It is easy to forget just how good this film is. Sure, it's a classic,
and sure it deserves its place in the history of cinema for the fact
that it virtually revived the gangster picture, that it was part of the
new era of graphic violence in cinema, and for the extraordinary
performance (and salary of an old star (Brando) and a new star
(Pacino). But seeing it again, on the big screen in its 25th
anniversary re-release, I'm struck by what a great yarn it is. It is
longish - 175 minutes - and it is almost soapy in parts, but it also
even more brilliant than I remember it.
The wedding sequence which begins the picture runs for almost half an
hour. It is more than brilliantly sustained - you want to be there! And
I'd not noticed before just how much cross-cutting there is throughout
the whole film. Coppola shows us scenes of banal domesticity - cooking,
squealing infants, family meals, and of course the famous Baptism
sequence, then cross cuts to scenes of appalling violence and
bloodshed. Food, family, religion and crime are all given equal weight
in this world.
Coppola is absolutely assured in his filmmaking. I thought Krzysztof
Kiéslowski was the master when it comes to keeping the camera
lingering on the face for an eternity, producing an exquisite interval
of reflection. But in The Godfather, I saw how Coppola had done this
before Kiéslowski made his first film. In the famous horse-head
scene, watch how Coppola cuts to and lingers on Brando's face as he
leans back in his padded chair. See how long he sustains that moment,
and watch how Brando earns his dough.
Another thing I noticed this time round was the use of sound. Not just
long-time Fellini collaborator Nino Rota's terrific score (supplemented
by Carmine Coppola's wedding music - Carmine is Francis's father), but
the way that Coppola uses sound to underscore the action. Two standout
examples: the sound of approaching trains as Pacino prepares to do his
first murders, and the organ music (Bach) which accompanies the Baptism
and the following sequence of gangland assassinations.
Other delights this time round: Talia Shire (Coppola's sister) is
terrific as Connie Corleone. 50s tough guy Sterling Hayden appears as
McClusky, the crooked cop. 50s action hero/gangster Richard Conte
appears as one of the heads of the "Five Families". The three Mafia
strongmen : Tessio (Abe Vigoda), Clemenza (Richard Castellano) and the
dreaded Luca Brazzi - all give strong, deep, intelligent performances.
James Caan is showy, mercurial and dangerous as Sonny, and Robert
Duvall gives his role a quiet dignity. But Pacino is quite
extraordinary as he moves from war hero with wasp girlfriend to stone
killer to political master. There's very little of his later tics and
trickery here, and none of that bad habit of overplaying. This is
Pacino at his best.
And I haven't even said anything yet about Gordon Willis ("the Prince
of Darkness") and his cinematography. That glorious gloom, those golden
glows! They seem to have faded a little on the print I saw, but I can't
be sure about that. When the action moves to the hot summer in Sicily,
you realise how much Gordon has kept us lurking in the shadows, and you
can almost feel the heat and want to slap the buzzing insects away.
It is a familiar film, so much so that I occasionally found myself
finishing sentences for the characters, and doing their next moves. But
it is still profoundly moving, and a great cinematic experience.