Monday, October 24, 2011

The Godfather Film Analysis: Introduction

This is the first introduction to a complete film analysis of The Godfather from 1972. It is still a work in progress and I hope to get it completed with all parts posted by the end of November. This is not meant as a full academic study, but the beginnings of exploring how sequencing, lighting, shot composition and music contribute to cinematic storytelling in great movies.

Unfortunately I am too young to have had the opportunity to see The Godfather when it first opened in 1972. I can recall seeing it in bits and pieces throughout my childhood on television, cable and probably on video. Certain images resonated and stuck in my mind: the garroting of Carlo and his kicking out the windshield; Sonny’s violent death at the tollbooth; Sonny’s beating of Carlo on the street; Jack Woltz waking to find himself covered in blood and the head of his prized racehorse under the sheets; Michael’s killing of McCluskey and Sollozzo; the final montage of the baptism inter-cut with the killings of the heads of the five families. It is certainly no coincidence that the most violent scenes are what stayed with me all my life. I never had any awareness of the plot of the film until I watched the film in its entirety sometime when I was a teenager.

However, the most significant viewing I had of the film was its 25th anniversary re-release in 1997. I recall making a special trip with two friends to see it in Manhattan one afternoon. That was probably the first time I really understood the film and paid careful attention to the nuances of the plot. Until that moment, the film was merely a cinematic icon, an object from which I could not divorce all the history and baggage that comes with it. It was very difficult to watch it without thinking about the awards it had won, its status as an American cinematic masterpiece and that it’s considered one of the finest films ever made. The more I watch it now, the easier it is to set all that aside. In fact, although Marlon Brando already was and Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall now are big stars I don’t see the actors when I watch the film – I see only the characters. Roger Ebert noted the same experience at the 1997 re-release: “Familiar as I am with Robert Duvall, when he first appeared on the screen I found myself thinking, ‘There's Tom Hagen.’”[i] Maybe this effect is a result of becoming completely enveloped by the world and intrigue of the Corleone family.

One of the remarkable things about the making of the film is that it very nearly ended in disaster. Paramount had hired Coppola, a young (31 at the time), mostly untested director whom they probably thought they could push around. According to Francis Coppola’s DVD commentary track[ii], the executives, in their desire to keep the budget to a minimum, didn’t want the film to be a period picture. They wanted to transfer Mario Puzo’s period novel to the present day. Coppola knew it could not possibly work as effectively and got his way. Coppola’s casting choices were also wildly unpopular with the studio. For the part of Michael the producers wanted a recognizable star on the order of Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford. Coppola knew all along that it had to be Al Pacino and in the end, he won. One of the biggest sticking points for the studio was the casting of Marlon Brando. At first they insisted that Brando screen test for the part and that he receive almost no compensation. Coppola went to Brando to shoot a “make-up test.” In this meeting, Brando had already begun to develop the character including his signature look of slicked-back hair, puffy jowls and his distinctive voice. When the Paramount executives saw this they changed their minds.

The friction between director and producers did not end before shooting began. In the first week, the executives reportedly were very unhappy with the lighting (too dark), Brando (unintelligible) and Pacino (poor performance). The scene in which Michael guns down Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo was shot at the end of the first week. With that virtuoso performance of Pacino’s the executives relented. But still the strife did not end. Coppola began to suspect he was on the brink of being fired and so he preemptively fired four members of his crew whom he suspected of voicing their disapproval with him to the studio. This ended up throwing things into upheaval, he was able to re-shoot a scene they were unhappy with and kept his job. Meanwhile, there was usually a second director on set ready to take over if the studio needed to fire Coppola on a moment’s notice. They threatened to bring in an action director at one point because they felt there wasn’t enough violence. The knowledge of this possibility led to the scene in which Connie smashes everything in her house while Carlo attacks her with a belt. Ironically enough, it’s quite possible the film would not have turned out as good as it is had the studio left Coppola alone. The stress he felt probably contributed to the creation of a story fraught with tension.

[i] Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 1997.
[ii] The Godfather DVD Collection, Paramount Pictures, 2001.

Part I: "I believe in America."
Part II: "No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter's wedding day."
Part III: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
Part IV: "He never asks a second favor when he's been refused the first."
Part V: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."
Part VI: "If I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead already."
Part VII: "And don't lose that famous temper of yours, huh Sonny?"
Part VIII: "I'm a business man. Blood is a big expense."
Part IX: "It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."
Part X: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
Part XI: "Oh, Paulie. Won't see him no more."
Part XII: "I don't want you to get involved."
Part XIII: "I'm with you now."
Part XIV: "Looks like a fortress around here."
Part XV: "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."
Part XVI: "We was all proud of you being a hero and all. Your father too."
Part XVII: "I don't want my brother coming outta that toilet with just his dick in his hand."
Part XVIII: "We going to Jersey?"
Part XIX: "I have to go to the bathroom. Is that all right?"
Part XXI: "Where's Michael?"
Part XXII: "We don't discuss business at the table."
Part XXIII: "I think you got hit by the thunderbolt."
Part XXIV: "You touch my sister again, I'll kill you."
...and more to follow.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for posting the best collection of stills I've ever seen from the film. I look forward to reading your analyses.