New series: My favourite film
Why I love… The Godfather
“The finest, most complete film ever made” says What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision editor, Simon Lucas, of The Godfather. But do you agree?
I didn’t see The Godfather for the first time until the film was maybe 12 years old and already widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. I would have been around 15 – too young to see it in the pictures, but plenty old enough to be convinced both of my own maturity and my impeccable good taste in cinema.
By 1984 The Godfather was a monolith, one of the cornerstones of modern American cinema. But seeing it for the first time was like making a discovery all by myself, and all of my own. This sensation will be familiar to anyone hearing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, or watching Annie Hall, or listening to Nevermind for the first time… The best works of art are intensely personal – they communicate directly and on a very intimate level. And they leave you altered. Certainly The Godfather became, for me, the film by which all others must be judged. And while I’ve seen many fine films since, well, they’re just not The Godfather, are they?
As a piece of cinema, it’s nigh-on perfect. Read Peter Biskind’s excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls to find out just how fraught the production was, how director Francis Ford Coppola was this close to being fired constantly, how Paramount Pictures didn’t want him, or Brando, or Pacino, anywhere near the film. And then marvel at the confidence and authority of the finished product.
What sets The Godfather apart from other films, even those that have been critically and popularly acclaimed, is the length of the shadow it casts. If you’ve never seen The Godfather, it’s possible that it might look like a rather generic mafia/gangster film. But the reason all mafia/gangster films look the way they do is because of The Godfather. The pacing, the muted sepia colour palette, the coexistence of the banal and the bloodily violent, the slang and the suits… Mafia/gangster movies existed before The Godfather, of course, and The Godfather borrows cheerfully from the best of these. But through its subtle portrayal of amoral men as characters of complexity and depth, it also unwittingly established a template. And from Goodfellas to The Sopranos, you deviate from the template at your peril.
But while other films can imitate, or be inspired, they will never produce the sort of incendiary acting power the cast of The Godfather generate. There’s just not a false note sounded by any of the main players: Diane Keaton (innocence), John Cazale (weakness), James Caan (shoulders) and Robert Duvall (pate) and the rest convince utterly. The doe-eyed (and, at the time, pretty much unknown) Al Pacino, muttering darkly through his character Michael’s broken cheekbone, is riveting. And yet it’s Marlon Brando (truculent, troublesome, disinterested in learning a script), as Vito Corleone, who’s the most compelling of all. Watch the scene where Vito, lying grievously wounded in a hospital bed, learns that Michael has killed the corrupt Captain McCluskey and ‘Turk’ Sollozzo. It’s a close-up that lasts perhaps four or five seconds, and Brando simply turns his head away, but it’s as powerful and eloquent a moment as cinema has ever produced.
For a while back there I was quite deeply preoccupied by The Godfather. I watched my VHS copy a lot, but probably peaked with the DVD release: I reckon I watched it about once every three or four months for the thick end of ten years. There’s a whole new level of enjoyment and appreciation to be had from the Blu-ray re-release, though – this must be what it was like to watch it at the cinema. The mellow, ivory white tones are almost luminous, the set-dressing and costumes are obsessive in their details, and the entire thing is beautifully lit and photographed. Even Nino Rota’s now-ubiquitous score (a much statelier and portentous reworking of his score to 1958’s Fortunella) benefits from the high-definition treatment.
If you want a nuanced retelling of the story of American capitalism, a brilliantly scripted soap-opera of an immigrant family’s desire to establish itself in a new land, or just to watch some of the finest screen-actors in cinema history turning in hair-raising performances, The Godfather is where it’s at. It’s the finest, most complete film ever made.
Simon Lucas is the editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision