The screen is darkened, almost muted. A small, desperate man sits, manufacturing sweat and discomfort in artificial light.
"I believe in America," he says, and so begins Francis Ford Coppola's magnificent "Godfather" saga, perhaps the most revered two-film cycle in history, encompassing a dark tale of crime and family, of destiny and chaos, a tapestry of our times.
Of course those words turned out to be ironic, for they played on the asker's belief that the Mafia world from which he was petitioning a favor was somehow different than the America he believes in. And the thrust of the film and its deepest, most troubling meaning, was that the Mafia was America, an extension of its business practices, its love of corporate structure, its materialism and venality. And, ultimately, its paranoia. But no passionate moviegoer will forget the sheer sensual pleasure of that first voyage through, and no passionate moviegoer will ever forget the stunning discovery that its sequel was every bit the work of genius as the first and that the two had a way of reassembling themselves into one meta-gangster movie in your head, years before television thought of doing it.
The movies, arriving in 1972 and 1974, may have been the high-water mark of the character-driven drama. Though they were somewhat romanticized in their notions of criminality, their fundamental strength was the strength of character, not plot. In a way that has almost been forgotten in '80s and '90s movies, the "Godfathers" enabled you to believe in the force of personality.
The initial appeal was wish-fulfillment. How sweet it was to give yourself up to the fantasy of a Godfather, an immensely powerful puppet master to whom you had lovingly sold your soul and who could get things mysteriously done. Your career a shambles? The Godfather knew whom to call. You want a justice, however rough, that the courts could not supply? The Godfather would see that you got justice. There's a part of every ambitious man or woman that yearns to have a Godfather, a kind of mentor from hell.
What made the illusion so enticing was that this mysterious gentleman was not played with barbaric ferocity and crudity but with old world nobility by Marlon Brando; his very approach was as understated as a Gucci ad, as in, "Make him an offer he can't refuse." Brando's voice was cracked and muted, he never spoke loudly, he was an excellent listener, never a braggart or a bully, his sense of human weakness was shrewd and his sense of his own limits vivid. Brando gave the concept flesh and honor and romanticized it.
His son and reluctant heir, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, stood for the other side of the process. If the first Godfather meant power and strength of character and old-world manners, the second one stood for the coming of new values that prized efficiency over honor. Michael Corleone had but one goal: to protect his family. And his method was simple: He destroyed his family. His was the triumph of paranoia over honor.
The second movie was therefore built of contrasts: It was comprised of background material on young Vito (played by Robert De Niro) from the original novel, and new material developed by the novelist Mario Puzo and Coppola that roughly followed the pattern of roman a clef established in the first, with Lee Strasberg playing a "Hyman Roth," who was a thinly veiled version of Meyer Lansky. It played rise against fall, and left Michael triumphant yet isolated. He had saved his family from itself by destroying his family. He was the king of nothing.
It can be no coincidence that this film arrived at the height of the Vietnam war, when we were in the throes of saving Vietnam by destroying it. And it was eerie that it broke just before the Watergate scandal, in which a president would attempt to save democracy by violating it. Thus the movie was the sublime expression of the paranoia and the sickness that beset the culture in those days; to see it now is to mourn the intergenerational confusions of the time.
And now -- 16 years after Michael was left alone on the shore of Lake Tahoe, having saved nothing -- he returns. The offer that no passionate moviegoer will be able to refuse arrives on Christmas day; "The Godfather Part III" will open.
As to the new movie's ultimate artistic destiny, no knowledge is possible. What is possible now is some calculation of what's at stake. For Francis Coppola, the director and co-scenarist of the films, it's only everything.
Coppola is the true auteur of the films, even though Mario Puzo, who wrote the original 1969 novel, co-wrote all three films with Coppola.
"The sensibility at work," wrote Pauline Kael of Coppola in 1974, "is that of a major artist. We're not used to it; how many screen artists get the chance to work in an epic form, and who has been able to seize the power to compose a modern American epic? . . . In movies, that's the inner voice of the authentic hero."