My wife and I have been working our way through the Godfather series recently. The first movie in particular is a genuine masterpiece of a film, a feature that but for The Shawshank Redemption would probably hold the title of the greatest movie ever made. That it does so in spite of having any morally upright protagonists—-there is no one in the film with clean hands aside from the submissive wife Apollonia, the dimwitted bodyguard Calò, and perhaps Enzo the Baker—-is something of a mystery. Who are we supposed to root for in this film? The one bad guy or the countless others?
A few generations of moviegoers have fallen in love with the Corleone family, and they have achieved a cultural prominence rivaled by few other fictional characters: we are supposed to be enchanted with the Corleones and their underworld exploits. “Though crime in reality tends to be petty, sordid, individualistic, emotional, and poorly planned,” Kyle Smith writes at National Review, “in the Godfather films it’s the opposite of all these things.”
But this is not really true. The great trick of The Godfather has been to convince millions of fans that there is something about the Corleone family that is substantively different from that of a common thug or depraved street criminal. There is not. The Don and his brood are not in any way righteous; they are, instead, more or less garden-variety crooks, one rung above the street gangs in style but operatively indistinguishable.
In spite of its ostensible elevated nature, the Corleone criminal empire does in fact skew heavily toward “petty, sordid, individualistic, emotional” crime. Our first clue to this effect is how several of the mafiosi almost desperately insist otherwise. Both Michael and Tom Hagen maintain that the attempted assassination of Vito, and the intended retaliation against the Turk and McCluskey, are “business, not personal.” Only Sonny is willing to admit the truth (“They shot my father? It’s business, your ass”), and he responds in a distinctly personal way, launching a brutal and expensive war. The Corleones attempt to keep emotion at arm’s length, to maintain the appearance of dispassionate businessmen, but nobody is fooled: they respond as any vain, egocentric criminal would when one of their own is gunned down.
The fundamental pettiness of the Corleone empire is evident in other ways: the violent interference run on behalf of the self-interested Johnny Fontaine, the parochial and ethnocentric mistrust of son-in-law Carlo Rizzi, the needless assassination of Moe Green. Vito’s burgeoning criminal operation depicted in The Godfather Part II is similarly crass and thuggish: Vito, Clemenza and Tessio make a living hijacking garment trucks, and later Vito uses his fearsome reputation to cow his fellow Italians into submission. Nobody on the receiving end of one of the Godfather’s implicit threats of violence could ever mistake it with “righteous vigilante justice.”
If there is a moral subtext to The Godfather—and, superlative series though it may be, it’s not at all clear that it contains any moral message whatsoever—it is this: human beings, particularly the worst among us, are excellent at convincing ourselves of the righteousness of our own sinful behavior. We are never more persuasive than when we are persuading ourselves that our purely self-interested actions are also the right thing to do, particularly if we can position ourselves near someone even worse than us. In a deleted scene from the first film, Vito Corleone expresses disgust over Jack Woltz’s pedophilia, while at the meeting of the Five Families Don Zaluchi stipulates that no drugs are to be sold to children: “That’s an infamnia,” he says. It is interesting to listen to cold-blooded murderers opine on matters of morality, as if their hands are not utterly tacky with gallons of blood.
Well-dressed and charming though they may be, the Corleones are not, properly construed, good people; they are not righteous in any meaningful sense of the word. They are violent, tribalistic, oversensitive crooks, corrupt and nasty and cruel. It is a mark of the series’ artistic majesty that, even half a century later, we are still captivated by the base behavior of a bunch of fictional gangsters. One suspects that, if we were on the wrong side of the Corleones in real life, we would not feel even half as beguiled by them.