The Statue of Liberty towers over The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, its image and silhouette framed in numerous outdoor shots or handled, in the form of a bronze statuette, by poor Italian families dreaming of an escape. More than blood or violence, more even than Marlon Brando’s titanic jowls, it is the ghost of the American Dream that haunts the first two-thirds of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga, the broken promise of a new life for those who crossed the ocean to free themselves from the poverty and violence of their homes just to find more of the same.
The Godfather is a historical American myth, a status supported by Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis’s decision to shoot the film like a faded old photograph, all sepia and shadows. Coppola’s gangsters speak coldly about their world, like politicians or CEOs. It’s a pure expression of a capitalist society that values the bottom line above all else: Profit is the goal, and the shootings and stranglings are simply a means to an end. Emotions don’t—or shouldn’t—come into play. “It’s not personal, just business,” the mantra goes.
That is, until family comes into it. The Corleones are the mafia clan at the heart of The Godfather films, and their family ties—and the dissolution thereof—form the narrative thrust of the trilogy. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) leads his family and his business with a firm but loving hand, but his health is failing. His eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), is next in the line of power, but his fiery temper makes him a volatile, unstable leader. From the very beginning, the importance of family and capitalist economics is coded into The Godfather, which opens with the wedding of Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire). The extended family is outside drinking and dancing, but Vito is in his office, holding court. A mortician requests that Vito kill two boys who raped and beat the mortician’s daughter. Vito refuses, as the man’s daughter was not killed, but agrees to teach the boys a lesson. Justice is valued above all—“We are not murderers,” Vito says—every deal is a transaction, and even favors have a price, be it money, respect or doing a favor in return.
The favor is returned when Sonny, who had taken control of the family after a failed attempt on Vito’s life, is gunned down in the streets, and Vito must ask the mortician to cover Sonny’s wounds. Brando’s work in The Godfather has since become the stuff of both legend and parody, but it is in this scene that it becomes clear that, at the time, it was just a seriously great performance. “Look what they did to my boy,” he cries, the full weight of the life he has chosen weighing down on him for perhaps the first time. Coppola has been criticized in some corners for glamorizing the gangster lifestyle, but scenes like this, not just critical but downright tragic, put the lie to that complaint. The mafia life may create families, but it also inevitably destroys them.
Enter Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the family’s youngest son, a war hero who swears to his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) that he will never be a part of his father’s criminal world. But blood ties are stronger than morals, and Michael is forced to take action, killing a competing mob boss and a corrupt police sergeant in one of the most famous sequences in the film. This results in extended exile in Sicily, which Coppola treats as a pastoral heaven in contrast to New York’s grungy hell. Events lead Michael back to New York, where he is forced to take over the family after his brother’s death and father’s retirement.
Michael’s rise and fall form the moral and spiritual core of the Godfather trilogy, as he adjusts himself to the emotional coldness required of his job. By the end of the film, after orchestrating the murders of each of New York’s opposing mob bosses (is it even necessary at this point to mention the chilling brilliance of the baptism/murder sequence?), a treacherous employee (Abe Vigoda) and his sister’s abusive husband, Michael has reached the peak of his power. But in his cruel dismissal of Kay, we see that power has its cost.
The full extent of that cost is exposed in The Godfather: Part II, which cuts between the continued reign of Michael and the actions his father (Robert De Niro) took to turn a poor Sicilian boy into the head of New York’s biggest mob family. The dichotomy between Vito’s rise and Michael’s ruin could have been schematic, but Coppola treats it with such a sure hand and sense of mythic sadness that the effect is tragic.
The film’s opening scene—following a brief sequence reminding viewers of Michael’s new power—details Vito’s childhood. After his father and brother are killed in Sicily by a local mafia boss, Vito’s mother sacrifices herself so that he can escape to America. The sequence reestablishes the importance of family ties in The Godfather trilogy, as does Vito’s time in New York, where he works menial jobs to support his family, eventually murdering a local slum lord and rising to his position as Don Corleone.
While Vito is working to help his family, Michael—despite his self-deluding claims to the contrary—is only concerned with bolstering his own power. The majority of the second film’s narrative deals with Michael’s plan to control the gambling industry in Las Vegas, which involves deals with Vegas hotshots and a shady Jewish lawyer living in exile in Cuba. After a failed attempt on his life, Michael strikes out at those he feels betrayed him.
