Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Marine hero-turned-mob boss
New York City and Sicily, Summer 1945 to Summer 1955
Film: The Godfather
Release Date: March 14, 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
The Godfather premiered 50 years ago tonight at Loew’s State Theatre in New York City, forever changing the cultural landscape. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, the saga to bring the mob-centric epic to the screen could have been a plot within the story itself, but eventually the massive reception to The Godfather cemented its enduring significance, reviving Marlon Brando’s career and making stars of its cast of relative newcomers—including Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall—as well as its determined director, Francis Ford Coppola.
Spanning the decade following the end of World War II, The Godfather follows the rise of Michael Corleone, a reserved war hero, as he follows the inevitable path of his father’s footsteps to Mafia leadership. Far more than just a crime drama, The Godfather wove in themes of family, capitalism, and the American dream that continue speaking to audiences a half century after Robert Evans first took interest in Puzo’s “Hope Diamond of literature” and producer Albert S. Ruddy fought with the studio, the censors, and the mob itself to get Coppola’s movie made against all odds.
“Coppola will make the picture on one condition—that it’s not a film about organized gangsters but a family chronicle,” Paramount executive Peter Bart told Robert Evans. “A metaphor for capitalism in America.”
“Fuck him and the horse he rode in on,” Evans replied. “Is he nuts?”
This brief exchange described in Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli, Mark Seal’s newly released volume detailing the making of The Godfather, exemplifies the contentious production where seemingly every choice was questioned—if not heavily argued—by the studio that was funding the movie, from the budget and decision to maintain the period setting to the choices of the cast and crew right down to that horse’s head.
One of the most controversial choices that Coppola stuck by was his choice of Al Pacino—at the time a Hollywood “nobody” with a handful of stage credits and one unreleased low-budget movie under his belt—to play the complex leading role of Michael Corleone. Evans fought nearly to the end, eventually relenting in a decision that allowed one of the arguably greatest performances in movie history to take shape.
What’d He Wear?
USMC Service Uniform
Michael Corleone quietly makes a hero’s entrance to his sister’s wedding, resplendent in his service uniform as a United States Marine Corps captain as evident by the shining silver double-bar insignia on each of his shoulder epaulettes. It’s the late summer of 1945, and Captain Corleone has just returned from service in World War II.
To my recollection, Mario Puzo’s source novel doesn’t describe Michael in uniform at the wedding, as he’d been discharged earlier in the year and had enrolled at Dartmouth College in the interim. However, providing our cinematic introduction to Michael still in uniform illustrates a man who seems unlikely to be tempted into the life of a mafiosi, with two rows of campaign ribbons on his left breast informing us of his service in both the Pacific and European-African-Middle Eastern theaters of war, having also received a Silver Star for gallantry and a Purple Heart in recognition of being wounded.
In Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli, Mark Seal recounts the discussion between Francis Ford Coppola and costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone regarding how Michael would be dressed at the wedding:
“They had that big, fancy uniform, which, depending on the size of the actor, whether it’s a long jacket or what—” [Johnstone] said.
“The dress uniform,” Coppola said. “I don’t like that… I like a uniform that looks really period. The Marine uniform had leather strapping and stuff, and you really know it looks like something.”
“I would hate to see somebody as short as Al in a long jacket,” Johnstone said.
And thus the decision was made to dress Michael in the Service “A” uniform, consisting of the brownish “green” woolen jacket and trousers over a matching khaki shirt and tie. (Interestingly, Pacino had worn the discarded blue dress uniform for the unofficial screen tests that Coppola had conducted earlier.) Though he discards it soon after his arrival, much has been made of the detail that Michael’s green “barracks cover” peaked cap would be the only time we see him wearing a hat until he’s been enveloped by his family’s involvement in organized crime. After all… “that’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.”
Read more about Michael’s uniform here.
Grounded Christmas Shopping Style
Following some scenes chronicling the Corleone family business endeavors with the renegade drug peddler Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), we catch up with Michael and Kay during a day of Christmas shopping. Michael is purely a civilian at this point, no longer in active service with the Marines and not yet an active member of his family’s criminal enterprises. (Despite the winter chill, he isn’t wearing a hat, apropos the point made above.)
