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Crime Story

"Behind every great fortune there is a crime," wrote Honoré de Balzac in a cynical sentiment that Mario Puzo chose as the epigraph of The Godfather. The line at once establishes the metaphor that dominates the book as well as the films and carries us into the essentially Machiavellian worldview that pervades them and to which most of its Italian-American characters subscribe. If "great fortunes" may be read as "human society" itself, then the history of crime becomes the history of society. The Godfather thus begins with not merely an analogy between the warfare and power struggles among criminals on the one hand, and the more normal civil relationships of legitimate society on the other, but also with an actual genealogy that traces the latter to their origins in force and fraud.

When Tom Hagen, consigliore to Don Vito Corleone, urges his boss and foster parent to accept the offer of a partnership with the Sicilian gangster Sollozzo for peddling drugs, he cites the power practices among real governments. If the Corleone family doesn't accept Sollozzo's bargain, Hagen argues, it will eventually be overwhelmed by the rival families. "It's just like countries," he says. "If they arm, we have to arm. If they become stronger economically, they become a threat to us." The capo regime Clemenza, explaining to Michael Corleone why a gang...

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