the movie you can't refuse

'The Godfather' returns to the big screen restored and as relevant as ever

October 05, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

For anyone in America's fabled "movie generation" - men and women who were in college or just out of it when The Godfather came out in 1972 - Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia epic had the impact that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had in music or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had in prose.

I spent half my lunchtime in my junior and senior years listening to budding actor Jack Gilpin (Something Wild, 21) do his impeccable imitation of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen advising the Corleone crime family, "Right now we have the unions, we have the gambling; and they're the best things to have. But narcotics is a thing of the future. And if we don't get a piece of that action, we risk everything we have." Budding political strategists took Don Vito Corleone's sayings as secular writ, such as never letting anyone "outside the family" know what they were thinking.

The Godfather was simultaneously timeless and topical from the moment it opened. That's why it's never ceased to speak to new generations with every new video or theatrical reissue. It's no wonder that when Katie Couric asked that most famous of all post-baby boomers, Sen. Barack Obama, to name his favorite movie, he answered with The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. Echoing a Sopranos comedy line, he added, "Three - not so much."

Young moviegoers who have never seen it, and older moviegoers yearning to savor it again, will get their best chance in more than three decades to drink in its glories when The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II open Friday with restored prints at the Senator Theatre. At the behest of their creator, Coppola, and his friend, Steven Spielberg, Paramount moved to save these movies from deterioration.

The original material had been destroyed through reckless printing and reprinting. Only digital tools available since 2006 have made this rebirth possible. Now this act of preservation has become a gift to movie audiences. Even on Blu-ray, these movies have the masterly combination of grain and sheen that Coppola and his collaborators built into it. On screen, they will be awe-inspiring. Beyond their artistic perfection, no other American films have struck as many chords with as many different people, both in the United States and around the world.

What was amazing about The Godfather's enormous critical and box-office success is that it resembled no other pop phenomenon of its time. The most up-to-date aspects of the movie were themes that Coppola had borrowed from Mario Puzo's novel, especially the notion that a lawyer with a briefcase could commit more larceny and mayhem than an old-fashioned gang boss with a gun.

The core of Coppola's classics doesn't alter with time, but these works reveal their secrets to different generations in contrasting ways. When I watched The Godfather in a packed house during its 25th anniversary revival 11 years ago, I was struck by how viewers in the go-go 1990s treated ominous lines as if they were comic words to live by. And why not? "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" might have been the motto of Wall Street from the late '80s until three weeks ago. I wonder how dialogue like that will play in this more sober time.

Some scenes in Part II, such as American industrialists and mob bosses meeting in Havana to divvy up Batista's Cuba, may prove to be more relevant than ever. In any case, those who love these movies will continue to make them relevant, in big ways and small. Just last Wednesday on Hardball, Chris Matthews headlined a story on Congress' attempt to carve out an economic bailout with the words, "going to the mattresses" - the phrase The Godfather made famous as a synonym for readying a mob war.

John Huston once declared that if you smack any one scene from a great script with a mallet, all the themes of the entire movie should start reverberating. That's why, even when these movies deal with "business," they're still all about family. Coppola pits the supposed sanctity and tenderness of the Corleone household against the cool impersonality of "the world." At home, attention must be paid to everyone from hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) and thoughtful Michael (Al Pacino) to weak, clownish Fredo (John Cazale) and the sometimes-hysterical Connie (Talia Shire). But when Michael takes over from Don Vito (Marlon Brando), outside pressures fray clannish bonds. Variations on "this isn't personal, it's just business" - the mobsters' standing excuse for murder - grow more terrifying as the films go on. Coppola derives excruciating tension and exhilarating epiphanies from the increasing confusion of business and family values.

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