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The Godfather

The Godfather
1972 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 175 min. / Street Date May 11, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Rudy Bond, Al Martino
Cinematography Gordon Willis
Production Designer Dean Tavoularis
Art Direction Warren Clymer
Special Effects Sass Bedig, A.D. Flowers, Joe Lombardi, Paul J. Lombardi
Film Editors William Reynolds, Peter Zinner
Original Music Nino Rota
Written by Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo from his novel
Produced by Albert S. Ruddy
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

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 Love Story.

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 Translation1

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
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

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