Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather (1972)
Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Richard Castellano, Talia Shire, Al Lettieri, Sterling Hayden, John Marley
I'm not going to try and be original when it comes to The Godfather. A film that has been analysed, researched, quoted and reviewed a million times, where every guy that's into film is well aware that it simply is one of the greatest achievements of American cinema. Everything clicked in that first film, it was like a perfectly solved puzzle, guided by Francis Ford Coppola's safe hand. It is interesting to take a look at the supplements that are included in the new Coppola Restoration package; the making of the first film was plagued with plenty of highly controversial and almost illfated studio tactics – not as bad as the aforementioned making of Apocalypse Now, Coppola's other masterpiece, but still... to find out that Coppola was followed all the time by his possible replacement on the set who would have taken over as soon as the studio spies recognized a single mistake of his, to know that Al Pacino, easily in one of the greatest acting transformations in the history of cinema, was an hour close to getting fired as well, because the studio was always sceptic at his choice (the famous actor was not well-known at the time, Paramount wanted a more „photogenic“ actor like Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal... ugh), to know that the studio's representatives were disgusted by Coppola's proposal that Marlon Brando should take the title role, stating personal reasons as the main motive. Brando was never popular among the studio bigshots; Paramount executives stated that he would never get this role, which is probably his most legendary performance, that gave him his second Oscar, which he controversially refused, sending an Indian female activist to the ceremony to refuse the reward, where she read a speech that flamed the Hollywood system which at the time belittled Native Americans in all those westerns. Brando didn't even bother to show up. All this is another proof where you rarely make a masterpiece where everything goes beautifully well – maybe we should thank all those bloody suits for giving Coppola the energy and the audacity to come up with something like this.
With The Godfather, it's all about the performances. Should we begin with Brando's unforgettable turn as Don Vito Corleone, that is unique, immensely fun and heart-breaking at the same time? That was one of Coppola's biggest advantages – to make a larger-than-life mobster so amazingly sympathetic that the viewer can easily connect with this person. Coppola himself said that he wasn't making a gangster film, but a film about the rise and fall of a family. Who could disagree with one of many legendary lines from Vito when he states that any man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man? All these characters are stunningly layered and three-dimensional, that you will be surprised when you start to sympathize with them.
Nothing is more true in that aspect than James Caan's energetic and hilariously over-the-top (this time in a good way) performance as the wild-tempered son. Santino Corleone is a violent, aggressive prick who orders a hit without taking any consideration, openly cheats on his wife and doesn't have any sense of control, but Caan's performance, especially in those small moments where you can see the feeling of respect and protectiveness he has for his family (especially his sister), turns him into a character you actually root for. And the fact that he is easily the „coolest“ character in the saga.
Robert Duvall has the ungrateful role of the subtle and not too flashy character of Tom Hagen. His performance is just as good as the others, as a person who stays in the background, but has the difficult task of consulting and keeping things steady in a mob war that's going on. Duvall does an admirable job in creating a character that is perhaps the most harmless member of the family, giving him the necessary charisma and a sense of realism in a world full of bigshot characters, like Richard Castellano's great Clemenza („Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.“), or Al Letteiri's extremely genuine and menacing depiction of one of prinicipal antagonists in the film, Virgil Sollozzo.
Still, despite all these, for me is The Godfather saga all about Al Pacino's performance as Michael Corleone. Pacino has surely made dozens of roles that make him the legend that he is, but in my opinion, he never matched this performance. All those Pacino fans that criticize the too over-the-top approach he does in the second half of his career, should definitely feel satisfied when they see the persuasive, albeit very quiet and downplaying way Pacino makes this character work. From the innocence and the heroic stature of the first half of the film, to the quiet and soothing menace of the second half, Michael Corleone's transformation from an honorable and modest war hero who doesn't want anything to do with the „family business“, to a lying, manipulating and merciless gangster is simply art. Oh, and he didn't get an Oscar for it. Figures.
Francis Ford Coppola's direction is another one for the books. Who can count all the perfectly directed sequences in the first film only, starting from the amazing attention to detail he gives to the documentary-like opening wedding sequence, the „I believe in America“ opening scene, the way his camera stays put on a single character for a longer period of time (which puts that new fast-cutting Hollywood style to shame – carefully analyze the key Pacino „transformation“ scenes, how the camera calmly stays put on his face), his sense of pacing, his care of depicting the 40's era, the cross-cutting (so often imitated) baptism scene, or the simple, but perfect „closing door“ metaphor ending? And you can't get all those performances without careful direction, which really makes me puzzled, since it is surprising how many later Coppola films are plagued with bad acting. Kudos to Coppola for insisting that the opening credit states Mario Puzo's The Godfather, since without Puzo, the author of The Godfather book and the film's co-writer, these characters would never exist and the memorable dialogue could not be quoted or parodied millions of times. The score, composed by Nino Rota and conducted by Coppola's father, Carmine Coppola, is classic stuff of course.
