Film and TV

Still a Killer

I spent the 68th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre watching The Godfather with the new soundtrack prepared for its 25th anniversary. The scene was a mixing room in the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, California, and the master of ceremonies was much-honored editor and sound expert Walter Murch, credited as "post-production consultant" (i.e., sound-effects supervisor) for the movie's 1972 release and now responsible for bringing it into the digital age. As he explained to the key member of his small audience--the film's director and co-writer, Francis Ford Coppola--Murch had three goals: scraping away the random noise, which in a demonstration sounded like the pop, crackle and fuzz from a hissy tape or dusty old LP; spreading the monophonic music into a new stereo balance; and "subtly and discreetly giving the sound more light and air--augmenting the gunshots, adding a few footsteps." (Simultaneously, in Los Angeles, Paul Haggar, Paramount's longtime post-production chief, was supervising the movie's visual restoration before shipping it to New York for inspection by Gordon Willis, the film's rigorous cinematographer. In Berkeley, Murch used a standard studio print for his audio work; even that looked a lot sharper than recent video editions.)

Throughout the first reel, Murch went back and forth between the old and the new audio, and the difference was astounding. I had always loved the way Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone fondles a cat while clad in a tuxedo, doing business in his study during his daughter Connie's wedding party. The careless caressing of the cat (a Brando improvisation? It wasn't in the script) effortlessly conveys both domesticity and lordliness. In the 1991 home-video version, you can barely hear the cat's meow. On the Murch-engineered track, the cat's purr crawls right up your spine, and chirping wafts in from the birds in the garden. The sounds not only underscore Brando's uncanny acting, they also set off the poetry of the visual design: Killers dwell in shadows while family and prey flutter outside. The music now has an operatic size befitting the scale of the characters without obscuring the clarity of their speech. Referring to a scene he and his family had contributed background lines to, Coppola said, "I can hear my voice; I can hear my mother's voice."

At the first reel break, Coppola acknowledged a "big difference" but also said he was a little worried about Bonasera, the undertaker--who starts the film with the signature first line "I believe in America"--coming off "a bit too sharp." Murch explained, "It may be the sound has to be that brilliant to survive 600 people in a theater." (He later quipped, in a deep, wry tone, "But we don't want to fool too much with anything so deeply entrenched in the civic consciousness.") In the end, though, Coppola said, "I found myself feeling cheated when we left the new version for the old one; I found myself getting caught up in watching the movie, then jarred out of it, so let's stay with it."

Having an excuse to see The Godfather on the big screen again is itself a pleasure. It was not a wide-format film, but unless you have a laserdisc player and a super monitor, there are details and nuances you can't catch on TV. Since the great American movie acting of the last three decades was rooted in this '70s epic, I was delighted to note the poster for a Jake LaMotta fight pegged to a wall behind the Don when he surveys the goods on a fruit stand. And Gordon Willis's cinematography, with its dramatic contrasts between deep brown interiors and sun-kissed landscapes, between spontaneous action and classical tableaux, remains one of the seminal visual influences on crime movies, on period movies, and on movies, period.

But just as the restoration of Bernard Herrmann's score almost stole the show in the new prints of Vertigo, the sound may well prove to be the highlight of a repeat Godfather experience. This is a movie of gasps and tears and exclamations, of lines that gain in irony and resonance the more they are repeated ("It's not personal, it's business"), and of music (by Nino Rota) that lends the action a lyrical surge and ties the Corleone history of nonstop vendettas into a haunting, melancholy waltz.

Coppola orchestrates it all with a feeling for nuance that can still bring tears to your eyes. There's a rending moment when Don Corleone is brought home after he's been shot. Fredo, the son who falls apart from anguish, goes into Corleone's room to see him, but the Don's thoughts are elsewhere--with his favorite son, Michael (Al Pacino, who has fled to Sicily). A clue to why the scene is so affecting came during a reel break in the Valentine's Day screening. Coppola asked, "Does the music come in earlier now for the fade into the Sicilian scene?" Murch pondered a moment and replied, "No, but I think the sheep bells might be coming in a little sooner." Coppola responded, "Maybe that's it, because the point of the scene is that Fredo is thinking of his Dad while his dad is thinking of Michael, so the sheep bells should start when we're looking at the father's face."

Although Coppola has often been depicted--and loves to depict himself--as primarily an emotional and intuitive director, The Godfather is a film filled with correct choices, painstakingly thought out and passionately carried through. And part of what made it a breakthrough as a crime movie is that it's about gangsters who make choices, too, and aren't propelled simply by blood-lust and greed. They're battling for position in New York's Five Families, circa 1945-46. If Don Vito Corleone and successor Michael come off looking better than all the others, it's because they play the power game the cleverest and the best--and the game is sordidly exciting.

