Paramount Home Video
Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia
Extras: Retrospective Documentary, Additional Scenes , Making of Featurettes, Storyboards, Music of ‘The Godfather’, Filmmaker Profiles, Corleone Family Tree and more
An epic saga of both family and politics, of fratricide and communion, Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary trilogy peered into the heart of Mafia darkness and found nurturing parents, the hypocrisy of the American dream and a titanic struggle between good and evil. Rather than showcase the battle amid spinning heads and projectile vomit, the war for Michael Corleone’s soul takes a more naturalistic path.
Released in 1972, the first "Godfather" film maps the declining days of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) gangster empire, set against the optimism of post-World War II America. The Corleone family seems just like any other family, with normal family headaches. Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is getting married, son Michael (Al Pacino) has just returned home from the front, and grandchildren always seem to play when adults have important conversations. However, these hushed talks involve vigilantism, political corruption, the new frontier of narcotics and "sleeping with the fishes." A chain of events brings the hesitant Michael into the "family," eventually ascending as the new "Godfather" of the Corleone clan, but not without exacting a terrible moral toll on Michael and all in his orbit, including his wife Kay (Diane Keaton).
1974’s "The Godfather Part II," rightly judged by many as the best of the three, follows Michael’s ruthless maintenance of power in a changing geographical and political landscape. The second film actually tells two stories: the first charts Michael’s continuing descent into corruption, and the parallel story of the young Vito’s (Robert DeNiro, as letter perfect as Brando’s elderly version) early years in America and the creation of his violent but strangely familial realm in New York’s Little Italy.
Requiring three films, nine hours of screen time and a sixteen year gap between the second and third installments, the "Godfather" films revolutionized the way we looked at movies and America, as assuredly as Orson Welles’ first stab at the same one-two artistic punch with "Citizen Kane" two decades earlier. Sourced from Mario Puzo’s sprawling novel, the films have since passed into national myth. Before the "Godfather," gangsters fascinated because they embodied the pleasure principle: money, sex and power instantly gratified or achieved. If we sided with the villains’ violent means of attaining the above desires, any empathetic connection washed away when the law closed in, arresting or killing the perpetrators. "The Godfather’s" astonishing innovation to that formula was simply overlaying domestic drama over the moral atrocities. The result was humanizing gangsters while magnifying their horrific deeds. Michael Corleone may be a mobster, but he’s also a loving parent as well. When Clemenza (Richard Castellano) says "Leave the gun, take the cannoli" after a hit, we are face to face with the strict business of murder…and the dualities and rationalizations that make politicians betray their constituents, mobsters order death with impunity and impel a man to choose between the light and dark forces of American prosperity.
The DVDs, housed in an impressive slipcase/snapper combo, contain the entire trilogy, as presented theatrically. (The films have undergone numerous home video permutations, including a chronological re-editing by Coppola himself for television broadcast. Re-arranging the story events, the "Godfather Saga" starts with the young Vito Corleone story rather than the elderly Corleone at his daughter’s wedding.) Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the technical specs, let me say that these films should be seen in the theater whenever possible. The main reason is that Gordon Willis’ dark, brooding cinematography (he photographed all three chapters) works and looks best when projected. "The Godfather" movies are not exactly video friendly when it comes to contrast and image detail. Faces, furniture, and walls are frequently bathed in shadows, but for deliberate narrative and thematic effect.
And the remastered <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtracks? Fuggedaboutit! The 5.1 remixes, supervised by Coppola, impart the films a whole new level of enjoyment. Sound is a major component in these films and even when originally presented in mono, the audio mixes understated the action just like the cinematography. Rather than pump up the rear channels and spruce up the LFE channel for gunshots and explosions, the soundtrack remixes of the first two films open the front soundstage, but not at just for the sake of filling five speakers. Dialogue remains firmly anchored in the center channel and for the most part, the rear channels house subtle sound effects. As with the video, the audio increases in clarity and fidelity with each film. "I" peaks a few times during high volume "discussions." "II" registers a little better. In the case of "III," as the film was produced after the Dolby Stereo revolution, overall fidelity is much stronger and surround envelopment is more pronounced, especially during the helicopter assassination sequence. ("Apocalypse Corleone?") The greatest kick for me was cranking up the volume to fill my living room with Nino Rota’s haunting theme, arranged and conducted by Francis’ father, Carmine Coppola, for the subsequent films.
Almost labyrinthine in design, the fifth bonus disc breaks down into five sections: "Behind the Scenes," "Additional Scenes," "Galleries," "Filmmakers" and "The Family Tree." "Behind The Scenes" offers both archival and retrospective glimpses into the films, with video documentaries like "A Look Back" which, while primarily focused on the third film, offers Coppola giving insights into the first two films including how the infamous horse head scene was actually a misreading of Puzo’s original text. The section also includes audio recordings of Coppola’s meetings with Nino Rota playing the famous Godfather theme on piano, filmed interviews with Puzo about writing the book, a video interview with Coppola on how he tackled adapting the book for the film ("Francis Coppola’s Notebook"), storyboards from the films and interviews with cinematographer Gordon Willis and production designer Dean Tavoularis.
The "Galleries" contain theatrical trailers, one from each film presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> with clean mono sound. (The third is in rather expansive stereo.) Two photo galleries house production and publicity stills from all three films as well as a "Rogues Gallery" spotlighting the "wiseguys" from the trilogy including Solazzo (Al Lettieri), Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) and Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese, now residing on "The Sopranos.) The "Awards and Acclaim" section provides excerpts from the 1972 and 1974 Academy Awards ceremonies for Best Screenplay and Picture ("I") and Best Director and Picture ("II"). Finally, Coppola explains in the video introduction to the 1974 network TV premiere of "The Godfather" how he carefully edited the film for broadcast and discusses how he avoided stereotypes. (Interestingly, "The Sopranos" have also been accused of fostering negative clichés about Italian-Americans.) What, no Sasheen Littlefeather declining the Oscar on Marlon Brando’s behalf?
The "Family Tree" is exactly that: a genealogy of the Corleones. Each family member (Vito, Santino, Michael, Connie, Fredo and even Tom Hagan) can be highlighted with biographical captions accompanying a picture. Crew notes in the "Filmmakers" section round out the extras.
Just an observation: during the video excerpt from the 1974 Academy Awards, presenters Robert Wise and Goldie Hawn read off the list of nominees for Best Director from that year. The candidates were John Cassevetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Bob Fosse, Roman Polanski and Francois Truffaut. Can anyone remember the last time a Best Director list sounded so impressive?