Since I'm running out of positive adjectives, I'll put out my only bigger nitpick I have with the film. The Sicily section in the film is a bit too drawn-out for my taste and hurts the pacing. Otherwise, this is as close to perfection as it gets, folks. Watch it as much as you can, further viewings only make it better. Onto Part II.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg
When film fans start to discuss The Godfather saga, it often begins with a simple question – does one prefer the first film or the second one, easily the greatest sequel (and prequel) ever made. Calling The Godfather Part II a „sequel“ even belittles it in a way, since that expression is associated too much with the popcorn film – Part II is simply a logical continuation and an improvement on the story and its characters.
I'll put it out immediately in the open – this is my favourite film in the saga, for many reasons, but first and foremost it is Al Pacino's incredible performance that makes it an absolute classic in my eyes. This is a darker and more emotional film than its predecessor; whereas The Godfather had a couple of lighter and funnier moments, Part II is a bleak and pessimistic exploration of a corrupted man so lost in his hypocrisy and paranoia, that he completely loses any sense of reason or sane judgement. The Godfather was just the beginning of Michael Corleone's tragedy, Part II is the climax of his downfall – in the end, he becomes a horiffying personality, a black shadow of his former self.
As Steven Spielberg accurately stated, Part II is a pure Francis Ford Coppola feature, even moreso than the first film. The unusual way of narration, which tells two parallel stories set in two different time periods (one of Pacino's Michael in the 1950's and the other one of a young Vito Corleone in the 20's, played by Robert DeNiro), proved to be highly risky. There are some critics even today who disprove this controversial approach, but it works. Coppola's sense of pacing is brought to perfection here – the viewer is able to connect with both stories, they are cross-cut very carefully and they both offer unforgettable moments.
The young Vito section of the film is from a visual perspective a joy to behold – the scenography and the photography of the 1920 era Little Italy is startling and extremely authentic. Coppola's maniacal attention to detail has proved worthwile once more. Robert DeNiro's performance joins the pantheon of The Godfather's flawless performances, giving Marlon Brando a run for his money, interpreting the same character, making him as layered and charismatic as Brando made him in the first film. DeNiro's infamous perfectionism shows its side here as well – although he makes nods to Brando a couple of times, reminding us that he is playing the same character, his performance is anything but a pure imitation. DeNiro makes Vito his own and gives him another angle that makes the character even more interesting. Not to mention the fact that about 95% of his lines are in Italian. The cruel, but somehow hilarious Don Fanucci, the antagonist of this piece, deserves a mention, along with Bruno Kirby doing a great young Clemenza as well. If you're wondering why the older version of the character is not here; actor Richard Castellano had one request too many for Coppola (he allegedly wanted to write his own dialogue), so the older Clemenza was deleted in the final draft of the script.
The script, written by Mario Puzo and Coppola, is this time based only partially on Puzo's original novel. The majority of Pacino's story was made for the film, but it hardly feels tacked on. Michael's intriguing plot offers plenty of unexpected twists and turns and it stays tense – there are no awkward slow intermissions like the overlong Sicily section in the first film. I especially enjoyed the Cuban Revolution angle, the Hyman Roth character, played by Lee Strasberg, but the highlight and the centerpiece not just of this story, but of the film and maybe even the whole saga, is the relationship between Michael and his older brother Fredo, wonderfully played by the late John Cazale.
I delibaretly didn't mention Cazale in my review of the first film. He had a small, but effective role in that one, as the black sheep of the family, the inferior brother and son. The Fredo character has a much more important role the second time around and Cazale definitely does not disappoint. It is a vulnerable and painfully real performance, easily the most underrated of them all in the series. In three of the key scenes with Pacino and Cazale together, you understand why Pacino named Cazale „his acting partner“ – their unique chemistry are the heart and soul of the film and offer one of the most emotional sequences in any of the two parts. Robert Duvall is again great as Tom Hagen, although I wish he had more to do in this one. Diane Keaton has a smaller role in this one as well, but she does her job well, despite an awkward line here and there.
The final minutes of Part II present an ending where Francis Ford Coppola's genius comes into the forefront; while we're watching in disbelief Michael's ultimate sin, Coppola does the unthinkable – he brings us back into the past, directing a family reunion scene, 5 minutes of pure perfection. All the other characters from the first film (excluding Marlon Brando, who couldn't go past his conflict with the Paramount studio) are back and we're watching a surprise birthday party unfold. There's James Caan, who in less than 5 minutes of screentime gives a performance that is as good as any classic scene of his in the first film, if not better, but most importanly – there's that other Pacino, from the first half of The Godfather, playing the young and innocent Michael once again. It's the subtlety and the emotion of the ending that bring the story full circle in a deeply moving way; Coppola uses (again) simple metaphor, beautiful photography and maybe even most importantly silence, to express and illustrate Michael's piece of mind in those final moments. This is a cold and insensitive man who has gained everything to feed his sick ambitions, but lost everything he held dearly. When we see him in that final shot (inspired by Bernardo Bertolluci's The Conformist), the expression on his face reveals everything he has in his life – absolutely nothing. And so the story perfectly ends. Oh, except it has that other infamous sequel.
