The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration Review
(This review is intended for those who are familiar with the films and, as such, contains spoilers.)
Let's be clear: the recent "Coppola Restoration" of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, supervised by Robert A. Harris, is a significantly different experience from the previous home video incarnations. It's comparable to how we see the day in regular light versus how it then looks just before sundown, all golden and orange in romantic nostalgia. Notice the new Paramount opening logo as the familiar blue mountain vista is now tinted orange. The Godfather and its first sequel play a bit more warmly and with an increased emphasis on the films' period settings. It would be impossible to not grasp how steeped in a sense of the past these films are. Even more than before, they're easily recognised as vintage photographs come to life and how the good old days were always built on a foundation of corruption and murder. The fascination we all have with The Godfather is derived from a sense of perverse desire to know these men from afar and to further discover the depths of gaining and keeping power. We make an imaginary deal with ourselves as we watch, promising that these aren't people we'd like to be or even know, but we're always seduced by their wealth and force. We lie and pretend we don't admire the Corleone family. We act like we haven't spent hours and hours of our own lives watching them, trying to understand and justify their actions. But as Michael says to Kay, "who's being naive?"
Michael's difficult revelation in Part II, telling Fredo through anger and tears that he knows it was his own brother who betrayed him, leaves the audience shattered not from some sense of relating to the characters, but because we've grown to care enough about them as to literally feel the hurt in that moment. The pain of the betrayal crushes us for Michael's sake, but also Fredo's. Such empathy flies in the face of human logic and comes despite the horrible things Michael has done, things we know he's responsible for and some we've even witnessed. The Corleones have a sense of family embedded in their very beings. When the brutal dynamic is upset, it becomes a defeat against characters we're invested in. As made clear repeatedly in these films, the only truly positive aspect of the Corleones is their bedrock belief in family. The entire saga ultimately hinges on Michael's taking charge at the hospital when Don Vito is left wide open to be killed. He tells Kay early on in the first film that the violence wielded by his father isn't him, that he's different from the rest of his family. But it's from the familial obligation that Michael goes down the same path, beginning with his actions to save Vito at the hospital and spiraling into the shooting deaths of Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. To have Fredo go against these ties that bind is the ultimate form of treachery, even transforming him into a tragic character caught between his pride and his name.
These are films that drip with the blood of family and country. From the initial scene of the first film, in Bonasera's iconic opening line of "I believe in America," family is equated with the promised land of the United States. The movies frequently hailed as being the greatest ever produced by Hollywood are so often inseparable from their native country. They are American stories, those of Kane and the Corleones and Rick Blaine, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, Jake LaMotta, Ethan Edwards. Regardless of how universal their impact has been felt, these particular films exist safely within the shame and darkness of a country as fortified in sin as it is greatness. Their popularity and recognition do little to drown the reminder that ambition can just as often lead to missed opportunities as success. It's in the films of the Godfather series that America in the 20th century is spat out with quiet fury, not glaringly as a statement, but firmly interwoven into dark romanticism. See the Festa scene in Part II when Vito makes his own future and then returns to his family amid the fireworks and flag-waving. He tells his young son that he loves him just after he's secured a comfortable lifestyle for his children. Crime and capitalism are the joint enablers in this life.
Young Vito's rise from immigrant poverty to Godfather is carefully shown as being built on the two burgeoning industries. If not accidental, his path to becoming a gangster is practically pushed as a necessity and, conveniently, intertwined with supporting his family. The American story, that of the poor immigrant in search of a better life for himself and those who come after him, is inescapable in this text. It just happens that this particular life was one built outside the confines of the law, though still shaded wryly in capitalism. The hops from poverty to small criminality to intimidating don are accomplished through ingenuity on Vito's part, but only after he's given an opening that requires some form of fate to play out. Even with the magnificent flashes into the young Vito's ascent to power, Part II leaves several question marks on the character's true motivations.
He begins as a grocer who loses his job because of the local don, but the progression is swift enough to show he's destined for something more. The shifts back to Michael are evocative, using literal fades from father to son, and the parallels of the two generations of Corleone men are impossible to miss. So too are the comparisons between how Vito and Michael are shown almost entering the gangster life by accident more than choice. Such casual elevation of both men helps fend off how cold and malignant they ultimately are. Whether it's sympathy, a desire to hold sway over others, or just morbid fascination, the audience's position as a near-ally to the Corleone dons deserves to be explored further. Particularly of interest is the reasoning as to why we do feel so emotionally connected to a family that practices violence with this kind of alarming frequency.
