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The Godfather trilogy – the Friday Classic review

April 13, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Two classics; one dud.  Or are they?  Watching The Godfather trilogy back-to-back suggests that the triumphs and flaws run throughout the Corleones’ epic story

The Godfather trilogy

The Godfather trilogy
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1972/1974/1990)

 While it was a critical and commercial hit from the start, it took time for The Godfather – along with its sequel – to become one of the untouchables of American cinema.  Certainly, by the time The Godfather Part 3 came out, its predecessors had the collective reputation of a masterpiece, and not even the mauling the finale got could dampen it.  In fact, it’s only since then that the combined force of Parts 1 & 2 have come close to knocking Citizen Kane off its perch as the critics’ favourite.  But that’s nothing compared to the films’ evergreen public perception: even as Star Wars, or Pulp Fiction, or The Lord of the Rings have come and gone, The Godfather is still unshakeable at the top of the fan tree.  Not bad for a 35-year-old-film in a culture that can barely look beyond the past decade.

So what’s the appeal?  The Godfather straddles the ages.  In its straightforward, classical narrative and punchy, compelling violence, its roots go back to the 30s gangster cycle that kickstarted the movies’ love affair with criminals.  But in its rich, European-influenced visual sense and psychological complexity, and its ability to make the story of a family into an alternative history of post-war America, it remains one of the boldest of the 70s generation that tore up the Hollywood rulebook.

It helps that, unlike the firebrands around him, Francis Ford Coppola got the keys to the kingdom: a powerful studio, with all the money and resources that comes with it, and a high-calibre cast, which shores up the relative risk of the unknowns amongst the Corleone kids with veteran hard-boiled faces of the past, like Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte and (most iconic of all) Marlon Brando.  OK, so Coppola had a huge battle avoiding the sack throughout the shoot, but when his peers were still struggling on meagre, often independently-financed budgets, The Godfather’s canvas is on a different level.

Effectively, like Orson Welles before him, Coppola had stumbled into the perfect confluence of youthful ambition and studio security…and, by God it shows.  Coppola doesn’t waste a single dollar of his budget, splashing it out on lovingly crafted period detail, huge set-pieces like the opening wedding, and even a sun-kissed holiday in Scicily.  And his technical crew, headed by genius cinematographer Gordon Willis, makes this a palpably real world.  The nostalgic, sepia haze of Willis’ camerawork is the last word in bringing the past to life, but the dazzling control of light and shade is also extremely expressionistic, a character in its own right as it punctuates and informs the action.

But The Godfather is also very un-Hollywood-esque.  Following the Italian culture of the story to its logical conclusion, Coppola borrows from Italian cinema, not the neo-realists of the period of the film’s setting but the operatic modernists like Visconti who followed.  The unhurried pace is potentially a cause for flagging interest, but Coppola – trained as a screenwriter in Roger Corman’s exploitation films – knows how to keep us watching with strategically placed bouts of violence and nudity.  The toughest sell is the opening half-hour, which scarcely even lets on what genre the film is going to be, but it is masterfully achieved.  It’s the perfect introduction to the film’s world, mapping out everything from the relationships between the Corleones and their foot-soldiers, to the uneasy sanctuary of their home (invaded, briefly, by the FBI), to the emphasis on family and respect.

It’s this aspect that it is the film’s smartest move in gaining audience love, but also it’s most troubling aspect.  Coppola never shies from showing the violence of the mobsters’ world, but he’s careful to ensure that it’s hermetically sealed: watching this, you’d almost never know that the Corleones made their money from the gullibility and weaknesses of the general public.  All of the film’s plotlines and crises stem not from the inherent explosiveness of the family business, but from their disingenuously noble devotion to a code of ethics that other, less scrupulous gangsters aren’t bothered by.  Amongst all the garottings and executions, Coppola reserves most bile for Carlo, the brother-in-law who not only betrays the family but also beats his wife.  Set against these things is the overt sentimentality of the Corleones, forever accompanied by Nino Rota’s saccharine score.  Vito remains a family man right up until his death, playing with his grandson in the garden.  Sonny dies protecting his sister from abuse.  And Michael, the level-headed kid who has a life outside the film’s world, is sucked back in because he can’t let slights to the family go unanswered.

