Francis Ford Coppola, Godfather | Daily News

Francis Ford Coppola, Godfather

The Conversation
The Conversation

Countless films have been made about the mob, but none of them identifies as much with it as did The Godfather. Long revered, and rightly, as the best of its kind, The Godfather didn’t so much revive the gangster genre as redefine it. It questioned our assumptions about the mob. It explained their choices and actions in terms of their logic, turning them into heroic figures. It didn’t sympathise with them, but it didn’t condemn them either.

Nor, in fact, did it distance us from them: it took us into their midst, making us a part of their world. By the end of it – and by the end of its two sequels – we had lived through what they had lived through, silent spectators to a lengthy saga.

The earliest gangster films, from pre-Code Hollywood, revelled in turning their characters into myths. The best of them was Little Caesar: he snarled, he snapped, and all the while he made you feel for him. Later, after the Depression, the detective took his place: the best of them was Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Philip Marlow.

There was nothing romantic about these people, nor about the criminals they were hounding: only an ineffable sense of mystery about who they were and what they were doing. Roman Polanski epitomised that quality in Chinatown, and later Robert Mitchum caught some of it when he played an older Philip Marlowe.

The Godfather combined the slick veneer of the early gangster flicks with the ineffable enigma of the later detective thrillers. Though it’s tempting to compare it with Chinatown, no two films could have been more different: Polanski’s film was a throwback to the morally ambiguous private detective of the 1940s and the intrigues of that period, while The Godfather represented a portmanteau of two very different eras.

This is not to say that Francis Ford Coppola’s reimagining of the Italian-American mafia compounded two genres – merely that it evoked them, and also went beyond them: more than any gangster or detective film before, it told us everything from the perspective of the mafia and the mob. Whereas the early gangster thrillers gave the cops a chance to tell their side of the story, Coppola’s film made no such concessions.

It’s not wrong to view a film like The Godfather along the lines of a film like The Leopard, and not just because of its three-hour duration: both films depict the rise and fall, the foibles and triumphs, of a family who do what they can to keep up their dignity. The Godfather pays a more than passing tribute to the epic saga, though watching it you get so engrossed by the story that you fail to notice the passing time. You feel what these people are going through; you feel their need for retribution. When the killings finally do come – and they always come – it’s the crescendo you’ve been waiting for.

Unlike The Leopard, however, you don’t feel that there’s an ending: when the films wrap up, you realise that the cycle will continue, that the family will continue, that there will be more killings, that fathers will beget sons, that sons will take after their fathers, that they will seek revenge against those who slight them and their families. There is no philosophical sangfroid or joi de vivre here: for the Corleones, the show must go on.

What’s incredible about a film like The Godfather is that it was made at all. It was, like the gangster and the detective film, very much a product of its time. If Little Caesar thrived in Pre-Code Hollywood and Sam Spade thrived in Hays Code Hollywood, the Corleone family came out to the open at the peak of New Hollywood.

This was a time when directors made films that bore their imprint, that pointed to a personal vision, reflective of a cinema which wasn’t limited by the strictures of production companies. It was in such a Hollywood that Francis Ford Coppola thrived, as did Scorsese, De Palma, Friedkin, and Bogdanovich. The Godfather could not have been made before, it could not have been made after. It had to made during this period, and it was.

In many ways Coppola was the most unassuming of the New Hollywood lot. Born to a family of second generation Italian immigrants, he earned a degree in theatre in 1960 and then switched to the UCLA Film School. He directed his first short film, a comedy about a peeping tom, with a Playboy model and a close friend. Shot for about USD 3,000, it did not hit well with critics or audiences, and several years later he wound up as an assistant to the great Roger Corman. A year or so after working for Corman, he made his first feature-length film, Dementia 13. Unlike his earlier efforts, this one succeeded.

Three films later he co-wrote the script for Patton, one of the best movies about American military figures ever made. Two years later, The Godfather came out. It was followed by a string of hits and misses, most immediately by The Conversation, reckoned to be Coppola’s best work after the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now.

Apocalypse Now is perhaps the most dystopian film about the Vietnam War, and in my view it is Coppola’s finest. It is grittier than Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, even his Best Picture-winning Platoon. That year it won the Golden Palm at Cannes, where the director famously said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”

Then came the great fall. In 1982 he directed a musical comedy, One from the Heart. Like Peter Bogdanovich channelling Burt Reynolds’s and Cybill Shepherd’s largely non-existent musical talents in At Long Last Love, it flopped and compelled the studios to regain control over film production. Coppola’s reputation was tarnished, almost for good, though he made a comeback of sorts with The Outsiders barely a year later. Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club, made in 1983 and 1984 respectively, also did well with audiences and critics, while Tucker: The Man and His Dream signalled a return to form.

It was at this point that he decided to make The Godfather: Part III. Taking place several years after Part II, Part III charts the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, played unforgettably by Al Pacino in the first two parts and played here, by him, as an ageing patriarch. The real star of the film is meant to be his nephew, played by the intrepid Andy Garcia – he won an Oscar nomination for the role – but, as with its predecessors, here Pacino occupies centre stage, along with his ex-wife Kay, played by Diane Keaton.

The story is much more complex and labyrinth than the second, and it involves the Vatican, but at the end, all that matters is what happens to Pacino’s character. His death in the end is both tragic but inevitable: he’s lived through one sin after another, and he pays for them all, ultimately with the murder of his daughter.

Critics were not all that positive about the new Godfather. Pauline Kael bluntly asked, “Why another?” Roger Ebert, who had given full four-star ratings to Part I and Part II, gave a three-star rating to this. He noted that it wasn’t as good as its predecessors, but that on its own, it stood out well. The New York Times’s Janet Maslin, never one to let up a movie if she felt it needed to be let down, was more facetious: she titled her review “The Corleones Try to Go Straight,” though she noted that it was “inevitable, and as such... irresistible.”

Perhaps because of the reputation of the first two instalments, Part III won Oscar nominations for production, direction, and acting. But though it is a fitting coda to the story, critics and audiences were not too willing to concur that Part II needed a follow-up, and that we needed to know what happened to the people in the story. This is just as well: some films needed sequels, and The Godfather may not have been among them.

Coppola’s work since The Godfather Part III has been largely successful. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, made in 1992, is more dazzling visual than coherent narrative, but it reveals the man’s flamboyance. Like Brian De Palma, his recent efforts have divided critics, very often getting positive reviews from one part of the world and overwhelmingly negative ones in another: Twixt, made in 2011 and starring Val Kilmer and Elle Fanning, for instance, received acclaim in France, but was lambasted elsewhere. In that sense Coppola belongs to the same league as Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, and William Friedkin: the New Hollywood set who never really outgrew the reputations they had built up at the peak of their careers. This is perhaps to be regrettable, but then, in one sense, it is also inevitable.

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