For all the movie's warmth, however, you could never confuse the Corleones or their allies and competitors for fun-loving ethnic types. That first scene shows the Don exacting a deadly patronage, coercing Bonasera into vows of love and pledges of unmitigated loyalty in exchange for a feudal bond that can't be broken or forgotten. Before the wedding/office sequence is completed, we've also heard the Don tell a Sinatra-like singer, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), that "a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." Once Coppola ties the themes of power and family together, he takes off with a story in the grand tragic manner. Its theme is the corruption of once-justifiable goals, their altering through histories of struggle and domination. The Corleones are one generation removed from Sicily. They're in the business of staying alive in America, and part of their business requires them to kill.

The growth of Michael Corleone--and Pacino's startling physical and emotional change in the role--gives the film its shape. A college man who's also a World War II hero, he tests his strength and cunning in the streets to avenge his father's near-murder. He states his rationale to his girlfriend (later wife), Kay, played by Diane Keaton: "My father's no different than any other powerful man. Any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." Kay responds: "You know how naive you sound? Senators and presidents don't have men killed." In a line that marked a breakthrough in mainstream political awareness, Michael wearily answers, "Who's being naive, Kay?"

But when Michael says his father's way of doing things is finished, he is being naive. And the way Pacino plays him, you can tell that deep down he knows the vortex of mob violence has sucked him in. Pacino's performance is so intimately felt-out that each milestone (or, in Kay's view, millstone) on his path both catches you by surprise and registers indelibly. There's the moment he stands guard in front of the hospital and realizes that his hands aren't shaking (though the good-hearted baker's helper next to him can scarcely hold on to his cigarette); there's the chilly air of corporate homicide he adopts to prove to his brother, Sonny, that his plan to kill his father's would-be murderer and a crooked cop is "strictly business," not personal; and there's the volcanic eruption of the actual double homicide.

What makes this arc both horrifying and seductive is that we're seeing not just the hardening of a killer, but the strengthening of a young man who's getting back to his roots. That becomes clear when he hides out in Sicily and marries a local beauty named Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). It's as if blasting the dreams of a straight life and getting scarred in single-warrior combat have reconnected him to the earth. When he returns to New York, he continues to be in the second-generation tradition, more cold-blooded and intellectual, more Organization than Family. But he now has the authority of someone who's touched psychic bottom. He has as much control over himself and his loved ones as his father did in his prime. By the time he's taken over the business, he (and Pacino) have found the deceptive emotional reserves of Don Vito--and Brando.

To this day, it's jolting to see Brando as Don Corleone--the receded hairline, the gray pencil moustache, jowls hanging off a twisted mouth, and a voice cracked from years of command. Brando makes the character extraordinarily complex largely through his physical expressiveness. He walks as if his shoulder blades were pinned behind him (which emphasizes an old man's paunch in front). But the sensibility beneath the authority is surprisingly agile: The Don can suddenly break into mimicry or turn his daughter in a waltz with a slight protective bent that catches sentiment in movement. Brando puts so much substance into his relatively few scenes, blowing hot and cold with equal eclat, that he enables Coppola to draw parallels between his sons and himself through nuances at once fleeting and concrete.

James Caan plays the eldest boy, Sonny, like the Don without his lid on. He feels that when he's indulging his appetites (for action and for sex), he's fueling the fires that protect his family. But his lack of control triggers a gang war that ends in his own death. Caan animates his body with a high-strung, barely controlled rage; when he lets go, kicking and bashing his wife-beating brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo), the effect is scary and exhilarating. He's like a Brando action hero on amphetamines. (Talia Shire, as Carlo's wife, Connie, gives a vividly unsentimental performance, expertly toeing the line between pathos and hysteria.) John Cazale's Fredo, who'd be next in line were it not for his weak nature, has the surprising nakedness and sensitivity Brando showed in movies like The Men. Even Robert Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Vito's German-Irish "adopted" son and consigliori, echoes Brando in his eloquent wariness, his furtive intelligence.

The film begins with a trumpet solo that sets off sad, comic and heroic vibrations. You may doubt a movie could live up to the music and create a resounding mixture of its own. But as the brass flourish turns into a waltz, Coppola and his co-adapter, Puzo, set inexorable dramatic rhymes to it. Courtship strolls and wedding scenes, church rituals and ritual murders, match up and enter into a brew that's heady, true, and devastatingly shocking. Part of the black magic of The Godfather is the way it depicts how Catholicism operates in the Corleones' world--as salvation and cover for evil. When Coppola intercuts a christening with a mass assassination, The Godfather brings us into the worldview of the wicked, where there is no God (only godfathers) and where the men who rule in His stead camouflage brutality with the rites of church and family.

The Godfather.
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, from Puzo's novel. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With Marlon Brando,Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Sterling Hayden and John Cazale.

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Michael Sragow

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