Saturday, March 31, 2012
The World is Yours
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Around my home base at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, the “Gangster Trilogy” is the nickname assigned to the three movies that for many kicked off the crime film genre in the 1930s: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). The first of these films starred Edward G. Robinson in what has commonly been called his “breakout” role, and Enemy did likewise for James Cagney…making both actors silver screen legends. Though there are variances in the plots of each movie, they feature a unifying theme of a racketeer who rises to the top of his profession stealing, killing and plundering all the way…only to achieve his comeuppance before the lights in the theater come up and the second show begins.
Scarface — which at the time of its release 80 years ago on this date was subtitled “The Shame of a Nation” — also made veteran stage actor Paul Muni a household name among theatergoers, though his starring turn in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang equally boosted his cinematic stature (he received an Oscar nomination for the role, and was soon signed to a long-term contract by Warner Bros.) as well. While both Caesar and Enemy were Warner releases, Scarface was an independent production funded by the deep-pocketed Howard Hughes (and released by United Artists) and as such it’s often the overlooked feature of the three. (At one time, the movie even was withdrawn from release and didn’t resurface until 1979.) If it’s remembered at all today, it’s probably because it was the inspiration for the 1983 Brian De Palma cult classic with Al Pacino as the lead. But there’s much more than meets the eye in the Howard Hawks-directed original. (Much more.)
Crime boss “Big” Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vegar) is gunned down by a mysterious assailant shortly after he’s thrown one of his impressive shindigs, and as dedicated police inspector Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon) has been instructed to round up the usual suspects, he brings in Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Muni) and Guino “Little Boy” Renaldo (George Raft), two lieutenants who work for one of Costillo’s rivals, Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Lovo gets both men released with writs of habeas corpus, and we learn that Tony was responsible for croaking Big Louie at the behest of Lovo. Johnny then informs his now second-in-command that they’ll be taking over the beer concession on the city’s South Side, selling illegal suds to speakeasies and squeezing out those bars owned by rival gangs. Lovo has specifically ordered the ambitious Camonte to leave the North Side operation (run by a hood named O’Brien) alone, because that’s just asking for trouble.
Tony’s stock starts to rise in the beer rackets, and he finds himself constantly trying to attract the attention of Poppy (Karen Morley), Lovo’s girlfriend. He’s also earned the disapproval of his mother (Inez Palange), who scolds Tony’s sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak) when she accepts her brother's “dirty” money. Tony has a rather unhealthy (and suggestively incestuous) relationship with “Cesca” to the point that he gets enraged when he sees her in the company of eligible men. Finally, the impatient Tony makes a bid for the North Side operation by having Little Boy “eliminate” O’Hara in his flower shop, and this stunt earns him both the disapproval of Lovo and the enmity of Gaffney (Boris Karloff), the hood who takes over for the deceased O’Hara. Tony and his men wage a full assault on Gaffney and the other gangs…and seeing that Camonte is consolidating his power, Lovo orders a hit on Tony. The attempt fails, and Tony (with the help of Little Boy) exacts swift retribution.
The forces of good beat their collective breasts at the lawlessness exhibited by Tony, who is now king of all he surveys, and despite increased pressure by the newspapers and law enforcement, there seems to be little that will stop him. His downfall comes when he shoots and kills Little Boy after finding him in the same apartment with Cesca, not knowing that they have secretly wed. Returning to his stronghold (his sidekick Angelo, played by Vince Barnett, also has been killed as a result) as the police close in, Cesca arrives to Tony's surprise; she had planned to kill him for revenge but now realizes that “you’re me and I’m you” and she agrees to hold them off, but she’s felled by a stray bullet, and tear gas drives the now abandoned Tony out of his hideout to face Guarino and two detectives downstairs. Camonte agrees to come quietly, but bolts from his captors at the last minute and ends up gunned down in the street.
W.R. Burnett, the author responsible for the novel on which Little Caesar was adapted, was one of several credited scribes who supplied dialogue and continuity for Scarface, along with Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin (with uncredited contributions from producer Hawks and Fred Pasley) — but the bulk of the screenplay was penned by old newspaper hand Ben Hecht, who adapted Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name. “Scarface” also was the well-known nickname of racketeer Al Capone, and concerned that the film might possibly portray him in a negative light, he supposedly sent a couple of his boys around to see Hecht, hoping to discourage him from finishing the project. But Hecht, being a veteran ink-stained wretch, was not an easy man to scare…and according to legend, not only did he convince Capone’s goombahs that the movie was not about their boss, but he called upon them as consultants. (Further legend states that the end result pleased Al so much that he later obtained a print of the film for his very own.)
At the time of Scarface’s release, a vocal faction of individuals, concerned that others might be having more fun than they were, decried the product coming out of Hollywood…and the Hawks-Hughes movie was one on which they complained the longest and loudest. The accusations claimed the film glamorized gangsters and crime, and that this might be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Most of the time, this was true — it’s what was known as the “sin-and-salvation” approach to filmmaking. Cecil B. DeMille mastered this; presenting sequences of immorality and debauchery in his silent epics (which he got away with provided the characters received their just deserts at the end). Many of the later “message” movies that tried to warn innocent dupes away from sex or drugs (such as Reefer Madness) also took the same approach…and you often have to wonder how effective that was, showing kids having the time of their lives drinking and partying while frowning upont this type of behavior to be frowned.
I don’t think anyone would ever emulate the onscreen conduct in Scarface, however. The main character, Tony Camonte, isn’t a particularly admirable role model — as played by Muni, he’s positively primal; at times it’s as if someone shaved a simian and forced him into a nice suit. (Critic Danny Peary once observed that Muni’s Tony is essentially Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde, only without the fangs.) Camonte is constantly in a state of macho swagger, thinking himself sophisticated (but he’s not) and like a 1930s Donald Trump, judges the quality of what he buys by how much it costs. “That’s pretty hot” proves to be the highest praise he can bestow upon any item or individual, proving that Paris Hilton didn’t just come up with that asinine catchphrase by her lonesome. And like James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat, Tony Camonte has some serious psychological problems. Man, has he got it bad for his sister Cesca. Of the film's many elements, the incest theme intrigues the most in what I consider to be the best gangster movie of the 1930s, addressed in the uncomfortable familial relationship between brother and sister Camonte. Hecht based the characters on the Borgia family, making actress Ann Dvorak a delightfully slutty carbon copy of Lucretia and while Muni received many of the critical kudos for his performance in the film, I think Dvorak walks away with the picture. Scarface made me a huge fan of the underrated actress; her tantalizing dance moves and naughty double entendres (not to mention that unmistakable glint she gets in her eye when she talks to Muni’s Tony) no doubt concerned the censors more than the violence.
