Monday, January 05, 2009

A Fresh Look at The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola's newly restored version of The Godfather and the Godfather, Part II have just been released on Blu-ray and DVD. The director oversaw a frame-by-frame restoration of his films' original negatives, which were in pretty rough shape. The result is a fresh new look at the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis and a pair of classic films that haven't looked this good since they first played in theatres more than thirty years ago. As Fred Kaplan wrote at
The original DVD box set, released by Paramount in 2001, was a huge disappointment. Dark scenes were murky, bright scenes were washed out, and several shots were marred by the video equivalent of pops, ticks, and static. For instance, in Part II's opening close-up of Al Pacino standing in his darkened office, it looked as though mosquitoes were swarming down his face. Paramount's executives were loath to admit it at the time, but the problem was that the original negatives for both films were in terrible condition, the result of studio neglect and technical mishaps in an era before film preservation became a concern, then a cause.

One of the leading centers for that cause is here in Rochester, at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. It's the home to one of only four film conservation centers in the United States, and to the first school of film preservation in the United States. I went there Sunday for a special screening of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and it was a great treat to see the two films back-to-back on the big screen.

Separately and collectively, these two films are almost universally regarded as among the greatest films ever made. The first film, released in 1972, ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the top movies of all-time. Part II ranked #32. The films are ranked #2 and #3 by users of the Internet Movie Database on their list of the top films of all-time.

Why are these great films? I think the main reason is their timeless story about how power corrupts people, and how the lust for power can become a downward spiral. For Michael Corleone, power is not a tool to be used for some other purpose, it is his main pursuit. He is driven by a relentless desire to extend his power and tormented by the fruitless effort to retain it. All of his efforts are in vain. He sees himself as a creator and protector, but he destroys everything he comes in contact with, including those closest to him, and eventually even himself. It's a compelling lesson made more powerful by the backstory provided in the second film, a series of flashbacks to young Vito Corleone from his youth in Italy to his re-birth as a powerful figure in New York city's immigrant neighborhoods.

As the restoration makes clear, the cinematography in this film is also a major reason why this film remains so popular. It's full of memorable imagery. The Godfather opens with a tight closeup of Bonasera who begins with the simple declaration, "I believe in America." As he continues to tell his story, the camera slowly pulls back. It's a long zoom shot that lasts for three minutes, gradually revelaing the room in which the scene takes place. The use of color and light, particularly in the second film, adds another layer of storytelling. It's quite simply a wonderful film to look at.

Part of The Godfather's enduring popularity owes to the tremendous performances by veteran actors, most notably Marlon Brando, Lee Strasberg, and Sterling Hayden. There are remarkable appearances by some great character actors, including Abe Vigoda, G.D. Spradlin, Troy Donahue, Dominic Chianese. Alex Rocco, Bruno Kirby, and John Cazale.

But more than anything, the Godfather buzzes with the energy of its younger cast members, an astonishing collection of talent unmatched in the history of the cinema. The stars of the films were a group of six relatively unheralded actors:Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert DeNiro, Talia Shire, and Diane Keaton. Duvall was 41 when the film debuted; the other five ranged in age from 26 to 32. None had yet been nominated for an Oscar, but each of them would receive the honor for their work on the Godfather films, and as a group they would go on to earn 27 nominations in their careers.

Coppola had already won on Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Patton (1970), and he won Best Director Oscars for both Godfather films. He would receive 14 total nominations over the next 25 years.

There is a lot of testosterone on screen in the Godfather films, but most reviewers have overlooked the pivotal performance of the two female leads, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire. Each is repulsed by Michael's corruption, but respond to it differently. Keaton plays Kay, the young school teacher who opens the film as Michael's girlfriend. She's frustrated by the way that the circumstances of Michael's life keep them from being together, but she seems to understand and accept Michael's loyalty to his family. When Michael proposes marriage to her, he insists that he's not going to end up like his father.
Michael: I'm working for my father now. He's been sick, very sick.

: But you're not like him, Michael. I thought you weren't going to become a man like your father. That's what you told me.

: My father's no different than any other powerful man, [Kay laughs] any man who's responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.

: You know how naive you sound?

: Why?

: Senators and presidents don't have men killed.

