Despite its tumultuous production, The Godfather — released in March 1972 — has become one of the most celebrated and enduring movies of all time. However, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s three-hour mafia epic greatest triumph isn’t something technical or financial; it’s presenting viewers with perhaps the superlative cinematic example of a hero becoming a villain: Specifically, protagonist Michael Corleone’s transformation from an ostensibly pure and fair-minded man into a psychopathic figurative monarch is as horrifying as it is heartbreaking.
Faultlessly portrayed by Al Pacino, Michael ultimately embodies what The Village Voice’s Tony Ortega deems “an intellectual’s daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability.” Decades later, his ruin is fascinating and remarkable not only as a self-contained catastrophe — especially if you contemplate his arc across the entire Godfather trilogy — but also because it helped engender the similar trajectories of many modern good guys gone bad.
CBS News’ David Morgan appropriately describes The Godfather as the story of “a father [who] passes down a legacy of power, corruption and violence to his sons, one of whom rejects those values, only to take control with a ruthless contempt in order to preserve the family business.” Naturally, that misfortune is so impactful because Michael starts out with such wholesome promise for a better life far removed from the customs and vices of his kin.
During the introductory wedding scene, Michael returns home as a localized, decorated, and esteemed soldier and college graduate. He bucks tradition not only because he’s the only son of Vito’s who distances himself from his father’s affairs, but also because he arrives with non-Italian girlfriend Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton) — who ingeniously comes to represent Michael’s loss of innocence and integrity.
At first, Michael is deadset on denouncing a life of criminality so that he and Kay can begin their untainted version of the American Dream. This difference in lifestyle and ambition is made especially potent when Michael discusses how Vito threatened to murder the former bandleader of his godson, singer Johnny Fontane.
He tells Kay: “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me,” and regardless of whatever mockery his older brother, Santino (or Sonny, played by James Caan), throws at him, it’s clear that everyone involved loves and accepts the man Michael has become. (When preparing for a group photo at the reception, Vito even proclaims, “Where’s Michael? We’re not taking the picture without Michael.”)
Upon gangster Sollozzo’s attempted assassination of Vito, however, Michael has no choice but to be pulled into the patriarch’s enterprise. After commanding Vito’s nurse to move his father’s bed, Michael kisses Vito’s hand and declares, “I’m with you now.” A sinister version of the main theme — “The Godfather Waltz” — plays to highlight the fact that Michael means this as both Vito’s son and his successor.
Soon, Santino and the Corleone’s consigliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), are talking about Sollozzo’s wish for Michael to join him at a restaurant to discuss “[a] proposition… so good that we can’t refuse.” The famous “offer we can’t refuse” motif is used sparingly yet purposefully throughout the movie, with this instance signifying the transition of power from Vito (who says it in the iconic opening scene) to Michael (who utters it with more malevolence in Las Vegas later on).
As Santino and Tom clash over what to do, Michael is literally and metaphorically placed in-between them. Finally, he agrees to go to the meeting and — provoking the laughter of everyone around him — murder Sollozzo and McClusky. The camera inches toward him as he sits confidently (like a Don) and rationalizes what he’s about to do, all the while personifying the brains and brawn needed to be a mafia boss.
It’s important to realize that Michael justifies killing McClusky because he’s “a cop that’s mixed up in drugs… a dishonest cop… and a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what’s coming to him.” (He also states: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”)
Whether he believes that or not, this exchange reveals that Michael is trying to be like Vito, committing violence out of professional demand rather than personal desire. (See the aforementioned beginning segment of The Godfather, as well as Vito’s meeting with the Five Families, for insights into his code of conduct.) This is a stark contrast to the selfish and merciless acts of vengeance — if not sadism — that Michael oversees near the end of the movie.