MICHAEL ANTON: The Immorality of The Godfather.

In the second scene, a wistful Don Vito laments to Michael that his son was, in effect, forced into the mafia.

VITO: I knew Santino was gonna have to go through all this. And Fredo … Fredo was … uhh. But I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life—I don’t apologize—to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those … bigshots. I don’t apologize—that’s my life—but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone. Something.Note, first, that the don presents his own, and Michael’s, dilemma as a choice between starving his family or a life of crime. This is hokum. And it is immediately belied by the don’s sorrow that his youngest son couldn’t become a governor or a senator. What about a middle-class life practicing an honest trade? The idea isn’t even contemplated, for himself or his sons.

Note, too, that Sonny, the eldest brother, “had to” become a Mafioso. Why? This isn’t explained, beyond the hoary cliché to “take care” of the family. But the Corleones are richer than the dreams of avarice. “Need” stopped being a motivating principle for them well before 1920, with the first shipments of Corleone-financed Canadian booze to Corleone-controlled speakeasies all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. And why, in the end, did Michael have to follow his father’s and brothers’ footsteps? He didn’t. The central tragedy of the film is that he chooses to, ostensibly to save his father—this is what he tells himself—but really because he enjoys power.

There are three ways to interpret all this. The first is that Michael, and the don, really believe what they say. It may be genuine belief, or it may be rationalization, but it is not said to deceive.

The second is that Michael is just shining Kay on, telling her what she needs to hear so that she can justify to herself her otherwise shameful desire to marry a gangster.

The third interpretation hinges on Puzo’s and Coppola’s intent. Are Michael and the don speaking for author and auteur, channeling, especially, Coppola’s Watergate-era cynicism? (Though the break-in itself would not happen until three months after the film’s release, the movie is commonly lumped with other jaded products of the early 1970s.) Coppola justified to himself taking on what he considered a low-grade project unworthy of his genius by his ambition to transform the tale into an indictment of capitalism, greed, and the American Dream.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli, and read the whole thing.