movie, The Godfather might be considered what Leslie Fielder, writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Roots, called “an inadvertent epic”—in this case including Puzo’s novel, the movie and its two sequels, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 corrective, Goodfellas, and perhaps the 1984 remake of Scarface starring Al Pacino as a monstrous Cuban gangster.
This epic also includes The Sopranos, the first great serial drama of the cable TV era and the most resonant—a show, that in further elaborating on the crime family drama, also put its great anti-hero Tony Soprano (James Gandalfini) on a psychoanalyst’s couch. (In a sense, suburbanite Tony is the fusion of Alexander Portnoy and Michael Corleone, as is the shrink-seeking gangster Robert De Niro played in Analyze This, the Hollywood comedy that opened in March 1999, less than three months after the airing of the first Sopranos episode.)
In The Sopranos’ initial episode and Tony’s maiden therapy session with Dr. Melfi, the gangster invokes Gary Cooper. Unfolding in a post-Godfather world, The Sopranos is filled with references to the Godfather movies—including an early episode in which Melfi’s Italian American family debated the inherent bias in The Godfather, Goodfellas, et al. Did these films slander Italians or, in their quintessential Americanness, were they rather now the equivalent to Westerns?
The Western, per Warshow, advanced “a certain image of a man.” When the genre declined, that image did as well.
The president that the French dubbed “Ronnie le Cowboy” had starred in several Westerns, although he was canny enough to also identify himself with the vigilante cop Dirty Harry (as did Bush I). Bush II, who exaggerated his Texas twang and purchased a ranch as a backdrop for his presidency, may be the last American president to fashion himself a cowboy. Meanwhile, it was not only junior mobsters but former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani who enjoyed imitating Brando’s Don Corleone.
Trumpworld is steeped in The Godfather. Five years before former FBI Director James Comey compared the new president to a crime boss, Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen did the same, bragging that his client was “the godfather of politics.” Trump himself is fluent in Godfatherese, calling Cohen a “rat,” praising his former campaign manager Paul Manafort for refusing to flip and advocating omertà, the code of silence. Trump associates were even more explicit as when Roger Stone advised a potential witness to imitate the behavior of a mobster in The Godfather II who, threatened with a relative’s death, declines to testify. When a right-wing activist compared CNN newsman Chris Cuomo, Mario’s son and Andrew’s brother, to the wimpiest member of the Corleone family, Fredo—Cuomo took violent exception and Trump was quick to spot and capitalize on the dis. (Of course, Donald Trump Jr. has also been compared to Fredo.)
ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos openly yearned for the return of Cooper’s Marshal Kane in the form of Robert Mueller but, as a model for American leadership, High Noon is almost absurdly obsolete. The quintessential Western offered a civics lesson and extolled the hero who looked like a hero, taking a brave and lonely stand—for what? The greatest of gangster films privileges money, power, and family. “The only wealth in the world is children” are the first words spoken in Godfather: Part III, delivered by middle-aged Michael Corleone in husky voice-over. But that’s only part of the story.
As the end of Godfather II makes clear, Michael has sublimated duty to country into tribal loyalty. Rather than join America, he has built a wall around himself, physical and emotional. This substitution of home for homeland suits America’s 21st-century reality, as the fantasy of unlimited growth collides with the experience of limited mobility—or rather mobility for the few who are ruthless or lucky enough to achieve it. Even more than The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos explicated the cult of the “made man”—the gangster inducted into the mafia fraternity of crime. Traditionally, such an initiate would have to be of full Italian descent. But in Trumpworld, any white male is a potential “made man,” all communities are gated against outsiders, and the American dream is a successful racket. (The suckers of High Noon’s Hadleyville deserved to suffer.)
The Godfather normalized the notion of America as a criminal enterprise. Coppola, who would be a regular visitor to Havana in the 1980s, flattered his hosts by telling them that U.S. audiences missed The Godfather’s critique. The party paper Juventud Rebelde quotes him as saying, “I don’t think many Americans knew what they were watching.” On the contrary. They knew exactly. Just as each new mass shooting brings forth ritual cries for “thoughts and prayers,” so any unpleasant aspect of national behavior, be it caging the children of Central American refugees or demonstrating for a racially pure white America in the streets of Charlottesville, provokes the plaintive wail, that’s not who we are. Unfortunately, it is.
Writing in Partisan Review six years before his essay on the Western, Warshow addressed the archetypal Hollywood gangster. Without mentioning capitalism or even “free enterprise,” his essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” invokes the brutality of the American dream, suggesting that the gangster acted out a repressed anti-social desire for self-actualization. Before reaching a somewhat dubious conclusion that the gangster is tragic in that society punishes him for his success, Warshow makes the more resonant observation that the gangster “is what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become.”
And so we have.
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J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.