For anyone in America's fabled "movie generation" - men and women who were in college or just out of it when The Godfather came out in 1972 - Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia epic had the impact that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had in music or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had in prose.
I spent half my lunchtime in my junior and senior years listening to budding actor Jack Gilpin (Something Wild, 21) do his impeccable imitation of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen advising the Corleone crime family, "Right now we have the unions, we have the gambling; and they're the best things to have. But narcotics is a thing of the future. And if we don't get a piece of that action, we risk everything we have." Budding political strategists took Don Vito Corleone's sayings as secular writ, such as never letting anyone "outside the family" know what they were thinking.
The Godfather was simultaneously timeless and topical from the moment it opened. That's why it's never ceased to speak to new generations with every new video or theatrical reissue. It's no wonder that when Katie Couric asked that most famous of all post-baby boomers, Sen. Barack Obama, to name his favorite movie, he answered with The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. Echoing a Sopranos comedy line, he added, "Three - not so much."
Young moviegoers who have never seen it, and older moviegoers yearning to savor it again, will get their best chance in more than three decades to drink in its glories when The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II open Friday with restored prints at the Senator Theatre. At the behest of their creator, Coppola, and his friend, Steven Spielberg, Paramount moved to save these movies from deterioration.
The original material had been destroyed through reckless printing and reprinting. Only digital tools available since 2006 have made this rebirth possible. Now this act of preservation has become a gift to movie audiences. Even on Blu-ray, these movies have the masterly combination of grain and sheen that Coppola and his collaborators built into it. On screen, they will be awe-inspiring. Beyond their artistic perfection, no other American films have struck as many chords with as many different people, both in the United States and around the world.
What was amazing about The Godfather's enormous critical and box-office success is that it resembled no other pop phenomenon of its time. The most up-to-date aspects of the movie were themes that Coppola had borrowed from Mario Puzo's novel, especially the notion that a lawyer with a briefcase could commit more larceny and mayhem than an old-fashioned gang boss with a gun.
The core of Coppola's classics doesn't alter with time, but these works reveal their secrets to different generations in contrasting ways. When I watched The Godfather in a packed house during its 25th anniversary revival 11 years ago, I was struck by how viewers in the go-go 1990s treated ominous lines as if they were comic words to live by. And why not? "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" might have been the motto of Wall Street from the late '80s until three weeks ago. I wonder how dialogue like that will play in this more sober time.
Some scenes in Part II, such as American industrialists and mob bosses meeting in Havana to divvy up Batista's Cuba, may prove to be more relevant than ever. In any case, those who love these movies will continue to make them relevant, in big ways and small. Just last Wednesday on Hardball, Chris Matthews headlined a story on Congress' attempt to carve out an economic bailout with the words, "going to the mattresses" - the phrase The Godfather made famous as a synonym for readying a mob war.
John Huston once declared that if you smack any one scene from a great script with a mallet, all the themes of the entire movie should start reverberating. That's why, even when these movies deal with "business," they're still all about family. Coppola pits the supposed sanctity and tenderness of the Corleone household against the cool impersonality of "the world." At home, attention must be paid to everyone from hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) and thoughtful Michael (Al Pacino) to weak, clownish Fredo (John Cazale) and the sometimes-hysterical Connie (Talia Shire). But when Michael takes over from Don Vito (Marlon Brando), outside pressures fray clannish bonds. Variations on "this isn't personal, it's just business" - the mobsters' standing excuse for murder - grow more terrifying as the films go on. Coppola derives excruciating tension and exhilarating epiphanies from the increasing confusion of business and family values.
Even the exacting Gordon Willis, the peerless cinematographer who fought tooth and nail with director and co-writer Coppola during the first film, told me with a crusty chuckle last week, "It's a very arresting piece of material. If you start watching I or II, it's hard to stop or to resist getting involved." The restoration wizard who ensured that audiences could see these films today as if for the first time is Robert A. Harris, the architect of (among others) the Lawrence of Arabia reconstruction. Indeed, with the help of Willis and Coppola and a squad of film and digital experts, Harris has engineered prints that are even more striking than those we saw in the premiere engagements.
