The Godfather is a 1972 American epic crime film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo. With a screenplay by Puzo, Coppola and an uncredited Robert Towne, the film stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte and Diane Keaton, and features John Cazale, Talia Shire, and Abe Vigoda.
The fictional story, spanning the years between 1945 and 1955, chronicles the experiences of the Italian-American Corleone crime family. Two sequels followed: The Godfather Part II in 1974, and The Godfather Part III in 1990.
The Godfather received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In addition, it had been ranked third—behind Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942)—on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list by the American Film Institute. It was moved up to second when the list was published again in 2007.
During his daughter Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding reception, crime family patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) hears requests for favors, one of which comes from singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) asking for help in landing a movie role that will revitalize his flagging career.
The Don’s adopted son and family consigliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), is dispatched to Hollywood to meet with wealthy studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) to fulfill Fontane’s request. Woltz angrily refuses to cast Fontane, but when he later finds the severed head of his prized racehorse in his bed, he changes his mind.
Upon Hagen’s return, drug lord Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) asks Don Corleone to protect the rival Tattaglia family’s heroin business. Disapproving of drug trafficking and fearing the loss of his political influence, he rejects the proposal and sends his henchman, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), to spy on Sollozzo and mob boss Bruno Tattaglia, but they kill Brasi.
Sollozzo’s men try to assassinate Don Corleone; he survives, but is severely wounded. Sollozzo then kidnaps Hagen and persuades him to offer Corleone’s eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), the deal previously offered to the Don. As a warning, the Tattaglias send the Corleones fish wrapped in Luca Brasi’s bulletproof vest to confirm that he “sleeps with the fishes”. Corleone’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), thwarts a second assassination attempt at the hospital where his father is being treated, but his jaw is broken by corrupt police officer Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Sonny retaliates by having Tattaglia’s son killed.
Michael, who previously wanted nothing to do with the “family business”, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey, and Sonny reluctantly approves. Michael meets them at a local Italian restaurant in a supposed attempt to settle the dispute. Michael pretends he needs to use the bathroom, and following a plan he initiated, retrieves a gun hidden there. Michael returns to the table and kills both Sollozzo and McCluskey. He leaves the country and takes refuge in Sicily, where he soon marries a young local woman named Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli).
The third Corleone brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is sent to Las Vegas, where he is sheltered by Corleone associate Moe Greene (Alex Rocco). Open warfare soon erupts between the Corleones and the other members of the Five Families, while the police and other authorities begin to clamp down on Mafia activity. Vito is particularly distressed when he learns of Michael’s involvement, since he had hoped for bigger, better things for his favorite son.
At one point Sonny impulsively leaves the guarded family compound to confront Connie’s husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who has been abusing her. Sonny beats up Carlo on the street and threatens to kill him if he ever hits Connie again. Carlo nevertheless keeps beating Connie once he recovers. Upon getting a panicked phone call from her, an enraged Sonny drives from the compound for her home. En route, he is ambushed and murdered by machine gun-wielding thugs at a toll booth. Meanwhile, Michael narrowly escapes death in Sicily when his wife is killed by a car bomb intended for him.
To end the gang war, Vito meets with the other Five Family dons and settles their dispute, withdrawing his opposition to the Tattaglias’ heroin business and agree that he, himself will forego revenge for Sonny’s death. He deduces from the negotiations that the Tattaglias were acting on behalf of the more powerful Don Barzini (Richard Conte). With his safety now guaranteed, Michael returns home.
More than a year later, he marries his longtime girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). As his father withdraws from active control of the Corleone family, and as Fredo is seen as incapable of shouldering the Don’s responsibilities, Michael becomes head of the family. He promises Kay he will legitimize its businesses within five years.
Biding his time, Michael allows rival families to pressure Corleone enterprises and eat away at their revenues, disturbing several of his caporegimes. He directs them not to retaliate, disclosing plans to move family operations to Nevada while spinning off New York operations to family members who stay behind. Michael chooses Fredo to go to Vegas and replaces Hagen with his father as his consigliere; Vito explains to Hagen that he and Michael have longer-range plans for him and for the family.
Michael travels to Las Vegas, intending to buy out Greene’s stake in the family’s casinos. Greene angrily rejects the proposal, deriding the Corleones as a fading power. Michael is particularly angered when Fredo, under the sway of Greene and his associates, warns his brother that Greene is too important to be cast aside.
Vito Corleone collapses and dies in his tomato garden while playing with his young grandson Anthony. At his funeral, caporegime Sal Tessio (Abe Vigoda) arranges a meeting between Michael and Don Barzini, now seen as the dominant figure in the New York families. As Vito had warned Michael, Tessio’s involvement signals his treachery; the planned meeting is intended to result in Michael’s assassination. The meeting is set for the same day as the christening of Connie and Carlo’s son, to whom Michael will stand as godfather.
As the christening proceeds, Corleone assassins murder each of the dons heading the other New York families and Moe Greene in Las Vegas. After the christening, Tessio learns that Michael is aware of his betrayal, and is taken off to his death. Michael confronts Rizzi over his presumed involvement in setting up Sonny’s murder, saying he is out of the Family business and handing him a plane ticket to Las Vegas. After Rizzi confesses he betrayed Sonny to Barzini, he is escorted to a waiting car, where he is garroted from behind by caporegime Peter Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano).
Later, a distraught Connie accuses Michael of having her husband killed. When Kay confronts him privately, he denies killing Rizzi, an answer she accepts. Soon afterward, Michael meets with his capos, who greet him as “Don Corleone” and kiss his hand. As Kay watches from the other room, one of the capos closes the office door.