Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Godfather

No director epitomized the rewards and the pitfalls of New Hollywood quite like Francis Ford Coppola. All four of the feature films he made in the '70s -- the first two Godfathers, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now -- are masterpieces. Above his contemporaries -- above Spielberg, Cimino, Lucas, even Scorsese -- he used the freedoms afforded by Hollywood's bizarre social experiment of entrusting young, barely proven talent with heaps of cash to greatest effect, but he also became a symbol of New Hollywood's collapse, one of many directors who never punched through its bloated, distended corpse and continued to make meaningful films (I've got my fingers crossed until I see Tetro, though).

Indeed, The Godfather, Coppola's fifth feature length film after his start working for Roger Corman -- did he just discover everyone? -- in '63, was the film that definitively proved that New Hollywood was a lasting phenomenon after its "official" inception with '67's Bonnie and Clyde. Made with a budget of $6.5 million, not inconsiderate but far from the bank-breaking allotments that would arise in the near future, The Godfather started as an adaptation of Mario Puzo's hit novel, meant to be nothing more than your average gangster picture to cash in on a bestseller. However, with the involvement of Puzo himself and an Italian-American director -- über-producer/coke fiend Robert Evans was sly to insist that an Italian-American helm the picture -- The Godfather became a cornerstone of American cinema and a permanent mainstay on lists of the greatest films ever made.

The Godfather
opens with a wedding and closes with a baptism, normally times of celebration (and both tied to religious ceremony), but they are both undercut with currents of extreme violence. As the iconic first notes of Nino Rota's theme rise over a black frame, we hear a man say, "I believe in America." He continues to speak of the promise America offered to him (and apparently fulfilled), before spinning a tale of his beloved daughter, a beautiful and moral girl beaten to a pulp by a group of boys for refusing to have sex with them. His American dream becomes a nightmare, as social institutions -- the police, the courts -- take no action against the men. We then see (the camera has been gently zooming out from the man, Bonasera, for three minutes before revealing another person) that he's appealing to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), head of the Corleone crime family, for justice. Vito criticizes the man -- whose harmed daughter is the godchild of the don's wife -- for keeping his distance from the family: "You never invite me over for coffee," says Vito, subtly placing himself into the role of a wounded friend, not the fearsome mafioso that intimidates Bonasera. The man makes amends for his lack of hospitality, and Don Corleone agrees to have the boys themselves mangled.

This almost quaint argument about, agreement on and assignment of brutality clashes with the end of the film, which cross-cuts between a baptism and actual glimpses at violence. The Godfather is, at its core, all about the transition from that dialogue-driven, perversely idyllic opening and its bloody finale, not in the sense of moving a narrative from A to B but in its psychological and sociological evolution: more than any film, The Godfather captures the shift between between rustic, ethical "mom and pop" business and growing economic homogenization. You couldn't make a better film about the transition between economic feudalism and mercantile capitalism if you set in in the Industrial Revolution; that Coppola and Puzo frame a commentary on this change around the modulations of organized crime is one of the film's -- and it's sequels' -- countless ironies.

Compared to Part II, The Godfather works in an intimate setting: nearly all of its scenes are set in New York City, headquarters of the Corleone family. The opening wedding brilliantly establishes the world of the gangster with tons of expository dialogue packed into scenes that do not themselves seem plot-heavy. Coppola gives us a clear understanding of this world through the interactions of all the gathered mafiosos, assuming that how they behave in recreation reveals their true nature: wedding photos prove a hassle because everyone there is trained to trace any bulb flash back to its source and destroy the camera; the men are unapologetic in their sexism and patriarchy; and the reverence in which the Italian-Americans treat their Sicilian heritage takes precedence over all else.

Positioned as a symbol of a dying -- literally and figuratively -- way of life, Vito is wisely kept out of frame for the majority of the film, appearing only sporadically after the 20-minute opening to better allow his legend to grow in the minds of the audience. Everyone, including -- especially -- his enemies, speaks of him with a reverence befitting a king, which is certainly what he is, albeit one with visibly human characteristics: Vito built his empire on a river of blood and sand made of crushed bones (Part II fleshes this out in greater detail), but he also adheres strictly to a set of morals, regardless of how skewed and perverse those morals are. Sollozzo, "The Turk" (Al Lettieri, who was related to actual gangsters and invited Brando over for dinner to let him get a feel for the people informing his character) comes to the city looking to push heroin with the support of the Five Families and use of their police and political protection; he promises massive returns on initial investments, and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Vito's consigliere (adviser/lawyer), notes that drugs are the financial future of organized crime, away from the relatively lightweight organization of prostitution and gambling. But Vito declines the offer, believing practically that selling drugs would cost him his political allies and morally that it steps over some line even he isn't willing to cross.