For one, Michael's (and Vito's, to some extent) actions are largely portrayed as necessary or even justified. Those who antagonise the Corleones are themselves bad men. This is an idyllic world of villainous men where we root for the lesser of two evils. The idea of innocence is absolutely foreign to the entire saga. Victims of the family are not people we mourn. There's an emphasis on reaction and, thus, vengeance. We learn that Vito held this longstanding desire to avenge the Mafia-related death of his father back in Sicily. The methods are questionable, but that type of ill will seems very natural. Similarly, when Vito kills Don Fanucci it feels deserving both because Fanucci is an unsympathetic figure and Vito is protecting his livelihood. This same tendency to side with the Corleone clan comes into play time and again, augmented by a perspective that selectively chooses to show the family's retaliation instead of any possible instigation on their part. In guiding the story in this way, Coppola conditions the audience into caring about these people.
By Part III, Michael is actually something of a sympathetic figure. He's shown as having merged into a legitimate business man who still retains underworld power. Extremely wealthy and respected, Michael nonetheless has let the guilt over Fredo's death get the better of him and seems anxious to repent for his sins. As a character arc, it's pretty compelling to a point, but obviously missing the conflict found in the earlier films. The aged Michael has lost his tenacity. Presumably, we're supposed to contrast how much the family is internally in disarray in Part III with the far more solid foundation Vito had constructed in the original film. The consensus that Part III doesn't really work as a film is unfortunately justified in this instance and others. Where The Godfather was an accidental masterpiece and Part II a collected, richer retelling of the first film, Part III stumbles along solely on its predecessors' coattails. It's an entirely unnecessary film. The end of Part II already told us most everything we needed to know about the future of Michael and the Corleone family.
In examining all three films within a close proximity, Part III does little but make the other two shine even brighter. The memorable setpieces seemingly littered throughout Coppola's first two films are absent, and the languid opera-set finale feels inconsistent with how brutal and fast the violence was in the earlier parts. If that's the point then it's well taken, but it makes for lesser cinema and only furthers how uneventful the film seems in comparison to the earlier entries. The Godfather particularly utilises setpieces with such perfect timing and detail that the viewer feels constantly in crisis. Scene after scene, from the assassination attempt on Vito to Sonny's execution-style death to Michael's nervous murders, is positioned just before any hint of a lull sets in to the overarching plot. The structure of the first picture really is perhaps the most effective of any movie with that kind of length.
It pulls the audience in immediately with the "I believe in America" speech referenced above, then allows Gordon Willis' extremely dark interior lighting to shroud Brando's Don Vito as Nino Rota's unforgettable theme plays over the scene. The effect is total intimidation. A change to bleached white images of Connie's wedding then brings a deceptive warmth and we immediately have the juxtaposition of the entire series, that of family against business. The balance between the two, and the uncanny ability to keep us riveted in the process, becomes the series' most persuasive element and provides a startling climax at the end of the first part. Aside from being a great showcase of editing and storytelling, the baptism scene encapsulates so much of the difficulty in justifying the viewer's own mixed feelings about the Corleone family. What Michael orchestrates is a cunningly effective way of preserving his family and their future, but our reaction to this, and to how Coppola shoots it, is nothing less than that of a conflicted accomplice. We're completely behind this symphony of murders.
Though Brando is worthy of his reputation as the celebrated Don Vito, most impressively making you believe he's a man a few decades older than the actor really was, Pacino remains the true lead of the film and his performance contains subtleties that are now necessary to remind us how well he could once act. He inhabits Michael Corleone and reveals the fears, the intelligence and the inevitable ambition that ultimately make the character so vital in American cinema. It remains a towering achievement, realised even further in Part II. The other performance that's particularly rewarding across the first two films, especially in the first, is Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen. It's such a quiet, calculating piece of acting from Duvall, and in a part that's more important than it's sometimes recognised as being. Hagen holds together both the family and these two essential movies by being an entry point whose loyalty is unfailing. Not having the character or Duvall in Part III, plus the fact that George Hamilton assumes his duties, is probably the most glaring flaw of the entire series.
The Godfather and its two sequels are now released in high definition on the Blu-ray format and this must be a strong contender for the format's pinnacle thus far. However, despite the importance and overall achievement of this release, the packaging is disappointingly standard. It should please those who crave shelf space, but the slightly thicker than normal Blu-ray case inside a slipcover box has a flimsy quality that hardly seems special. I also had difficulty prying the discs loose from their hubs. And just to pile it on, the 12-page booklet glued to the back of the case is an awkward addition because it doesn't fit comfortably inside the embossed box. Thankfully, the actual content more than makes up for any packaging shortcomings.
