The Godfather Review

The Godfather, like Citizen Kane and Psycho has been so exhaustively discussed that it's a familiar title even to those who have never seen it. Taken with its first sequel it's possibly the most ambitious mainstream American film of the seventies and probably one of the most insidiously subtle. What it appears to be and what it actually is are poles apart but you could be forgiven for thinking, reading some critical pieces, that the film is a relatively simple homage to the happy family life of your average everyday Gangster. That point of view is not only mistaken, it's positively perverse - as a careful viewing of the film illustrates.

It's difficult to discuss the first film in isolation to its follow-up. Part Two is a rare example of a sequel which enriches the original to such an extent that it's well nigh essential viewing in order to appreciate what Francis Ford Coppola was trying to get at in Part One. However, the first film was shown two years before the sequel to massive acclaim, huge box office and lots of awards, so here goes...

The Godfather is, broadly speaking, a family saga about the Corleone clan. Led by Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the Corleones are the most powerful of the Five Families who control illegal and unsavoury activities in post-war New York. We're talking Mafia of course, although that's one word you won't hear in the film. Initially, all seems well. Corleone's daughter Connie (Shire) is getting married, his elder son Sonny (Caan) is being groomed to take over and his youngest, Michael (Pacino), has returned from Europe as a war hero. But things are not as good as they appear; the other families are becoming restless as they see Vito's power fading and an ambitious pretender to the throne, Solozzo (Al Lettieri), is keen to get in on the action. The process by which Corleone is unseated and then avenged by his sons is the basic narrative of the film but that's much too simplistic an assessment. The sub-plots are just as important; Sonny's impetuousness which leads to disaster, Michael's hopeless attempt to move away from the family business and start a new life with his girlfriend Kay (Keaton) and the attempts of the middle son Fredo (Cazale) to establish his own identity. With the inevitability of night following day, the darkness at the heart of the family creeps into Michael's soul until he can no longer resist and the film ends, as it begins, in darkness.

The first line of the film is the key to its power - "I believe in America. America has been good to me". Coppola is asking us two things here; firstly, what is "America" and, more importantly, what exactly is there to believe in ? The undertaker who speaks these words, Bonassera, is paying homage to Don Vito and requesting his assistance in punishing the men who ruined his daughter who have been dealt with lightly by the courts. In other words, he doesn't believe in America, he believes in Corleone. It's easy to forget, surrounded by the trappings of a happy, rich family life, that the business of the Corleones is corruption, murder and mayhem, but we forget this at the peril of misunderstanding the film. Coppola seems to be saying that in twentieth century America, the corruption of the mobsters and the principles of the country are the same thing. The whole decaying underbelly of twentieth century American history is brought to the fore here with a directness that is unusual in mainstream cinema. The Corleone's pay lip-service to freedom and liberty, but their whole reason for existing is to spit on that and make profit out of the misery of others. Sometimes they might appear to be merely helping their friends, dispensing "natural justice" or merely grease the palms of a few crooked judges and senators but make no mistake - cross them at your peril. Beginning with hints and stories - the way that teen idol Johnny Fontaine got out of his record contract with the help of Vito, the casual favours offered by Vito to the faithful on his daughter's wedding day - we begin to see exactly how the power of the Corleones operates.

What's fascinating about this film is the way that Coppola refuses to judge his central characters. The audience is asked to draw its own conclusions, so it's not surprising that some of them left cinemas with the happy glow of how nice it was to see such a close-knit family. After all, they didn't do anything all that bad... did they ? Admittedly, most of the people killed are either gangsters or otherwise corrupt people; film producers, cops. But that's an alarmingly superficial reading of the film, albeit one which I've heard. The evil represented by the Corleones is all pervasive, spreading its influence into every part of American life, like some cancerous tumour beginning to invade the healthy parts of the body. Even within this supposedly happy family, everything is built on lies and deceit with the violence cloaked in respectability and the laughable idea that such a malevolent force in society is governed by some kind of "code". By the end of the film, when Michael's own destruction has begun, forged in a simple but profound lie to Kay, surely no-one can doubt the hypocrisy of the public face of respectability. It's all about text and subtext - you could ignore the subtext and enjoy this as a drama about a family, but that's a bit like watching "King Lear" as a drama about a silly old man who spoils his daughters.

Coppola's achievement is to make these foul human beings totally recognisable and paradoxically sympathetic. Don Vito is an entirely corrupt man but his age and tired recognition of his failing powers is genuinely affecting. It helps that Brando is among the greatest of all American screen actors. He uses his body language and his eyes just as much as the oft-mocked cotton wool in his mouth. This 49 year old powerhouse of an actor becomes a saddened old man with absolute conviction. Watch how carefully he weighs his words and how he watches all the time - when he shouts for the only time in the film, it's a startling moment. He is shot and injured about forty five minutes into the film, but the memory of his early scenes is enough for his presence to dominate later events. When he returns, he is bowed and diminished in stature, but the voice and the eyes remain powerful - Vito's frustration at being unable to stop the events which have begun with his shooting is strangely poignant, especially when he sees how his beloved youngest son has been implicated. Brando's presence transforms the film from an engrossing saga into something with Shakespearean grandeur - this same quality would later be provided by Al Pacino in parts two and three.