I've said in the past that Brando's performance has been somewhat exaggerated, though I did so in my salad days when my idea of good acting owed directly on the amount of time one occupied on-screen (I still think, though, that he should have been nominated for Support Actor, not lead). Now, I can understand the appeal: with limited screen time, he casts a presence that covers the entire film -- a good contemporary corollary can be seen in Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. Some of his choices are exaggerated, such as stuffing cotton balls in his mouth, but he's as naturalistic and identifiable as ever: he genuinely looks annoyed when someone speaks out of turn, and one can feel his love and gratitude when his beloved Michael visits him in the hospital (after Sollozzo extracts vengeance for his refusal to help) and assures him "I'll take care of you now."

Brando's Vito is literally soft-spoken, a shrewd reader of men whose small-scale aspirations reflect more his narrow narcissism than his sense of ethics. After Sollozzo, with the help of the Tattaglia family, orders the hit on Vito, he impresses upon a kidnapped Tom the need to rub Vito out: "Ten years ago, could I have gotten to him?" he asks to prove his point that Vito is slipping, and indeed the don makes some questionable decisions, such as asking Luca Brasi, a thug so dumb he couldn't even make through a preplanned sentence thanking Don Corleone inviting him to Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding ("I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter... 's wedding") to approach the Tattaglias undercover to spy on them. But these are only outgrowths of his trusting and fatherly nature: in his final scene, he even reveals a certain innocence, chasing his grandson merrily through their miniature orange grove with an orange slice in his mouth to make himself into a jolly old monster before suffering a heart attack and dying, amidst all of the violence, in a moment of peace and happiness. His loving interaction with his grandson reveals a humanity that, by all evidence, is completely absent in his favorite son.

We meet Michael Corleone, as with nearly all the characters, at the wedding at the beginning. A war hero who served valiantly in the Marines in WWII, he returns a legitimate figure in a family that cannot distinguish between family and Family life. Compared to the hot-headed, entitled elder child Sonny (James Caan) and the jealous, soft middle child/black sheep Fredo (John Cazale, criminally underrated in his work across the first two parts of the trilogy), Michael is level-headed and views his father's throne with distaste, not lust. He relates horror stories of his father's "business" dealings to his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), and insists, "That's my family, Kay, not me." Yet we see Michael slowly drawn into the Family, at first reluctantly, then with cold ambition: when he heads to the hospital to protect his father, a crooked cop (Sterling Hayden) attempts to send him home in order to clear a path for rival gangsters to kill Vito and breaks his jaw when Michael calls him on his corruption. The injury puffs out Mikey's cheek and gives him a bit of a lisp, allowing him to physically resemble his father before he begins to truly work in the family business.

He kills the police captain and Sollozzo and hides out in Sicily for the heat to dissipate, and there he meets Appolonia, a vision of classical beauty. The two marry, and Michael appears genuinely happy, until his bodyguard betrays him and unwittingly kills Appolonia with a car bomb. So, Mike returns home again, this time cold and distrustful of everyone except his family. He marries Kay, as she's the only person he knows would not hurt him, and promises to make the Corleone family legitimate within five years. Away from her, however, he proves to be more ambitious, and more ruthless, than his father ever was. He plans to acquire a casino and hotel in Vegas, a starter kit for the expansion of the family's empire, and plots to tie up all the loose ends of those who betrayed the family, right down to Connie's abusive, jealous husband Carlo. That final montage, an ironic juxtaposition between the baptism of Michael's nephew and godchild, in which the priest asks him "Do you renounce Satan?" as his minions execute the heads of all the rival families and the dissidents within his own, shows Michael capable of decisions that his pragmatic, ethical father would never make, a thread Puzo and Coppola would explore fully in the sequel.

