THE GODFATHER (1972) revisited

March 3, 2012
 Black screen. Cue the lone trumpet’s haunting opening notes of Nino Rota‘s theme.  Close up of a suffering man.  “I believe in America.” That, my friends, is a powerful opening to a truly great film.
It’s been 40 years since it’s original release, and this latest remastering looked and sounded amazing on Cinemark’s largest screen. Following those opening moments, we get our first look at Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. On this screen, it was almost like seeing him for the first time … a disquieting figure that oozes power and commands respect.
There is no need for another review of this truly classic American film.  Instead, this will offer a few observations (possible spoilers) and notes of interest … combined with the highest possible recommendation to watch this one again!
At its core, author Mario Puzo‘s story is about power, loyalty, trust and family.  We witness what happens when one is viewed as having too much power. Loyalty is rewarded, and disloyalty brings the harshest possible penalty.  Trust is gained over time, but lost in a flash. And family is the most complex subject of all.
 Over the years, there have been a few movies with more star-studded casts, but it’s difficult to imagine a more perfectly selected cast: Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, John Cazale, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Abe Vigoda.  Each of these actors have graced the screen in numerous roles, but for this three hour film, they become Corleones, associates, enemies, etc.  
There were a few things that jumped out at me during this viewing.  The use of oranges (the fruit) contradicts the health benefits preached by the medical profession. Every time we see a bowl of fruit, a fruit stand or someone peeling, eating, or selecting an orange, a scene of doom (usually quite violent) is soon to follow.  Carlo is even wearing an orange suit when Sonny (James Caan) shows up and paints the sidewalk with him. Don’t miss the billboard featuring oranges that Sonny drives by just before he pulls up to the toll booth. Brando’s final scene is preceded by him playfully scaring his grandson with an orange peel.  I understand the importance of Vitamin C, but I think I’ll stick with supplements!
 It’s very interesting to note the camera angles throughout the movie.  In an unusual approach, director Francis Ford Coppola uses an “eye-level” camera almost exclusively.  This gives the viewer the feeling of being part of the scene, especially during the small group meetings within Corleone’s dimly lit office.  The few exceptions are the overhead shot of Corleone being gunned down, the Los Angeles cityscape, and a couple of shots at the wedding to emphasize the scale of the event.
The famous “Mattress Sequence” was put together by George Lucas (Star Wars fame) for his friend Coppola.  This is the segment after the Louis Restaurant shooting where we get a montage of B&W crime photos and newspaper headlines. These are real life crime photos and one of the shots is of Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s trusted enforcer.
It’s quite fascinating to recognize how many “classic” lines of dialogue sprung from the movie, especially when you notice the minimalistic approach to dialogue used by Puzo and Coppola.  Much of the communication is non-verbal body language, glances, nods and shrugs … Brando, especially, is a master at this.
 One of the more remarkable facets of the film is the transformation of Michael (Al Pacino).  We first see him as a dashing war hero relaxing at the wedding with his girlfriend (a baby-faced Diane Keaton). He is very laid back and kind of cocky with the thought that he can rise above the dirty family business. He sees himself as better than that. Watch the subtle changes in his appearance … his hair, his posture, his eyes, even his hat!  As great as Brando is as the Don, it’s Pacino’s performance that really takes the film to an unprecedented level.  It’s really fun to compare Michael’s even-keeled, calm processing approach to the high-strung, act-now-think-later approach of his brother Sonny.
 The final note involves actor John Cazale. Here (and in part 2) he plays Fredo as a frightened, insecure puppy who is desperate to find his place.  Imagine your father being Vito Corleone and your brothers are Sonny and Michael.  It’s to be expected that you might be overlooked and overpowered in conversation. The really interesting note about Cazale is that this was his feature film debut.  He went on to make 4 more films before cancer took his life in 1978.  Cazale made 5 films and all 5 were nominated for Best Picture (both Godfather films, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter).  He was engaged to Meryl Streep at the time of his death.
So the real point here is that if you ever doubt the magic and power of movies … shut off your phone, close the blinds, take the cannoli, and let The Godfather absorb your thoughts.  While you are at it, remember … it’s not personal, it’s business (only you shouldn’t really believe that).
Thanks to Cinemark for making me an offer I couldn’t refuse.