I also became a Karen Morley fan because of this film, even though I’ll certainly concede that Dvorak gets the showier role and makes much more of an impression. (Morley was an underrated thesp, often on the receiving end of static from the industry about her personal life and politics, all coming to a boil in 1947 with her blacklisting in the motion picture industry after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.) As Poppy, the fair-weather bitch who switches her romantic allegiance to Tony when she’s able to read the tea leaves that Johnny Lovo hasn’t much of a future, I like her blasé responses to Camonte’s advances (“I’m nice with a lot of dressing”), and how at times it seems as if she’s having difficulty holding it in and not laughing at the jerk. Scarface also served as a breakout vehicle for actor George Raft, who had danced his way to fame on Broadway (under the tutelage of Texas Guinan) before venturing out to Hollywood to crash the movie business. Raft had appeared in films before Scarface but his “Little Boy” character in the picture really cemented his stature in the motion picture industry; during the 1930s he was the go-to individual for gangster portrayals alongside Cagney and Robinson. George was quite cozy with a number of real-life hoods (including Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky), which led many people to speculate that he actually might have been in the mob at one time (he wasn’t). A bit of business performed by Raft — flipping a nickel in the air and catching it while never looking at the coin — soon became a trademark and even provided a hilarious in-joke in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, in which he had a nice comic (and menacing) turn as hood Spats Columbo.
The actor who wasn’t quite as convincing as Raft playing a gangster was Boris Karloff, who also had a small role in Scarface as Gaffney. Personally, I welcome Boris in any movie but the man was just a little too cultured and refined to play a hood. Be that as it may, Boris does get a memorable death scene in which he’s gunned down by Muni and his mob while bowling…and though he leaves this world having bowled a strike, the “kingpin” symbolically takes a little time to fall before finally doing so. Symbolism plays a large part in Scarface; director Hawks came up with an interesting motif in that all of the gangsters who are “rubbed out” are designated as such with an “X” visible onscreen. Hawks thought this great fun, even to the point of offering crew members $200 for each creative suggestion to allow him to present this. Scarface originally had been scheduled to be released in September 1931, but producer Hughes still was getting grief from the Hays’ Office about the movie’s violent content. In an attempt to pacify the censors, the producer had Richard Rosson shoot an alternate ending, one in which Muni doesn’t die in a hail of bullets at the end but gets taken into custody, tried and convicted by a judge (who gives Muni’s character a lecture though you never see the actor) and sentenced to hang by the neck until he’s really most sincerely dead. (This scene also was shot without Muni’s participation; a double was used in long shots.) The censors weren’t wild about this ending either so Hughes finally threw up his hands and just did an end run around them, releasing the movie in states where there were no censorship boards. (It did great box office and received positive critical reviews.) The “alternate ending” has survived and is available on Universal’s 2007 DVD release…but seeing as how they also eliminated some of the more overt sexual attraction between the Muni and Dvorak characters, I’m glad Hughes stuck to his guns and kept Ending A.
That stand-alone disc release of Scarface provided the best news a classic film fan could get in that before that DVD, the only way you could purchase a copy of the Hawks original was on a 2003 “Anniversary Edition” box set of the 1983 Brian De Palma version…and that’s a purchase I simply wasn’t capable of justifying. There’s even more bad news on the horizon in that Universal has got another remake of the film in the works (this was announced last year) that will combine elements of the 1932 and 1983 films…but as a cinematic British barrister once observed: “Is that really desirable?” Classic film fans can take solace in that the one-and-only original is being looked after; having been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1994. Otherwise I’d have no other recourse than to respond with one of Tony Camonte’s most memorable quips: “Get out of my way, Johnny…I’m gonna spit!”
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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Just when you thought you were out…
"If a team of assassins planned to ambush their target at a tollbooth, would it really be deemed necessary that the killers
wear their finest suits and fedoras while hiding before they perform the task? Did murder in the 1940s
require a dress code?" — Edward Copeland
By Edward Copeland
Some movies you love so much, have seen so many times in whole or in part, that when you stop to watch the film with a purpose (such as writing this post as well as the two previous ones, "America's first family" and "Merging art and commerce," to mark the 40th anniversary of The Godfather), you discover things you never noticed before and ideas occur to you for the first time. I still love The Godfather, but haven't watched it this closely in a long time — probably since viewing it in that Midtown Manhattan theater in 1997. When I saw it then, Goodfellas already existed in my life, but the sheer size of Coppola's images filtered through Gordon Willis' magnificent cinematography overwhelmed me so Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, albeit the greater film, didn't intrude on my thoughts then. This time though, I watched The Godfather on DVD on my TV — twice really, once for the movie, once for Coppola's commentary. This screening of rapt attention not only took place semi-horizontally at home, it also marked my first time observing The Godfather closely and in its entirety since The Sopranos entered the world. Because I have a lot to say, this will be a two-part post unlike the first two, which could stand alone. I plan, theoretically, for this final post to flow as a single piece even though I've divided it in half. To be a tease, I'm saving my new observations until the last section of this piece.
This reunion with the Corleones didn't change one aspect that amazed me the first time I viewed the film in a single, uncut setting: its miraculous pacing. Only a few minutes shy of three hours, The Godfather holds its length incredibly well. It never lags and you falsely sense that you've just settled in to the tale when, before you know it, the end credits roll. Coppola and his editing team of William Reynolds and Peter Zinner accomplish this without making the movie seem rushed either. While I knew the film incredibly well before I watched it again, the obvious never stood out until I heard what Coppola said on the commentary that I quoted in the first Godfather-related post, "America's first family," when he talked about seeing The French Connection during editing and thinking, "Compared to that, The Godfather is going to be this dark, boring, long movie with a lot of guys sitting around in chairs talking." On the commentary, Coppola follows that with the quote I put at the top of this post. Of course, the director's stress coughed up the adjective boring, but the film indeed does contain many scenes involving men sitting around talking. When you think about The Godfather, what usually springs to mind involves the masterfully choreographed sequences of violence such as the ending baptism montage or other memorable scenes such as the opening "I believe in America" monologue by the undertaker Bonsasera (Salvatore Corsitto). Those scenes with men talking play perfectly well, but you don't think about it. Not when the film containz scenes such as James Caan's Sonny being assassinated at the tollbooth, which Coppola freely acknowledges as his homage to Arthur Penn's finale in Bonnie and Clyde. "Like my dad always said, 'Steal from the best,'" Coppola says.
The reason all those "talking scenes" work corresponds with the reason all those stylized scenes of violence work: great dialogue. Coppola didn't invent this. From the beginning of the torch Hollywood (and moviegoers) carried for gangsters and the mob, the genre's best examples always brought with them some of the most memorable line in movie history stretching back almost to the beginning of film. Literally, the list extends too long to name all the precursors. Of course, as the years went by, the country allowed more freedom of content in its movies. The Godfather debuted early in the process of those changes, becoming the first gangster film to truly benefit. As you'd expect, the prudes whined about moral decay then — just as many do now. (Those who yell loudest about losing their freedom inevitably also want to take it away from anyone who doesn't believe as they do.) Coppola addresses the issue of violence on the DVD. "The thing about violence in a film like this is you have to try to make every moment be in some way eccentric or have some unusual or memorable aspect so it's not just a bludgeoning or just violence but…there is some sort of context that singles it out," Coppola says. Wwile the big names get the lion's share of praise (deservedly) for their acting in The Godfather, not enough gets said about those in the smaller roles because on top of its other positive attributes, The Godfather, despite Coppola's fights with Paramount, turned out to be an exceptionally well-cast movie. Richard Conte not only performs well as the oily and duplicitous rival boss Barzini, his presence provides a crucial link to the history of the genre, as did several other actors, through films such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz's House of Strangers, The Brothers Rico and Jules Dassin's great Thieves' Highway, which includes a memorable truck crash whose shot of rolling apples echoes the strewn oranges when Marlon Brando's Don Vito gets shot in The Godfather. Another link to past noirs come through Sterling Hayden's turn as the crooked cop Capt. McCluskey after roles in classics such as John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Leaving his mark, sadly an all too brief one, was Al Lettieri as Sollozzo, the Sicilian who wanted to bring narcotics into the city. Lettieri's acting success came late, appearing first on TV in 1957 at 29 but not making a movie until 1965. 1972 truly turned out to be his breakout year, appearing not only in The Godfather but in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway. He died of a heart attack three years later at 47. One final connection, in a way, to noirs and gangsters of old came in the brief but fun performance of John Marley as movie studio President Jack Woltz with the unfortunate horse. Marley worked since the 1940s, mostly on television, but included uncredited work in Kiss of Death and The Naked City and a small credited role in 1951's The Mob. Still, Marley remained one of those familiar faces that no one could name. It wasn't until the 1960s that he began to gain notice with parts in films such as Cat Ballou, a well-received starring role in John Cassavetes' Faces and a 1970 supporting actor nomination as Ali MacGraw's father in Love Story. Woltz's role didn't take up much screentime, but Marley made the most of it, paired mostly with the sublime Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen. The dinner scene between the two men delights every time. Coppola says that Duvall usually only needed a couple of takes to nail a scene, but I don't know how he couldn't crack up since the meal consists mostly of Marley's monologue about why he hates Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) and wants to run him out of the business How Duvall sat there and ate without cracking up constantly I can't fathom. His spite stems because Fontane stole a girl that Woltz had from him, so that's why the studio chief seems determined not to give the singer the part in the movie he desires. "She was the greatest piece of ass I ever had — and I've had 'en all over the world," Woltz yells at Tom. This leads to the famous scene of Woltz waking up the next morning to find the head of his prized $400,000 thoroughbred in his bed, That wasn't a fake head either. Part of the crew went to a dog food company and looked over the horses they planned to kill eventually to turn into Fido's fixings. They selected the horse they liked and had the company save the head in dry ice and send it to them when they slaughtered the animal. Needless to say, many people went ballistic, Coppola said. He always thought it was fascinating how upset people got that they used the head of an already dead horse but the film's many human killings didn't bug many. As for Marley, years later he appeared on SCTV Network when they did their spoof of The Godfather with Joe Flaherty's station owner Guy Caballero as the title character, only Marley played Leonard Bernstein.
Of the larger supporting roles in The Godfather, the actor and character I come away admiring and enjoying more each time I see the film in whole or in part continues to be Richard Castellano as Pete Clemenza, one of Don Corleone's capos and best killers. He also happens to be the funniest character in the movie. If any of the creations in The Godfather universe reminds me of someone who could turn up working on Tony Soprano's crew, Clemenza would be the one. Castellano gets so many classic bits, whether he's teasing Michael (Al Pacino) about not being able to tell Kay (Diane Keaton) he loves her on the phone in the kitchen full of Corleone soldiers. "Mikey, why don't you tell that nice girl you love her? I love you with all-a my heart, if I don't see-a you again soon, I'm-a gonna die," Clemenza needles him with a mock girl's voice while he makes a huge pot of "gravy." Among Clemenza's other duties, he teaches well. Not only does he try to pass on the recipe to Michael, he's the one who instructs him how to pull off the hit on Sollozzo and McCluskey. Castellano worked wonders grabbing a laugh before or after whacking someone. When Carlo (Gianni Russo), the no-good husband of Corleone sister Connie (Talia Shire), gets in a car, believing Michael when he says that he's only exiling him to Vegas and kicking him out of the family business as punishment for setting up Sonny, Clemenza sounds perfectly friendly as he greets him with, "Hello Carlo" from the back seat before throttling him to death. According to Coppola, Castellano also improvised his most famous line (and one of the most repeated from the film as well). After a brief scene where Clemenza leaves his house to head to work, his wife (Adelle Sheridan) yells to him to remember to pick up cannolis. The top item on Clemenza's work schedule that day, by Sonny's orders, involvee killing Paulie (John Martino), the don's usual driver/bodyguard who conveniently was out ill the day before when Vito was ambushed. As Paulie drives Clemenza and Rocco (Tom Rosqui), one of Clemenza's crew, Clemenza asks Paulie to pull over so he can take a piss. As Clemenza gets out of the car, Rocco kills Paulie. Clemenza returns and utters those immortal words that Castellano improvised, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Later, in that kitchen scene where Clemenza cooks and ribs Michael, Sonny comes in and asks him simply, "How's Paulie?" "Oh, Paulie…won't see him no more," Clemenza states matter-of-factly, never pausing in his stirring of the sauce. One thing I noticed this time that slipped by me before is that Clemenza actually supplied me with the origin of the phrase "going to the mattresses." It's so obvious in meaning I don't know how it escaped me, especially since Tony and his men did exactly that in the penultimate Sopranos episode. In the Godfather sequel, Bruno Kirby played the young Clemenza, but Castellano's presence was sorely missed. They couldn't reach a deal on a contract. In a rarity, the issue had nothing to do with pay. Castellano insisted that a friend of his had to be hired to write all his dialogue personally for The Godfather Part II. That request proved way too easy for Coppola to refuse and that's how Michael V. Gazzo's character of Frank Pentangeli got created for Part II, earning Gazzo a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Castellano received a supporting actor nomination, but not for The Godfather. His came for the 1970 comedy Lovers and Other Strangers. The actor died in 1988.
Another good supporting performance brings with it a great story. As I mentioned before, throughout his DVD commentary Coppola offers advice to new directors. One tip he gives repeatedly, actually he suggests it for directors at all levels of experience: Always hold at least a day or two of open auditions. He did this on The Godfather and filled several roles this way, but his best find (according to Coppola and I agree) turned out to be Abe Vigoda as Sal Tessio, Corleone's other main capo. Vigoda turned in a great performance, especially at the end when it's figured out that Tessio betrayed the Corleones and he knows he's being taken off to his death and makes a quiet plea to Duvall's Hagen to get him out of it "for old time's sake." Vigoda went on to become such a cult figure after playing Fish on Barney Miller and his short-lived spinoff Fish to getting much mileage out of premature reports of his death, especially through frequent appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Vigoda continues to work, having turned 91 in February and, according to the Inaccurate Movie Database, in pre-production for a feature comedy called The Mobster Movie co-starring Alice Cooper to be released next year. Vigoda's final moment in The Godfather should be a lesson to all directors to hold at least a day or two of open auditions because "you never know who is out there," Coppola said.
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…I pull you back in
By Edward Copeland
Among film buffs and people coming of mature moviegoing age in the 1970s, the name John Cazale engenders sadness in many of them. Featured in prominent roles in five features between 1972 and 1978, each received a nomination for the best picture Oscar and three of them won. However, by the time The Deer Hunter, the fifth of those films, was nominated along with Cazale's fiancée, Meryl Streep, getting her first supporting actress nomination for that film, Cazale had been dead for almost a year, having lost his battle with cancer on March 12, 1978, at the age of 42, leaving behind one helluva legacy in a short span of time. In addition to The Deer Hunter, Fredo in both parts of The Godfather; Stan, the assistant to eavesdropping expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), in another Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, The Conversation and, Cazale's greatest performance, in my opinion, as Sal, bank robbing partner of Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) in Sidney Lumet's magnificent Dog Day Afternoon. This piece concerns The Godfather, so let's talk Fredo.
Cazale does fine as Fredo in The Godfather but, truth be told, his time on screen doesn't add up to a lot. His role increases in Part II, but he actually has less to do in the 1972 film than many of the non-Corleones. Fredo though has acquired a legacy almost removed from the film itself. The name has become synonymous with a ne'er do, usually a ne'er do well brother. I imagine people who can't name John Cazale as the actor who portrayed Fredo recognize what someone means if they refer to someone as a Fredo. The Urban Dictionary includes multiple definitions such as the simple "family's black sheep" to having sex with two waitresses simultaneously as Moe Greene claimed he caught Fredo doing and Vince Vaughn's character reference in Swingers. The truth of the matter just happens to be that Fredo Corleone, the middle son, can't stop fucking up. It's sad, because you see in Cazale's portrayal that Fredo wants to be a good son, but he's messed up so many times that even he understands why his family can't rely on him. His big, heartbreaking scene comes when rival gangsters make their assassination attempt on his father and Fredo bobbles his own gun, unable to shoot back. He ends up sitting on the curb, next to his critically wounded dad, the gun dangling from his hand, weeping like a child.
You'd think that Talia Shire had the easiest path to landing her role as Corleone daughter Connie, given that her brother Francis was directing the film, but Coppola says he almost didn't consider her for the part because he thought his kid sister was "too beautiful." Connie isn't much more than a plot point in The Godfather — a Corleone daughter to get wed, beaten and, finally, to lash out at her brother for killing her no-good husband. Shire and Connie don't get to grow into interesting characters until the sequels, for certain Part II and, reportedly, a re-edited Part III on DVD and Blu-ray that drastically improves that misfire, including her character's motivations. Walter Murch is said to have led the restoration and re-cutting of Part III, which was rushed in 1990 in order to qualify for the Oscars. Reported rumors that the new cut of Part III replaces Sofia Coppola with Andy Serkis have not been verified. The other major female role in The Godfather got more to do but, like Connie, developed even further in Part II. This was Diane Keaton's second feature film after Lovers and Other Strangers co-starring Richard Castellano (Clemenza). While Keaton proved often that she's adept at drama, she's always better in comedies as Woody Allen utilized with great success.
The don's oldest son and his adopted one represent fire and ice, and James Caan and Robert Duvall excel at those elemental levels as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen. One moment I noticed this time that I'd never observed before occurs when Sonny, after finding Connie beaten and bruised by Carlo, beats the hell out of his brother-in-law in the street. When Carlo grabs hold of a railing, Sonny actually bites into Carlo's hands to make him let go (in front of a Thomas Dewey campaign poster no less). Going back to Coppola's concern about guys sitting around talking, you don't get tired of these two doing that, especially in scenes such as debating what actions to take following the attempt on their father's life. When Michael comes home with a swollen jaw courtesy of the crooked police captain, it sets Sonny off again, ready to go to war against Sollozzo. Tom, functioning as the levelheaded consigliere, tries to explain to his adopted brother that even the man upstairs recovering from his bullet wounds would understand that it wasn't personal.
TOM: Your father wouldn't want to hear this, Sonny. This is business, not personal.
SONNY: They shoot my father and it's business, my ass!
TOM: Even shooting your father was business not personal, Sonny!
Caan dances through the movie, all energy, sometimes comic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexual. When brother Michael (Al Pacino) decides he doesn't want to be the straight-arrow civilian anymore, Sonny laughs at his kid brother, even using Hagen's words. "Hey, whaddya gonna do, nice college boy, eh? Didn't want to get mixed up in the family business, huh? Now you wanna gun down a police captain. Why? Because he slapped ya in the face a little bit? Hah? What do you think this is the Army, where you shoot 'em a mile away? You've gotta get up close like this and — bada-BING! — you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit. You're taking this very personal. Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very, very personal," Sonny teases. Of course, Duvall's path to success had been forming prior to The Godfather, but this did earn him his first Oscar nomination as supporting actor. Caan, Duvall and Pacino all earned supporting nominations, one of the rare times a single film grabbed three slots in an acting category. The Godfather Part II repeated the feat in the same category. It also had been achieved by On the Waterfront. The movie Tom Jones accomplished it in supporting actress and the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty did it in best actor (out of four nominees), but this was prior to the creation of the supporting categories.
Which leaves us with the film's two most important characters who also happen to be its most important actors as well. One of the first practitioners of the Method who had set the world on fire and a brash newcomer with a new generation's take on the same style meeting together. The old master Marlon Brando, showing the world that he still had power, while the rising star Al Pacino makes his presence known loudly (back in the days when Pacino did this without being literally loud). Before watching the movie this time, I read someone commenting how as Michael shifts into Vito's role, Pacino subtly transforms physically. That swollen jaw from McCluskey's punch starts to resemble those cotton-stuffed jowls Brando gave Vito. When I did watch it, especially when you really pay attention to that great contribution from Robert Towne, it's as if Vito and Michael undergo a Persona-like transference. I believe the key moment of Michael's switch happens when he protects his father at the hospital, hiding his bed in the stairwell and clutching his hand, whispering, "I'm with you now, pop." The don, who hasn't regained consciousness since the shooting, does then and gives his son the sweetest smile. It's a touching moment — if you forget the family business. Everyone debates whether Brando has the movie's lead role or if that title really belongs to Pacino. I always swear that I'm gonna add up minutes of screentime, but I can never do it because I get too involved. To me, it feels more or less as if it's an ensemble piece. Brando disappears for awhile after he's shot, but so does Pacino immediately after he flees the country. (It's worth pointing out that even the greatest films ever made have flaws. As I feel the Paris flashbacks in my beloved Casablanca come off as hokey, Michael's Sicily scenes and sudden marriage may be The Godfather's Achilles' heel.) What I know for certain is that both actors deliver great performances. You see very little of the Brando silliness that sometimes pop up with the most obvious example being when singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) seeks his help at the wedding at the don unmercifully mocks him as Fontane practically cries acting what he can do to get that movie part. Corleone shakes him vigorously and shouts, "You can act like a man!" He then slaps him and ridicules him further. "What's the matter with you? Is this what you've become, a Hollywood finocchio who cries like a woman?" Then the funny Brando comes out as he does a little girl voice, "'Oh, what do I do? What do I do?' What is that nonsense? Ridiculous!" You spot Tom Hagen laughing in the background, but part of me suspects that really was Duvall trying not to crack up. Other than that, Brando plays things remarkably straight and truthfully as when he calls in the favor the undertaker Bonasera owes him to clean up Sonny for his funeral. "Look how they massacred my boy," he cries.
