What separates a good movie from a great movie? Every great work of art transcends its genre and milieu and becomes something more, and the same is true for the Godfather as, apart from being one of the best movies ever made and reinvigorating the gangster genre, it also became an unforgiving and moving chronicle of contemporary American life. It is a brutal sweep of masterful storytelling to which the critically acclaimed series and movies of today owe a great debt. This is because if it hadn’t been for Gordon Willis‘s masterful cinematography, the dark visual worlds of these movies and shows might have never come into existence.
The harsh contrasts of light and dark in the shadowy Corleone world in the Godfather visually embody the battle between good and evil within the soul of every man and particularly one man, the protagonist, Michael Corleone. This is a world of duality in which people make tough life or death choices. It’s a world of hard rules, lines, and thus hard light. Characters are lit from above or from the side, often without the standard fill light to illuminate the second side of the face. The half of the face in the dark reinforces that every human being hides some unknowable piece of himself.
The power of B&W
Before The Godfather, Film Noir and German Expressionism harnessed the power of the shadow in black and white photography. But the Godfather cinematographer, Gordon Willis, earned the nickname ‘Prince of Darkness for the way he brought the art of shadow and deliberate under-exposure to colour cinematography. At the time movies tended to be bright, verging on overlit so they’d be visible at drive-ins. The Godfather so defiantly flouted this lighting standard that Paramount panicked when they first saw the footage.
Opening shot and Vito Corleone
Willis has said his vision for The Godfather was based on ‘Evil.’ He saw the dark cinematography as a reflection of the movie’s soul. In the first shot, a close-up announces we’re about to see a film about the depths of darkness within the human soul. This slow zoom-out develops into an over-the-shoulder shot with our godfather Marlon Brando’s Don Vito in control, looking down from a position of power, but the viewer’s vision of him is obscured. The need to emphasize Brando’s heavy prosthetic makeup led Willis to light Brando from above. At times, Willis provides minimal eye light with the dark eyes making Vito a mystery. One can never fully understand the man or his motivations because the lighting won’t permit him.
Michael Corleone- The Protagonist
Michael’s face is relatively brightly lit for most of the Godfather, but as he gets mixed up in the family business, his face intermittently slips into the dark as his innocent and villainous sides wrestle to dominate him. Only in the romantic-looking Sicilian sections does Michael break away into a softer subtler light that seems to offer the chance of carefree richly-coloured happiness, but the fantasy of escape is quickly revealed to be an illusion. By the end, the shadows over his eyes signal that his dark has eclipsed his light and at last, he has become the new Godfather. Here he looks like an angel of death with his face shrouded in darkness, is more hidden and menacing than his fathers ever was.
Tom Hagen- Consigliere
Tom Hagen- the brooding consigliere in the Godfather, tends to be side-lit, looking half-absorbed by his thoughts and knowledge of all dark goings-on. He’s a split personality in the sense that he is half lawyer and half criminal, almost a Corleone but not a Sicilian. He’s almost like the adoptive son who is privy to the inner workings but is somehow always on the outside looking in.
Sonny Corleone and Kay
The Mercurial Son
The face of the hot-headed brother Sonny is well-lit and shown in bright settings, even at the moment of his death. In the process, it visually reinforces his trait of operating out in the open and not possessing the interior life and machinations needed to be the Godfather.
The Naive Kay
Kay’s remarkably bright face symbolizes her fresh-faced naivete, but as Michael begins shutting her out, hints of darkness first cross her face, and in the last scene, her face takes shadow as she finally grasps the truth of who Michael is and is no longer innocent.
Appearances and Deception
The Sunny Wedding Ceremony
The duality also represents the outer versus inner worlds, of appearance versus truth. Throughout the Godfather, men negotiate and carry out their business in dimly lit houses which require lighting even during the daytime. At the start of the Godfather, the sunny wedding unfolds outside, projecting the rich and happy outer appearance of a strong family, but inside the puppet-master works and the negotiation and manipulation all take place in the shadows.
The Baptism Sequence
Nowhere is the duality more acutely evident than in the Baptism scene where Michael, while projecting the outward appearance of a loving brother and a god-fearing man taking part in the baptism lies through his teeth, saying that he renounces Satan and believes in God while in the shadows, Corleone hitmen proceed to assassinate the heads of other mafia families.
Inspiration from famous artists
The Godfather is shot in a painterly tableau style in which every painstaking frame is so artful it could hang on the walls of the Uffizi gallery. Willis’s rich, refined colours resemble oil paintings and his controlled chiaroscuro brings to mind DaVinci, Vermeer and most strikingly the harsh tenebrism of Caravaggio.
Willis famously lit the scenes so precisely that even if actors missed their mark, they’d be engulfed in dark invisible to the camera. The notoriously perfectionist director of photography insisted on almost no zooms or modern technology like helicopters and that every camera placement must represent a point of view but director Francis Ford Coppola persuaded Willis to make a couple of exceptions like the haunting opening zoom and the overhead aerial shot when Vito is attacked as the story goes. While the Prince of Darkness may have been stubborn, cinema and TV of the last half-century are forever indebted to Gordon Willis’s inspired point-of-view.
- Moreira, A. and Thompson, L., 2018. Meaning and Emotion- The Godfather. [online] studocu.com. Available at: <https://www.studocu.com/en-gb/document/middlesex-university-london/screen-aesthetics/essay-final-version-grade-6/1541052> [Accessed 23 August 2022].
- The Business Standard. 2022. An offer you can’t refuse: 50 years of The Godfather. [online] Available at: <https://www.tbsnews.net/splash/offer-you-cant-refuse-50-years-godfather-390526> [Accessed 23 August 2022].