However, all of the cast distinguish themselves - there are, rarely in this sort of piece, no weak links. James Caan is riveting as the volatile Sonny, clearly trying to hard to step into shoes he can't hope to fill, and his rages are some of the most exciting moments of the film. In comparison, Al Pacino underplays to compelling effect. He has the difficult task of conveying Michael's transition from spectator to eager participant. Luckily, he has the advantage of the best scene in the film, the riveting dinner with the cop and Solozzo when Michael tastes his first blood for the family. When Michael gains the ascendancy towards the end of the film, you can virtually hear his words putting on weight. When he says to Fredo, "Don't ever side with anybody against the family again", it's a chilling, defining moment. This is a great performance as it stands in this film; take it with parts two and three and it's an extraordinary achievement. I must also point out Robert Duvall who, in an early role, makes Tom Hayden into a fascinatingly controlled figure who never reveals what he's thinking. The other actors are more than satisfactory. Given small roles, character types such as Abe Vigoda and Alex Rocco create something memorable out of a few scenes and there are supporting performances from John Cazale, Sterling Hayden and Al Lettieri which any actor could be proud of. The only slight disappointment is Diane Keaton. She's fine with what she has to work with, but Coppola and Mario Puzo haven't thought out this character as well as they have the men and she's left without enough motivation. This is a worse problem in part two than it is here but it does leave some doubt over the writers' ability to create female characters to match the males. Mama Corleone, played by the great jazz singer Morgana King, is a somewhat allusive figure with even less to do than Kay. This problem in the writing is at its most severe in part three, but but a lot more about that another time.

The elegance of the filmmaking makes it hard to criticise on a technical level. Francis Coppola's earlier career doesn't really show anything much to suggest he could direct a film as perfect as this. I mean, there are nice bits in The Rain People and You're A Big Boy Now but nothing to suggest that the man had this much talent. Everything slots into place with the sort of comfortable reassurance you feel when watching a Warner Brothers classic from the forties or one of the great MGM musicals. Coppola's grasp of suspense and pacing is just right - the lengthy scenes of talking and preparation building to moments of shocking, but far from gratuitous, violence. His mastery in revealing the true nature of the family is also important. The opening wedding celebration is seductive in its nostalgic sense of the post-war years and its picture of a family united in happiness but it also has the much more prosaic significance of introducing the characters and allowing the audience time to get their bearings. He then gradually undermines it, beginning with the legendary horse's head scene and culminating with the beautifully edited climax which pitches religious ritual against murderous revenge. His collaboration with the DP Gordon Willis is justly legendary. Willis, nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness" would use so few lights that Paramount executives were convinced no-one would be able to see what was going on, but he succeeds in capturing a visual tone that is exactly right for the film. It's a simple concept - the darkness of the family business compared to the light of their public face at the wedding - but it works superbly because it's achieved so uncompromisingly. The other artists who worked with Coppola on the film come up with their best efforts too. The period feel is nicely captured by the costume designer and the Production Designer Dean Tavoularis creates New York of the late forties out of virtually no resources (the film was shot for $6 million and on a schedule of 62 days).

It's hard to think of another Hollywood film of the period which is so flawless in execution. I can think of one or two niggles - like Alex Larman in his review of the Region 1 disc, I have some minor doubts about the pacing of the Sicilian excursion in the middle of the film, but since this allows for one of the best scenes in the third part, that's forgivable. There's a also a exapansive romantic yearning in these scenes which opens the film out and makes it less claustrophobic. Overall, the film is the sort of blending of art and commerce which Hollywood has always been capable of but about which it tends to keep pretty quiet. It's exciting, moving, funny and shocking without being superficial or self-consciously arty. When taken along with its sequel, it's a great work of popular art. What more could you ask ?

The Disc

This has to be one of the most anticipated releases of the year and it's nice to see that Paramount haven't entirely let us down. I say 'entirely' because this is plainly not the ideal release we might have hoped for, but it is still pretty impressive.

The most controversial aspect of the release seems to be the picture quality. Having seen the film numerous times on television and three times in the cinema, I have to say that this DVD release is at least as good in visual terms as it has been on any previous occasion. That's nothing to get too excited about however. The transfer is Anamorphic 1.85:1. The picture is sharp and clear with a very pleasing level of detail compared to the VHS with which I compared it. There is a problem with grain throughout the film, more noticable in some scenes than others, and the very dark photography tends to highlight the relatively minor examples of compression artifacts. The picture also seems to want a better level of contrast at times. There is also some print damage and scratching evident. But overall, considering the apparently poor state of the original film elements, this is about as good as we could have expected it to be.

The only soundtrack on the disc is remixed Dolby Digital 5.1. Given that the original mono track would have been preferable as far as I'm concerned (I am a purist in these matters), it's not at all bad. Very little noticable use of the surround channels or the sub, but then I wouldn't expect there to be. I found the dialogue generally clear but bear in mind that some of the lines have always been difficult to hear at times. The copy I taped from BBC 2 in March 1985 is sometimes totally inaudible and the sell-through VHS isn't much better. The music on this DVD sounds a hell of a lot better than I've heard it before - the brass at the beginning sent a shiver down my spine with its clarity. Otherwise, this is acceptable but uninspired.

The box set of the three films contains a bonus disc with all sorts of interesting material so the individual DVDs have only a commentary in the way of extras. However, it's a great commentary track, full of warmth and humour and, more surprisingly, humility and generosity. Coppola recounts lots of mouth-watering gossip. I especially like the revelation of Brando wearing a sign on his head saying "Fuck you" during some intimate scenes; and the pre-production dinner where the whole cast met for the first time. He rarely stops speaking for long and I was left looking forward to hearing what he had to say about the other films. A fascinating track but its full of information and probably more for the fans than the casual viewer.

There are nicely designed menus and a rather miserly 23 chapter stops. For a film running nearly three hours it would be nice to have a few more points of access.

For anyone even vaguely interested in American cinema, this is a must-buy. An endlessly fascinating film in itself, The Godfather becomes even more essential when placed with its sequel and the DVD is generally a very pleasing package. Definitely recommended.

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