There have been a series of motion pictures that have so captured the imagination of the public that they seep into our everyday vernacular as if they had always been there. Going back to such landmarks as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, up through relatively more recent efforts like Ben Hur or West Side Story, we then had a series of epochal films from 1965's Sound of Music to 1967's Bonnie and Clyde and 1970's Love Story that inflamed the movie-going public, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Probably no film in the 1970s captured the public's fancy the way The Godfather did in 1972, with "gangster chic" taking over fashion and Nino Rota's evocative score taking over the airwaves, and phrases like "make him an offer he can't refuse" entering everyday patois for adults and children alike. Marlon Brando's performance as Don Vito Corleone immediately entered the lexicon of classic acting, and the film did, as they say, boffo box office. When you take a step back from the hype and realize that all three Godfather movies are really just family dramas, largely about fathers and sons, in a sort of unusual business environment, it makes the films' impact all the more remarkable.
The fact that director Francis Ford Coppola reimagined his initial adaptation of Mario Puzo's blazing bestseller when he was asked to make a sequel is testament to Coppola's singular genius: while most people assumed at the time that the first Godfather was the story of Brando's character, Coppola revisioned it as a sort of prelude to Vito's son Michael's story. While Al Pacino's Michael was certainly a major player in the first film, and became the focus of it as the film moved inexorably to its conclusion, the depth to which Coppola explores Michael's tragic fate in The Godfather Part II and, to a lesser extent, Part III, is an amazing repurposing of what most people probably thought was a one-off film at the time. If the first and third installments don't quite measure up to Part II's masterpiece status, the first at least remains iconic for reasons perhaps not solely linked to its worth as a film (even though that worth is inestimable), and the third has weathered the storm since its initial release quite well, and seems a better film, if still seriously flawed, than it might have decades ago.
There's no denying that, despite the monolithic presence of Brando in the first Godfather, it's the second film which completely fulfills its promise and will probably always stand at the apex of the trilogy. Coppola (as he discusses in his commentary) had one tribulation after another making the first installment, whether it be actorly "temperament" or studio interference. While the film made an incredible impact, looking back on it now it's a little slipshod in places, obviously the work of a young director still finding his way in the big leagues. Don't get me wrong--The Godfather is no doubt a classic, it just pales slightly in comparison to its own "son," The Godfather Part II. If The Godfather is notable not only for Brando's commanding performance as the founder of a gangster dynasty, but also for its equally commanding knitting together of an intimate family saga within the gangster film genre, it has a fairly straightforward narrative that marches along to its seemingly foregone conclusions. It's a brilliant and involving slice of life (literally, considering some of the weapons used) setting up the various interrelationships of the Corleone family beautifully, and drawing unmatched performances from Brando, Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall.
On the other hand, Coppola's brilliant decision to contrast Vito's timeline with Michael's makes the second film not only a history lesson, in terms of the backstory it provides for the pater familias, but also an almost Santayana-esque examination of the famous phrase "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As we see Michael literally following in his father's footsteps, sucked inexorably into a lifestyle he at least initially fled from, the viewer is made part and parcel of Michael's point of view, sometimes extremely uneasily so. In fact, it's that strange dichotomous anti-hero ethos that makes The Godfather Part II the exhilarating experience it is. Coppola gets us so far inside Michael's head that we end up seeing the tragedies he visits on family and friends alike from his viewpoint, making us accomplices during the fact. It's a remarkable high wire act that Coppola manages in this film, and he pulls it off, sans net, more or less flawlessly. We're also shown, without a hint of irony, that both Vito and Michael are victims, albeit both of them after a while willingly so, and even perhaps gratefully so in Vito's case at least. As the vagaries of fate play both the Corleones as pawns, father and son prove in their own ways that they are out for survival at any cost, and the costs can be horrific. Again, it is Coppola's singular genius that we feel any sympathy at all for either of these characters, and the fact is, we feel immense amounts of it for both of them by the time Part II winds to its inexorable conclusion.
Part III probably could have never risen to the heights of the second film, but it at least had a chance to come close to the first. As Coppola describes in various dribs and drabs in all three commentaries, Part III became a victim not only of his personal hubris, but also various actors' egos, some of whom (like Robert Duvall) refused to be part of the final episode. The film was no doubt hampered, at least at the time of its release, by both its distance from the second film (over a decade and a half), and the slew of bad publicity Coppola engendered during filming when he cast his daughter Sofia in a key role when Winona Ryder dropped out. Seen in retrospect now, from perhaps a clearer vantage point, Part III, while labyrinthine, is not the mess a lot of people thought it was at the time, and it actually reinvigorates the franchise in some unexpected ways. Though the plotline involving the Vatican may strike some as distasteful, it actually is a perfect metaphor for Michael's twin desires for absolution and assimilation as a "normal" American. While the tragedy of Michael Corleone could have probably been left more or less concluded with Part II, Part III shows the inescapable forces pushing the Corleone's toward a fate they can't evade or avoid. Pacino is once again towering in this film, bringing a sadness and resignation to the role which is incredible to contrast with his youthful exuberance in the first film.
The trilogy stands as one of the enduring trifectas in film history, and this new excitingly restored Blu-Ray version is certain to top cinemaphiles' wish lists for the upcoming holiday season.
New to this release are a plethora of additional extras, all in HD. "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't" goes into the chaos surrounding Paramount just when the film was being developed. A really fun extra is "Godfather World," featuring such experts as Homer Simpson pontificating on the Corleones and what they've meant to all of us. An absolute must for all cinephiles is "Emulsional Rescue," wherein Robert Harris discusses the restoration of the films. "When the Shooting Stopped" focuses on such post-production efforts as underscoring. "The Godfather on the Red Carpet" is a pretty pointless piece where Cloverfield stars are asked to comment on the film. Don't ask me. Another fun item is "Four Short Films on The Godfather," little riffs on various elements found in the various films. Bringing up the rear are a Crime Organizational Chart, showing the rap sheets of various characters, and Connie and Carlo's Wedding Album.
Finally there's a 12 page color booklet glued to the back cover of the outer box filled with credits for each film and some Oscar information. I personally would have preferred the booklet to be inside the box--it's slightly too big to fit in, and there's no way it's going to remain undamaged on the outside where it is.