NOT THE STEREOTYPICAL SHOOT ‘EM UP GANGSTER FLICK
BY NICOLE SPEZIA
“I believe in America,” are the first husky and accented words of The Godfather that establish the theme which runs rampant through the course of the movie – a family trying to survive in America. The Corleone mob family is not only riddled with bullets, but also with problems like anyone else’s: adultery, domestic violence, competition, death, and clashing personalities. Director Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) co-wrote the screenplay for this monumental movie adapted from Mario Puzo’s widely read novel of the same title. Puzo was the second half of the screenplay duo.
Paramount released The Godfather DVD Collection last year, which contains all three of the series’ movies and an extra DVD with more than three hours worth of fun-filled movie facts for the whole family. This DVD Collection was released in today’s hypersensitive society where people bully anything that has to do with the Mafia, like HBO’s series The Sopranos. Some Italian Americans, like Marty Piccillo of the National Italian American Coordinating Association, claim that these sources of entertainment are “fictional and negative.” The Godfather DVD Collection emphasizes the fact that this movie is not meant to promote negative “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” stereotypes. The Godfather illustrates a family’s intricate and complicated story with unprecedented character quality (thank the movie gods that Joe Pesci had no part in this flick) and striking cinematography and lighting.
The acting and well-written characters are the glue that holds the viewers’ attention in The Godfather while the plot takes twists and turns that can only be straightened after multiple viewings. The DVDs definitely make it easier to go back and watch those “huh?” scenes.
Brando’s portrayal of the road-map-faced and cotton-stuffed-cheeked Vito Corleone won him an Academy Award for best actor in 1972. Brando’s acting was so convincing that he could very well be that old guy in the corner at family reunions that scares the hell out of all the little kids. However sinful Vito’s actions, he is a quintessential family man. “I never wanted this for you,” Vito, the now ol’ wino, explains to the Michael, the new and improved next generation of mobsters.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis, or “The Prince of Darkness” as one co-worker calls him in an interview on the extra DVD, is responsible for the picturesque mobster essence of Vito’s character. While conducting a business meeting, Vito looms behind a desk petting an overly affectionate cat that sucks up to him as much as his clientele does. The overhead lighting hides Vito’s eyes – turning them into caves. This lighting effect makes you wonder what thoughts are running through Vito’s head, and if he is hiding any dead bodies in those caves. The DVD collection gives a much sharper, digitally enhanced picture of these techniques than video ever could.
The cinematography and lighting are characters all to themselves – even if they do have multiple-personality disorders. The lighting of the indoor scenes throughout the movie looks as if a few candles, or one tiny lamp, are trying to light up an impossibly large room with peepholes for windows. This overhead lighting technique and underexposed shots are successful in creating the gloomy dark side that pulls you into the mob meetings. In contrast to the underworld of the Corleone compound, Willis takes the movie out into ritzy California and the sun-scorched countryside of Sicily. The outdoor scenes have a brassy or yellow tone that gives the movie a stunning antiqued quality.
Willis is probably the only cinematographer who could turn an assassination scene into a thing of beauty with only a shiny black car, a dried field, and the Statue of Liberty. After the shot rings clear, Clemenza, a Corleone henchmen, most famously replies, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
Richard Castellano’s role as Clemenza is the most under-praised character in The Godfather. Clemenza is the comic relief in a world filled with serious drama. This pudgy dough-man casually delivers witty lines like “I left [the gun] noisy. That way it scares any pain in the ass innocent bystanders away.”
The extra DVD is chock full of the various Academy Awards given to the cast. The high caliber performances from James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino won them each best supporting actor nominations. Not surprisingly, the role of Fredo (John Cazale), the brother who is obviously suffering from middle child syndrome, was not nominated. Fredo, the whimpering Corleone oddity, is more convincing as a sleazy lounge lizard called “Freddie” than a guy who can take care of business like his other siblings.
Pacino’s skill in developing Michael’s character is streamlined like a pistol’s bullet. Michael starts out as a round-eyed, Dartmouth educated World War II hero and aspiring senator who only has eyes for milk-toast Kay (Diane Keaton). Michael is sent to “off” his father’s attempted assassins and then fleas to Sicily for a year. That’s quite a career change.
In Sicily, Michael starts anew with a buxom new wife Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), the polar opposite of Kay. Apollonia’s English vocabulary only consists of the days of the week (and not necessarily in the right order), contrary to the surprisingly well-educated Kay’s naïve jabber. Unfortunately, one thing leads to another, “badda-beep badda-bop,” and Michael settles for milk-toast, but this time Pacino has gracefully transformed Michael into a colder, darker, and meaner character than before.
The chemistry between Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the Corleone family’s lawyer and adopted son, and Vito’s hot-headed son Sonny (James Caan) is captivating. Tom’s reason and Sonny’s passion meet each other with a fiery chemical explosion when arguments turn towards the well-being of the family after the Tattaglias attempt to murder Vito.
Tom: “Nobody wants bloodshed…you make the deal, Sonny.”
Sonny: “It’s easy for you to say, Tom. He’s not your father.”
Tom: “I’m as much of a son to him as you or Mike.”
Then, as if a clean-up crew was invisibly called to the chemical disaster, the argument subsides and they are once again loving brothers giving each other cheerful pats on the back. Okay, maybe they don’t go that far.
The only character who is unabashedly annoying is Kay. Keaton’s overacted interpretation of Kay’s naivety is nauseating. Kay berates members of the Corleone family with questions about their business, which everyone in the country knows the answer to, except for her. Doesn’t Kay ever read the newspapers? C’mon. Kay can almost get away with a sympathy vote, but someone needs to tell her to wake up. Yes, Kay, you are married to the Mafia. Now snap out of it.
To discount The Godfather because it may portray negative stereotypes of Italian Americans is ridiculous. The Godfather DVD Collection as a whole, and especially the extra DVD, shows how much brainpower was running this well-oiled machine of a movie. People who cannot move beyond stereotypes are missing out on a brilliant story about a family that remains close-knit through all of its trials, tribulations, and occasional assassinations.