Looking at the young Pacino engenders the same kind of sadness that recent appearances by Robert De Niro do — did their love of the craft give way totally to monetary concerns? Pacino actually hasn't been quite as bad as De Niro, but to see his Michael, when Pacino knew the word subtlety…sigh. My God — I didn't see it, but what in the hell was he doing playing himself opposite Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill? To Pacino's credit, at least I can believe he appears in that kind of shit so he can keep returning to the stage. Michael Corleone's arc allows viewers to see a master class in screen acting over the first two movies. You can accomplish this with the first film alone, watching as he slinks further into the darkness. Another thing I've always loved that I'm grateful I found a YouTube clip to use is the strut Michael develops once he's completed his turn and just watched Carlo ride off to his demise. What an evocative, physical symbol of a man's change.
At the beginning of this post (I apologize that happened so long ago) I promised that I would be discussing things new to me about The Godfather. That time has arrived. In case it's slipped your mind, what I began this piece by saying was that sometimes you know a movie so well that when you actually watch it closely and purposefully, you'll notice things or have ideas that haven't occurred to you before.
Don't get me wrong. The reason I've spent so much space talking about the acting, writing and directing after the setup before I got to the crux of this assessment was meant to reassure those out there that The Godfather remains one of my favorite films of all time before I described a shift in my outlook on it. Back in the previous posts, as I detailed all the chaos endured to get the film made, I mentioned briefly how Paramount pursued some of the top directors at that time but all turned the project down, citing a fear of glamorizing or glorifying the Mafia. That's a criticism that gets hurled at most mob-related entertainments. Some said that about Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Even larger numbers lodged that complaint against The Sopranos. Reflexively, I've always responded that those accusations were nothing but a load of crap — and they are when it comes to Goodfellas and The Sopranos, which don't try to hide the fact that these people steal, kill and basically don't contribute to a civil society. Watching The Godfather this time, a light suddenly illuminated its depiction of the Corleones as whitewashed, to say the least. It starts from the very first scene when the undertaker Bonasera asks the don to kill the men who attacked his daughter, but Vito refuses. When Bonasera leaves, Vito even says to Tom Hagen, "We're not murderers, no matter what he thinks." Except mobsters are murderers. That line only marks the first example of the film turning the criminal family into reputable heroes. These photos are just for contrast. At left, we have Corleone family soldier Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) being strangled in an ambush set up by the "bad gangsters" Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Bruno Tattaglia (Tony Giorgio). In the photo on the right, the star of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini as Tony, personally throttles Fabian Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi), who used to be a gangster but became a "rat" when he testified for the feds and went into the Witness Protection Program. This took place in "College," the heralded fifth episode of the series. They wasted no time showing that Tony would commit a hands-on murder. Examine Goodfellas in comparison to The Godfather. Goodfellas came from Nicholas Pileggi's well-researched nonfiction book Wiseguys. While Mario Puzo's novel played the guessing game of "Who could this character be based on?", Puzo never asserted it to be anything but a fictionalized portrait and the film version watered down the Corleones even further. Coppola openly admits he wanted to use the story to be less about organized crime but a comment on American capitalism as well as being about a family in the generic sense. While corporate businessmen may not call their mistresses goomahs, they have them. You'd have to watch very closely to notice that a wife exists that Sonny cheats on (You never see a ring on his finger). They show him having a vigorous sex life, but certainly downplay that it's an adulterous one. We get a few brief shots of his spouse and one comment from his dad when Sonny comes into his father's office following a sexual encounter and his dad talks with Fontane. When Vito sees Sonny enter, he asks the singer but looks pointedly at his son, "Are you good to your family?" In Goodfellas, the girlfriends existed as part of the gangster lifestyle with, separate nights set aside for them at the Copacabana. By the era of The Sopranos, the wives know they exist and accept them somewhat as long as they keep the benefits of their lifestyle.
I don't know how this could come as such a shock to me now, having seen The Godfather so many times over so many years other than my love for Goodfellas superseding it and subliminally planting seeds in my mind which The Sopranos watered, allowing the realization to blossom. The recent Blu-ray release The Godfather Coppola Restoration includes a special feature in which Sopranos creator David Chase says he intended his series to be about the first generation of gangsters actually influenced by Coppola's film. I'm sure that's true (the characters made lots of references to the trilogy), but their lives more closely resemble those of the real gangsters in Henry Hill's universe in Goodfellas than they do the Corleones, with their huge family compound. Even Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the boss in Goodfellas, lived a more middle-class-looking lifestyle, at least in terms of appearance. The fictional Tony got to move into upper middle-class suburbs, but those who worked for him lived much more meagerly. Hell, when you compare them, the brief shot in The Godfather of the home where Clemenza lives looks much nicer than the Belleville, N.J. residence of Corrado Soprano (Dominic Chianese). While not a gangster, even Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lived in a much nicer house when his salary came solely from teaching chemistry than Uncle Junior's or most of Tony's crew's places did, but the cost-of-living in Albuquerque probably is a lot less expensive than New Jersey. What's more relevant than the living arrangements of the various fictional and nonfictional criminals comes from my recognition of the unwillingness to show the true nature of the Corleone family unlike Scorsese did with the criminals in Goodfellas, Chase showed with his characters on The Sopranos and Vince Gilligan does on Breaking Bad charting, as he's said often, "Mr. Chips turning into Scarface." In Goodfellas and the TV shows, you see the innocent who pay the price for their crimes. In The Godfather, we don't see a single instance of how the Corleones conduct their criminal enterprises. The Godfather board game that I mentioned having in the first post, "America's first family," explicitly references bookmaking, extortion, bootlegging, loan sharking and hijacking though those activities never cross the lips of the Corleones or anyone who works for them (though it's doubtful that by 1945, bootlegging draws much revenue for the New York-based family). Are we to presume the Corleones actually built the mansion with profits from selling Genco Olive Oil?
you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules. But sometimes, even if people didn't get out of line, they got whacked.
I mean, hits just became a habit for some of the guys. Guys would get into arguments over nothing and before you knew it,
one of them was dead. And they were shooting each other all the time. Shooting people was a normal thing. It was no big deal."
— Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas
Where The Godfather goes to the greatest length to make the Corleones "good gangsters" can be viewed by the people they do kill. Every single one of them has wronged them first and/or been shown as someone worthy of elimination. You never see any incident such as in Goodfellas where psycho Tommy (Joe Pesci) kills the waiter Spider (Michael Imperioli) because he told him to "go fuck himself" (since Spider justifiably nurses a grudge after Tommy shot him in the foot before for not serving him a drink fast enough). You don't see anything like on The Sopranos where a waiter follows Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher (Imperioli again) out to the parking lot to ask why he didn't get a tip and they smash him in the head, causing convulsions and then shoot him to finish him off. Don Vito plays the peacemaker, despite being nearly killed and losing a son. The movie perpetuates the myth that the American Mafia likes to perpetuate that they stayed hands off narcotics trafficking (even Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas, based on the real-life Paulie Vario, peddles that line though, like the fictional Corleone, it isn't so much a moral objection as a fear of losing friends in high positions). It sounds particularly ridiculous since Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky already had started dealing heroin in the 1920s, something being depicted in the TV series Boardwalk Empire which may be set prior to the time period of The Godfather but by far pays the most obvious homages to the movie. This sudden realization raises questions in my mind: Does it matter? Should it matter? If The Godfather glamorizes gangsters, does that mean I should consider it a lesser movie? My answer has to be no to all of the above. It doesn't change its artistry and I already loved Goodfellas more anyway (and it only glamorizes their food). How can I really penalize a fictional film for not being more truthful? In the wake of The Godfather, did organized crime grow and get a bunch of new recruits eager to join mob ranks? Hardly. It's just interesting that it took me this long to notice this, but the film hasn't changed, I have.
