The Godfather Review

In the first of a series of reviews of the trilogy, Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of The Godfather. A truly brilliant film is released on a disc with good picture quality, an unnecessary remix and a great commentary.

The Film

The question of which film is ‘the greatest film ever made’ is a vexed one. People have often argued, convincingly, that Citizen Kane is, both because of its technical virtuosity and its stunning performances. Others have said the same about films ranging from the sublime (The Third Man, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia) to the frankly slightly ridiculous (Gone with the Wind, Star Wars and Titanic). However, in Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’, whether you divorce it from its sequel or not, there is an artistic achievement to rank alongside any of the aforementioned films, a film that is a truly stunning piece of cinema that, like Kane, works as both Shakespearean character study and as simply damn good entertainment; indeed, to steal Pauline Kael’s judgement on Kane, this might be the most sheerly pleasurable great film ever made.

The plot is, perhaps surprisingly, less well known than that of other ‘classic’ films, perhaps because the film is famous for its key set-piece moments than for the machinations of the Corleone family, and, in a sense, it’s a pity to spoil any of it. The film begins at a wedding, where we are introduced to the major characters; Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the ‘Godfather’ of the title, and the head of the family; Sonny (Caan), his hot-headed son and lieutenant; Tom Hagen (Duvall), the family’s lawyer and would-be consigliere, and finally Michael (Pacino), a former war hero, who, along with his girlfriend Kay Adams (Keaton) wishes to start a new life away from the family. However, as the film shows, this proves to be more difficult than Michael had anticipated.

It’s an almost pointless effort to try to actually ‘criticise’ this film, as it genuinely is above that, much in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays are. If I was forced to find fault with it, perhaps the greatest flaw (and it is a remarkably minor one) is that the scenes in Sicily lack the narrative drive of the scenes in America. However, they are so beautifully photographed, and so well acted, that it seems utterly redundant to criticise them (and, of course, the final pay-off is one of the most crucial events in the entire trilogy). Apart from that, however, the film is essentially a perfect artistic endeavour. Scene after scene is played, shot and scripted to perfection, with Nino Rota’s intensely memorable score the icing on the cake. Obviously, this is one of the most parodied films of all time, with Brando’s extraordinary performance as Vito Corleone being imitated by all and sundry, as well as key dramatic events such as the horse’s head in the bed becoming part of cinematic consciousness. However, while a weaker film might eventually cede part of its identity to parody, and seem laughable eventually, this film is strong enough to withstand such assaults on its good name. Failing that, anyone making fun of the film will be sent to sleep with the fishes.

The performances are all so stunning that you start to wonder why the entire cast didn’t win Oscars; Brando’s performance may well be the stand-out, but it’s a revelatory experience to watch Pacino here, as, after his recent years of hamming it up in fun but second-rate parts, he is incredibly controlled as Michael, moving from the youthful idealist of the opening scenes to becoming the new Don by the end of the film, with the famous scene at the baptism confirming his status as ‘the new godfather’, both literally and figuratively. It goes without saying that Duvall and Caan are both fantastic, in superbly written roles, although it’s hard to think of a single actor in this film (or, indeed, in the sequel) who delivers anything less than a perfectly judged performance. A fine example of this is Sterling Hayden; he has a couple of scenes as a corrupt policeman, but manages to shade a potentially two-dimensional character with nuance and grace, helped by his own screen presence from such films as Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’.

I could go on, and I shall in my further reviews of the other films. However, this is a key part of any DVD collection, along with its sequel, and is unreservedly recommended.

The Picture

The disc attracted some criticism before its release when it appeared that Paramount had not restored the film, despite such experts as Robert Harris asking them to do so. However, it has now transpired that the film was in fact restored from quite severely damaged elements, and the transfer is surprisingly good as a result. It’s definitely not perfect still; there is some print damage, and occasionally the darker scenes look slightly too dark, with not enough contrast in the shots. (The first scene is the most obvious example of this.) It obviously helps if you watch DVDs with the lights turned off; however, there are only a few scenes where this is really an issue. The lighter scenes, such as those set in Sicily, are fine, and the print quality is generally very good for a 30-year old film.

The Sound

And here we have everyone’s favourite innovation, the 5.1 remix. Or not, depending on individual taste. I’ve never been a fan of remixed soundtracks, to be honest, and this one is a pretty undistinguished effort. It sounds fine, with Brando’s mumbling coming across perfectly comprehensibly, but there is little use of surround effects at all, and the overall feeling is that the original mono track would have done as good a job. Nothing disastrous, then, but nothing outstanding either.

The Extras

The vast majority of the extras come on the 5th bonus disc in the collection, and shall be reviewed there. The only extra on this disc (apart from a constantly changing main menu system, which cycles through 3 different settings) is a commentary by Francis Ford Coppola. However, this is one of the very best commentaries on a DVD to date. Coppola speaks warmly and enthusiastically about the film, both in terms of the artistic success and about the problems getting it made, and sustains himself well over nearly three hours. It’s not over-burdened with hilarious anecdotes- although there are a couple of amusing Brando stories- but it is a great guide to the film, which is arguably the finest film to receive a contemporary director’s commentary yet.


A truly stunning piece of cinema is released on a not-bad disc, although the sound remix leaves something to be desired; however, the superb commentary goes some way to remedying that. It is unreservedly recommended, both on its own terms and as part of the box set (which is, at the time of writing, the only way to own it); however, further reviews of the rest of the set will follow.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Oct 09, 2001

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