Saturday, March 7, 2009

Repeat Viewing: The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #6
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo (novel & screenplay), Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, John Cazale

The Godfather (1972) doesn't need an introduction, nor does it necessarily require a review. Nevertheless, I'm going to go on telling you what you already know: this is one of the great American films of the twentieth century. The 1970s was a landmark decade for Hollywood film-making, and Francis Ford Coppola was particularly productive, releasing the first two Godfather films (1972 - 1974), The Conversation (1974) and, perhaps his magnum opus, Apocalypse Now (1979). This week I was fortunate enough to experience a cinema screening of The Godfather, and this second viewing only inflated my respect for Coppola's achievement. On my initial viewing in 2006, I had been very impressed with the film, but also hopelessly lost for the most part. With literally dozens of speaking roles, and frequent allusions to otherwise unseen characters, the plot had left me stranded, just as The Big Sleep (1946) always manages to do. Suddenly, however, much of it became clear to me; the characters' motivations, deceptions and emotions gently drifted into focus. This was stunning, complex cinema, the sort of bold film-making that puts most modern movies to shame.

A notable artistic observation regarding The Godfather is that Coppola's film-making style is strictly traditional. Whereas a new generation of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin were introducing a gritty new cinema aesthetic, Gordon Willis' cinematography is graceful, understated and handsome, predating his excellent work for Woody Allen {the most notable example being Manhattan (1979)}. A sprawling family saga, The Godfather boasts a staggering ensemble cast of emerging and established actors, as well as many unknowns who nevertheless give letter-perfect performances. The scenes of violence are typically abrupt and effective, but much of the film's running-time is more closely concerned with dialogue and human interaction, particularly among family members. Needless to say, the quality of talent is more than enough to make these scenes, not only watchable, but astonishingly compelling. Every character down to the smallest speaking part – and there are a lot of them – has such a richly fleshed-out personality, making their actions and development throughout the film both authentic and interesting.

Marlon Brando – in what, along with Last Tango in Paris (1972), was deemed a grand comeback – gives a towering, Oscar-winning portrayal as Don Vito Corleone, the aging head of an Italian organised-crime family. Having endured decades of corruption and inter-family conflict, and seeing his household disintegrate in the futile pursuit of family honour, Vito finally understands in his final moments the folly of his wasted life, and the fateful mistakes that led to this undesirable lifestyle {these precursor years would be explored in greater depth, with Robert DeNiro in the role, in The Godfather: Part II (1974)}. Most central to the story, however, is the transformation of youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), who, in the course of the film, effectively sells his soul to retain that elusive "family honour." The climactic sequence, utilising Eisenstein's style of montage to its fullest extent, intercuts the baptism of Michael's nephew with the simultaneous assassination of the Corleone family's enemies. This scene also serves as a baptism of sorts for Michael, symbolising his irreversible initiation into a life of crime, and the final transaction of his soul.

Currently my #1 film of 1972:
1) The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes {Aguirre: The Wrath of God} (Werner Herzog)
4) A Warning to the Curious (Lawrence Gordon Clark) (TV)
5) Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock)
6) Avanti! (Billy Wilder)
7) Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull)
8) Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
9) Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (Woody Allen)

No comments: