What can you say about The Godfather films that haven’t already been said? They have become a part of the cultural fabric with numerous memorable lines and scenes from the three films appearing in countless television shows and films, either reverentially or as some form of parody. This only illustrates how influential Francis Ford Coppola’s films have become over time. But we often forget how much of a gamble making the first film was with an untested director, a veteran actor that the studio considered to be box office poison, and a cast of relative unknowns. The gamble paid off and the film was incredibly successful, spawning two sequels. In the last few years, the first two films have undergone an expensive and painstaking restoration process in an attempt to bring them back to the way they were originally intended to be shown.
“I believe in America,” is the first line spoken in The Godfather (1972) and it is a key piece of dialogue in many ways. The film is one of the great American stories and is also one about family. The man who asks Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) for a favor in the classic opening scene is initially denied because he has shunned “the family” in the past. If he wants this favor done he has to pledge allegiance to the Don. This is the strength of the Corleone family: an infrastructure of people in positions of power and influence who owe them favors.
Trouble arises when the Don turns down an offer from the Turk to deal drugs. He goes to a rival mob family, the Tattaglias, who proceed to put a hit out on the Don. As a result, Michael (Al Pacino), one of the Don’s sons, becomes involved in the family business. This becomes the film’s great tragedy: Michael, who had been allowed to have a normal life outside of the family, is drawn into the business and this ultimately breaks his father’s heart.
The Godfather features an incredible cast with classic Hollywood veterans like Marlon Brando and Sterling Hayden and the new generation of Method actors like Al Pacino and James Caan. Everyone does a fantastic job but it is Pacino who really stands out, delivering a subtle, economic performance. Michael starts the film with a promising, legitimate future and ends it as a ruthless Mafioso Don who brutally and efficiently orchestrates his rise to the head of all of the mob families in New York City.
Fresh from the phenomenal success of the first Godfather film, Coppola followed it with Part II (1974), a sequel that many consider superior to its predecessor. However, over the years the two parts meld together so seamlessly and compliment each other so well that they really feel like one epic film. Of the two movies, Part II is much more ambitious as Coppola weaves two stories together: the rise of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and Michael Corleone’s consolidation of his empire. The film begins in the past as we see Vito as a young boy escaping certain death in Italy to America along with countless immigrants hoping to have a fresh start. It’s the archetypal Horatio Alger story of a boy who starts with nothing to become a powerful crime figure.
Michael is entrenched in Lake Tahoe, Nevada and in league with Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin) who has smoothed things over with the Gaming Commission so that the Corleone family can expand their casino empire in Las Vegas. However, Geary wants a larger cut for his troubles and also makes it known that he doesn’t like Michael’s family. Michael denies him the raise and refuses to pay the gaming license setting the wheels in motion for an inevitable conflict.
To make matters worse, trouble is also brewing with rival Miami gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) that Michael spends most of the film helping plan to put together an immense merger in Cuba that will create several lucrative casinos. This is done in conjunction with several other powerful businessmen that only serves to underline the corporatization of the Mafia and by extension, America. Michael realizes that in order to thrive and survive, he must think like a CEO of a large company.
There are so many classic scenes in this movie but the one that always sticks in my mind is when Michael tells Fredo (John Cazale) that he knows he’s the traitor within the family. He grabs his brother, kisses him and says, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” It’s the kiss of death as Fredo has gone against the family for the last time.
Any vestige of humanity that was in Michael in Part I is absent in Part II as Pacino’s portrayal is that of the calculated head of the Corleone family. His face is a cold, impenetrable mask that gives away nothing. It is like he is dead inside. It’s a tightly controlled, minimalist performance from an actor normally known for his explosive intensity. John Cazale is also excellent as Michael’s traitorous brother, Fredo, tired of being constantly passed over by his ambitious sibling. So, he betrays Michael as retribution and Cazale brilliantly conveys Fredo’s conflicted nature. He’s strictly small-time and his vendetta is so petty. And yet, its ramifications create huge ripples.
Gone is the warm, family vibe of Don Vito and in its place a more business-like way of doing things. Clearly, this transformation is a metaphor the corporatization of America. The important distinction that Coppola draws between Vito and Michael is that the former turns to a life of crime in order to support his family while Michael does it for the power and the money. The Godfather Part II ends on an anti-climatic note as Michael has achieved more power and eliminated all of his enemies but it is a hollow victory because he is dead inside.
