Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Anyone younger than 45 or so can't know just how big a deal The Godfather was
in 1972. After the previous example of Love Story, it was the blockbuster that defined
modern blockbusters. I was a parking lot attendant in Westwood when it opened and the whole village
was geared around the "event" movie that was something one just had to see.
The Godfather was a reckless production by a studio that almost didn't know what it was
doing, hiring a writer-director who as a director had only two studio flops and one
independent flop to his name. The casting defied conventional wisdom and the low-key style
kept the production constantly on the verge of collapse. But the result was an astonishing
commercial, critical and prestige success for everyone concerned. Those careers it didn't launch,
it revived, and it marked the first commercial triumph of the post-Easy Rider Hollywood.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) comes back from the war to his family, the most
important of the "Five Families" of organized crime. He intends to stay out of the business
with his non-Catholic girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), but an assassination attempt on
his father Don Vito (Marlon Brando) leaves a leadership vacuum that Michael's hothead older
brother Sonny (James Caan) can't fill. After hitting back at his father's attackers, Michael
eventually returns from exile to become the new Don, consolidating his power and
ruthlessly dispensing retribution for those who would oppose the Corleone family.
The Godfather was begun as a non-period film like Paramount's The Brotherhood
before Francis Coppola took charge and steered it in all the right directions all at once.
Hollywood had a pretty spotty reputation for period accuracy; even the groundbreaking
Bonnie & Clyde put Faye Dunaway in rather suspicious styles for the depression years and it
was typical in 60s movies about WW2 to see actresses in 60s dresses and hair. Coppola approached
period the way a European artist would, from the inside out. It affects the color and texture of
everything we see, from the woolen browns of men's suits to the dim lighting in
interiors. When Diane Keaton's Kay Adams walks into the Corleone wedding party she immediately
stands out as a 40s WASP among the first and second-generation Italian Americans.
Coppola's use of the wedding to introduce characters and set the scene is strongly reminscent of
the European Luchino Visconti, especially the ending party in The Leopard (another imminent
release). Although Coppola's flow of images is much more fragmented, his style in any one scene is
always in support of his larger themes. With so much essential exposition disposed of in his opening
scene, he's free to let his story progress without further elaboration. The general fast pace can
always pause for a tableau effect that puts the Corleone family's situation in relief, or a lonely
shot of Don Vito, Michael or Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) deep in thought.
Gangster movies had skirted the real truth of organized crime by concentrating on stellar personalities
like the non-Sicilian Chicago renegade Al Capone, or avoided the issue through rural bandits and
stickup artists. The Godfather was first considered potentially offensive to Italian-Americans,
as if Frank Sinatra would come back for vengeance or something; Coppola disarms that issue by inventing
a new kind of extended-family glamour for his low-life Italian-American crime world. The Corleones are
a homegrown immmigrant dynasty that achieves the American dream from the underside of society. Don Vito
controlled judges but only one of his sons made it to college.
Coppola's script cleverly insinuates that, as in Visconti's The Leopard, the Corleones are
powerful and admirable because they stick together as a disciplined family with a powerful patriarch
at the head. When Kay protests that great men and politicians don't have people killed, all Michael has
to do is bat his eyes at her and ask, "Now who's being naive?" After a decade of political assassinations
and Vietnam, America was receptive to this message.
The only movie I've seen that so cleverly makes heroes out of criminal scum is 1997's L.A.
Confidential, where dishonest, brutal and ambitious cops are heroes to be admired. It works
the same way The Godfather does - in a corrupt society, whoever takes the initiative and
manages some modicum of honor among his associates is going to seem more noble than the riffraff
around him. The world of the Corleone family is one of complete patriarchal terror - the women have
zero rights and are carefully shielded from even knowing the basics of what's going on. Their own
relatives are murdered, and nobody will break the code of omertà. Coppola shrewdly brings
this hypocrisy right down to the basic relationship between Michael and his bride Kay. It's a lie, a
dirty lie, and it's the rotten core of the society pictured.
Coppola cleverly saddles society at large with the rot, while granting his Corleones the glamour and
style to rise above the fray. They buy crooked judges, kill crooked cops and terrorize venal Hollywood
producers, all targets that the audience likes to see suffer. All of their victims are close family
members or prominent crooks from other families; the cities full of organized crime victims large and
small aren't depicted. 2
Like a feudal chieftan, Don Vito and then Michael demand loyalty and obedience. By the judicious
application of Machiavellian logic, both Dons outsmart and decimate any obstruction or opposition
that comes their way. The weak in their own ranks, like Michael's sister's husband, have to be winnowed out.
Thus we're left with an understanding how general peace and stability can insure the acceptance of
corrupt systems. When Michael tells Kay the Big Lie and she accepts it, it doesn't matter if she believes
him or if her sharp New England senses have simply slipped into denial, because the system has worked.