But it’s Michael story that makes The Godfather such a rich movie, and the source of its most telling ambiguities.  For the first hour, you wouldn’t even know he was the main character, but the narrative closes in with inexorable, beautifully defined logic so that all the events gradually point to his rise to power.  Skillfully, almost without you noticing it, Coppola shows how the son seemingly most distant from family can become its most ruthless adherent, because somewhere along the line he’s got confused by the semantics of what ‘business’ really means.  The sentimentality of the family is lost on him: he sees it, but sees it coldly, and suddenly you sense the hidden meaning behind his war heroism: he’s already a killer, and this is just another outlet for an inner pain we can only guess at.  Al Pacino’s performance is astonishing: without giving anything away, the light in his eyes gradually dims and goes out entirely in the sucker-punch of that final scene, in which he ignores everything his father stood for by lying to his wife, respect the last thing on his mind.

Everything, seemingly, has been said about Michael’s moral collapse by this point – but you’d be surprised.  The Godfather Part 2 takes three hours to trawl through the sewage of Michael’s psyche, and give the definitive word on the corrupting influence of absolute power.  It is stunning stuff on one level, mapped out with a cold clarity that is frightening, both on behalf of Coppola’s narrative slow-burn and Pacino’s shark-like gaze.   Where The Godfather is unpredictable, this one goes exactly where you think it will go: it’s just a matter of the degree to which Michael’s soul will corrode.  On another level, it’s like being forced to watch the world’s longest, bleakest funeral.  Michael’s miserable, claustrophobic existence sucks the fun out of the film and, although his enemies (chatty Michael V. Gazzo, sardonic Lee Strasberg) provide tangential enjoyable, laughs are thin on the ground here.

This is, no doubt, one of the reasons that Coppola gave the film its ambitious parallel structure, rhyming Michael’s demolition of the Corleone legacy with Vito making his fortune fifty or so years before.  By compartmentalizing the film’s light and shade in this way, Coppola at least provides breathing space from the agony elsewhere.  It’s also the idea that gives The Godfather Part 2 in certain circles the unimpeachable reputation of being better than the first film.  Yes, in theory, it’s a brilliant concept – but it’s based on the same disingenuous lie as the first film.  Vito, played by Robert De Niro with a delicate balancing act between aping Brando and bringing the same brand of cheeky charm he brought to Mean Streets, is a geezer: likeable, sympathetic and a self-made man.  His rise is rendered with uncritical romanticism – especially in the gorgeously woozy recreation of 1910s New York, so good Sergio Leone nicked it wholesale for Once Upon a Time in America – and the simple pleasures of Vito’s life are crassly portrayed.  Particularly bad is The Black Hand, the mobster he has to kill to stake his claim.  He’s a pantomime figure straight out of the silent era, which is probably a deliberate stylistic strategy but is still infuriating given the complexity of what’s going on in Michael’s world.

In essence, Vito, family man and Robin Hood-lum, is being deified specifically to show up the contrast between the good old days and the mess Michael is making.  The film’s biggest scandal is not that Michael burns all his bridges or even that he kills the useless brother who betrays him (a superbly reptilian turn by John Cazale), but that he’s a crap husband and father.  Michael, trying to court mainstream society with a trophy wife he probably despises, has forgotten his roots, unlike Vito who always returned from a kill to spend quality time with the wife and kids. 

Fortunately, The Godfather Part 2 is so long, and so packed with ideas, that there’s plenty of meat elsewhere, notably in the probing intelligence with which Coppola uses Michael’s attempted conquering of Cuba and courting of senatorial influence to dissect the makings of modern American politics.  The first film dared not even breathe the name of the Mafia; this one – with its derailed court hearings and blackmails – shows the well-oiled machine that runs in parallel to mainstream society, in an uncomfortable symbiotic relationship.  The best gag here is that Michael tries to extend his influence by buying casinos in Cuba, on the very day of Castro’s revolution.  This is historically accurate, of course, but it works on a symbolic, mythic way, too.  The paradigm offered by the revolutionaries, fighting for something purer than money, serves to highlight the fact that American capitalism will always be surrounded by vultures like Michael.  This is provocative stuff, and goes some way to addressing the implicit glamourisation of Mob life elsewhere in the saga.

Coppola’s only mistake is to over-complicate the plot in order to compare and contrast with the undercooked (flash-)backstory.  There is a great film inside The Godfather Part 2 – several, probably – but somehow all of the strands work against each other, where the streamlined genius of the first film actually transcends its slighter material.  But purely as a piece of filmmaking it is hard to argue with The Godfather Part 2’s absolute mastery of the form.  Anything would look feeble in comparison bar a deliberate, concerted attempt to blow the roof off the cinema, which is of course why Coppola followed the film immediately with Apocalypse Now.  But trying to take Michael’s story further forward was always going to be a tough ask.

