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‘The Godfather’ Explained in Seven Quotes

When Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” opened in New York on March 15, 1972, critics immediately understood the mob family drama to be a masterpiece. But they could not have foreseen how some of the dialogue would become part of our collective memory, often turning into catchphrases divorced from the film itself. In honor of the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather,” we asked seven fans — critics, actors, directors — to look back at Don Vito Corleone, sons Sonny and Michael, and henchmen like Clemenza and Tom Hagen, to reflect on key lines.

(An undertaker asking Don Corleone to get him justice)

“I believe in America.” These four words — spoken in a clipped, lilting rush over a pitch-black screen — are the first thing you hear in “The Godfather” after a short moan of music. The words hover over the imageless screen, demanding your attention and priming you for what’s to come. But they’re inscrutable (what does it mean to believe in a country?), and as they linger in the darkness, Coppola lets your imagination riffle through the possibilities. Is this a pledge, an article of faith, a declaration of intent?

These words inaugurate Coppola’s masterpiece and set the ominous, funereal stage for what will soon come. They also announce one of the most fundamentally American movies made in this country, which loves and condemns — though mostly loves — its violence onscreen and off, and has memorialized its outlaws as folk heroes, enshrined its marauders, erected statues of its slavers and elected its grifters. “The Godfather” is perfect from first frame to last, but its greatness also feels of a different order: It speaks to a truth about the American character that we all can recognize.

Because while we may not all believe in America, we believe in its violence even if we understand it may bury us. It’s no wonder that these words are spoken by an undertaker, the proud, angry Amerigo Bonasera (an unforgettable Salvatore Corsitto). His face is also the first thing you see, and just after he says his killer line, Coppola cuts to a choker close-up of this man. It’s a stunning portrait in chiaroscuro, with Bonasera looking straight into the camera, his pale sculpted face floating in shadow. He looks like a raptor, a skull; he looks like death. — Manohla Dargis, The Times co-chief film critic

(Clemenza to his fellow hit man)

I had always heard the story that the line was ad-libbed by Richard Castellano, playing Clemenza. And then you realize the specificity of the work the actors had done, creating a world so strong that it induces the behavior. Clemenza had a laundry list of stuff to do, as a ruse, to take Paulie out. And as he goes down this list, he calls back to something his wife asked him to do: Pick up a cannoli. What was written was, ‘Leave the gun.’ I love that because the writing was masterful, and you would only leave in something that lives up to the masterwork of the screenplay. That ad-lib tells you that the actor was aware of it, was having fun with it. The simplicity of a husband checking off a honey-do list becomes an assassination. I wonder if Castellano, when he saw the movie, said, ‘Wow, they left it in.’” — Wendell Pierce, actor

(Michael explaining to his older brother why revenge makes sense)

“Business Never Personal” is the title of a classic 1992 album by EPMD, among the most astute of the many tributes hip-hop has paid to “The Godfather.” The title connotes unsentimental, amoral ruthlessness, a refusal to compromise in the pursuit of profit. But the music is anything but impersonal, and the album’s biggest hit, “Crossover,” is an indictment of sellouts and corporate stooges. More often than not, invoking “The Godfather” is a way of pointing out what the social critic Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

“Strictly business” is how Tom Hagen describes rival families’ attempted murder of Vito. “Business” is also the rationale Michael offers for his proposed revenge, which includes the murder of a police captain. When the coolheaded, non-Sicilian Tom argues that the family shouldn’t take the attack on its patriarch personally, he’s trying to defuse the rage of the hot-blooded Sonny. He’s also suggesting that the old-world code of the blood feud should give way to a more modern, American approach. The family should put aside thoughts of vengeance and make a deal.

Does Michael agree? He seems to twist Tom’s reasoning around to a conclusion even more violent than what Sonny envisioned. This is exemplary gangster dialectics and the pivot on which the movie (and maybe also the world) turns. Michael, a college graduate and military veteran, goes from kid brother to killer, transforming the Corleones from a crime family into something like a transnational conglomerate. This doesn’t make them any less murderous. Quite the opposite.

In the next scene, Michael hears an echo of their debate in the words of his enemy, Sollozzo, who explains that the hit on Vito was “una cosa di business.” Michael doesn’t argue. To show how completely he agrees, he puts a bullet in Sollozzo’s head. Nothing personal. — A.O. Scott, The Times co-chief film critic

(Clemenza to Sonny after receiving a shocking package)

These are not men of poetry, though they often speak in code. Yet this little lyric gives Brasi’s tawdry, bug-eyed death a gentle, mythological postscript. Like a merman or a lovesick sailor doomed by a siren’s call, the garroted gangster now sleeps with the fishes. The image, here claimed as an expression from Sicily, exists in “Moby-Dick” and the “Iliad,” not that Sonny, heir to his father’s ruthlessness but not his traditions, understands. So it falls to Clemenza to interpret, in words that make spoiling fish an elegy not just for Brasi, but for all the old-country ways gasping in the noose of a new generation’s brutality. — Jessica Kiang, critic

(Don Corleone, explaining his, ahem, method of persuasion)

“This film is such a sneaky, deep stab at the flaws in the American system wrapped around this idea of fighting for the American dream. That was always very significant to me, coming from England to the States in the early ’70s, and even more pointed watching it all these years later. And it speaks to the duality of how the film is perceived, which is as this textbook manual, almost with Machiavelli, on how to succeed in American capitalist society and rise to the top. But at the same time, that statement is just loaded with the pathos and sadness of where these people came from and what they’re trying to achieve here and how unachievable it is. This notion of tough guys bullying their way into a seat at a table that doesn’t want them — immigrants coming into the U.S. and fighting to be heard.” — Alex Winter, actor and director

(Don Corleone to Tom Hagen after Sonny is ambushed)

“There’s something that I’ve always loved about that image of these five crime families, the idea that if those five families would just come together, imagine the might of their punch. That’s one of my favorite moments because when we talk about power, we usually talk about who is stronger and who is more capable of causing destruction. But I think what that shows really well is that power is also about who is capable of saying, ‘Enough.’ Who is strong enough to say: ‘Let’s stop, let’s talk. I’m willing to lose in this moment so that we don’t all lose going forward.’” — Tayarisha Poe, director

(Don Corleone to wannabe movie star Johnny Fontane)

We weren’t yet talking about toxic masculinity in 1972 — at least not in those specific terms. But many of the best movies of the 1970s find their filmmakers grappling with what it was to “act like a man,” and the twisted, conflicting notions of manhood they’d inherited from their fathers, and their fathers from theirs. When Don Corleone, both a literal and symbolic patriarch, hits and mocks his godson Johnny Fontane for breaking down in tears over his crumbling career, it reminds us of how tenuous the male self-image must be. Johnny needs his godfather’s help because he has cuckolded a powerful studio head; Michael risks his life and throws away his future because a police captain humiliated him; Sonny is lured to his death because he wants to defend the honor of his sister. Yet God forbid any of them show the fragility of shedding tears; that wouldn’t be masculine. — Jason Bailey, critic and author, “Fun City Cinema”

Kathryn Shattuck contributed interviews with Wendell Pierce, Alex Winter and Tayarisha Poe.

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