Audiences tend to side with Michael and his expedient Big Lie, and accept The Godfather as having
a kind of grand opera truth about it. The Godfather is a great movie that broke the mold of
gangster films forever - like The Wild Bunch. It has only been topped by the greater conceptual
achievement of The Godfather Part 2, in which Coppola tears down most of the glamour that he
so cleverly built up in this film. The ruthless Corleone system still works like a charm but Michael can
no longer maintain the denial system. The family devours itself.
Coppola's The Godfather was first noted for its distinctive photography, where Gordon Willis
used harsh overheads and coral filters to give a dusty antique look that made scenes look like
faded magazine photos. The period details concentrate on things like cooking utensils and rationing
stickers on automobiles, abandoning the "trot out the old cars" foolishness that prevailed for
several years after Bonnie & Clyde in pictures like The Moonshine War.
The casting knocked Hollywood out, going against decades of large-company films where studio
contractees filled in wherever possible, as in Arthur Penn's
The Chase. Marlon Brando was
practically considered boxoffice poison, but made a stirring comeback. James Caan and Robert Duvall
had been kicking around for a decade doing memorable and unmemorable work; Duvall can be glimpsed
in the tiniest of bit parts just a couple of years before in the Steve McQueen film Bullitt.
Both of them
got major boosts into the higher ranks. Al Pacino was a stage notable but his only serious film was
the downbeat Panic in Needle Park; he became an instant star. Old hands Sterling Hayden and
Richard Conte were around mainly for a connection to the old Hollywood, but lots of new blood got
a chance to shine - Richard Castellano, Al Lettieri, John Cazale, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire and Alex
Rocco all became familiar faces. Just about the only "studio shoo-in" was John Marley from
Francis Coppola is often lumped with the 70s generation of student-film moviemakers but he's really
of a slightly older vintage. He earned his wings in the much tougher 60s studio system where being
a film student was like having an iron albatross around one's neck. He spent that decade knocking out
screenplays and trying to get his own pictures made, and earned the chance to film Puzo's novel
with his writing work on superior films such as Patton. Like Peter Bogdanovich, Coppola's
started directing by monkeying around with
foreign science fiction movies to make grindhouse fodder for Roger Corman, and his first major
direction job is (I still think) a wonderful "youth" movie called You're a Big Boy Now that
apes Richard Lester but still seems a lot more alive than The Graduate. The Rain People
is pretty good for an ersatz Antonioni art movie, but Coppola did much better when he "imitated"
Visconti. Besides pulling a hopeless project out of the ashes and making it soar,
he found his own style and his own place among the great directors.
Paramount's The Godfather was previously released in a pricey boxed set with its two sequels
and a docu disc; this single-platter release seems to be a repackaging of the same exact pressing. The
quality of the first release garnered some criticism for being dirty and poorly authored. This new
disc could very well be the same transfer perhaps given a better encoding - the processes involved
have improved greatly in the intervening four years. A few scenes still look a tad light on the bit
rate but even on a large screen it's never distracting and one has to get hypercritical to even be
aware of it.
That said, The Godfather should be considered one of the stars in Paramount's crown, and it
seems wrong for the film go out as an almost plain-wrap item when something like
Wyatt Earp is spread across two
Warners discs and treated like holy scripture. I know that fans bristle at the idea of triple and
quadruple-dipping, but it would be great to someday see the extended versions of the
Godfather films brought out in perfect restored versions (and nobody said to remix the tracks!).
On my player, when the disc is put in the movie starts without first stopping at a menu or
even any disclaimers, something I wish all DVDs did.
The one extra comes right from the previous boxed set release and is a definite keeper. Coppola
provides a full-length commentary, sounding happy to tell the story of the making of
the film. There's an impressive level of detail. His inside stories on the actors and the politics are
funny, especially his perpetually-imminent firing from the picture. He ID's family members and
proudly points out Abe Vigoda, who he picked from a cattle call and launched as a star. He even
points out little Sophia Coppola playing the (male) baby being baptized in the gangster housecleaning
scene at the end; I figured this had to be the 2000 commentary because he's proud of her but she
hasn't won the Oscar yet for Lost in Translation. 1
And no, Coppola doesn't offer any special insight about the horse-in-the-bed scene - it's
just Hollywood legend.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Godfather rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Francis Coppola feature commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2004
1. That's something all us
70s film wannabe's need to consider. We watched The Godfather saying to ourselves "I wanna
make movies" at every impressive fadeout. When the baby in the movie grows up and gets an Oscar, one
has to admit that one's time has passed!
2. There don't have to be hospital wards full of black-market penicillin
victims (The Third Man) to show this; more
typical is a restaurant owner simply being told he's selling his successful business to new owners because
"it's in his best interest." Why do you think businessmen in run-down inner cities always downplay their
success to casual inquirers?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson