The Godfather Movies

Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections.

Riviera Hotel.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Goin.

Crystal Bay, Lake Tahoe. Cal-Neva Lodge in 1937. [Taken from the book, Stopping Time: A Rephotographic Survey of Lake Tahoe. Goin, Peter, essays by Elizabeth Raymond and Robert E. Blesse. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992)]

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974) usually rank among the top five American movies ever made, which theoretically makes them the best movies ever filmed in Nevada. Despite their associations with the state, both spent little time using real locations.

Like most mobster movies, The Godfather has Eastern roots, with power struggles between competing factions of The Family, who follow a loyalty code of omerta, eschewing police involvement in intra-gang murders. Murder is common, but gambling becomes a helpful vice when vast amounts of unreported cash need laundering, as Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) determines towards the first movie's end. When local mobsters refuse to cooperate, they become part of the finale's symphony of slaughter, where generic hotel interiors were filmed on location at the Riviera.

The Godfather: Part II expands the Nevada connection, with the Corleone family settling at a palatial Tahoe estate. The movie switches back and forth between Michael and his father Vito in different time periods, contrasting the two at similar stages in their lives and enhancing the family theme through this cross cutting. Key Nevada action starts in 1958 as a Corleone child receives his first communion at Tahoe, followed by a celebration at the family's lakeside mansion.

The real-life Sam Giancana/Frank Sinatra history at the Cal-Neva Lodge gives Tahoe a historical connection with the mob that made sense to audiences. It's also easy to believe that people with money—dirty or clean—would be drawn to Tahoe's beauty and a compound like the Kaiser Estate. The splendor and peace of Tahoe make a perfect backdrop for a sequence that pits Michael against his brother Fredo in a way that would have horrified their father. The scene in which Fredo goes out on a boat, silhouetted against a darkening, stormy sky, is a classic instance of location melding with action to create unforgettable cinema.

Of all the brilliant visuals in The Godfather: Part II, the strongest are tied to the impressive use of Lake Tahoe locations. The major location, the Kaiser Estate, is now a private development called Fleur de Lac, and can be viewed by boat from the west shore near Homewood, California. Though the main buildings were demolished, the boathouse remains. The Godfather: Part III (1990) was long in coming, and though none of it filmed in Nevada, Coppola and Puzo wrote much of the screenplay at the Peppermill Hotel Casino in Reno. Tahoe footage is replayed from the previous film. Las Vegas was scouted, but casino scenes were ultimately shot in Atlantic City.

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