Short of Blu-ray high definition, these standard-def DVDs are about as good as one could ask for.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

What more can anyone say? We've got at least two of the best films ever made, restored and/or remastered. Short of Blu-ray high definition, these standard-def DVDs are about as good as one could ask for.

When Paramount first released the three "Godfather" films on DVD back in 2001, I commented in my review at the time that they looked a bit on the soft side, with slightly faded colors and a touch of noise. Shortly after posting the review, I received an e-mail from the transfer engineer, who told me that the DVD picture looked exactly like the originals prints. I had no doubt this was true, but I also believe the original prints were by then probably showing the effects of age. Apparently, Francis Coppola and Paramount had second thoughts about the prints, too, because now we have the official "Coppola Restoration," with the first two films getting clean ups, color corrections, and restorations, and the third film a remastering. They look better than ever.

It took a while for Coppola to restore "The Godfather" films, but here they are, "Godfathers I, II, and III," looking better than we've ever seen them before in the home, packaged together in a grand, five-disc DVD boxed set that also includes a whole mob of extra materials. The Coppola Restoration of "The Godfather Collection" will delight motion-picture buffs, gangster-movie buffs, home-theater buffs, and just about anybody else who values good filmmaking.

So, anyway, a few years back I was watching one of those cable TV documentaries about gangsters, and the narrator remarked that by the early seventies real-life Mafiosi had lost touch with any sense of pride in their dubious heritage. Then "The Godfather" came along, and many of the younger crowd of hoods began imitating what they saw on the screen. The clothing, the style, even some of the talk they copied from the movie. Art imitated life and, in return, life imitated art. The circle goes round and round.

"The Godfather":
Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 classic, "The Godfather," is to gangster films what Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" was to super spectaculars. It's among the grandest of the lot in scope and vision, a film eclipsed in this regard only by Coppola's own 1974 sequel, "The Godfather, Part II." Yet "The Godfather" tells a uniquely personal story that places it in a league of its own. It's no wonder, then, that the American Film Institute voted it the second-best American film in history or that some people even consider it THE best, as "Entertainment Weekly" said in their book, "The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time." It would be over a dozen years before Coppola attempted a third installment in the series with 1990's "The Godfather, Part III," which didn't live up to expectations but turned out to be a pretty good movie in any case.

"The Godfather," as you know, actually chronicles the life and times of two fictional godfathers of crime, Don Vito (Marlon Brando) Corleone, the old man and patriarch of the Corleone family, and his son Michael (Al Pacino), who eventually inherits the mantle of "Godfather." Based on the best-selling novel by Mario Puzo, who co-wrote the screenplay, the story begins in 1945, at the close of the Second World War, during the wedding of the old Don's daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). Coppola has a wonderful eye for detail, and the wedding reception is as good an introduction as any to the big Sicilian family that would dominate all three "Godfather" films. Above all, these films are about the importance of family, and in almost every other scene Coppola has a baby crying to emphasize the point.

But it's when Coppola takes us into the Corleone home during the festivities that we get to see what's really up; the kindred family may be in the midst of celebration, but the business family goes on as usual, as supplicants come to do homage to the powerful Don and ask him favors. Coppola and Puzo also introduce us here to son Michael, a returning War hero; his fiancée, Kay (Diane Keaton); Michael's older, hotheaded brother, Sonny (James Caan); and the weaker brother, Fredo (John Cazale). Then there are the Mob family associates: Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), Sal Tessio (Abe Vigoda), Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana, who has one of the most memorable scenes in the whole "Godfather" saga when he comes to congratulate the Don on his daughter's marriage), and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). In addition, we meet Al Martino as pop singer Johnny Fontaine (supposedly patterned after Frank Sinatra) and Richard Conte as a powerful rival gangster, the dapper Don Barzini. Later, we meet Sterling Hayden as a crooked police captain, McCluskey; John Marley as a Hollywood mogul, Jack Woltz; and Al Lettieri as a ruthless killer, Virgil Sollozzo.

Interestingly, I've read that in order for Coppola to make the first "Godfather" film in New York, he had to agree not to use the words "Mafia" or "Cosa Nostra" anywhere in it (the film refers to the Mob as the "family business" and the "syndicate," instead). Otherwise, the New York Mob might have caused some trouble with the production. The gangsters, though, liked what they eventually saw. Also interestingly, I've read that Coppola initially wanted Sir Laurence Olivier to play Don Vito Corleone, but novelist Puzo wanted Brando, and Brando won out, thanks to his own eager desire to play the role and despite Paramount's less-than-enthusiastic appraisal of the idea. Indeed, the studio showed its displeasure with most of Coppola's choices for the major roles, including using relative unknown Al Pacino as young Michael; according to Coppola on the commentary track, it almost came to the point of the studio firing the director. Brando later said he tried to imitate gangster Frank Costello's voice in the movie, but he had to redub some of his dialogue because it was so hard to understand.

