Why you should care
Because this movie changed the face of American crime.
People sometimes forget that the most famous line in The Godfather — “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” — didn’t originate with the formidable Don Corleone, played into rumbling infamy by a cotton-mouthed Marlon Brando. Michael Corleone, played by pre-stardom Al Pacino, has brought his girlfriend, Kay (a wide-eyed Diane Keaton), to a family party. Michael may be the son of a formidable Italian-American Mafia boss, but he’s about as assimilated as you can get: an Ivy League grad sitting quietly in uniform with his WASP girlfriend at an Italian wedding.
And as he sits there, his raucous family erupting around him, and Mob relations quietly ensuring no one takes their photo, Michael slowly starts to explain to Kay what his family’s all about. “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” he murmurs, a little awkwardly. It turns out that means holding a gun to someone’s head. Kay’s eyes get even wider as she figures it out. “That’s my family, Kay,” Michael says firmly. “That’s not me.”
Accurate or not, it’s how people think about the Mafia — and often how gangsters think about themselves.
Jay Gutteridge, crime writer
Over the course of one of the most iconic film franchises in history, it turns out that’s exactly what Michael Corleone is: a gangster. And not just any gangster, but the template for every criminal character who followed him, from Emperor Palpatine to the Godfather-obsessed Tony Soprano. But what did real-life gangsters think of the Corleones? The answer says a lot about American crime.
The Godfather came out at a strange, game-changing time for the Italian-American Mafia. The story is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the heyday of American crime — think postwar economic boom, the advent of the drug trade, and Al Pacino in an old-school trench coat and fedora. But the film itself came out in 1972, just two years after the legislation that would be the slow kiss of death for America’s organized crime. The Mob was having an identity crisis, and for mobsters, The Godfather was both nostalgic and infuriating.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970, is the reason the American Mafia has been reduced to drawn-out court trials and second-rate crime. It’s why modern-day gangsters can’t walk around without a bodyguard like Vito Corleone, and why, by The Godfather Part III (1990), Michael Corleone is trying to appear to be “legit.” RICO expanded the definition of organized crime, making it far easier for federal law enforcement to prosecute across state lines and justify invasive surveillance like wiretapping.
By the time The Godfather hit theaters, gangsters were already starting to feel the heat — and many decided early on that they didn’t want people thinking about the Mob outside of their terms. The less press, the better. One Mob boss, Joseph Colombo, took matters into his own hands by trying to wipe the word “Mafia” out altogether. Between the time Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather topped best-seller lists for a whopping 67 weeks in 1969 and the film inched toward hitting theaters, Colombo and other wealthy Italian-American New Yorkers started a campaign against “violent” portrayals of their ethnicity. They called their organization the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, and they were adamant on dissociating Al Capone from everyday Italians.
“What is Mafia? There is not a Mafia,” Colombo reassured attendees at a press conference in 1970. “Am I the head of a family? Yes. My wife, and four sons and a daughter. That’s my family.” But the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League had their work cut out for them with The Godfather, real-life Mob connections or no.
There was a different ingredient to this movie from the 1968 Mafia flop The Brotherhood, the original 1935 Scarface or, indeed, most American cinema at the time. The Godfather had a powerful, authentic Italian-American team at the helm, and they meant business. They worked hard to make the Corleone family look and feel authentic, and won over many mobster critics in the process.
Throughout filming, director Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo, who adapted his novel to the screen with Coppola’s help, allegedly stayed away from real-life gangsters. But the cast did reportedly spend one night having dinner with relatives of Al Lettieri, who played Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo and had a real-life New Jersey Mafia family. Photos of that dinner exist, with Pacino frowning, a little uncertain, as Lettieri casually hands him a pistol to take a closer look.
When the film came out, opinions instantly skewed. Dismayed Italian-Americans struck out at Mob stereotypes. “It’s a deep slur, an insult to Americans of Italian extraction,” one declared in an impassioned letter to The New York Times. “As it stands, The Godfather will cause countless Americans to unwarrantedly fear and despise Italians and Americans of Italian extraction.”
On the other hand, people were talking about the Mafia in a way they hadn’t for years, and a lot of gangsters liked the attention. Some started dressing in a throwback to the 1950s, while others changed their speech and mannerisms to match Brando’s. While the film didn’t use the words “Mafia” or “Cosa Nostra,” acceding to the demands of the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, some of its most iconic phrases — “going to the mattresses,” “an offer he can’t refuse” and “sleeping with the fishes” — entered international crime culture in a lasting way. It wasn’t just American gangsters who loved The Godfather. In a 2012 raid on an Italian Mafia boss’s home, police found a bust of Al Pacino.
“More than any other piece of media, The Godfather has become a living part of modern mobsters’ lives,” says crime writer Jay Gutteridge. “Accurate or not, it’s how people think about the Mafia — and often how gangsters think about themselves.”
Francis Ford Coppola warned his cast to stay away from gangsters. But one way or another, the Mafia has stayed with them.