If, by current count, I've only devoted 1713 words thus far to what many believe to be the greatest film ever made, it's because it was not my intention to watch this today: I'm still trying to finalize a list of the best films of the decade and to catch up with as many '09 films as possible before I finalize my list of the films of the year sometime in January (as I have to wait longer than the critics to see most of the potential heavy-hitters, there's no point in putting one out before I see and gauge them). But I received the remastered and restored trilogy on Blu-Ray for Christmas, and -- with my Band of Brothers Blu-Ray set missing a disc and my complete series of The Shield scratched all to hell from its terrible packaging, I had little else new to watch; I'm expecting replacements for both -- I decided to pop in the first film to compare its look to my old DVD set. That I emerged bleary-eyed three hours later restraining myself from calling friends and interrupting their shopping sprees or days of rest to badger them about the staggering beauty of its restoration is as ringing an endorsement as I can provide.

The prints of Parts I and II were so damaged with time and poor preservation that Robert A. Harris, head of the restoration project, had to work on them digitally because they could not be read by an analog machine; not helping the matter was cinematographer Gordon Willis' decision to make the prints as tamper-proof as possible. Harris worked with Willis, and the result is perhaps the closest we'll ever come to seeing the film as it was as a pristine 35mm print in '72 (though even the filmmakers admit they no longer remember what it looked like originally and that their color correction may or may not be entirely accurate). Even if it does change the color tinting slightly, the change in picture quality is more plainly seen in its striking clarity: The Godfather trilogy is filmed in amber hues and blacks, but this looks like the film was printed onto actual gold. I would not hesitate to call it one of those films one should buy a Blu-Ray player simply to own, alongside Baraka and perhaps Blade Runner (having seen the latter in all three formats -- DVD, HD-DVD and BD --- I don't think the leap between standard and high definition is as jaw-dropping as the other two, though it's still mesmerizing in and of itself).

But back to the film itself. I've withheld some points of discussion to save for a review of Part II, which will almost certainly be longer because A) I wrote a paper on it (and Chinatown) for a college course and therefore have an existing basis of argument that I can take from the comparative essay and B) it is my preferred installment of the series. Some of the my notes, actually, remark on scenes pointing to the next film, such as Don Tommasino lamenting to Michael (ironically) that kids don't exhibit the respect they used to and that "times are changing for the worse," as well as the scene in which Michael heads to Vegas to check on Fredo's progress with schmoozing the casino owners, only to find that his older but less mature brother has spent his time partying and carousing rather than establishing business ties: Fredo even defends his new "friends" against Michael when the new don speaks of buying out Moe Greene, owner of the hotel and casino Mike desires. This prompts Michael to tell his brother, "Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again," a grim foreshadowing of the next film but also a reflection of an earlier exchange between Vito and Sonny, wherein Vito chided his son for speaking out of turn; Vito's chastisement was swift and forceful, but softened by the dynamic between father and son, a dynamic that doesn't exist in Michael's murderous utterance to his brother. Already we see his icy inhumanity, before he fully assumes the role of godfather at the end of the film, closing the door on Kay (who realizes that he really did order the death of Connie's husband and that Michael isn't going to pull the Corleones out of crime) and, with her, the last vestiges of whatever made Michael the kind and legal member of the family.

As I am busy with my aforementioned catch-ups, I likely won't return to review the rest of the Godfather series, which first expanded its themes of the coldness of modernization on a national level, then finally an international one, for a while, at least until mid-January. Until then, I urge all those with Blu-Ray players who do not own this set to purchase it, and I thank all of you for reading. And may your first child be a masculine child.


  1. Holy hell - this might be the best bit of writing on THE GODFATHER that I've ever read. Kudos!

    I've long had a theory though, and I wonder what you think of it. I believe that if there were such things as screener dvd's back in 1972, THE GODFATHER doesn't win Best Picture - CABARET does.

    Consider the advantage GODFATHER's lyric visuals get from a darkened theatre and a big screen, and the fact that CABARET took the most awards overall that year.

  2. Yeah, the system of staggering all releases before Jaws opened up saturation booking really helped the "right" films usually win. Now, Academy voters use screeners because every shitting piece of awards bait is released within a span of two weeks and even a couch potato like me couldn't stand to spend that much time in a theater in so short a span, much less a celebrity who at the very least has a social life.