Friday, October 21, 2011

Classic Movie Review: The Godfather (Special 200th Posted Review Edition)

This reviews marks the 200th full length movie review I've posted to this blog since I began it in April 2010. When I hit my 100th earlier this year, I marked the occasion with a review for Pulp Fiction, followed by a scene-by-scene analysis of the film. Starting next week, I will begin posting a similar analysis for The Godfather.

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is regarded as such an important cinematic classic that it’s easy to forget what a bold undertaking it was and how unconventional Coppola decided to make it. Here is  adramatic and violent story, epic in scope, that begins with a thirty minute wedding celebration that has very little plot advancement, no action, and introduces about twenty key characters. The payoff comes later when we feel like we know these people like our own family.

I had the great pleasure of seeing The Godfather in the cinema for its 25th anniversary re-release. Up to that point I’d seen the film a few times, but I was never as mesmerized as I was that day. I’m interested to know what it was like to see it in 1972. What did people think as Vito, Sonny, Michael, Kay, Fredo, Tessio, Clemenza, and all the others are presented, sometimes for fleeting moments in those opening moments? The plot is only set up in a cursory way as the Corleone patriarch Vito takes meetings in his darkened study, plotting sinister deeds behind closed doors while hundreds of guests celebrate his daughter Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding in the bright sunshine outside. So much information is thrown at the audience during the opening that I can’t imagine anyone retaining it all the first time. At this point the movie is so ingrained in me that I don’t even think of the actors when I’m watching the movie. When I see Marlon Brando on the screen, I’m thinking about Vito Corleone. I don’t see James Caan. I see Sonny. I was hardly surprised many years ago when Roger Ebert wrote his Great Movie review for this film and noted the same feeling.

The Godfather is pure cinematic brilliance at every possible level. From the marvelous acting in every role right on down to the costume design that helps set Michael and Kay apart as outsiders in the opening wedding. Can we now imagine anyone else in the lead roles? Could anyone but James Caan have captured the explosiveness and exuberance that is Sonny Corleone? It’s as if Marlon Brando was born to play Vito. Who but John Cazale could have made so much of Fredo’s limited role in the first film? He is a natural sad-sack, impotent in the face of assassins after his father and completely lacking in imagination while working under Moe Green in Las Vegas. Robert Duvall is Tom Hagen through and through. And Al Pacino was the great revelation as Michael, the youngest son who was never supposed to get involved in the family business and then dives in head first. The studio famously wanted a known star like Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, or Robert Redford for Michael – all of whom would have been profoundly wrong.

The plot, as it is finally set in motion about 25 minutes in, is mostly about a mafia crime family whose boss wants to hold fast to a proud tradition and refuses to offer protection and investment cash to the other families who are interested in expanding their spheres of influence from gambling and prostitution to include narcotics. Although Vito knows it stands to be a lucrative business venture, he also recognizes the inherent dangers involved and the almost certain possibility that the politicians and police he has in his pocket will distance themselves from him as a result. It is a man named Solozzo who propositions him. Solozzo (Al Lettieri) works for the Tattaglia family and in order for them to continue in their business, Vito has to be removed. And in a famous sequence, Corleone is gunned down on the streets of Little Italy.

The turning point of the film, however, comes later when Michael visits his father in the hospital and discovers that the body guards have been called off. In a first hint of the smarts that will put Michael in power later, he immediately senses something is wrong and he makes all the right decisions to protect Vito. This precisely edited scene in the hospital is both beautiful and sad as Michael tells his father, “I’m with you now.” Are Vito’s tears from joy or sadness?

The story moves in a different direction shortly after this as Michael orchestrates the assassination of Solozzo and a police captain and is forced to flee into hiding in Sicily, leaving behind Kay (Diane Keaton), the woman he loves. The narrative spends a great deal of time in the gorgeous landscapes of the Mediterranean island, with Gordon Willis’s cinematography demonstrating that he can do expansive landscapes as pristinely as he does dimly lit interiors.

The screenplay by Coppola and Puzo distills the sprawling novel to the essential drama that takes place over a roughly five year period beginning in August 1945. Puzo’s novel encompasses Vito’s rise to power in the 1920s, but they wisely left the back story out of the first film. It tightens the focus and allows us to sympathize a great deal with Vito without having to see that he, too, murdered and stole to achieve greatness. Together, they crafted a story that was little more than a lurid pulp novel into a story of great, almost Shakespearean heft with notes of Greek tragedy.

Ultimately The Godfather is a story of a family. More precisely than that, it’s about Vito and Michael. The title readily refers to both men. As a young director, Coppola still had the courage to take the time out to show familial relationships and build characters. One of the family’s caporegimes (a kind of lieutenant), Peter Clemenza played by the great Richard Castellano, takes the time to demonstrate for Michael how to make a proper tomato sauce. In the closing moments, as someone close to the Corleone family is revealed to have betrayed them, Coppola makes the right decision in keeping his murder off screen. We are supposed to feel melancholy at the choices these men make. When you’ve seen the second film (or read the book) and understand the full extent of that man’s history with the Corleone’s, his betrayal is even more profound.

The whole movie is crammed with great scenes. The great director Howard Hawks famously remarked that what constitutes a great movie is three great scenes and no bad ones. By that standard, The Godfather should be held aloft in the stratosphere. There’s not a single bad scene to be spoken of and I could easily rattle off half a dozen great ones: the opening scene with Bonasera asking a favor; the horse head scene; Vito gunned down; Michael saves his father; Michael’s makes his bones; the montage that wraps up the action and the plot intercut with the baptism of a child. It was reportedly Pacino’s performance in the scene where he kills Solozzo that saved him from being cut from the film. All the tension and emotion in that entire scene is written on Pacino’s face – in his expressive eyes, his tightened jaw, his stiff upper body.

What continues to resonate so deeply for me every time I see the film is the power of Nino Rota’s haunting and beautiful score, in particular the main theme. I nearly always have to choke back a lump in my throat when I hear it, especially in the closing moments of the film as Kay looks on as Michael becomes the new Godfather and the door shuts her out. It makes me think of the sadness I feel when, after delivering the story of Luca Brasi holding a gun to a man’s head at Vito’s behest, Michael says to Kay, “That’s my family. It’s not me.” We know what he will become when we hear him say that. We also know that to some extent he falls into power after doing what any son would do to protect his father. After all, Michael is a Corleone. He’s unable to deny that. After all, it’s all in the family.

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