Harris adhered without compromise to the visual structure Willis and Coppola established in The Godfather and carried through to the next two films. Willis used what he calls "Kodachromey" colors in the exterior family scenes - the whites popped, the yellow and reds billowed - and jet-black shadows and grainy browns in the interiors, dominated by the Don's business. When studio bosses at Paramount watched the dailies 36 years ago, they couldn't believe what they were seeing, or not seeing. Coppola and Willis cunningly designed Obama's favorite scene to give Brando a theatrical entrance even though Don Vito is just sitting in a chair. With his shutters drawn to the exuberant wedding outside in the Corleone compound, the Don must conduct business, because, as his son Michael says, "No Sicilian can refuse a favor on his daughter's wedding day." Vito does it in shadows.
The standard complaint in 1972 was that "kids wouldn't be able to see it in the drive-ins." Willis responded: "The kids aren't watching in the drive-ins anyway, they're making out in the back seat." Willis' complaint about contemporary hits is that they're "video games thrown up on the big screen," just as destructive to popular taste as the Doris Day films that trained people to expect light blitzing out to every corner of a room. (Ironically, the first two Godfather films have been turned into popular video games, with a third on the way.)
Harris says consumers seduced into buying high-def TVs and Blu-ray machines with eye-candy like animated features may pop in the sometimes-grainy Godfather and wonder: "What have we bought? What's going on here?"
Those questions should fade, as they did for doubters decades ago. I doubt anyone will be asking them when I and II play at the Senator, one of Harris' favorite theaters.
The Senator has made the wise, unusual decision to play both movies on each day of the week. Seeing them back to back allows you to appreciate the scope and artistry of Coppola's accomplishment. The Godfather puts many audiences in the position of Michael Corleone's outsider wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), who can't resist her attraction to him despite her abhorrence of his world.
The script doctor behind Don Vito's famous farewell scene, Robert Towne, says, "You have to understand that in 1972, we felt families were disintegrating - there was no loyalty within families, no cohesiveness, and our national family, led by the family in the White House, was full of back-stabbing. The Corleones became this role model of a family who stuck together through thick and thin, who'd die for one another."
The Godfather: Part II fleshes out and extends themes only suggested in its predecessor. It takes the aging Vito Corleone of I back to his youth, pointing up the irony of his rise in Little Italy's crime hierarchy after having lost his parents to a vendetta in his native Sicily. Coppola cuts from the younger Vito (Robert De Niro) to his troubled successor, Michael, to dramatize a legacy of hypocrisy and crime. Corruption has been infectious, passing from father to son and family to family, until it enters the very atmosphere of the Corleones' adopted country.
It's marvelous to see how the new prints bring out the storytelling details. During the wedding scene, when hot-blooded Sonny signals a bridesmaid to join him for a tryst, we now see that his wife, Connie, knows exactly where he's going - and with whom. And it's fun to be able to read the fruit signs on every crate on the market outside Vito's office, or the sign advertising a Jake La Motta fight in the window. But what's most important is the way these vibrant prints bring viewers into a warmer relationship with the characters.
You feel you're in Michael's flesh as he rushes to see his father in the hospital and displays the command and resourcefulness in protecting him that mark him as the successor to the throne. Cazale was always a heartbreaker as the anti-Michael, Fredo, but now his characterization has an unsettling sweetness from the moment he drunkenly runs his hand over his brother Michael during the wedding. I don't know exactly why; with an actor as subtle as Cazale, the more sharply you can observe every small twist of his performance (and every bit of action surrounding him - including, for the first time, the menacing lift of a rifle), the more overwhelming it becomes.
What makes this revival a must-see is it does more than restore the movies' sheen. It enlarges the movies' heart.
if you go
Screenings of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II start Friday and run through Oct. 16 at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road. Call 410-435-8338 or go to senator.com.