Saturday 22 December 2012

I heard that you were a serious man, to be treated with respect

So much ink has been spilt on The Godfather (1972) that a standard plot-direction-acting-technical review would be both superfluous and painfully beside the point. But since that describes much of this blog- er, I mean: having recently enjoyed seeing Coppola's epic at the cinema after years of watching it on the small screen, I thought I'd throw a couple of observations out there. I'm a superstitious man, though, so I'll deal with some standard review points lest this blog become too avant-garde.

The Godfather is often held up as a prime example of auteur-driven seventies cinema, but it didn't spring forth fully armed from Francis Ford Coppola's head. In fact, after snatching up the rights to Mario Puzo's 1969 bestseller Paramount first approached Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich before tapping Coppola, then inexperienced at helming epics and $400,000 in debt to Warner Brothers. The 31-year-old had to fight an uphill battle against the producers' distrust of everything from tone to casting choices, but was bull-headed enough to push most of his vision through.

'I believe in America', spoken while the screen is still black: perhaps the most famous first words in cinema. (Coppola seems to have a talent for it: see also 'Saigon. Shit.') Then we see the face of a middle-aged man, Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), as he tells the story of his daughter, whose boyfriend attempted to rape her and beat her half to death only to receive a suspended sentence. The camera slowly zooms out, letting us see more of the darkened study and eventually the back of the man behind the desk, who listens patiently before asking what Bonasera wants him to do. After he's told, we get the first cut after a three-minute opening shot, and a face: Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando).

Well, I know you know all that. But observe the precision in every little moment. Bonasera's monologue gives us a full character, a self-righteous man who wants to be thought respectable, loves his daughter in a paternalistic fashion, and is afraid of and disgusted by the man he is no longer too proud to ask for help. Corsitto, an Italian stage actor who put in his one and only film appearance here, delivers it note-perfect, which would be a problem if Brando were not equally brilliant. Thankfully, he is that and more: so what if he's reading his lines from cue cards?

From the start, the all-round extraordinary physical acting gives The Godfather the feel of well-choreographed theatre with stage directions whose detail would put Tennessee Williams to shame. Brando (slouched posture, shrugs and little hand movements) and James Caan's Santino Corleone (expansive gestures, struggling to contain animal fury) are showiest, but to my mind Al Pacino takes that particular crown - by not doing very much. In the beginning he is relaxed, but as the film progresses and he is hardened by loss and brutality he becomes clenched and tightly controlled, exuding power through impassivity: the scene in which he mollifies and wins over his Sicilian future father-in-law (speaking English because his Italian is limited and a man in his position can't afford to look ridiculous) is not so different from a much later encounter in which he sits still while an enraged Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) hurls insults.

That's the point: The Godfather is all about power. While Puzo's novel was defanged slightly for the big screen, the parallels between the Corleone family and 'legitimate' power are still spelt out. (Michael: 'My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.') Not just any power, but patriarchy, whether it asserts itself in Carlo Rizzi's wife-beating, Sonny's open adultery or Michael's refusal to tell his wife about his business. The film's men genuinely view their authority as a burden rather than a privilege ('women and children can be careless, but not men'), having so insulated themselves against alternative voices that they are blind to the reality and self-serving benefits of their rule.

Power, and power asserted through violence: what better illustration of that point than the men with lupare at Michael's Sicilian wedding? The Corleone family, like all empires, ultimately comes down to men with guns - although, like all empires, Vito knows to dress it up more nicely than that. (Michael lacks his natural charm, but is as ready to spend money on his public image.) The Sicilian scenes in the film's second act may be on the nose and potentially offensive (gee, all the men are dead from vendettas, are they?), but their barebones displays of criminal power form the film's real heart: Vitelli's choice to associate with a Mafia family when Michael treats him con tutto rispetto,  Apollonia's naiveté rendered deadly by the omnipresent infantilisation of women, Fabrizio's opportunism. And they're gorgeous: how could anything filmed on Sicily fail to be?

The heart of The Godfather, I said, and that's true even in the most mundane sense: the Sicily scenes form one half of the film's second act, the most placid of the three even though it covers the phase in which the gang war is fought openly. Rarely, in fact, does a film have three acts that are so distinct, even though all end with defining moments for Michael (the film's protagonist, recall, despite the fact that the elder Don Corleone is remembered better). The film's third act, in which Michael takes over the family business from his ailing father and prepares to strike at the enemies gathering against him, feels much more like it belongs to the world of the film's own sequel - it's set in the fifties, after all - and closes with one of the great endings in cinema, as a horrified Kay (Diane Keaton) watches Michael's caporegimes swear fealty to him before Al Neri (Richard Bright) shuts the door in her face.

It's the first act, in which a single rash sentence by Sonny leads to an assassination attempt on the don and Michael's irrevocable decision to involve himself in the family business, that I've always liked best, though. The reptilian Barzini (Richard Conte) is still in the background, while the visible antagonist is Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a Sicilian narcotics importer who calls himself a 'man of honour' even after he attempts to kill the don over the latter's refusal to support the drugs business. On the page Sollozzo is an unremarkable baddie, but in the hands of Lettieri (who sadly died in 1975) he's extraordinary: a savvy businessman who would prefer to live in peace with the Corleones, but he is ruthless enough to kill, and constantly alert to any danger (there's a twitch in his left eye that Lettieri works to perfection). I still get upset every time he bites the dust.

Coppola and Puzo's screenplay excises remarkably little of the source material's plot (Fabrizio's fate, Neri's story, Vito's youth which would be adapted in The Godfather Part II). The real change is structural. Puzo's novel is a terrific page-turner, but it mostly just goes on until it ends. With the perfection of the three-act structure, complete with self-contained arcs and moments that rhyme both visually and narratively, the film knocks its source material into a cocked hat. Its excellence as an adapted screenplay is not the least of them, but The Godfather sets a number of records: greatest cast of all time with career-best performances all round, greatest crime drama of all time, greatest anti-Sinatra screed. It made some people angry and made some other people a lot of money, but to us it's a film that keeps on giving four decades down the line.

In this series: The Godfather (1972) | The Godfather Part II (1974) | The Godfather Part III (1990)

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