There are few things I can imagine to be more daunting than trying, with any degree of success, to explain why The Godfather is a masterpiece--indeed, for my money, the single greatest of all motion pictures. We can explain it away with logic and comparison; it is, for example, one of the few times in motion picture history where an honest-to-God work of art was a certified box office smash (as were Gone with the Wind and E.T. and that's about it). More than dollars and cents, however, it stands as one of the bellwether films; as with The Birth of A Nation and Citizen Kane before it, it was as a culmination of what cinema was at that moment--where it had come from, and what it could be. When it was released in 1972, The Godfather was part of the first flood of what became a golden age of American film, and it was one of the films that pointed the way for that movement; with every frame, it seems to shout, "Look what we're capable of." It took the new freedoms and complexities of its recent contemporaries (Bonnie and Clyde, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Last Picture Show) and--as some of those films had--put them to work in a classic American story, one that was set in our past but spoke to our present, and our future. In the years to come, the exciting and invigorating pictures wouldn't be those of the experimental (and frequently unwatchable) cinema of Warhol or Brakhage; it was the work of the film brats who injected traditional genres with new energy and psychological intricacy, so that a detective picture (like Chinatown) or a cop film (like The French Connection) or a romantic comedy (like Annie Hall) or a caper movie (like Dog Day Afternoon) were no longer just those things. Yes, The Godfather is a gangster picture. But it's so much more than that.
And for those who treasure it, there's just something intangible about The Godfather. It is, for lack of a better word, perfect. It's a perfect movie. It is classical narrative filmmaking at its absolute finest. The storytelling is clean and neat. The narrative is involving. The direction and design are flawless. The characters are fascinatingly personal, the actors playing them brilliant. It draws us in from its opening words ("I believe in America"), and for 175 minutes, it does not take a wrong step.
It begins with one of the great opening sequences in all of film. We are introduced to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the "godfather" of the Corleone crime family. It is 1945, the day of the wedding of his daughter Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo (Gianni Russo). The wedding, a joyous affair of song, wine, and food, is an all-day affair in the summer sun, but in the darkness of the Don's office, he receives visitors. No Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter's wedding day. Slowly, we meet his family--not so much with proper introductions, but more as they cross into our field of vision, fellow guests at this magnificent affair. There is the consigliere and adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the charismatic hot-head Sonny (James Caan), the likable but disconnected Fredo (John Cazale), and the baby boy, Michael (Al Pacino). Michael is a college boy and war hero, the apple of his papa's eye; he hopes great things for Michael, who brings a pretty WASP named Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to the wedding. It is apparently the first time she is made aware of what Don Vito does. "That's my family, Kay," he assures her. "It's not me."
In this sequence, we marvel at the skill of the exposition; the screenplay by director Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (who wrote the bestselling novel upon which it was based) lays out the rules and traditions entirely within the action of the day's events. The Godfather is a long film, but there's not a wasted moment--the picture's economy is stunning, as evidenced by the scenes in the Don's office, where every man who comes to visit him plays a role later in the film, beyond their function here as scene-setters.
So much of the movie is familiar, we forget how quickly it moves. The Don's first order of business following the wedding (beyond directing Hagen on that famous errand to visit the head of a Hollywood studio) is to entertain the proposal of one Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), who hopes to engage the Corleone family in a partnership with his burgeoning drug trade. The Don doesn't like "this business of drugs," but when he turns "The Turk" down, he sets of a chain of events that culminates in an attempt on his own life. Michael has always kept the family business at arm's length, but it has become personal--he volunteers to avenge his father's death, in a public place, in a very forceful way.
Brando's performance as Don Vito was seen by so many as the takeaway turn of the film, and has become such a fixture of American popular culture, that it's easy to forget how magnificent Pacino is here. It's a brilliant piece of work, a stunning progression from nice kid to ruthless criminal--for all intents and purposes, The Godfather is his story, not the titular character's. He comes on bright-eyed and cheery, idealistic and hopeful, but this stuff is in his genes (watch the way he takes over that hospital room when he realizes what's about to happen). At the beginning of the film, he's so young he's almost unrecognizable, his features soft within an almost babyish face. But as the story progresses, his character hardens--internally and externally. When McClusky (Sterling Hayden) clocks him in the grill, it tightens that boyish face; his jaw is wired shut, but his soul, too, has hardened. It's a performance of tremendous control and progression; in sharp contrast to Pacino's work of late, he only loses his temper once, in the very last scene, where he snaps, but only for a flash. "You know Mike, we was all proud of you, being the hero and all," Clemenza tells him. "Your father too." Brando's excellent work lets us see that pride--and the pain of losing the boy to his unfortunate destiny, delivering one of his finest acting moments when Don Vito learns what Michael has done.