Speaking as a proponent of movies looking like they were made with film instead of computers, there were two primary concerns with how the Blu-ray would look. First, it needed to actually retain a good deal of grain without going too far in that direction. Grain is our friend and an essential component of film. The standard should always be a replication of the cinema experience, not the sterilisation of a movie's natural look. The Godfather and its sequels seem to have more intentional grain than many pictures of the era. This authentic sheen is thankfully preserved in the Blu-ray transfers. It's not digital noise or other imperfections. What we see here looks like film grain and, as such, it's almost certainly the best home viewing alternative yet to seeing actual film projections.
Any fears of the image looking too clean or plastic now laid to rest, the second concern was how significant the restoration transfers would vary from the previous DVD releases. As to be expected, there's obviously more detail and greater sharpness on this Blu-ray than on the 2001 editions. The degree is perhaps debatable, but the improvements are without question. These movies use darkness as well, if not better, than any colour films so the added detail is both impressive and noticeable. Interior scenes are still surrounded in almost total blackness, they're just now more defined than before. Exteriors frequently look dramatically better. The Sicily portion of The Godfather and Hyman Roth's birthday in Cuba in Part II are particularly strong examples of the excellent detail that can be found in outdoor scenes. Another contrast to the earlier transfer is that Carlo and Connie's wedding is now artificially bright, giving it a bleached quality. The entirety of Part II also shows increased brightness. All three films are impressively cleaned up and almost completely free of dirt or other debris.
The most startling difference in these new restored versions is the return of the intended colour palette heavily emphasising yellows and reds. Golden orange is now the default skin tone for interior scenes. Particularly interesting is the scene near the end of Part II when Kay is standing outside the door and Michael is inside. His face retains that now-familiar patina while hers looks more natural. The yellowish tones are in the previous edition, but they're far more pronounced here. I also noticed that both the first and second films appear to have slightly brighter shades of orange than in Part III, where the golden complexions tend to look more subtle and authentic. None of this is the equivalent of an orange filter being used to alter the colour of entire scenes. Blacks are still deep and unmistakable. The intention instead seems to have been to evoke nostalgia through altering the natural look of the present. It's a different experience, and it can change your perspective, especially if you're familiar with the former look of the films.
Each movie in the series has been bumped up to an English 5.1 Dolby True HD audio track. The differences are not earth-shattering, but each does have additional clarity and fullness. Gunshots in the first two films sound thunderous. The helicopter scene in Part III is appropriately rattling. Dialogue is entirely clear and free from any audible defects, and the score sounds perfectly laid into the track. The front channels get the most use, though the mix is well-balanced as a whole. Volume levels are consistent and strong. Purists may still prefer the mono tracks for the two original films. Both are included, as are French and Spanish dubs in Dolby Digital 5.1 for all three pictures. The subtitles, provided in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, have a unique look of being slightly yellow but very pleasing. It seems to be in keeping with the honey yellow shades used so strikingly in the films themselves. Something, either the font or the colour or both, looks different about them from the previous DVD release, I believe.
The New Supplements
All of the extra features save for the commentaries are located on a fourth disc. The new supplements are presented in high definition. They look excellent and the quality of the featurettes is absolutely outstanding. "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't" (29:46) looks at the difficulty of getting Coppola's vision to the screen as intended. It features new interviews with the director, as well as persons as varied as Robert Evans, Steven Spielberg, Walter Murch, George Lucas, and several others. The first half mostly focusses on how Paramount was failing and reluctant to make the movie before being buoyed by the success of Love Story while the second half is more about the films' legacy and features numerous celebrity interviews, including Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Guillermo del Toro, Kimberly Peirce, Sarah Vowell, Joe Mantegna, Trey Parker, Richard Belzer, and David Chase. Unfortunately absent from all of these new special features are the cast members (save for Mantegna) from the films themselves.
The featurette "Godfather World" (11:19) briefly examines the influence of The Godfather on society and in popular culture via mentions on The Sopranos, The Simpsons, South Park, SCTV, and others. More enlightening is "Emulsional Rescue - Revealing The Godfather" (19:05), a fascinating delve into the restoration. At the insistence of Spielberg when Dreamworks was purchased by Paramount and supervised by Robert A. Harris, the restoration of the films, including the battered negative of the first that had been struck repeatedly, is explored in excellent, easy to understand terms. Cinematographer Gordon Willis is also featured prominently.