: Oh, who's being naive, Kay? Kay, my father's way of doing things is over, it's finished. Even he knows that. I mean in five years, the Corleone Family is going to be completely legitimate. Trust me.

But of course, Michael's efforts to become "legitimate" prove impossible, and Kay realizes that in the final shot of the the first film. Michael's sister Connie (played by Talia Shire) accuses him of arranging the murder of her husband, which he cooly denies. As viewers, we know that Connie suspicions are right on the money. Kay asks him about this, and he repeats his denial, and for a moment, we see her relief. But a moment later, Michael's new caporegimes enter to pay their respects, and as they close the door, Kay realizes the truth about what her husband has become.

She sticks with him at the start of the second film, despite an assassaination attempt at their house, when someone opens fire on their bedroom. She's faithfully at his side as he's called before Congress to testify about his role as a leading organized crime figure. And she's dutifully submissive when she's confined to the grounds of the family home while he was away on business.

But eventually Kay has enough, and can no longer stand by and support Michael in a life that she can't defend. She tries to take the children and leave, but Michael stops her. He can't see that she's fed up with the lies, the hypcorisy, and the descent into immorality. He thinks she's simply upset because she'd recently suffered a miscarriage.
Kay: Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy and evil. I didn't want your son, Michael! I wouldn't bring another one of you sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it's over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael... no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that's been going on for 2,000 years.

Kay leaves but the children stay, and Connie helps her to sneak in to visit them while Michael is away. When Michael discovers Kay during a secret visit, he doesn't express any anger. He simply and silently closes the door in Kay's face, an echo to the final shot of the first film.

Shire's performance as Connie is also powerful. She is alternately defiant and submissive. Connie
stands up to her husband Carlo in the face of his infidelity, but endures his wrath and his physical abuse, and defends him from her brother Sonny's retaliation.

What options does she have? As a young woman in the 1940s, that's about the only choice available to her. Her brothers inherit some measure of power as their birth right, simply because they are sons of Don Corleone. The daughter doesn't get that. Her husband gets a job in the family business as a courtesy, but Connie isn't even allowed into the outer circle. When the brother's discuss how to retaliate for the attack on her father, she's not invited to the room. She has no role in that aspect of family life because of her gender.

After enduring a beating from Carlo, Connie calls her brother Sonny, sobbing. Sonny finds Carlo on a street corner and beats him savagely, warning him, "if you touch my sister again I'll kill ya." In retaliation, Carlo helps the rival Barzini family arrange Sonny's murder. Michael discovers this, but bides his time. After his father has died, and with the rest of the family out of town, he has Carlo murdered. Connie returns and angrily confronts him.

Connie: Michael! You lousy bastard -- you killed my husband! You waited until Papa died so nobody could stop you, and then you killed him. You blamed him for Sonny -- you always did. Everybody did. But you never thought about me -- you never gave a damn about me. Now what am I going to do?

Kay: (puts her arms around Connie, trying to comfort her) Connie...

Connie: Why do you think he kept Carlo at the Mall? All the time he knew he was gonna kill him. (then, to Michael) And you stood Godfather to our baby -- you lousy cold-hearted bastard. Want to know how many men he had killed with Carlo? Read the papers -- read the papers! (she picks up and slams down a newspaper) That's your husband! That's your husband!

She's right, of course but Michael dismisses her, He tells the others in the room that she's hysterical, that they should take her upstairs and get her a doctor.

At the beginning of the second film, we learn that Connie's rage over her husband's murder has caused her to abandon her family completely. She has drifted through a series of marriages and engagements, and seems to have abandoned her children. But after the death of her mother, she straightens up, and seizes the opportunity to become the new matriarch of the family. At the funeral she tells him:

Connie: Michael, I hated you for so many years. I think that I did things to myself, to hurt myself so that you'd know - that I could hurt you. You were just being strong for all of us the way Papa was. And I forgive you. ... You need me, Michael. I want to take care of you now."

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote: "There is little room for women in The Godfather." I don't think that's the right way to look at the movie at all. The women are the key to the story arc, serving as the barometers for a man who is otherwise without limits or boundaries. Because they can not be tempted by the lure of power, they can stand back and look at what unfolds objectively. There may be no role for women in the Godfather's world, but they play a pivotal role in this film.