THE GODFATHER Blu-ray Review

     September 27, 2008

Written by Andre Dellamorte

It begins with Vito Corleone (as played by Robert De Niro) stalking Fanucci on rooftops. Fanucci is looking at the parade and a fair down below after Don Vito gave him $100. Fannuci is hoping to chisel on Vito and his friends – including a young Clemenza (played here by Bruno Kirby) – by getting $300, but Vito says he will “make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Earlier we see Frankie Pentagali (Michael V. Gazzo) get $100 before the Rosato brothers try to strangle him. I don’t know if this was a sign in the mob, but it’s interesting how Coppola repeats the gesture. Vito is on the roof. He stalks his prey. It’s great to watch Mean Streets in close succession with De Niro’s work in Part II. Johnny Boy in Streets is all manic energy. He’s highly combustible. De Niro here does so much with stillness and agility. The contrast of those two performances is enough to make me feel comfortable suggesting that De Niro is one of the finest film actors of his or any generation – but it’s not like anyone would argue against me. The movement is from right to left. That’s interesting in and of itself; it’s counter-intuitive to the eye (at least westerner eyes) as we read left to right. Such, by design, heightens tension. The parade makes its way from left to right.

Fanucci makes his way to his apartment, but Vito beats him there, and unscrews a light bulb just so, making the hallway dark. He waits with his gun muzzled by a towel. Fanucci makes his way up the stairs (it’s all music by the way, the choreography is insanely delicious, and the composition matches), but slowly. Outside, a prayer is given as a drum beat begins. Cross cutting between the religious service, Vito preparing to kill, and Fanucci climbing the stairs occurs. The rhythms heighten, while Fanucci is framed off center, partly out of frame, and panting. He notices the light bulb. The tension is drawn out. He flicks it, it turns off and on, and highlights the presence of Vito. Vito walks up, Fanucci turns around and asks what he has, and then Vito stomps right before he shoots. He shoots once, and Fancuci tears at his clothes. Then he shoots Fanucci in the head and his towel catches fire. This time, watching it this time of so many times, it’s the stomp he makes – like a toreador, like a dancer – that makes this sequence for me. My heart has fluttered when the towel has caught fire, but there’s something about this sequence – in the middle of what must be the greatest American sequel in cinema history – that is touched by the cinema gods. It could be my favorite piece of cinema ever.

But it’s easy to cast off superlatives like so much clothes when one is propositioned by these films. The first two films in Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy, his magnum gangster opus are beyond great. They are – as the supplements suggest – part of the very fabric of American living. The Sopranos would not only not exist without the show, but The Sopranos themselves pay reference to it throughout the series because these are characters who wouldn’t exist without having absorbed these movies. There’s so much of these films that have become a part of the pop consciousness, that – as Trey Parker notes – people know things, great details about these movies without even having had seen them.

My other favorite part of Part II is when Kay (Diane Keaton) tells Michael (Al Pacino) she’s had an abortion (just like their marriage is an abortion, which stalwart Glenn Kenny suggested is one of the worst lines in the film, though it never bothered me as Kay’s just hammering home what she did), and Michael launches at her. It’s the greatest slap in cinema history.

What I love most about the first film, among many things, is how completely Marlon Brando disappears into Don Vito. His performance is such that I never connect it with his work for Elia Kazan, Bernardo Bertolucci, or the jolly fat man he became in the last years of his life. Don Vito is such a complete character, it seems separate from anything acting has produced since, because it’s not even so much a make-up as a complete reconfiguration of being. I’m always in awe of the performance, and it’s partly the cinematography that makes it so indelible. His eyes are hidden, encrusted. It helps.

One of the supplements talks about Gordon Willis’s lighting. I just saw a Budd Boetticher western and one of the notable things about it was how bright a nighttime scene was. It strikes that what is said in the supplements is inarguable: Willis changed the lighting scheme for movies, because until that point, going too black meant that people had to squint in the drive-in’s. But Gordon’s yellow-tint created the right sense of nostalgia, the sense of a past recently over, but still in the brain pan as the sepia tones of memory.

One of the great things about both films is the sense of pacing. It’s leisurely. It’s masterful. It’s about details. It’s about the minutia. It’s about the wooden bumpers on Clemenza’s car, the directions for cooking, the throwing of sandwiches at a wedding, the detour into Hollywood to highlight how powerful Don Vito can be.

Al Pacino is ingenious in these films, it should be noted. It’s easy to focus on the two scenes where he finally comes into action and decides his fate. When he notices that his hands are steady at the hospital, and the sound of the L train leading him to shoot Al Neri and Officer McClusky. The film is made by his journey to Italy, and his life destroyed for a third time by her passing. Then in the second film, sinking into oblivion, it wouldn’t seem like much of an arc, but it’s about just settling into immolation.