The sound and editing of the films is highlighted in "When the Shooting Stopped" (14:18). It's a bit dry in relation to how enjoyable the rest of the bonus material is, but certainly not without some interest. An odd inclusion is "The Godfather on the Red Carpet" (4:03), which has interviews with (minor) celebrities at the Cloverfield premiere. Any opportunity to hear others be enthusiastic about the films is also welcome, I guess. Finally, "Four Short Films" seems to consist of extra bits left out of the other supplements. The shorts in question are: "GF vs GFII" (2:16), which has a short debate over which film is superior, "Riffing on the Riffing" (1:39), a free for all of reciting lines from the films with Richard Belzer and Seth Isler from The Godfadda Workout show, "Cannoli" (1:38), where Coppola discusses the importance of the Italian dessert favourite, and "Clemenza" (1:45), once again with Coppola explaining what happened to Richard Castellano's character.
The remainder of the new extras are all text-oriented. "The Family Tree" is an elaborate breakdown of who fits where in the Corleone clan, including information on most characters and their portrayers. A Crime Organization Chart details the various crime families in the series, complete with rap sheets. The photo gallery for Connie & Carlo's Wedding Album has a few stills and pictures taken from the opening of the first film. A twelve-page booklet detailing short synopses and the contents of the discs is glued onto the back of the case.
The 2001 Supplements
The supplements from the 2001 DVD release of the films are all retained and can be found on a menu that replicates the older edition, making it all look like something courtesy of the wayback machine. Francis Ford Coppola's commentaries from the set are also carried over and found on each individual film's disc. They remain illuminating, honest and insightful. Each one is worth listening to, even with the overlap of information in other special features. His track for Part III is particularly of note and Coppola admits that he never planned on making a third film, having intended for Part II's ending to be the final word on Michael Corleone's fate. The director does seem overly defensive of his daughter Sofia and the reaction from her performance, but it all seems to fit within the confines of the Godfather universe. He takes it personally, and how could he not with the Coppolas and the Corleones sometimes blurring the lines between one another. Both director and protagonist share the same sister and daughter and likely merge at other points, as well.
The other supplements are anchored by the 1991 documentary "A Look Inside" (73:29) that was made at the time of The Godfather Part III and features interviews with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia among others. Despite the promising involvement of so many essential components of the films, it's too middling to be definitive. Great to have those voices on record, but there's little discussion of Part II and too much of Part III. As with all the bonus material brought over from the DVD, it's presented in 1.33:1 and in standard definition.
The fourth and final disc's menu options, after selecting the 2001 material, offer the categories of Galleries, Behind the Scenes, Filmmakers, and Additional Scenes. I've outlined below everything found inside each.
Trailers - The Godfather (3:39), The Godfather Part II (4:16), The Godfather Part III (4:28)
Photo and Rogues Gallery
Acclaim and Response - clips of Academy Award speeches for 1972 Best Screenplay (2:24), 1972 Best Picture (1:47), 1974 Best Director (1:50), 1974 Best Picture (1:03)
Awards and Nominations
1974 Network Television Introduction by Francis Ford Coppola (1:35)
Behind the Scenes
"A Look Inside" (73:29)
"On Location" (6:56) - production designer Dean Tavoularis revisits the New York City locations of the films
"Francis Coppola's Notebook" (10:13) - the director talks about his massive, detailed notes on the novel
"Music of The Godfather" - Nino Rota (5:30) - audio with Coppola and Rota discussing and playing the score; Carmine Coppola (3:18) - audio with father and son Coppola
"Coppola and Puzo on Screenwriting" (8:07) - the two writers talk about their collaboration and the possibility of a Part IV
"Gordon Willis on Cinematography" (3:45) - Willis and his peers discuss his work on the films
"Storyboards - The Godfather Part II" and "Storyboards - The Godfather Part III"
"The Godfather Behind the Scenes 1971" (8:56) - vintage making of featurette
Text screens on Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, Nino Rota, and Carmine Coppola
Deleted scenes taken from the films and the re-edited television version, presented in chronological order. There are a total of 34 different scenes, ranging from 1901 to 1979.
I appreciate that no one needs to be told how revered and exceptional The Godfather and its first sequel are, but I'm also obligated to try and do just that. It's not difficult to sing these films' praises. They're beautiful, brilliant works of art that have managed to simultaneously please casual and dedicated film watchers for decades now. These films are timeless and built for repeated viewings. I'm inclined to call this release of the films in a new restoration on Blu-ray, including the inferior third part, as the format's peak up to this point. The transfers are nearly without complaint. The new supplements improve on the previous extra features while still including the earlier ones. It's difficult to know what else to reasonably ask for in home viewing.