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“The Godfather” and the Decline of Marlon Brando

Paramount Pictures

Hurricane Marlon is sweeping the country, and I wish it were more than hot air. A tornado of praise—cover stories and huzzahs—blasts out the news that Brando is giving a marvelous performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather, the lapsed Great Actor has regained himself, and so on. As a Brando-watcher for almost 30 years, I’d like to agree.

But from his opening line, with his back toward us, Brando betrays that he hasn’t even got the man’s voice under control. (Listen to the word “first.” Pure Brando, not Corleone.) Insecurity and assumption streak the job from then on. They have put padding in his cheeks and dirtied his teeth, he speaks hoarsely and moves stiffly, and these combined mechanics are hailed as great acting. I don’t see how any gifted actor could have done less than Brando does here. His resident power, his sheer innate force, has rarely seemed weaker. His gift of mental transformation, the conviction that the changes are interior and that the externals merely reflect them, is not nearly as strong here as in, say, The Young Lions or Viva Zapata or On the Waterfront or Teahouse of the August Moon. He is handicapped by poor makeup: his hair is not gray enough and his hairline ought to have been altered so that he doesn’t constantly suggest Brando. But the real fault is his own: his laxness, sloth. He has become so lazy in recent years that he is willing to take intent for deed. Corleone has no moments of outburst—the Brando trademark, the leap of flame out of menacing quiet—so his dominance has to come from imagination; muscled by concentration. What Brando manufactures is surface—studied but easy effects.

A few moments ring true. When he hears of the death of his son, an ache starts deep in him and works to the surface through the fissures in the old man’s emotional armor. But generally, as they say at the Actors Studio he used to frequent, he gives us mere indication. It’s only the superficial contrast with the “standard” Brando that is making people gasp.

Compare Brando’s performance with Jean Gabin in virtually the same role in a recent French film called The Sicilian Clan. What authority Gabin had, how the waters of the world parted before him. If it’s argued that Gabin had a head start by reason of age and temperament, that only proves my point: Brando is being praised because of the difference between him and this role, not because of his achievement in it. The magnificent talent that dozed off some years ago is not fully awakened yet. Like star, like film. The keynote is inflation. Because the picture has so much of the commonplace, it escapes being called commonplace. In no important way is it any better than The Brotherhood (1968), on the same subject. (The word Mafia is never mentioned, but it doesn’t need to be.) The Godfather was made from a big best-seller, a lot of money was spent on it, and it runs over three hours. Therefore it’s significant.

We’re getting the usual flood of comments that the Mafia is only mirror-image corporate capitalism. (All the killings in the film are said to be “business, not personal.”) These high-school analogies ignore, among other things, the origins of the Mafia and its blood-bonds of loyalty, which have nothing to do with capitalism. Almost every one in The Godfather is either a murderer or an accessory, so its moral center depends on inner consistency and on implicit contrast with non-murdering citizens around it. As the picture winds on and on, episode after episode, its only real change is the Mafia’s shift from “nice” gambling and prostitution to take on “dirty” narcotics. (Time, the late 1940s.) Well, I suppose everything’s going to hell, even the morality of the Mafia, but the picture certainly takes a long, long time to get there.

Al Pacino, as Brando’s heir, rattles around in a part too demanding for him. James Caan is OK as his older brother. The surprisingly rotten score by Nino Rota contains a quotation from “Manhattan Serenade” as a plane lands in Los Angeles. Francis Ford Coppola, the director and co-adapter (with Mario Puzo), has saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings, which are among the most vicious I can remember on film. The print of the picture showed to the New York press had very washed-out colors.