Yes, the movie received its fair share of criticism and still does, regardless of its importance. Mainly, we find people criticizing what they perceive as Coppola popularizing the gangster myth, romanticizing and glamorizing it. Certainly, the director and screenwriter go out their way to make Don Vito an honorable man. But they don't for a moment let us forget about the corrupt business they're in. Despite a tight budget, Coppola produced a classic, and the film eventually won three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay Adaptation.

Film value: 10/10

"The Godfather, Part II":
Thanks to the enormous success of "The Godfather," Paramount gave Coppola more money and a freer hand in directing the sequel, "The Godfather, Part II" (not that it pleased Coppola to do a sequel. Again on the commentary track he says he did not have a good time doing the first movie, and he was in no hurry to do another one. I guess they made him an offer he couldn't refuse.)

Using a broader canvas, Coppola provides not one but two stories in the longest of the three "Godfather" movies. Not only do we get to see Michael's consolidation of strength as new head of the Mob family and his move West to open casinos in Las Vegas, we get to see how it all started in flashbacks to a young Vito Corleone's rise from poverty to power during the early part of the twentieth century. For me, these early days are the best parts of the picture, providing an epic landscape of events and an exquisite tapestry of characterizations.

Everyone assumed Brando would come back to star in the sequel, but he said he had done the first film as a social comment on American corporate power and had no interest in doing another one. The fact that Paramount still didn't want much to do with the tempestuous Brando probably added to the actor turning down the role. So, Coppola worked around him, filming a few scenes with the older Don present but out of the room. Fortunately, the rest of the cast was to shine with even greater brilliance. Actor's Studio director and "method" advocate Lee Strasberg made his screen debut as Hyman Roth, the moneyman of the mob families, a character patterned on real-life gangster Meyer Lansky (after seeing the film, Lansky congratulated Strasberg on his portrayal but wished he had made him a little more honorable). And, of course, Coppola tapped Robert De Niro to play the younger Don Vito, a milestone in the actor's career (and another casting choice of which the studio did not initially approve).

This second film garnered twice the Academy Awards of its predecessor, again for Best Picture and this time also for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. By the way, if the Corleone estate at Lake Tahoe looks impressive, it should be; it was the property of former industrialist Henry J. Kaiser.

"Michael, we're bigger than U.S. Steel," says Hyman Roth.

Film value: 10/10

"The Godfather, Part III":
By the time Paramount released "The Godfather, Part III" in 1990, public interest in gangster films was beginning to wane, and the movie fell short of its progenitors in critical appraisal and box-office receipts. Reviews of the day tended to point fingers at Coppola's decision to cast his own daughter, Sofia, in the major role of Michael's now-grown daughter. Ms. Coppola had done only a little acting in films previously, and many critics thought her performance detracted from the overall high standards of the production. Actually, I don't think many viewers among the general public even noticed her lack of theatrical experience, and, in fact, she carries off her part with a sweet naïveté that is fully in accord with her film character.

No, I rather suspect that one can attribute the third film's lackluster reception more to the fact that audiences found it overly complicated and hard to follow, and that most of the Corleone family we had come to know (and dare I say love?) had been killed off or disappeared by this time. After all, there was no more Brando or De Niro or Duvall or Caan or Castellano. Only Pacino, Shire, and Keaton were still in evidence, looking older and more careworn than in the earlier pictures.

Nevertheless, the director's introduction of Andy Garcia as Sonny's high-spirited son (and Michael's protégé), Vincent, seems inspired; as are Eli Wallach as old Don Altobello, Joe Mantegna as gangster Joey Zasa, George Hamilton as new consigliere B.J. Harrison, and Raf Vallone as Cardinal Lamberto. What's more, the movie has a polished grandeur about it that is hard to deny, especially in the famous closing moments during Coppola's poetic intercuts between opera hall and murder plot.

In this final installment, which begins in 1979, thirty-four years after the first story began, Michael and Kay have divorced, and Michael has moved back to New York. As he looks back on his life, Michael sees that he has gained everything yet nothing, and he now seeks respectability and redemption. He tries to go legitimate by severing his ties with the old Mafia families, but, as he says, "Just when I thought I was out, they force me back in."

The viewer will see a number of similarities in "Part III" and "Part I," which I'm sure Coppola meant intentionally. They both open with big family celebrations; they both use New York and Sicilian locations; they both combine Mob business with corporate business; and they both end in operatic climaxes. Oh, and again watch for the cannoli.

Michael is maneuvering to take over a worldwide corporation that the Vatican controls, and basically he attempts to bribe the Church to do it. He donates $100,000,000 to a humanitarian program, for which the Church outwardly honors him and secretly agrees to go along with his plans to take over the reins of the company they own. But the old Mafia families want in on the deal with Michael. I've watched this film maybe a half a dozen times now, and, frankly, I still don't understand all the internal machinations that go on.

"The higher I go," says Michael, "the crookeder it becomes."

The Academy nominated "The Godfather, Part III" for seven Academy Awards, but it won none. The nominations were for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Andy Garcia), Cinematography (Gordon Willis), Song (Carmine Coppola, music, and John Bettis, lyrics), Art Direction, and Film Editing.