Why? This is the question that many people asked themselves before and after seeing Coppola’s third (and hopefully last) installment of The Godfather saga. The first two parts were such perfect meditations on violence and the absolute corrupting effect of money and power on an individual. The way Part II ended was a darkly poetic conclusion that nothing else really needed to be said.
Apparently, Coppola thought otherwise and went back to the well one more time with Part III (1990). The problem is that he waited too long. Too many years had passed and he had changed as a filmmaker. Hollywood had changed and this is reflected in the movie. First and foremost is the casting: Andy Garcia? Bridget Fonda? George Hamilton?! They are fine actors in their own right but are they really acceptable substitutes for the likes of James Caan, John Cazale and Robert Duvall? Granted the first two played characters that died in Parts I and II but the miscasting of these actors speaks volumes of what is wrong with so many films coming out of Hollywood these days. Actors are cast for their marquee value and not because they are necessarily right for the role.
The film opens with a haunting shot of the Corleone’s Lake Tahoe compound. It is empty and desolate, a reflection of Michael’s heart. He is still trying to go legit and hopes to achieve this by being embraced by the Church and by giving generously to several charitable causes and organizations – as if he could buy his way into respectability. Michael is also looking for a successor: his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), a brash hothead just like his father, Sonny Corleone (James Caan). Vincent’s smoldering good looks and dangerous charisma attracts Michael’s daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) and they become romantically involved. Michael also has to watch out for rival gangster, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), who has taken over Michael’s Mafia business and has a beef with Vincent who, in turn, wants to kill Joey and take over.
Much was made at the time of the casting of Sofia Coppola. While she certainly can’t act, she did her best under the circumstances (Winona Ryder dropped out due to illness and Sofia quickly stepped in to help out her old man) and let’s leave it at that. On the plus side, the whole debacle motivated Sofia to find her true vocation behind the camera as a successful director. Andy Garcia pulls off a pale imitation of James Caan’s Sonny. A lot of shouting and shoving guys around does not convey the true menace and toughness that Caan had. This becomes painfully obvious in a scene that Garcia has with Joe Mantegna and Al Pacino, both of whom easily upstage him. Poor Pacino looks lost in this movie. Being the consummate pro that he is, the veteran actor still rises to the challenge and shows the occasional glimmer of brilliance but he really isn’t given much to do as crazy as that sounds.
The Godfather Part III has the feeling of a paycheck movie because it lacks the passion of the first two parts. In the ‘90s, Coppola’s generation of Movie Brats had fallen on hard times. The Godfather Part III was Coppola’s attempt to regain box office clout within Hollywood but instead he was crucified by critics for his troubles.
The new transfers for The Godfather Parts I and II are stunning. It really is like seeing them for the first time. All of the murky, faded colors have been restored to their original glory while still retaining the warmth of the film stock. Gordon Willis’ then-controversial cinematography can finally be seen they way it was intended on these new discs. If you have the original box set, it is worth it to double dip if only for the restoration job on these two films.
Carried over from the original set are all of Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary tracks for the three films. On The Godfather one, he appropriately enough, starts off by talking about the film’s famous opening scene and how it was supposed to start with the wedding but a friend suggested he do something else. Coppola talks about how he organized the elaborate wedding sequence and shot it only 2-3 days! He talks about the pressure he was under by the studio and in read danger of being fired because they didn’t like what he was doing. Coppola points out where certain scenes were shot and points out things like the horse’s head being real. This is pretty solid track that we’ve come to expect from the veteran filmmaker.
Coppola’s contributes another excellent commentary for The Godfather Part II. Initially, he had no interest in doing a sequel and dealing with studio bureaucracy. He suggested Martin Scorsese for the job. The studio balked at this idea and accepted all of Coppola’s terms. The veteran filmmaker talks at length about the development of the Corleone family from Part I. Coppola also touches upon his love of improvisation and how he had the cast rehearse on location in Lake Tahoe. They improvised for a whole day in effort to get into character. Coppola is engaging and very articulate, delivering a top notch track that is well worth a listen for any fan of this movie.