As Vito’s connection with his family is growing increasingly strong, Michael’s is falling apart. Kay tries to increase the distance between Michael and his children, going so far as to abort their third child so as to avoid having to raise him in the mafia environment. Michael’s investigations reveal that his remaining brother, Fredo (John Cazale), sold him out and must decide whether or not to murder his mother’s son (again, it seems unnecessary to mention the legendary scene in which Michael confronts Fredo, nor the spectacular work of both actors in the scene). Michael’s ultimate decision—presented in a quietly devastating zoom that may be the best shot in the trilogy—forms the climax of the film, as well as the death of Michael’s soul.
Pacino’s work in the first two Godfather films, the second in particular, ranks among the finest performances in film history. They came during a time when the young actor still knew the benefits of subtlety, and his performance is an exquisitely balanced combination of strength, dignity, doubt and moral decay, all accomplished with next to nothing in the way of histrionic displays. Which makes his work in The Godfather: Part III such a crushing disappointment. Long before the production of the long-awaited conclusion to the trilogy, Pacino had apparently decided that interiorization was for pussies and that the best way to get across emotions was to grimace and yell. Gone is the reserved and calculated Michael Corleone of The Godfather and Part II; in his place is a loud oaf who seems less morally empty than like a bit of an asshole.
It’s more than just a bad performance; it unbalances the film and sets the tone for the entire final sequel, which takes everything subtle and tragic about the first two films and turns it broad and cartoonish. The focus on opera as a motif in Part III is not a coincidence; the whole thing is pitched in the hysterical emotional register of opera, which works fine on stage but is borderline embarrassing on film. Contrary to popular opinion, the one effective performance in the film belongs to the much-criticized Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter, who may be a little uneasy as an actress but at least knows how to keep her emotions in check.
The plot of Part III, involving Michael’s involvement in the Vatican’s financial scandal, is little more than an excuse for Coppola to stage a drawn out and wholly redundant final look into Michael’s collapse. At the end of Part II, as he sits alone, wholly isolated from his family, Michael’s moral and spiritual dissolution has reached an irresolvable end, and nothing in Part III says anything that hadn’t already been made clear in the first two films. So while Part III is perfectly okay as a standalone work (the final 30 minutes in particular are a strong work of formal control even as the film’s tone goes wildly off the rails), it is impossible to separate it from the movies that came before. In comparison to those earlier masterpieces, Part III is every bit as disappointing as its reputation suggests.
Much has been made of cinematographer Gordon Willis’s work on the high-def transfers of the Godfather trilogy, and for good reason. Maintaining the distinctive look of the films’ original film prints-complete with grain, heavy shadow and purposely over-exposed whites-The Coppola Restoration may disappoint those who want all of their movies to look shiny and bright, but anyone who complains about these perfect transfers of some of the most beautifully shot American movies ever made (oh, and The Godfather: Part III) is welcome to go watch their 300 DVDs. I’ll take this, thank you. Audio is clear and well mixed; Nino Rota’s beautiful score has never sounded so good coming out of television speakers.
Various extras that have been included on previous DVD sets-including Coppola’s invaluable commentaries on the three films-have been mixed in with high-def extras exclusive to this set: “Godfather World” features interviews with directors, actors, authors and critics who have been influenced by the trilogy; “The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t” covers familiar territory, telling the story of how Paramount opposed nearly every decision that Coppola wanted to make (if nothing else, it will make you glad that this was one case where the filmmaker won out over the corporate tools); “When the Shooting Stopped” focuses on the editing of the trilogy and is one of the few features to deal explicitly with Part III, specifically the film’s climactic opera montage; “Emulsional Rescue Revealing The Godfather” focuses on the process Gordon Willis went through to get the transfers to look how the do; and “Four Short Films on The Godfather” is really four interview pieces dealing with different aspects of the trilogy’s production and influence. “The Godfather on the Red Carpet,” which consists of self-congratulatory interviews with stars of the film and of other Paramount releases, is the least impressive of the features. Additionally, the set includes 35 additional scenes, totaling well over an hour of film, some of which have been included on previous releases but never all in the same package.
Two of the greatest films of all time (plus a third movie) in a DVD set that reveals the best that can occur when Blu-ray technology meets a desire to maintain the visual integrity of film. Essential in the truest sense of the word.