Classic films come about through a lucky combination of accident and inspiration. In the case of THE GODFATHER, one of writer/director Francis Coppola’s most inspired choices was to model his film not on other American gangster movies, but instead upon the visual style and structure of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 masterpiece, THE LEOPARD (IL GATTOPARDO). By choosing Visconti as his model, Coppola infused new life into what was at that time a dying genre.
Like THE GODFATHER, THE LEOPARD is an epic about a powerful family and its patriarch as they adjust to changing times. In THE LEOPARD, the noble patriarch is played by Burt Lancaster. In THE GODFATHER, he is played by Marlon Brando. Lancaster plays a 19th Century Prince, the figurehead of a fading aristocracy. Brando plays a Mafia don in 20th Century America. Significantly, however, the families in both films are Sicillian.
Sicily provides THE LEOPARD with its color palette – brightly sun-lit yellows, ambers, and beiges for the exteriors, darker earth tones for the interiors. Coppola and his cinematographer, Gordon Willis, employ a similarly warm color palette throughout the GODFATHER trilogy.
For THE LEOPARD, Visconti had Nino Rota compose what is probably his most operatic film score (quite different from the Chaplinesque music Rota composed for the films of Federico Fellini). It is hardly a coincidence that Coppola then chose the great Rota to compose a score of similarly operatic sweep for THE GODFATHER, Rota’s first Hollywood film.
What Coppola borrowed from THE LEOPARD structurally was Visconti’s use of lengthy scenes of familial celebration to define his characters and advance his plot. The most striking example of this in THE LEOPARD is the Grand Ball scene that concludes the film, a sequence lasting nearly one hour. Coppola, following Visconti’s example, opens THE GODFATHER with a lengthy wedding sequence and concludes his film with a baptism.
THE LEOPARD also influenced specific images in Coppola’s trilogy. For example, one of the most memorable images in THE LEOPARD is this establishing shot of the Prince’s palace with its curtains blowing in the warm Sicillian breeze.
Coppola uses a similar shot when an aging Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) returns to Sicily in GODFATHER III.
In THE LEOPARD, Visconti introduces the Prince’s nephew (Alain Delon) as an image seen in a mirror while the Prince (Lancaster) is shaving.
Similarly, in GODFATHER III, we see Michael’s favorite nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia), reflected in the mirror as Michael shaves.
The clincher (in case anyone doubts that this is a Visconti homage) is that the shot of Michael shaving follows directly after Coppola’s Visconti-esque curtain shot.
Coppola’s homages even extend to the casting. From the late ’60s through roughly the end of Visconti’s filmmaking career, Visconti’s favorite actor was the Austrian Helmut Berger, whom he directed in THE DAMNED (1969), LUDWIG (1972, below), and opposite LEOPARD-star Burt Lancaster in CONVERSATION PIECE (1974).
By casting Berger as the corrupt Swiss banker in GODFATHER III (below), Coppola establishes a direct link to Visconti’s universe.
In addition to sharing an interest in ritual, the Catholic Church, ethnic culture (especially food!), family interrelationships and pecking orders, and sequences that are built around music (the ball in THE LEOPARD, the opera in GODFATHER III), Visconti and Coppola each lavish an enormous amount of attention on the costumes and decor of the periods they depict. Hence, Coppola’s GODFATHER trilogy is simultaneously a gangster film, a family saga, and a lesson in history.
THE LEOPARD has been released in a visually stunning Blu-ray edition by the Criterion Collection. Given the tremendous debt that all three GODFATHERS owe to THE LEOPARD, I tend to think of Visconti’s film as GODFATHER ZERO.