We see him predominantly dressed in a simple belted-back overcoat of brown wool, a grounded shade and fabric that suggests taste if not affluence. Underneath, he wears a charcoal sports coat. His striped shirt with its button-down collar had long been established as an Ivy staple, and his maroon striped tie suggests romance and the seasonality of the Christmas setting, festive dashes of color that he would rarely allow himself after taking the serious task as a mobster.
Read more about Michael’s outfit here.
Corduroy Sport Jacket
As Don Vito Corleone’s life hangs in the balance over the Christmas season, so too does Michael’s fate teeter on the edge of his safe civilian life as an Ivy League student and newlywed husband… or a darker path. He’s still dressed for the former, in his handsome but non-threatening brown corduroy sport jacket over another button-down collared shirt and striped tie. Combined with his gray flannel trousers and brown derby shoes, Michael looks like he could be seated at a class at Dartmouth rather than among murderers and mobsters.
Michael also shows that he’s aware of the power of appearance. He’s pulled on a heavy brown topcoat (interestingly, not the same notch-lapel overcoat as in the previous scenes, but a less formal coat with a Prussian collar and a reversible rain-resistant side) to visit his father at the hospital, where he learns that the men hired to guard him have been ordered away. Sensing an approaching threat to his father’s life, he stands tall outside the hospital’s front doors, buttoning the coat and turning up the collar for a more sinister appearance. As a dark car slows in front of him, he smoothly unbuttons the middle of the coat and slides his hand in—as though reaching for a gat—and the car speeds away.
Michael’s pyrrhic victory comes with a broken jaw, courtesy of the corrupt NYPD Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden), who arrives only moments later and mistakes the swarthy Michael’s upturned-coat for the uniform of the “guinea hoods” he’d had locked up earlier in the evening. Despite being told that “the kid’s clean… a war hero. He’s never been busted for the rackets,” McClusky—who interestingly wears the same rank that Michael had during his USMC service—swings his powerful fist to Michael’s jaw.
Returning to the family compound, Michael’s now-busted cheekbone shows how tarnished his attempt to continue living “clean” has been, his face providing a harsh contrast to the smart corded jacket and tie that encourage his older brother Sonny to mock his threatening violence in his “nice Ivy League suit.”
Read more about Michael’s outfit here.
Brown Sweater for Shooting
Once the family has accepted Michael’s plan to kill Sollozzo and McClusky, we’re treated to a brief vignette with the Corleones’ caporegime Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) in his soundproofed cellar.
In any other context, Michael may still look the part of a “nice college boy” in his brown sweater layered over a collared shirt. Though Michael clearly wears a civilian garment, the sweater’s high crew neck and structured shoulders remind me of the “woolly pully” jumper that had been introduced by British military forces during World War II. It wouldn’t be redesigned and authorized for USMC usage until the 1970s, but Michael wearing it for this scene still gives him a quasi-military countenance while Clemenza lauds his service: “You know, Mike, we was all proud of you, being a hero and all. Your father, too.”
“Nice Ivy League Suit”
For the double murder that provides his moment of no return, Michael appropriately dresses for the moment in what Sonny was right to call a “nice Ivy League Suit”: a charcoal flannel three-piece suit, fully cut, worn over a striped button-down collar shirt and his favorite maroon striped tie… though the reddish tones in the latter now suggest the blood he’s prepared to spill rather than the festivity of romance during the holidays.
Though the clothes look more collegiate than criminal, this is also the first time we see Michael dressed in a matching suit. Not only that, but the somber color and the addition of a waistcoat suggest the gray-toned three-piece suits that he would wear exclusively following his return to the United States several years later, when he would assume leadership of the Corleone crime family following this baptism in blood.
During the ride to the restaurant, Michael wears a hat, both in accordance with the era’s customs and also sartorially signifying his shift from
Read more about Michael’s suit here.