Film value: 8/10

As I mentioned earlier, I found Paramount's first DVD release of these movies to look a bit soft, faded, and noisy. The studio has taken care of those concerns in these 1.85:1-ratio, anamorphic transfers, the first two movies fully restored and the third movie remastered. All of the burnished golden-browns and shadowy blacks I remember from the motion-picture theater are deeper and richer than ever, with cinematographer Gordon Willis's intentionally dark tone ever present. What's more, Paramount's restoration engineers have left in much of the films' original grain to provide a pleasantly lifelike texture. However, note that none of the three movies was ever particularly sharp in definition, and these standard-def reproductions pretty much leave that alone, too. So, the movies look far more opulent than before, while maintaining a certain degree of grain and softness.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes for the three films continue as a varied batch, spanning, as the productions do, nearly a twenty-year period. All of them convey a reasonably wide dynamic range that renders dialogue, frequency response, and effects realistically. However, they differ considerably in their ability to convey rear-channel information, the third film sounding the more natural in this regard. By "The Godfather, Part II" the sound opens up a bit more than in "Part I," and Nino Rota's musical score, in particular sounds excellent by the final installment in the series, where the audio appears to have even wider, more dynamic, and more ambient qualities. The "however" in all this is that I continued to note some nasality, some shrillness, some hollowness, and some over-exuberance in selected passages. There is only so much modern technology can do to improve older sound mixes, particularly in the first two movies.

You want extras? You've got 'em. Two additional discs full in this five-disc DVD set. Discs one, two and three contain the feature films, with audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola. These are the same commentaries the director recorded for the 2001 release of the films on DVD, so if you already have the earlier set, there's nothing new here. However, if you haven't heard them, they are among the best of their kind. In addition to the movies, the first three discs contain twenty-three, thirty, and twenty-five scene selections respectively; and English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Despite the labeling on the final two discs, disc four actually contains bonus materials newly made for the current release, and disc five contains archived bonus materials from the 2001 set. The first new item on disc four is "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't," about thirty minutes with comments on the movie from lot of major filmmakers. Next up is "Godfather World," eleven minutes on the film's influence on modern culture. Then, there's "Emulsional Rescue Revealing The Godfather," nineteen minutes on Willis's dark cinematography. Following that is "…when the Shooting Stopped," fourteen minutes on the film's editing. Next, there is "The Godfather on the Red Carpet," four minutes of interviews with celebrities at the restoration première. Finally, we get four short films on "The Godfather": "The Godfather vs. The Godfather, Part II," "Cannoli," "Riffing on the Riffing," and "Clemenza," the four totaling about seven minutes. I enjoyed the trivia here, like why and how did Clemenza dies.

Disc five contains the material previously released for the 2001 set of DVDs. Here, you'll find "The Godfather: A Look Inside," "On Location," "Francis Coppola's Notebook," "The Music of The Godfather," "Coppola and Puzo on Screenwriting," "Gordon Willis on Cinematography," Storyboards from "The Godfather, Part II," Storyboards from "The Godfather, Part III," "The Godfather Behind the Scenes 1971," and "The Filmmakers: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, Nino Rota, Carmine Coppola." Things conclude with a whole slew of additional scenes, arranged chronologically; "Acclaim and Response," theatrical trailers, a family tree of characters you can click on, a photo gallery, and a rogue's gallery of villains.

The five DVDs come housed in four slim-line cases, the fourth case containing the two discs of extras. The four cases come further enclosed in an attractively embossed slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
Celluloid outlaws and hoodlums have been with us since the earliest days of Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith, but, ironically, it would be the U.S. Government that indirectly encouraged Hollywood's major excursions into the world of gangsters. As a consequence of lawmakers' ill-conceived legislation leading to Prohibition in the Twenties, Americans consumed more alcohol per capita than at any time before or since. Concurrently, to quench the country's thirst for illicit booze, there was an attendant rise in organized crime that would go largely unchecked for the next fifty years. Is it any wonder that Hollywood would document this phenomenon in movies of the thirties and make stars of such actors as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, and others?

I'm sure no one is proud of the dark side of America's past or present, nor have most serious filmmakers attempted to glorify or glamorize the subject matter. But that hasn't stopped the public from being fascinated by gangsterism all the same. Coppola followed a time-honored Hollywood tradition in making his Corleone family trilogy, adding a depth of character, background, and narration that had never been achieved so successfully in gangster films before, a depth that would only be approached by Martin Scorsese's hard-edged "Mean Streets," "Goodfellas," and "Casino" in the years that followed. "The Godfather" movies represent filmmaking at its best--from their superb characterizations and acting to their innovative direction and striking camera work. Paramount's new DVD presentations of the films are the best we could hope for, short of high-definition.

And let's not forget that Coppola not only gave us three fine films, two of them among the best ever made, but he afforded audiences unique views on popular song, opera, food, and family that are as positive and uplifting as anything in the history of cinema.

The Coppola Restoration of "The Godfather Collection" is an offer that's hard to refuse.


Film Value