Besides, it's a damn great movie that gets referenced constantly. Chase should make something for the Blu-ray given the amount of times The Sopranos references Coppola's films. They did it so many times, I couldn't even begin to recall them all. I remember my personal favorite: Paulie Walnut's car horn which plays The Godfather theme instead of beeping. As I mentioned, Boardwalk Empire might take place in the 1920s, but it seems to me to pay the most homages even if they can't be specific. Look at the character of Nucky Thompson's brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and tell me he doesn't have Fredo written all over him. In the final episode of the second season, they did an explicit reference with their version of the baptism scene with prosecutor Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) preparing her opening statement as Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) get married and Jimmy and Richard (Michael Pitt, Jack Huston) take care of one of Nucky's enemies.
Most of The Sopranos' references tended to be verbal, but they did do a visual one that I loved in the second episode of the third season "Proshai, Livushka" dealing with the death of the incomparable character of Tony's mom Livia Soprano (the late, great Nancy Marchand). The image below on the left comes from The Godfather when Don Vito and Tom visit Bonasera about fixing up Sonny for his funeral. Below on the right, Tony and his sisters Barbara and Janice (Danielle Di Vecchio, Aida Turturro) go to Coscarelli's to discuss arrangement for Livia, who didn't even want a service.
The fact remains, no matter the dubious way they tried to steer audience sympathy to the Corleones without acknowledging the truth of their dark dealings, The Godfather always will be a damn well-made piece of motion picture art. My philosophy always has been to judge movies on their artistic and entertainment grounds and to try to forego extraneous concerns. I've managed to do that for this long with The Godfather. I'm not changing my mind now, especially since, when it comes to film criticism, I'm about as far from a moralist as you'll find. Besides, we started these posts with that brilliant opening. "I believe in America." You think I wouldn't close with one of the all-time best endings in cinema?
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Monday, March 26, 2012
Merging art and commerce
— Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, March 18, 1972
By Edward Copeland
Picture this: The war Michael Corleone returns from at the beginning of The Godfather isn't World War II, but Vietnam. Perhaps Kay Adams looks more like a flower child (Diane Keaton had been a Member of the Tribe in the original Broadway production of Hair after all). Try to fathom what poor Fredo would be experimenting with once they sent him off to Las Vegas. If Paramount Pictures steamrolled over Francis Ford Coppola from the minute he agreed to direct the film, these things might not be theoretical flights of fancy. On the commentary track of The Godfather DVD, Coppola tells how when he climbed aboard the project, Paramount handed him a completed screenplay that the studio had developed, much as they financed the writing of the novel, with Mario Puzo. Only for some bizarre reason, while setting the story's beginnings in 1945 satisfied Paramount for the 1969 novel (which, remember, wasn't the blockbuster best seller yet as production plans began), it didn't work for a studio looking to make a quick feature on the cheap. The screenplay given to Coppola moved the events to the 1970s, added hippies and, according to Coppola, this quintessentially New York story would be filmed in Kansas City (though later in the commentary, Coppola refers to a plan to shoot it in St. Louis). "There was none of that post-war ambiance," Coppola said, which was one of the major attractions for him to the project in the first place since he didn't like the novel with its graphic sex and general tawdriness until he discovered the story of the family buried underneath the trash. I imagine that few people out there now have endured the actual reading of Mario Puzo's novel, which, awful as it is, spent 67 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Coppola's commentary, recorded in 2004, tries to be as nice as possible about the book because Puzo became a close friend right until his death in 1999. Pauline Kael's review of the movie goes into a lot of detail about the novel before she even starts writing about how good she thinks the movie turned out to be, but a few of her words give you who haven't read it a much better idea than my fuzzy memory of it could conjure.
"The movie starts from a trash novel that is generally considered gripping and readable, though (maybe because movies more than satisfy my appetite for trash) I found it unreadable.…Mario Puzo has a reputation as a good writer, so his potboiler was treated as if it were special, and not in the Irving Wallace-Harold Robbins class which, by its itch and hype and juicy roman-à-clef treatment, it plainly belongs.…The novel…features a Sinatra stereotype, and sex and slaughter, and little gobbets of trouble and heartbreak.…Francis Ford Coppola…has stayed very close to the book's greased-lightning sensationalism and yet has made a movie with the spaciousness and the strength that popular novels such as Dickens' used to have.…Puzo provided what Coppola needed: a storyteller's output of incidents and details to choose from, the folklore behind the headlines, heat and immediacy, the richly familiar. And Puzo's shameless turn-on probably left Coppola looser than if he had been dealing with a better book…"
Of course, Coppola had a long way to go and many battles to wage before that finished film could win Pauline's seal of approval.
Before we delve deeper into some of the behind-the-scenes brouhahas, I do want to pause for a moment to mention the one detail of the novel still trapped in my brain that convinced me the book stunk. Admittedly, this stretch of Puzo's work thoroughly amused friends of mine around the same age (junior high), who found the entire sequence hysterical. On the commentary, Coppola raises this, though he can't bring himself to talk about it in clinical detail, other than to say the lengthy plot point stood as a key factor in his thinking long and hard about whether or not he wanted to make a film version of this book. Now, the movie does show that James Caan's Sonny Corleone gets laid a lot, but that's nothing compared to Puzo's description of Santino. In the novel, covered over many pages, readers learn that Sonny isn't just a lothario, he happens to be a well-endowed lothario. Apparently, when standing at full attention, Sonny proves to be so mammoth in size that his mistress (who eventually will give birth to Andy Garcia for The Godfather Part III) requires corrective gynecological surgery because just having sex with him disfigures her vagina. (She needed the surgery or Baby Andy Garcia might have just slid out like a bowling ball through the return, dangling between her legs by the umbilical cord.) I know what you are thinking — did the Farrelly brothers help Puzo write The Godfather? I have no evidence to support such a rumor, though Peter was 15 and Bobby was 13 when the novel came out, so the two had hit the correct age for that kind of humor — and with The Godfather turning into such a huge hit, who could blame them for never wanting to abandon that mentality? Anyway, Coppola wisely decided that the film could leave out that part of the story, but what he did do borders on genius. He alludes to it by a simple, visual gag by unnamed female wedding guests after they spot Sonny sneaking off with his mistress for an assignation.
In Kael's review, she writes that Puzo claims that he wrote the novel "below my gifts" because he needed the money (other stories report that Puzo was drowning in gambling debts at the time). Coppola, Kael similarly said, told everyone he took the film for the money. Though he never makes that case on the DVD commentary, most stories sound different depending on the storyteller and evidence exists that Kael had the story correct when she penned that Coppola sought the cash so he could make the movies that he wanted to make. In Kael's opinion, Puzo taking the dough turned out a much worse result than Coppola doing it for the money did. "(Coppola) has salvaged Puzo's energy and lent the narrative dignity," Kael opined. First, he had to land that job. Mark Seal wrote a fascinating look of the events surrounding the making of the film in the March 2009 edition of Vanity Fair titled "The Godfather Wars." In it, he chronicled Coppola's initial reluctance to take the job as well as Paramount, which back then had the oil company Gulf & Western as its parent, considering selling the property instead of ponying up the money to make it. According to Seal's article, Coppola's chief cheerleader for the job at Paramount was Peter Bart, then vice president in charge of creative affairs at the studio. Bart later would run Variety before leaving as the once powerful trade paper went into its death throes, with its probable mercy killing appearing imminent any day now.
