Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The Godfather Trilogy

To celebrate the release of a DVD box Set of the Godfather Trilogy, I decided to watch all 3 Godfather films in a marathon weekend session - nearly 9 hours of view pleasure.

I have to be honest and say I've never actually properly watched these classics of the genre, despite being an avid fan of the US Gangster genre - The Departed is probably my favourite movie of recent years. But The Godfather....well that's the original. The Don, you might say. Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 screenplay of the Mario Puzo novel about an Italian American mob boss surviving, plotting and manoeuvring in the murky world of the post-war US criminal fraternity is voted the No#2 Best Movie of All Time in the American Film Institutes' list of 100 Best Movies, and often cited as the Best . It also won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Marlon Brando's portrayal of the title character of Vito Corleone, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The follow up, featuring Robert De Niro as a young Vito, was released 2 years later to similarly rave reviews and awards, with a final instalment in 1990 following upstart Andy Garcia as heir apparent to Pacino's reluctant patriarch, receiving the weakest praise of the trilogy.

Much acclaim then for the series. Having said all that, my enduring memories of the films, trying to watch them late at night as an 11 year old kid, is a series of dull scenes of old men sitting in darkened rooms mumbling a lot, and stuffing a lot of food into their mouths. I didn't get it, but given my love for this strand of the US crime genre, which has gone from strength to strength in recent years with movies such as American Gangster, The Departed and Gangs of New York, I thought it an apt time to go back to the source.

Beginning with the first movie then. I guess what I failed to get a kid was the subtlety. The acting of all the players, but Brando and Pacino in particular, is superb. The action follows the battle for control of New York's criminal underworld, gambling, prostitution, and, in the late 40s, the burgeoning new business opportunity of selling drugs. The Corleones are one of the "five families" that share the goods but soon into the story Vito finds himself the target of an almost-successful assassination attempt by the rival Tattalia family. With his father hospitalised, shorted-tempered heir Sonny, played by James Caan, takes control of matters, leading to more trouble, and college-educated Michael (Pacino), despite being chided by his brother, shows his steel when he is compelled to become reluctantly involved, to save the family business.

As a study of old-school masculinity, family values, and dare I say it, the American entrepreneurial spirit, the film is peerless, Shakespearian in its' insight. Brando's portrayal of the fading but wizened patriarch is convincing in making us see how everyone on screen treats him with a mixture of fear, admiration and respect. Pacino, who was then an unknown, is also perfect as the reluctant but ultimately conformist son who shares his father’s astuteness, understanding of power, and capacity for ruthlessness.

So, overall it is as good as they say it is. The pace is leisurely by today's standards, the cinematography is such that it could have been shot yesterday, but the story is timeless.

Part II

So, on we go to Part II. This picks up 2 concurrent storylines: the origins of the young Vito Andolini (played by Robert De Niro) whose mother and brother is killed, and flees to the US at the turn of the century, just a 9 year old boy, where he is accidentally given the surname Corleone, the town of his birth. While we follow his growth into a man and gradually into the Don, we also pick up where the story leaves Michael, now the established, flourishing Don of the Corleone family, now in the late 50s, facing new challenges from his enemies and the authorities, and always plotting to stay one step ahead.

Like the original, the film climaxes in a bloodbath of Elizabethan proportions. As in life, often one is not sure who is friend or foe, but ultimately the most Machiavellian and ruthless character triumphs.

Part III

Critically and financially the weakest of the 3 movies, this film takes place in the late 70s, and was shot in 1990 by Coppola, who was forced to make the movie due to letting the studio down with the commercial failure of his previous movies. Not the best of reasons. The film essentially ties up the narrative strands of the previous movies, which appear to reward Pacino's ruthless character with untold riches and power. In the final movie, we see his regret, his suffering and the underlying religious themes (Italians are Catholic, after all!) of redemption and damnation.

Michael has become a respectable figure in American business and public life, donating generously to charity and ostensibly investing only in legitimate business. Inevitably, ageing and reluctant as he is, he attempts to finally close the door on his criminal activities and make peace with the past, but is dragged back into the criminal underworld via a feud with the young upstarts who see him as a fading patriarch, while Andy Garcia's virile young Turk steps in, as the illegitimate son of deceased Sonny, who seems inherited the raw masculine, ruthless streak that has both saved and condemned the family.

The trilogy shows us that human nature and families, it seems, mean that we make the same mistakes through history. And although it is tainted somewhat by a weaker final instalment, particularly with the miscasting of Francis Ford Coppola's daughter Sofia, it's certainly worth a weekend of anyone's viewing, and a timeless classic to boot. Just make sure you're old enough and patient enough to sit through it.....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Godfather II kicks the ass of I and III. Classic example of a sequel that is better than the original (although in this case the original is pretty damn fine).

The moment where Michael hugs Fredo at their mother's funeral and you see the cold look in his eyes. You know Fredo is a goner. Killer, in every sense of the word.

An interesting adjunct to the cliched debate over which sequels are better than the originals (Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, A Shot In The Dark etc) can be found here:

Just goes to show, box office success is a poor indicator of quality...