Corleones re-emerge brilliantly in new medium

You can't refuse to appreciate 'The Godfather' movies on DVD -- they're a grand opera of sound and sight.


October 14, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

In 1997, on the 68th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day massacre, I witnessed the beginnings of the intricate process that has brought America's great mob epic to DVD this month with the lofty claim, "The reason they invented DVD!" Before the movie's 25th anniversary reissue, Francis Ford Coppola's longtime sound expert Walter Murch remastered the soundtrack for six-channel stereo, and I happened to be in the audience when Coppola heard it that way for the first time.

Credited as "post production consultant" (i.e., sound-effects supervisor) for the movie's 1972 release, Murch was responsible for bringing it into the modern audio age. As he explained to Coppola before he ran the movie, Murch had three goals: scraping away the random noise, which sounded like the pop, crackle and fuzz from a hissy tape or dusty old LP; spreading the monophonic music into a new multichannel balance; and "subtly and discreetly giving the sound more light and air -- augmenting the gunshots, adding a few footsteps."

As Murch went back and forth between the old and the new audio, 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 effortlessly conveys both domesticity and lordliness. In the 1991 home video version, you could barely hear the cat's meow. On the post-Murch tracks, 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, but 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.

At the end of the first reel that February day, 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 "a bit too sharp." Still, 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."

Unfortunately, visually, the 1997 rerelease prints were horribly faded; the sound alone was the highlight of The Godfather 's theatrical reissue. It became, more than ever, 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.

After watching the new DVDs, I'm thrilled to report that the image is once again equal to those sounds. You can easily pick up all the small touches in the background, like the poster for a Jake La Motta fight pegged to a window behind the Don. And you can savor Gordon Willis' cinematography -- with its dramatic contrasts between deep brown interiors and sun-kissed landscapes, between spontaneous action and classical tableau -- as one of the seminal visual influences on crime movies, on period movies, on movies, period.

Right decisions

Although Coppola has often been depicted as primarily an emotional and intuitive director, The Godfather is a film filled with correct choices, painstakingly thought out and passionately carried through. That's the case with these DVDs too, which contain the three films on four discs, and a fifth disc packed with extras.

To get a sense of how DVD producers put together such sophisticated packages, I spoke with Godfather historian Peter Cowie in London and the DVDs' producer, Kim Aubry, in San Francisco.

Cowie, author of the authoritative The Godfather Book (Faber and Faber, 1997), served as a writer and research consultant on this package. To him, the biggest "extra" on this jam-packed set is the section in which Coppola shows off his "notebook."

It isn't just any notebook: During the making of The Godfather, it was Coppola's Bible, though Coppola didn't want that phrase used on the DVD. As Cowie writes in The Godfather Book, "He began by cutting up a copy of the novel, and pasting pages down on each left-hand folio. ... On the right-hand page he typed his detailed observations on each 'scene': what it involved, what should be avoided, what should be concentrated on and how he would achieve this."

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