|Godfather, The (from the 5 DVD Box Set)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 09 October 2001|
Making "The Godfather" was very difficult for Francis Ford Coppola; the studio had little confidence in him on any level, and were pressing ahead primarily because between the time they bought the rights to Mario Puzo's novel and when production began, it became a major best seller. Paramount's original intent was to set it in the present day, and in Kansas City. It was Coppola, better regarded as a writer than as a director, who insisted on a period, New York setting, just as in the book.
He had to fight for everything. Now it seems incredible, considering the performance, that he had to battle to get Marlon Brando for the title role of Don Vito, head of the Corleone Mafia family. Brando's performance goes way beyond "good" and into legendary, iconographic; with his very first lines, he was so utterly convincing as the aging gangster that he instantly established a new stereotype. Before "The Godfather," the stereotype of gangsters came from Edward G. Robinson's portrayal of "Little Caesar" -- the "nyahh!"-sneering, cigar-waving, flamboyant gang boss. After "The Godfather," gangster chiefs are soft-spoken (in a husky voice) and understated, issuing deadly commands in a gentle, Italian-accented voice. Such was the power of Brando, and such was the impact of "The Godfather," which became the largest-grossing film of all time, until the record was devoured by a big shark a few years later.
"The Godfather" and its sequels have become such an indelible part of not just the movie landscape, but the warp and woof of American culture in general that it's hard for those who weren't around to understand the impact it had on its first release. On a personal note, I recall watching it the first time, and realizing twenty minutes in that I was seeing not just a good movie, not just a great movie, but a genuine classic, one of the best movies ever made. (And "Part II" is, if anything, even a little better.)
But the path to the screen was rocky for those who made the film; for the first few weeks, both Coppola and Al Pacino were convinced they would be fired at any moment. In his excellent commentary track, Coppola explains how he had his own "massacre" -- he fired all those he felt were more loyal to Paramount than to him. And by sheer force of will, and talent, he kept his job.
On the unlikely chance that some reading this have not yet seen "The Godfather" -- the script by Coppola and Puzo begins in 1945 at the wedding of Connie (Talia Shire), Don Vito's daughter. It's lavish, joyful and very Italian, with dancing, singing, eating and drinking. Meanwhile, in his dark office, Don Vito listens to requests from those who wish him to intercede on their behalf...
Vito's youngest son Michael (Pacino) has just returned a hero from World War II; he explains the people around them to his very WASP girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), emphasizing that the brutality is his family's, not his. Vito expects his eldest, hot-headed son Sonny (James Caan in a taut, kinetic performance) to take over when he steps down as Godfather. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is a bit weak-willed and not too bright; right now, he's working as his father's chauffeur.
But time and Vito's enemies change things; when Vito is gunned down in a New York street, severely wounded but not killed, Michael is darkly but quietly furious, full of vengeful resolve. He kills those responsible for his father's near-death, and flees to Sicily. But this doesn't help. Just when he thought he was out, they drag him back in.
"The Godfather" happens to be about an American criminal family, but essentially the same story, with fewer killings and less tomato sauce, could be told about any powerful family, in any business. Together with "Godfather Part II," the saga is of the assimilation of immigrants into American culture, and how they rise within it, hoping to shed the elements that tie them to the past -- but also how that's nearly impossible.
"The Godfather" was really the first major American film to treat gangsters in this manner; they are killers, no question about it, but they're a family, with likable and dislikable characteristics and members. We understand them, we even sympathize with them, but how they gained their power, and how they hang onto it, is never ignored. "The Sopranos" is a direct descendant of "The Godfather" films -- more working-class, but just as involved with family, loyalty and murder.
American movies simply do not get better than the first two "Godfather" movies; even with the budgetary restrictions he faced on "The Godfather," Coppola created something engrossing, imaginative, intelligent, and very intense. His own Italian upbringing allowed him insights into the Corleone family that show in almost every frame of film. He prefers "Godfather II;" he had more control, more money, but it's hard to separate the first two films otherwise. (The third is a better movie than most people seem to think, but it is definitely below the very high level set by the first two.)
"The Godfather" is completely convincing, engrossing to the point of being enthralling; the characters are fascinating, complex and likable. It's the kind of movie you can watch with a new sense of discovery every couple of years your entire adult life.
Coppola's commentary track is fascinating; he's a very warm, direct person -- there's no sense of his standing on one side of the moviemaking fence, with the audience (you) on the other. He talks as though to a close friend, and after a while, you wish he were. Some of what he says is fascinating movie-making stuff, like the difficulties in planning and shooting the party scene. You realize how very hard it must have been to shoot the scene, while keeping in mind the need for character introductions and expository material.
Paramount has issued all three "Godfather" movies as "The Godfather Collection," which includes a separate disc full of extras. One of the most fascinating sections is the group of deleted scenes; unwisely, they've not provided the option of playing straight through, and there's no commentary track, but otherwise, it's well-handled, with each sequence given a brief explanatory text. There are even two extra scenes with Marlon Brando talking, briefly, with Michael -- these are both so good the only possible explanation for their deletion is simple running time. In fact, all of the cut scenes from the first two films are outstanding; the most charming is from "Part II," featuring Vito (Robert De Niro) and his associates visiting a gunmaker, whose son Carmine plays the flute for them. The gunmaker is Francis Ford Coppola's grandfather, and Carmine is his father; Carmine as an adult worked on the first two films. There's only one clip from "Part III," which seems curious and a genuine omission. But if you like these films, all these clips are sheer gold.
The documentary "The Godfather Family: A Look Inside" has been seen before, on television and on the laserdisc boxed set. It's very good, but a bit familiar. There's a new segment called "Coppola's Notebooks" in which he explains, in agreeably self-satisfied manner, how he physically adapted Puzo's book and worked with it to make a screenplay. In another short segment, Dean Tavoularis returns to the street in New York that had been redressed so beautifully for "Part II." Behind the scenes footage, drawings and scenes from the movies are intercut with his commentary.
There's also an interesting time line chart, extending from Vito's birth in Sicily to Michael's death there a hundred years later. Important dates in the lives of real gangsters are interspersed with the important events in the fictional Corleone family. The "family tree" isn't nearly as interesting or useful. Nobody explains the use of oranges as harbingers of death.
It's a beautiful package, a nearly-ideal presentation of great movies, but one wishes that there could have been even more supplementary material.