These days, what with massive gaps between resurrections for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky, Rambo and Die Hard, we’re used to the experience of flogging a dead horse, but when the Corleone clan returned after a 16-year gap, such a comeback was relatively novel and, therefore, expectations were sky-high in a way they aren’t any more.  If The Godfather Part 3 were made now, I think its merits would be better recognised but, back then, it was asking for a kicking (especially as its thunder was stolen at the time by the altogether fresher, more dynamic take on gang culture represented by Goodfellas).

Does it deserve its reputation?  OK, there’s no question that The Godfather Part 3’s reach exceeds its grasp, but half the problem is what exactly it is reaching for.  Audiences wanted more of the old-school operatic blood-letting and Pacino’s dead-eyed villainy; what they got is a mature, elegiac film, about a Lear-esque figure, weary of the violence and regretful for what has been lost, who wants redemption.  Accordingly, it’s a softer film, quiet and plaintive where the others were more geared to their fortissimo passages of rage and violence.  This isn’t an easy sell for a generation raised on the grandness – and inherently bleakness – of the earlier parts; the wistful emotions are also much harder to pull off in the richly defined confines of the Corleone’s established story-world.  The Godfather Part 3 is cursed with the thankless task of trying to do something new whilst aping the old moves.

Such uncertainty strips away a lot of the needed focus, especially in regard to the muddled story.  Early on, it seems to be about a minor spat with Joseph Mantegna Joey Zaza, small fry compared to previous villains (and, in hindsight, saddled with accidental comedy value as a result of Mantegna’ supplying the unmistakable tones of The Simpsons’ Fat Tony).  But at least that storyline has clarity: once the story shifts to Sicily, the film becomes a very long, opaque chess game with a succession of Vatican officials.  In principle, the double-narrative carries huge resonance.  After all, Michael is the man who is striving for legitimacy but still feels tainted by his past.  With Andy Garcia’s Vincent (a literally illegitimate Corleone) threatening to pull him back into old vices, it makes sense for Michael to plough his future into something that is at once financially and spiritually profitable.  But nor is it terribly interesting as drama.

And sadly, achieving it is beyond Coppola.  Despite being made by almost exactly the same team – and, barring the disappointing absence of Robert Duvall, all of the surviving cast – it may as well be something new.  The young, hungry tyro who made his name on the first films had been burnt out by the monument that is Apocalypse Now; though still brimming with intelligence, he doesn’t have the appetite for it anymore.  The ability to bring clarity to complex plotting is absent – it’s difficult to know what the hell is going on at times – and the set-pieces are off-key.  The climactic assassination attempt borrows the cross-cutting of earlier films but goes on for absolutely ages and, literally scored to opera, loses something in the way of subtlety and finesse. 

Similarly, several of the performances are off. George Hamilton is a blank canvas where Duvall brought many shades to the role of consigliere (although, arguably it’s deliberate: the character is exactly the kind of bland corporate lawyer a wannabe respectable businessman like Michael would hire).  Sofia Coppola had a bum deal – no training, little preparation and the whiff of nepotism – but is clearly way out of her depth… although, in her defence, the role is so thankless that I reckon even original choice Winona Ryder would have struggled to inject much life into it.  And Andy Garcia, on whom whole swathes of the movie rests, feels cowed by the opportunity, unsure whether to pay homage to screen father James Caan or go his own way. 

Not counting Eli Wallach’s typically rich supporting turn, there’s only one great performance here – but fortunately it’s one that saves the film.  By 1990, Al Pacino was, like Coppola, a softer and more indulgent presence, well on his way to being the Hoo Hah of legend, and he lacks the obvious tour-de-force of the early films’ plunge into the moral abyss.  But he’s playing a very different man: Michael has clearly learned to stop shutting himself away in the name of aiding business, but is beginning to realise he might actually be enjoying family life.  The hurt and regret in Pacino’s eyes as he makes his peace, with both his family and himself, strips back the bluster to reveal something achingly sad and sympathetic.  It’s Pacino, more than the compromised abilities of Coppola, who provides the through-line from 1 to 3 to complete the trilogy.  Family, finally, has become the corrective – rather than the sideshow – to the violence, and it’s this that makes The Godfather Part 3 a fitting and vital conclusion to the Corleones’ story.

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