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The Godfather (1972,USA)

11/07/2011

Director: Francis Ford Coppola      Starring: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster. Or a ninja. Or both. Largely due, I suppose, to the string of films and other artworks that serve to glamourise the lifestyle of the mob. The power, the money, the women, the respect. While the genre is an overpopulated one it’s also got more than its fair share of excellent pieces of work. Goodfellas, Scarface, Carlitos Way, Once Upon A Time In America, Casino. And that’s just the more recent ones. It would be a brave, nay, foolhardy observer who would dare to overlook the prominence of Coppola’s Mafia epic, a film that not only set the bar for every other gangster film that would follow it but which seared itself indelibly into the psyche of generations of movie lovers.

In a nutshell it charts the fortunes of the Corleone crime family, headed by Don Vito Corleone (Brando). When rival mafioso move against the Corleone’s it is up to Vito’s sons Sonny (Caan), Michael (Pacino), Fredo (Cazale) and his consigleri Tom Hagen (Duvall) to steer the family right in what become rather turbulent times. It’s difficult to briefly summarise the plot with its epic scope and intricate detail so I won’t even attempt it. Suffice to say that Michael is the favoured son, a war hero and a man insistent he wants nothing to do with the family “business” until an attempt is made on his father’s life, an act that changes his life irrevocably, drawing him into the shadowy world of the American Mafia.

It’s a many layered film that is in no rush to tell its tale of family, loyalty, betrayal, love, respect and power. It pulls no punches in its depiction of the brutality of the mob but at the same time takes great pains to illustrate the moral code by which the mafia (claimed) to live. How much of this is due to the influence of the real life mobsters whose cooperation was required in order for the film to be made is anybody’s guess but it’s probably no coincidence. Set in the late forties/early fifties it sees the Five Families of the American Mafia at a turning point in their history, looking to expand out of their traditional vice rackets and break out into the drugs market which becomes a bone of contention between competing families who view the narcotics trade alternately as a fast track to wealth and power or the catalyst for their downfall due to the heat it would bring down. The resulting tension is the spark for an all out war between the various crime clans.

It could so easily have turned out as a cheap, pulpy crime thriller. A lesser filmmaker may have skipped over the protracted family sequences, favouring instead to “get to the point” with action and criminal shennanigans. Not Coppola. Seeing the importance of the family relationships he takes the time to build patiently and quietly to the hard stuff. Taking full advantage of a stellar cast he gradually builds the characters of each member of the family in a series of fairly intimate encounters. To have assembled such a group of actors is an amazing feat but more amazing is the fact that (despite attempts by the studio to prevent it) the lead role of Michael, the lynchpin of the entire film, was given to the tremendously talented but at the time utterly unknown Al Pacino. Hot on the heels of his performance as a desperate junkie in The Panic In Needle Park (you’d be forgiven for never having seen it, although it is excellent) here he is, carrying a film of spectacular scale and more importantly becoming the centre of gravity for all the other performances, no mean feat when your fellow performers are the likes of Brando, Caan and Duvall. Despite numerous attempts by the studio to get rid of the young upstart, Coppola stuck to his guns and secured his and Pacino’s reputations for eternity.

The same attention to detail that would be on display seven years later in Apocalypse Now is very evident in The Godfather. The period look of the film is absolutely perfect, the grandiose locations and sets are spectacular. The period detailing is perfect. The look is amazing. Spectacularly photographed by Gordon Willis it is a visual delight. Similarly, Nino Rota’s instantly recognisable score sets the whole thing off perfectly. There is very little about the film that hasn’t become iconic from the opening strains of the main theme, to the dialogue (“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”), to those oh so memorable moments (the horse’s head, the countless assassinations) that have lived on in the collective unconscious simply because they are as spectacular as they are emotive. Why not top it off with one of the greatest climaxes in cinema history Francis? Oh, you did.

My most recent viewing was of the Coppola Restoration blu ray edition and frankly, it’s looking better than ever. Sadly there are several scenes that don’t seem to have borne the ravages of time as well as others and show obvious signs of wear and tear. Considering the consistent greatness of the recently released Apocalypse Now blu ray this is a little disappointing but to put it in persepective it’s still the best quality version of the film I’ve seen and in the main is a thing of glowing beauty. The sepia toned feel of the film is wonderful vivid in the high definition format and the scenes in Sicily are more beautiful than ever. The vibrancy of the wedding and christening scenes is simply superb. The best thing about acquiring this particular blu ray set is that it is the best excuse to watch the film again, usually at least an annual ritual in my house.

Simply put, The Godfather is one of the greatest, as near to perfect films that has ever been committed to celluloid. If for some reason you have never seen it then make it your personal mission to make it the next film you see. An icon of twentieth century cinema it is often imitated and parodied and while there may be a better gangster film out there somewhere, I am yet to see it.

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