"Bart felt that Coppola would not be expensive and would work with a small budget. Coppola passed on the project, confessing that he had tried to read Puzo’s book but, repulsed by its graphic sex scenes, had stopped at page 50. He had a problem, however: he was broke. His San Francisco–based independent film company, American Zoetrope, owed $600,000 to Warner Bros., and his partners, especially George Lucas, urged him to accept. “Go ahead, Francis,” Lucas said. “We really need the money. What have you got to lose?” Coppola went to the San Francisco library, checked out books on the Mafia, and found a deeper theme for the material. He decided it should be not a film about organized crime but a family chronicle, a metaphor for capitalism in America."
When Robert Evans, then-head of production at Paramount, heard what Coppola thought the story should be, Evans thought the young director had lost it. More importantly, he feared that Paramount execs above him such as studio president Stanley Jaffe would sell the rights. Burt Lancaster had offered $1 million for them because he lusted after the role of Don Corleone for himself. The top studio brass weren't as hot as Evans on making the film anyway. Seal's account says "the studio bosses didn’t want to make the movie. Mob films didn’t play, they felt, as evidenced by their 1969 flop The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas as a Sicilian gangster." Evans employed a last-ditch maneuver in hopes of keeping The Godfather, Seal recounts further. "(H)e dispatched Coppola to New York to meet with (Gulf & Western Chairman Charlie) Bluhdorn. Coppola’s presentation persuaded Bluhdorn to hire him. Immediately, he began re-writing the script with Mario Puzo, and the two Italian-Americans grew to love each other.'Puzo was an absolutely wonderful man,' says Coppola. 'To sum him up, when I put a line in the script describing how to make sauce and wrote, ‘First you brown some garlic,’ he scratched that out and wrote, ‘First you fry some garlic. Gangsters don’t brown.’'" Crisis averted. Now Coppola and Paramount just had each other to fight, especially about casting.
Since they thwarted Burt Lancaster's dream of playing Vito, Coppola and crew would need an actor to play the don. During discussions, according to Coppola's commentary track, they determined that the Don needed to be played by one of the world's greatest actors and Coppola narrowed that list to two men — Brando, who being in his 40s at the time was younger than the sixtysomething Corleone, and Laurence Olivier, who was in the right age range, seen in the photo at the left as he looked in 1973 in a television production of The Merchant of Venice playing the original Shylock. When casting The Godfather though, representatives described Olivier's health to them as precarious, almost implying the bell would soon toll for the actor. Of course, this wasn't the case and Olivier recovered soon enough that when Brando won the best actor Oscar for 1972 for playing Vito, Olivier held one of the other four nominations for Sleuth and didn't die until 1989. While Brando did get the part, the studio fought like hell to prevent it. His reputation as difficult and eccentric superseded his reputation as brilliant in their collective minds and it took a screen test, makeup tests and many promises that he'd be on his best behavior before Paramount agreed to let him play the part. Aside from his usual pranks on the set (such as in the scene when two men carry Vito upstairs on a gurney and he secretly added hundreds of pounds of weights beneath the sheet to watch them struggle), Brando actually stayed on his best behavior. Brando saved his only stunt for Oscar night when the world met a Native American woman who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather. (Digression: Coppola won Oscars for adapted screenplay three times: for the first two Godfathers and for Patton. Twice, the films also won best actor and both times, the actors refused to accept the Oscar — though George C. Scott announced in advance he wouldn't if he won and had said the same when nominated for The Hustler.) Imagine another scenario, one Paramount considered before Coppola's hiring. At one point, they seriously planned to cast Danny Thomas as the senior Corleone. I don't know if the film's title would have changed to Make Room for Godfather.
Casting Vito turned out to be a breeze compared to many names floated to play Michael before Coppola was involved and the director and Paramount displaying equal intransigence about who should play Michael. From the beginning, Coppola visualized the actors as certain characters in his head, going so far as to bring them down to American Zoetrope's San Francisco offices before any discussions with the studio. In his mind, Sonny always looked like James Caan and no one but Al Pacino played Michael. Back when it looked as if Danny Thomas would be playing the Don, the Gulf & Western CEO approached Warren Beatty not only to take the part of Michael but to produce and direct the film as well, Beatty told Mark Seal. This was 1970, not even a full three years since Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty said to Bluhdorn, "Charlie, not another gangster movie!" Film lovers reaped the rewards of Beatty refusing that offer, not only because ultimately it would lead to Coppola and Pacino in The Godfather but because instead Beatty teamed with Robert Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Other actors considered for Michael, some who actually received offers and turned them down included Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, David Carradine and Jack Nicholson. One thing became clear: Once Paramount determined that it would make the film, it fought about everything. They hated the idea of Pacino as Michael. Evans told Coppola that Pacino was too short for the part and that "a runt" couldn't play Michael. Caan called up Coppola before the film started and informed him that the studio and just offered him the part of Michael. Not only had Coppola always envisioned Caan as Sonny, he viewed the character as the Americanized one and that Michael should look more traditionally Italian which Pacino did and Caan did not, especially since Caan's ancestry was Jewish not Italian. The studio relented long enough to get production started, though Coppola just knew he'd be fired at any time so, as an insurance policy, he scheduled Michael's killing of Sollozzo and police Capt. McCluskey (Al Lettieri, Sterling Hayden) for the first week of filming. Coppola credits this memorable sequence, seen in the clip below, for selling the studio on Pacino and saving his job — temporarily, but the director continued to feel at risk as the studio tried to undermine his ideas at nearly every turn.