Finally, there is Coppola’s commentary for The Godfather Part III. One of the heated debates the filmmaker had with the studio was over Pacino’s hair. He wanted Michael to look older and like a man in crisis, while the studio didn’t want to mess with Pacino’s distinctive looks. Coppola defends his casting of Sofia and feels that she delivered a “real” performance because she wasn’t an actor. He also addresses the scathing criticism she received as in fact an attack on him. Coppola explains that the film differs from the other Godfather movies because it is about the death of Michael Corleone. This is a solid track with good observations and analysis by Coppola — better than the film itself.
The rest of the supplemental material is spread out of two discs. Thankfully for those who did not buy the first box set all of the extras from it have been carried over with a whole other disc of brand new material.
The fourth disc features all the brand new material and starts off with “Godfather World,” which takes a look at how The Godfather films influenced popular culture, including parodies on The Simpsons and South Park and how it informed the characters on The Sopranos. All kinds of celebrities, from William Friedkin and Alec Baldwin to author Sarah Vowell who sing its praises with clips of shows and films that reference it.
“The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t” tells the story of how Hollywood had changed at the end of the 1960s with the demise of the studio moguls and the rise of the film brats, the first generation of film students who became filmmakers. One of them, Coppola, ended up being picked to direct The Godfather. This is an excellent look at how the director almost didn’t get the gig and why.
“...When the Shooting Stopped” examines the post-production phase of the first film. Coppola battled with the studio over the length of it. Executives initially did not like Nino Rota’s score for the film and samples of some of his original and revised cues are played.
“Emulsional Rescue: Revealing The Godfather” takes a look at the newly restored transfers for Part I and II and how they preserve Gordon Willis’ gorgeous cinematography. This featurette takes us through the restoration process, showing before and after examples.
“The Godfather on the Red Carpet” is a forgettable featurette shot during the premiere of Cloverfield (2008) with various minor celebrities gush about the films.
“Four Short Films on The Godfather” features celebs citing which one they prefer, Part I or II. Another one has Richard Belzer, and the man who adapted the films for the stage, quote their favourite lines, which turns out to be quite funny. The third one sees Coppola talk about his love of cannoli and how made it into the film. Finally, Coppola answers the question about what happened to Clemenza in Part II and why he died.
The fifth disc starts off with “A Look Inside,” a feature-length documentary about The Godfather trilogy done when Part III was being made. As a result, a lot of the major players were interviewed. We see Coppola at work on this film with on-set footage of the director working with Pacino. We also see Coppola working on the script with author Mario Puzo. The doc then goes back to the first film with Coppola’s battle with the studio over casting Brando, Pacino, et al. with fascinating vintage screen tests and rehearsal footage. This is an excellent extra that goes into great detail.
“On Location” revisits key locations in the lower east side of New York where they shot parts of all three films and how they transformed them into various historical periods.
“Francis Coppola’s Notebook” examines how he adapted Puzo’s book into the first film. Coppola shows us his notebook that he used as his master document that he would constantly refer to. This featurette provides fascinating insight into the man’s creative process.
“Music of The Godfather” features an audio excerpt of a conversation Coppola had with composer Nino Rota about the music for the film. Also included is footage of composer Carmine Coppola (Francis’ father) working on Part III. Francis talks about working with his father.
“Coppola and Puzo on Screenwriting” features the author talking about the origins of his novel while Coppola discusses adapting it with Puzo into the films.
“Gordon Willis on Cinematography” features the man talking his approach to the look of the film and the choices he made and why.
“Storyboards – Godfather Part II and Part III” allows you to see sketches for the look of both films and see how Coppola planned to shoot them.
“The Godfather: Behind the Scenes 1971” is a vintage promotional featurette done at the time of the production of the first film. This is a fantastic snapshot of the times.
“The Filmmakers” are text biographies of key crew members.
Also included are 30 additional scenes from the four eras, spanning the entire trilogy. Much of this footage was inserted into the first two films when they were shown on television.
“The Family” gives you a handy organization chart for the Corleone family. You can see who everyone is and how they are related.
Finally, there are “Galleries” with trailers for all three films, stills, a collection of portraits of enemies of the Corleone family, and footage of the Academy Awards wins for the first two Godfather films.