The cast is filled with justifiably celebrated acting. Robert Duvall is perhaps the most undervalued actor in the film, but he effortlessly projects a sense of calm and cool (watch how he is insulted and blown off by the studio head, but then departs by telling him, "By the way, I admire your pictures very much"). Caan is good-humored with a nice edge; you see why he would seem the heir apparent to his father's position, and why that's the wrong assumption. Shire and Cazale are both somewhat underused, but make tremendous impressions in their brief roles. But the writing is so good, even the supporting characters--McCluskey, Moe Green, Barzini, Luca Brasi--are so richly drawn, we know more about them in one scene than we do after entire movies with other characters.
Coppola's direction is stylized without being imposing; for the most part, he prefers a well-prepared mood and tone to self-conscious camerawork. He keeps much of the action in long unbroken takes, and limits his camera movement to slow, effective push-ins, like Bonasera's opening speech, Michael's explanation of how they get Sollozzo and McCluskey, or that tremendous moment when he carries out that plan. The editing (by William Reynolds and Peter Zinner) is sharp as a tack; there is one powerful shock edit (at the end of the Italy section), and then there's that closing scene. The flawless intercutting of the baptism and the bloodbath of Michael's creation is the series' most potent intermingling of faith, tradition, and cold-blooded brutality, to say nothing of the narrative power of Michael's expression and the flat, dead way he says "I do."
So much of The Godfather is iconic, it's hard to even approach it with a clear head and a fresh perspective. Brando with the cat. Woltz's rude awakening. "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." That music. The fish in the bullet-proof vest. Sonny at the tollbooth. The don playing with his grandson. The door slamming on Kay. Michael in that Italian restaurant, gun under the table, passing the point of no return. And that final scene between Vito and Michael, conspiring and commiserating in the garden. Moviegoers engaged with The Godfather not only for its sympathetic characters and the thrills of its genre, but because it reflected an America they recognized as their own; as it broke box office records in 1972, the scandal of Watergate was seeping onto our newspapers. The film represented what we were starting to understand about our country--that far away from the light of the sun, men in darkened rooms wielded the real power. When Coppola first cuts from the shadows of Don Vito's office to the bright wedding outside, it's jarring (as it should be). Its pessimism resonated with us as well--it's all good and well to hope for legitimacy, but the Corleone family is what it is. And so are we. "There just wasn't enough time, Michael," bemoans the father. "We'll get there, Pop," replies his son. "We'll get there."
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Paramount's new Blu-ray of The Godfather is the same disc as was included in the four-disc The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration set back in September of 2008, which means that these new stand-alone releases of Godfather and The Godfather Part II are primarily for people who really, really don't like Godfather III. Or special features. More on that below.
The "Coppola restoration" of The Godfather remains a stunning work of cinematic clean-up, its 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer without question the best it has ever looked on home video. Gordon Willis' deliberately dark and shadowy cinematography presents a challenge even for a full 50GB Blu-ray disc, but grain and speckling, while present, are only occasionally heavy to a point of distraction (I only saw a couple of trouble spots: the shooting of Don Vito and Luca at the wedding). For the most part, black levels are rich, deep, and inky, while close-up details (like the bruises on Michael's face) are excellent. The wide shots of Italian vistas and the sun-kissed scenes in the Don's garden are stunning, and while it may not be the most vibrant image, the splashes of color (like Kay's bright red coat in a sea of drab grays and browns) are well-saturated. A couple of shots tilt a little too yellow (like the Don's return to the Corleone compound), but for the most part, the 1.85:1 image beautifully maintains the aged, newsprint quality of Willis' original, golden-hued cinematography.
I had hoped the English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack would make better use of the surround soundstage; most of it happens in the front and center channels, with the rear channels quiet even during big scenes like the opening wedding. But it's a terrific mix nonetheless, with the surplus of (mostly quiet) dialogue clearly and audibly rendered, and the most important sound effects (such as the loud screeching train in the Sollozzo scene, or the gravel crunching under their feet during Carlo's drive away) crisply separated for maximum effectiveness. The famous score by Nino Rota is appropriately lush, while the dread bass of the cue during the hospital sequence pops from the LFE channel.
The original English mono track is also available, as are French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes. English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also included.
So here's the downside: the original Blu-ray box included a stellar package of bonus features (restoration demonstrations, deleted scenes, multiple behind-the-scenes featurette, the excellent "The Godfather Family: A Look Inside" documentary), but all were packed onto the fourth, bonus features disc. In pulling the first film as its own release, the only bonus feature now included is Francis Ford Coppola's Audio Commentary, recorded for the trilogy's DVD release back in 2001. Don't get me wrong, it's a phenomenal track--Coppola is entertaining, candid, funny, and knowledgeable, and he relays many of the famous stories about the picture's notoriously difficult production period. But it's a shame to do without the copious extras available for this classic film.
Make no mistake about it: The Godfather is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) films of all time, and should be a part of the library of any self-respecting film fan. I applaud Paramount for catering to individual tastes by making the individual film available on HD, but at roughly $50 for all three films and the terrific bonus features, The Coppola Restoration is simply a smarter and better buy than the $24 stand-alone editions of Godfather I and Godfather II. However you choose to get them, though, you certainly should get them.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.