Robert Evans didn't like Nino Rota's score. Coppola decided to start playing rough with the studio. His certainty that he could be fired any moment freed him in a way so he began telling them to fire him each time the studio wanted to change something important to him. That music qualified as one of those for Coppola. Evans wouldn't budge, so they agreed to let a screening decide. The audience loved the movie so much, no one even noticed the score, if you can believe that. Another time, the studio complained that the film didn't have enough "action" in it and told Coppola that they planned to send an action director to the set to see how to pick it up. To beat them to the punch, so to speak, he came up with the scene where Connie (Talia Shire) gets into a huge fight with Carlo (Gianni Russo) when she intercepts a phone call from a woman and assumes he's cheating on her. She starts throwing every dish in the apartment at him. Coppola's young son even got in on the fun — handing objects to his aunt from offscreen for her to let fly. If the studio wasn't bitching about scenes they didn't see, they'd whine about ones that they told him should be coming out. On the commentary track, Coppola refers specifically about a studio hack that he doesn't name since the man has died who constantly appeared on the set saying, "We don't need that scene" or "That scene has been cut." Fortunately, on some sequences, Coppola covered the sequences with two cameras so when this man showed up to try to stop the famous scene of the Don's death in the garden while playing with his grandson, Coppola was able to shut off one to appease him while the second camera continued to work. The studio particularly hated that scene because of the costs associated with flying in the tomatoes and the hack's belief that just cutting from the previous scene to Vito's funeral would make the point just as well. The other incident when Coppola believed his firing was imminent concerned the scene where Brando as the Don met with Sollozzo. The studio only would tell Coppola that something dissatisfied them about the scene. Coppola offered to reshoot it, but he was informed that wouldn't be necessary so he knew what that meant. Then, on the commentary, he offers one of his many pieces of advice that he directs specifically for young filmmakers. They'll never fire you on a Wednesday. They'll always wait until Friday, wanting to use the weekend for a smoother transition. Coppola realized he wasn't just making a movie. If he famously described the making of Apocalypse Now as Vietnam, then shooting The Godfather paralleled mob warfare so Coppola hit them before the studio could whack him. Coppola fired four people that day — assistant directors and others that he suspected as being the traitors, and threw Paramount into disarray. With those four gone, he reshot the scene, Paramount didn't object any longer and Coppola didn't get the axe. The final battle over the film came down to the editing process itself. Coppola wanted to cut the film in his San Francisco studios, Paramount wanted to cut it in L.A. Evans relented, but warned Coppola that if he turned in a movie with a running time longer than 2 hours and 15 minutes, they'd move editing to Los Angeles. The first cut ran 2 hours and 45 minutes. Coppola got brutal, removing anything that added color or could be considered extraneous. When done, he had trimmed it to 2 hours and 20 minutes. He took his chances and delivered that to Paramount in L.A. Evans complained that he cut all the color and best stuff and they were moving the editing to L.A.. Coppola realized they would have done that no matter what, but they basically put back everything he cut and then some ending up with the cut we know that's just five minutes short of three hours.
Once the film had finished and it became abundantly clear that Coppola had made a hit for Paramount, they loved him. Its very limited opening weekend in merely six theaters took in $302,393 (an average of $50,398 per screen). That calculates today to $1,646,978.41 on six screens for a $274,491.86 per screen average. As The Godfather became a bigger hit, Coppola didn't get to enjoy its early success because now that Paramount valued him so much, Robert Evans begged him to come help re-write Jack Clayton's troubled adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. For three weeks, Coppola says he was "pulling his hair out" trying to fix that. In the end, Coppola doesn't think that Clayton used any of his revisions in the dreadful Gatsby adaptation, which might end up looking better once Baz "Short Attention Span" Luhrmann releases his 3D version of Fitzgerald's masterpiece.
"I felt so embarrassed…I was very unhappy during The Godfather. I had been told by everyone that my ideas for it were so bad and I didn't have a helluva lot confidence in myself — I was only 30 years old or so — and I was just hangin' on by my wits…I had no idea that this nightmare was going to turn into a successful film much less a film that would become a classic."
Well, maybe directing a movie isn't always fun, at least that's Coppola's recollection of his time on The Godfather. He shot the film for $6.5 million in 52 days, but he admits he felt like an outsider on his own set. (Since it did become a huge blockbuster, Part II received a budget bump to $11 million and they actually got to go on location for shooting.) He speaks honestly about how the great cinematographer Gordon Willis and other crewmembers wondered why Coppola got the job. They didn't quite understand things that he tried but by the sequel, that had all changed. That took some time to happen though. Willis, the man who deserves much of the credit for the film's great look, often shook his head at Coppola's ideas. He particularly disdained high shots, though Coppola made him do some anyway, specifically when they try to kill Vito so you can see the oranges roll into the street and during the Sollozzo killing. Coppola recounts one incident when nature called and as he sat in the bathroom stall, two crewmembers walked in, unaware of Coppola's presence. "What do you think of this director?" one asked the other. "Boy, he doesn't know anything. What an asshole he is!" the other replied. It didn't help Coppola's confidence. Listening to his commentary, it doesn't just illuminate the history of the film's production, you also hear Coppola react to things that still bother him because of the cheap production such as obvious stock footage of cars driving in New York in the 1940s or cheap second unit shots of signs in Las Vegas. The low budget did force some ingenuity on him as well. When it came time to film the sequence where Michael goes to the hospital to see his recovering father and notices the lack of security, they didn't realize until editing that not enough suspense had been built up because where they filmed had such limited space. George Lucas searched through discarded strips of films for shots made of the hospital corridor and they strung them together to give the illusion that it was longer and to increase the suspense. Late in production, there turned out to be several scenes that Coppola realized they needed, the most important being that he'd failed to write a one-on-one scene between Pacino and Brando. Since he was in a frenzy as it was, he called up his friend Robert Towne and he quickly cranked out that memorable scene where Vito tells Michael what to watch out for and expresses regrets that he has assumed his role as don since he never wanted that life for him. He dreamed of a "Senator Corleone" or "Governor Corleone." Finally, Vito sighs, "There just wasn't enough time." "We'll get there, pop. We'll get there," Michael replies. One of the best-written scenes in the entire film came from a screenwriter who received no credit for it. Forget it Robert, it's Hollywood.
The Godfather comes stocked with so many memorable sequences, it's damn near impossible to list them all, but perhaps the most famous one of all, one which Coppola conceived for the movie, remains the most imitated of them all. Coppola himself tried to do variations in both of the Godfather sequels but, as with most things, it's hard to top the original. The ending killing spree montage surrounding the baptism of Carlo and Connie's newborn son with Michael standing by to be the child's godfather came about as a matter of practicality. In the novel, the revenge taken on the heads of the five families and Bugsy Siegel-stand-in Moe Green out in Vegas (played briefly but memorably by the great Alex Rocco) covered about 30 pages or so in the book. In the script, Coppola needed to condense that to two pages. As coincidence would have it, around the same time of the contemplation about how to accomplish this, Coppola's wife gave birth to future Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola. Baby Sofia wasted no time joining the family business, even though she took on the acting challenge of portraying a baby boy. Her birth inspired Coppola to unify the killings around the baptism ceremony, something that seemed even more appropriate once he reminded himself of the specific baptism text. "Do you renounce Satan?" Still, Coppola said that the ingredient that makes the sequence truly work came courtesy of co-editor Peter Zinner who added the organ tract. Play the clip and try to imagine the sequence without that organ. I think Coppola has that exactly right.
Now, one final time I'm going to plug the Vanity Fair article from 2009 by Mark Seal called "The Godfather Wars". It's online and free and I was tempted to use a lot of material from it, but I had to cut somewhere so I didn't get into the really juicy stuff involving the real Frank Sinatra, the real mobsters and the interaction between the Mafia and the studios. Hell, I didn't even go into the story of who the real Johnny Fontane might have been. It's all in there, so it's worth reading. However, I'm not done. The Godfather was a trilogy after all, so I have one more post coming, which mostly will just me talking about what I think about the film itself with a little bit of other gangster-related entertainment thrown it. I give you my word: I'll do my damnedest to make certain that my third part turns out better than Coppola's did. I end with one last bit from Seal's piece, relating to something from the novel and what Mario Puzo said once.
"One of the most quoted lines from Puzo’s novel never made it to the screen: 'A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.' Before his death, in 1999, Puzo said in a symposium, 'I think the movie business is far more crooked than Vegas, and, I was going to say, than the Mafia.'”
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