The Godfather: DVD Collection

The Godfather: DVD Collection (1972)
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

As DVD matures and finds more players in more home, the list of "must-have" titles continues to shrink. Just in the past few weeks, standards like "Snow White, " "Citizen Kane," and the first "Star Wars" (not the one I would have preferred, but it’s a start) debuted on the format. "Doctor Zhivago" and the first "Star Trek" movie are just around the bend. Well, with Paramount Home Video’s expansive five-disc "The Godfather DVD Collection," we can cross off another title from the quickly dwindling list.

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.

"The Godfather Part III," released in 1990, finds the aging Michael coming to grips with his mortality and his guilt-ridden conscience. The final film (so far) also introduces the next generation with teenage daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) falling in love with first cousin Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny (James Caan in the first film). With his body slowly betraying him and desperate to reconcile with his family and his religious beliefs, Michael’s journey for absolution takes him into the hallowed chambers of the Vatican itself, unaware that the hushed talks there have a ruthlessness eerily reminiscent of his early days as a "common Mafia hood."
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.

Having said that, the 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfers represent the best that the films have looked on video, given the current state of the art. "I" and "III" reside on single DVDs, while the three hour plus length of "II" spans that film over two platters. Colors are stable and accurate, given the shifts not only within the stories (a sepia wash for the young Vito Corleone scenes, saturated hues for the contemporary Vito and early Michael segments and the natural smooth colors for "Godfather III"), but also the technical gaps of filming in the 1970s ("I" and "II") and the late 1980s ("III"). Consequently, the video gets progressively brighter, cleaner and more detailed with each installment. "I" wrestles the most with detail delineation and contrast levels. Blacks are solid, but sometimes faces or objects in the shadows just disappear. "II" fares better with the details and "III," being the youngest, reading the best in sharpness and clarity. The source materials again perform according to their age, with the first film looking clean but slightly dull, the second still cleaner and a little sharper, and the third the most intact in picture quality. The down side is that there is a lot of edge enhancement. Not all the way through all the films, but in a few scenes the outlines were very pronounced. <$pixelation,Pixelation> crops up a couple of times as well as grain in the darker scenes. Again, I found the video experience very pleasing, with the above mentioned caveats.

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.

Each film offers a scene-specific commentary by Coppola. Listening to Coppola discuss how the cat in the opening scene from the first film was a stray that Coppola plopped on Brando’s lap before yelling "Action!" or talk about how the studio wanted to bring in an "action director" to make the film more violent (imagine that today!) fascinates, and also makes one realize just how much today’s movies are manufactured as opposed to crafted. The most intriguing comments for me was on the third film, where Coppola directly addresses the casting of his daughter Sofia in a role originally slated for Winona Ryder. (While not actually rebutting his critics, he puts a poetic spin on the topic. The comments occur at 10:00 into the feature.) Sometimes he slips into what I call "Cliffs Notes Commentary," where he just rehashes what’s happening on screen but for the most part Coppola avoids that trap and really digs into the happy accidents that often characterize great filmmaking.

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.

I found the Rota snippets and "Notebook" section the most interesting, especially how Coppola describes the components of breaking down a screenplay into concepts like "Imagery and Tone," "The Core" and "Pitfalls." Broken down in chronological order from 1892 through 1979, the thirty-five outtakes from the "Deleted Scenes" section have been seen in various forms during TV broadcasts and "the Godfather Saga." They involve additional scenes with the young Clemenza and Vito Corleone, more family life and an alternate opening to "Part III." You can also access a timeline that highlights historical events concurrent with the Corleone chronology.

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.

I might moan and complain about the video, which really isn’t that bad, but the fact is I am in heaven with this set. Paramount and Francis Coppola have pulled out all the proverbial stops in bringing the "Godfather" films to DVD and right now they hold the crown in my DVD library.

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?