After killing Sollozzo and McClusky, Michael is shipped to Sicily where he hides out in his family’s hometown village of Corleone. He dresses to match the locals, clad in a neckband shirt with a blue-on-white bengal stripe that, had the shirt a button-down collar, may have resembled his Ivy League wardrobe back home. He wears a non-matching waistcoat and gray trousers, the vest striped in shades of gray like a business suit, with the bottom few buttons undone.
Michael and his bodyguards Fabrizio (Angelo Infanti) and Calò (Franco Citti) each wear woolen flat caps in a particular style coincidentally known to locals as a “coppola”, a likely evolution of the Sicilian “còppula” meaning “head”.
Once Michael begins romancing Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), he dresses up with collared shirts and ties worn with what appears to be the sole suit in his Sicilian wardrobe. The dark, faintly striped wool suiting looks like it may wear hot under the Sicilian sun—especially with the jacket’s full double-breasted wrap—but he’s appropriately dressed as a respectful groom in this old-fashioned culture.
Even after the wedding, Michael continues wearing this pinstripe double-breasted suit, likely the product of a local Sicilian tailor. For the wedding he had ceremoniously appointed it with a white point-collared shirt and black tie, but more casual occasions like his and Apollonia’s move from their now-unsafe villa calls for a less crisp off-white shirt, worn with yet another maroon striped tie.
Gray Striped Silk Three-Piece Suit
When we first see Michael following his return to the United States—presumably sometime in the early 1950s—he already looks the part of a cunning, calculating mob boss. His most frequently worn attire is now a three-piece suit made from a shiny gray self-striped silk, blending this expensive fabric’s showy properties with a conservative color that reflects his businesslike sensibilities.
Gone too is the simple and functional field watch he had worn during the war, replaced by a gold dress watch on a gold bracelet that reflects his elevated status.
Consistent with the era’s style and the excess of gangster fashions, the suit consists of a double-breasted jacket—with padded shoulders that build a powerful profile—over a waistcoat and pleated trousers. Unlike the more timeless clothing he wore earlier, the details are all on trend with the early-to-mid ’50s, suggesting a man who can afford to replace his expensively made clothing as prevailing styles change, exemplified by the differently styled gray silk suit—made from a slubby dupioni—that he would wear in The Godfather Part II, set three years later.
Michael also regularly wears hats now, preferring the distinctive homburg style that suggests leadership and wealth. He cycles between homburgs made from gray felt and an all-black model. He wears the latter when returning to Kay, providing an archetypically villainous appearance when worn with a stylish but sinister black double-breasted overcoat.
Read more about Michael’s suit here.
Black Three-Piece Suit
Michael’s only sartorial diversity over the final act of The Godfather comes via a black three-piece suit that he wears for business. One of the least controversial maxims of menswear is that black isn’t appropriate for business unless you’re a mob boss… so Michael Corleone must know what he’s communicating to the world when he arrives in Las Vegas—of all places—wrapped in a black three-piece suit, similarly cut like his gray silk suit with the sharp peak lapels on a double-breasted jacket and a high-fastening waistcoat.
Compared to his yellow-jacketed brother Fredo and his pastel-tailored Vegas cronies Moe Greene and Johnny Fontaine, Michael and Tom Hagen both look even more somber in their black business suits, clearly indicating that they’re not in Sin City for the showgirls and slot machines. Michael does allow himself a hint of color via the iridescent salmon-pink textured silk tie that he wears with what appears to be one of his usual pale-gray shirts.
The next and final time we see Michael’s black suit, it’s for the more fitting occasion of his father’s funeral, mourning among the rest of his black-clad family. A pink tie would hardly be suitable here, where Michael is wise to wear a solid black silk tie instead.
The passing of the former Don Corleone shatters any illusion that anyone but Michael is in charge, effectively completing Michael Corleone’s transformation from Marine hero to Mafia boss. By the time we revisit the saga in The Godfather Part II, Michael has updated his sartorial palette for the fashions of the late ’50s, rotating through a gray dupioni silk suit, another black three-piece suit, and a finely checked tan summer suit for visits to warmer climates.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I also recommend Mark Seal’s new book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli for any Godfather enthusiasts interested in learning the story behind the movie and those involved in making it.
You’re my brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.