Few would refute that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Saga is essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in film–from cinéastes to the most casual of filmgoers. Epic storytelling, stellar acting from legends of the industry, a riveting and oh so subtle musical score, and countless memorable scenes and dialogue gems–“Leave the gun, take the cannoli,”–are just a handful of reasons why these remain some of the finest motion pictures ever made.
Film restoration (and ultimately preservation) is one of the main advantages of modern technology and the advent of DVD and now Blu-Ray high-definition discs. Companies like the Criterion Collection or Janus Films have been cleaning up and re-mastering films for years now providing viewers with a new and fresh way of reliving the classics. Sometimes a restoration is as simple as digitally re-mastering the sound, cleaning up the original film stock of scratches and other imperfections, other times (as is the case with tackling The Godfather) a painstaking rejuvenation of the original horribly weathered film negatives is required to recreate and enhance the initial viewing experience.
The first two Godfather’s original film negatives had been processed and re-processed countless times over the years mainly due to a high-demand for the film and countless shoddy VHS releases. Unlike modern film stock, which has a life of up to 500 years if store properly, the first two Godfather installments were shot with negatives highly prone to deterioration, mainly seen in the film’s use of color and shade. Add this to the fact that entire sections of the film had been missing or too dire to repair without extensive care and expert precision.
The six-year undertaking for the new releases was overseen by Robert A. Harris, a veteran film historian and preservationist whose focus is in large-scale restoration projects of the epic classics of the 1950s–most notably seen in the beautifully restored version of Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo. He meticulously went over each of the film’s stills the way a photographer touches up every shot. With an epic motion picture such as The Godfather Harris had to go through roughly 250,000 individual stills, removing even the tiniest of imperfections and digitally restoring the film’s look.
The most noticeable improvement made to first two films (Godfather Part III was shot using more modern film stocks and thus required minimal work for the restoration) is in the film’s one-of-kind use of color, a distinction often lost on home video. Much of both films are shot inside dark interiors–most notably seen in the dark den where Marlon Brando’s Don Vito takes meetings during the first film’s opening wedding scene, and a similar dark office where Al Pacino’s Don Michael holds meetings during his son’s christening in Part II. The characters of The Godfather Saga are almost always looming in the shadows. In Part I the vibrant and joyous opening wedding scene is juxtaposed with the gloomy, dirty “business” meets being held in secret. The Godfather films have always been about two worlds–family in the traditional sense and family in the Cosa Nostra, business sense (this is also the core of David Chase’s “The Sopranos”)–and the use of dark colors is as crucial to telling the story as the characters themselves. Light and dark, good and evil, family and FAMILY, all are important themes throughout the saga, with color and lighting serving as a tool to help convey these messages.
For the restoration Harris, in collaboration with Coppola and the film’s original Director of Photography, Gordon Willis, brought the luster of the film’s original dark colors to the forefront, duplicating if not improving on the films’ original look and feel upon their initial 1970s release. The tense Italian restaurant hit in the first film and the various scenes set in revolutionary Cuba in Part II jump off the screen. Similarly Michael Corleone’s physical deterioration (most notably with the dark bags under his eyes and his battered facial structure) over the course of Parts I & II is a testament to how crucial color and lighting are to a film’s overall atmosphere. His physical appearance in Part III is now a legendary big studio Hollywood horror story with Coppola pushing to have an older Michael Corleone with the appearance of a beat up baseball glove, while the studios pushed for a more handsome modern day Al Pacino.
While the technical feats underwent for this release is reason enough to revisit these crowning cinematic achievements (and possibly the best reason to get into the high definition television and DVD arena) the content of these films should not be overlooked.
The great films are the ones that we watch over and over and with every viewing a more rewarding than the previous. Revisiting a film like The Godfather is a reminder of not only why these films are as renowned as they are but also of the film’s subtle moments of brilliance. There’s the use of fruit, particularly oranges, throughout the saga foreshadowing the demise of individual characters and ultimately the family. The films deal with the American dream, romanticized at first but ultimately show with consequence. The films are ripe with an affectionate level of humor, as seen with aforementioned “take the cannoli,” breaking the ice on what was otherwise a brutal execution scene or the nervous and almost childlike Luca Brasi. Even the morning rise of the unlucky Hollywood producer with the even more unlucky prize horse carries a level of dark humor, not to mention serving as a reminder to who these people truly are.
Then there’s the final flashback sequence in Part II in which the entire family gathers for Don Vito’s surprise birthday party. The playful jokes between brothers, the larger than life character of Sonny, and, yet again, more oranges carefully placed in the background, all serve as a subtle reminders of the stories main theme–family is important to these characters but a life of crime ultimately leaves you alone with one’s regrets and ponderings. Had Part III remained solely a dream among avid fans, this closing dinner scene, in which we see the early (and in Mike’s case the most uncorrupted) nature of the characters is displayed (a great scene at showing the truly questionable side of Tom Hagen, portrayed as fairly benign throughout the films), would have been the perfect closer to this epic piece of cinema.
While DVD is the primary place to find the new restored Godfather films, a number of select theaters around the country, including Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theater, will be screening newly restored 35mm prints of the first two films for a limited time. While seeing these resurrected editions is worthwhile by any means possible, viewing this film as it was intended, in a large dark theater, amidst other viewers and with a sound system that can really give the film’s memorable score the acoustics it deserves, is the best way to experience Coppola’s masterpiece.
One would hope that the time and care spent restoring these immortal film classics will be used for other film gems wasting away in the big studio vaults (and there are apparently many) each waiting to be revamped and rediscovered by a modern audience. For those not alive during The Godfather’s original 1972/74 releases, seeing the immaculate version Coppola and crew envisioned for the film is an experience that anyone with a love of film should take part in.