These films are America.

The third film is both worse and better than you can imagine. The problem is that Sofia Coppola feels completely unnatural. There’s an opening sequence where she steals a puff of a cigarette. She can’t play it. She’s all bad angles on screen, and it’s unfortunate. You feel sorry for her, but a choice was made by knowing parties. The bigger problem is Andy Garcia’s tone deaf and over the top performance. It’s really terrible, and it’s partly the character’s fault. At this point Coppola’s career was so damaged that this film was a saving throw, and it was partly based on compromise. And so setting up the idea of an heir was necessary, and Garcia (Paramount’s golden boy at the time), was likely the biggest compromise of them all.

Another compromise was – as the story is to be believed – Coppola could only afford Keaton or Robert Duvall for a return of Tom Hagen, and so Hagen died off screen. It couldn’t have been a worse choice, and the opening sequence of the film really does have the worst line in the entire franchise (and its such a trailer line) “now that you’re legitimate, Michael, you’re more terrifying than ever.” This would have worked if Pacino’s Michael had any malice in him at that point, but he’s got a shitty haircut and is all smiles. That’s the biggest problem with the movie, at least one of three, that Michael became such a surrogate for Coppola, that he let himself feel sympathy for the man to the point of destroying his character. He’s a puss from frame one, and so the loss or change, or whatever, everything that’s interesting happens off screen, and there’s no sense that the grief or whatever has built since the last film. It’s a film curiously adrift, but one that comes alive from time to time, especially in a mostly silent thirty minute sequence when all the deaths are staged to opera. But it’s a mess.

Paramount’s restoration is – for the first two films – a stunner. Some might complain that these don’t look like modern films. As they shouldn’t. They reflect the filmmakers intentions, and for that, that is everything. Blacks are richer, the grain is as intended, the brownish yellow tones look as if they came straight from memory. The films come in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and in their original mono tracks, and a True HD 5.1 surround, excepting the more modern Part III, which just comes in True HD.The soundtracks have been well looked after as well, and though I respect going pure, the surround versions of the film are mostly for ambience, and never are the rears “sold” as it were.

The three films come with only one supplement on each disc, and its Francis Ford Coppola’s commentaries from the previous DVD release. It’s a master class in filmmaking, and the pressures put on filmmakers. Coppola is still bitter about some of the decisions, and its great to hear him twist the knife in the backs of some people, in the nicest way possible. Robert Evans has long told of how Coppola cut the good stuff out of the movie when he delivered it, while when Francis tells his version, he intentionally did so, so they would see how bad it was if it didn’t run at the right time. He also talks about firing people just to hold on to his job. This may make the commentary track for the second film the best in that he spends less time talking about the infighting that plagued the first and third film.

The supplements are reserved for a jam packed fourth disc. “The Masterpiece that Almost Wasn’t” (29 min.) covers the making of, and features fans talking about the films, with Robert Evans, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Walter Murch, and Coppola himself talking about. “Godfather World” focuses on the impact with comments from Trey Parker, Guillermo Del Toro, Kimberly Pierce, William Friedkin, Alec Baldwin, Joe Mantegna, Richard Belzer and David Chase adding comments. “Emulsion Rescue: Revealing The Godfather” (19 min.) talks to Gordon Willis and Robert A. Harris about the restoration process, and how certain things are now as they should have been all along. It’s hard not to be bowled over. “…And When the Shooting Stopped” (14 min.) gives credit to the post production crew, and goes more into the tempestuous relationship the studio had with its director. There’s four short films on the Godfather (running a collected 7 min.), which go into people comparing the first to the second, author Sarah Vowell talking about the line “leave the gun, take the canolli,” the absence of Clemenza from the second film, and one huge fan, who’s able to do any line from the movie by memory. There’s also red carpet footage from Cloverfield (4 min.), where the people there are asked about the film. Screenwriter Drew Goddard comes off best, but it does point out that people at random have opinions on these films. Also new are a Family tree (with an Easter egg) and a crime Family chart. And a new easter egg or two.

But that’s not all. Included with the Blu-Ray are all the supplements from the previous box set, including an hour of deleted footage from the three films, an over hour long behind the scenes from Godfather Part III’s release (and one of the rare glimpses of the cast talking about the film, footage about the music, and the makers at great length, storyboards, awards show footage, more Easter eggs, and still galleries. Shit’s packed. And this is, without question, the Blu-ray event of the year.

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