The Godfather Part III (1990)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Talia Shire, George Hamilton
To quote Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in one of the typically over-the-top Part III scenes: “IT WAS NOT WHAT I WANTED!!!”. That line of dialogue perfectly sums up my feelings about the second sequel to The Godfather: unnecessary. There was this review on the Internet I’ve found about the new Coppola Restoration package (which contains all three films plus two discs of bonus features), where the reviewer was particularly brutal towards this movie. He brags on and on about the first two films and the third one is not even mentioned - except in one sentence, that is cunningly hidden in the “bonus features” section, where the writer is “suddenly” reminded that there is one more bonus feature in the package called The Godfather Part III, if somebody wants to see that. Unlike some haters, I don’t think Part III is a bad film, but it is a deeply flawed, painfully mediocre effort, plagued by bad acting, a dull and unoriginal script and uneven pacing. On the other hand, there is a relative minority of Part III defenders who claim that this film had a difficult burden to match the previous two masterpieces and for that it is impossible for it to stand on its own. I’ll do my best and try to minimize the comparisons of Part III to its two predecessors.
The main problem with that argument lies in the fact that Puzo and Coppola made a storyline that mirrors the first part in its narrative to an extent, that practically half of the film has that déjà vu feeling. There’s an assassination attempt on the don, a hidden villain who pulls all the strings, a new Godfather at the end, a
A lot has been said about Sofia Coppola, who plays Mary Corleone. The director was accused of nepotism at the time of the film’s release, by which much of the criticism was laid on his daughter’s back. I can’t say it isn’t justifiable – the godawful infamous “Dad?” in the climax is only one of young daughter’s missteps (plus the fact she’s as wooden as a bloody oak), but the fact that at least three of the lead or supporting actors aren’t too far behind isn’t mentioned that often. Andy Garcia tries real hard, I’ll give him that. But man, does he love to go as over-the-top as possible (“I say WE TAKE ZASA OUT!”), creating a central character that’s for the first time in The Godfather saga pretty unsympathetic and shallow. Take the last scene for instance, which should have been the most emotional and heart-breaking of the lot. I laughed. During this tragedy I couldn’t stop laughing, mostly because of Andy Garcia’s final line in the film. Check out this hilarious video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3-0y8XkaVM&feature=related, that puts some things I’ve said into context.
The antagonists in the film are played by Joe Mantegna and Eli Wallach. Mantegna’s performance as Joey Zasa does make a true effort to make his character seem like a complete caricature. Eli Wallach doesn’t fare much better – this was a case of serious miscasting, because the famous Tuco from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly does not make a believable back-stabbing mob boss. Speaking of miscasting, George Hamilton? I remember that guy from a certain American soap opera that aired on the television 10 years ago. I don’t know what was Coppola thinking when he cast him as a replacement character for Robert Duvall, who refused to appear, because of the salary difference between him and Pacino. Speaking of the main star, Pacino is miles better than any other performer in the film, but somehow his performance does seem a bit hammy (foreshadowing the over-the-top approach of his later career), even unnatural at times, particularly because this character has very little similarity with the Michael Corleone of the first two films. Pacino later stated – which I fully agree with him – that the whole redemption scenario simply wasn’t the right choice for a character like Michael. His journey truly ended at the end of the second film. The final scene of The Godfather Part III, where we say goodbye to the character, is done so lazy and poorly, that the total impression of the film really goes into abyss after the final two sloppily made “emotional” scenes. Diane Keaton has to bare some truly awful lines (“And then you became my horror!”) and her delivery, as much as she tries, only makes things worse.
Francis Ford Coppola officially bankrupted while making a modern musical One from the Heart, and that was his first film after the infamous Apocalypse Now, where Coppola created a masterpiece, but probably lost his sanity in the process of making it. There isn’t any Coppola work post-Apocalypse Now that is a great film, let alone one that matches his work from the 70’s. He intentionally made films based on subpar stories to cover up his debts and somehow his incredible instinct for getting a great performance, memorable dialogue or perfect sense of pacing went away with it. As the always honest and open Coppola admits, The Godfather Part III was made out of interest, not from the heart. And the whole film reeks of this. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a film worth checking out; there are some interesting visuals and intense, emotional scenes (Michael’s confession, his heart attack) and if you compare The Godfather Part III to any other average gangster movie, it does stand above it. Recommended, but with reservations.