Tag Archives: the Mafia


The 50th Anniversary of the Social Imaginary of “THE GODFATHER”

March 13, 2022

Fifty years ago, Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” premiered to admiring reviews and audiences eager to embrace an anti-hero. The audiences included gangsters themselves, very few of whom had read Puzo’s novel, but who couldn’t resist a chance to see their subculture portrayed in popular culture while knowing that the people sitting all around them were clueless about their presence. The film’s cumulative impact on the quotidian behavior of members of organized appears to have been substantial. One recent news article focused on how gangsters looked to the film as the contemporary equivalent of “conduct books” in the 18th century, which seems a perfectly believable explanation of a simulacrum having real world effects on a social imaginary.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that it wasn’t just Italian-Americans immigrants and their offspring who saw the United States as a land of criminal opportunity. The Irish-Americans had their base for unreported income in Boston, and the Killeen-Mullen war was taking place even before “The Godfather” was released. In fact, it was less than two months after the film premiered that Donald Killeen was murdered outside his home. Whether Whitey Bulger was the hit man is not the relevant point of interest here. What I would love to know is whether Bulger saw the film during its first release and what his reaction to it was. My curiosity about Bulger largely derives from his long residence in Santa Monica less than three miles north of where I lived for 20 years. Even in closer proximity than that for a short time, in fact! The Getty Research Institute had its headquarters at the intersection of Fourth and Wilshire for many years, and it feels odd in retrospect to know that Mr. Bulger was a very short distance away from the seminar room at which scholars from across the United States focused on Los Angeles itself as a cultural trope during the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1997.

By now, most of the people who saw “The Godfather” in 1972 are either dead or collecting social security, but the appeal of gangster narratives has far from abated. “The Sopranos,” for instance, was a massive success. As with “The Godfather,” I ended up watching it long after its debut, but I found each instance more than worth my attention. What did surprise me, twenty years ago, was how young people did not know of “The Godfather” at all. I remember working as a teaching assistant in Revelle College at UCSD around 2003 and I made a reference to the scene with a horse’s head in a bed. Not a single student in the classroom knew what I was talking about. Mind you, these were mostly pre-med students whose social background were hardly that of deprivation and limited access to high or low culture. It’s in this context that I point to a very fine interview with Al Pacino and a comment that he makes about those whose cultural curiosity seems to have been stifled well before they entered high school. “”Have You Seen the Horse’s Head / Leaking All over the Bed?” Apparently not.

NY TIMES: Do you get self-conscious about watching your own films?
AL PACINO: No. I enjoy watching films I’ve been in. …. “The Godfather” plays no matter what. But you’re surprised when you realize how many people never saw it.

NY TIMES: You’re encountering people who are aware of “The Godfather” as a cultural phenomenon but haven’t actually watched it?
AL PACINO: They’ve heard about it. You get that. “Oh, I heard — were you in that? That was a film, wasn’t it?” Yes. So was “Citizen Kane,” by the way — I was in that, too. Why not? They don’t know.

Thank you, Mr. Pacino, for a good laugh.


With ‘The Godfather,’ Art Imitated Mafia Life. And Vice Versa.