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Paramount Studios presents
The Godfather (1974)

"I worked my whole life—I don't apologize—to take care of my family... and I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I don't apologize. That's my life."
- Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)

Review By: Jesse Shanks  
Published: October 08, 2001

Stars: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Other Stars: Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Run Time: 02h:55m:04s
Release Date: October 09, 2001
UPC: 097361564746
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB-B+ B+

DVD Review

"I believe in America." Thus begins the epic story of the Corleone family, as a quaking undertaker sits in Don Vito's darkened den and tells the story of his arrival as an immigrant to find a new life in the constitutional joys of the "new world." Yet, this system recently failed him when two young hoodlums raped and beat his daughter and then laughed at him when their sentences were suspended at their trial. Now, he has turned to a deeper, darker path to justice by appealing to Vito Corleone, the Godfather, a member of a timeless organization of power that has existed for centuries as a dark underbelly of the bright institutions of religon and government: the crime syndicate.

Author Mario Puzo wrote the novel, The Godfather, as a sensational, pulpy fictionalization of historical events relating to the development of La Cosa Nostra (our thing) among the immigrants to America in the early part of the last century. From the neighborhoods of New York emerged gangs of men who used terror and murder to carve out territories of power and influence, based on violence and intimidation to control the vices of the time, such as gambling and prostitution. The novel was optioned by Paramount Studios as a gangster film with a modest budget of two-and-a-half million dollars, to be set in the current day of the 1970s. A young Italian-American director, familiar with working quickly and cheaply from his apprenticeship with legendary B-movie director, Roger Corman, was chosen to helm the production: Francis Ford Coppola.

To the surprise of many, the novel was a publishing phenomena and became one of the best-selling books of the era. Its lurid fantasy of sex, crime and violence, told in a page-turning potboiler, captured the imagination of an America coming off the unsettling years of protest and turmoil that was the 1960s. Much of the novel was a roman a clef of Mafia history, alluding to current events with characters that resembled contemporary figures. One sensational example was the character of pop singer/actor Johnny Fontane, rumored to be based on Frank Sinatra's life and the national parlor game was to look for the juicy clues in the story that showed this. Suddenly, the stakes were much higher for Paramount Studios, as their modest property was now the hottest in the country and anticipation was high for the release of the film version. Casting for the movie became one of those classic stories of Hollywood infighting and, with an unspectacular track record, young Coppola was in constant risk of being fired from the project to allow for a more bankable director to take over.

It is difficult for us to recognize that 30 years ago, there were no thoughts of the film version of The Godfather dominating the Academy Awards® in 1973, nor its destiny to become one of the great films of American Cinema nor that, in an era when movie tickets costs a fraction of those we buy today, it would attain the highest-gross profit of any film released to-date. The Godfather is embedded in the tapestry of our culture; its characters and themes color the fabric of how we understand crime and punishment in America. In the wake of this movie was to come the greatest sequel of all time, The Godfather, Part II, which remains the only sequel to also win an Academy Award®, creating a circle of actors who have become giants of American film and a director who has claims to being one of the greatest of all time.

Back when The Godfather was in pre-production, one of the key issues was who would play Vito Corleone. In all its requirements, Paramount rated money as the most important factorˇhow cheap, how much less, how little. They underestimated the creative vision of Coppola and it is still a marvel that such a film could be made for so little. However, when the novel became such a big seller, the stakes rose higher and no B-movie actor could be chosen for the central role of the Don. After many failed tests, Coppola created a shortlist: Sir Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. It was found that at this time, Olivier was very ill and would probably not be able to be in the film. When he floated the idea of Brando in the role to the studio, the response was unanimous and overwhelming: Brando will never be in this movie.

Marlon Brando was respected as one of the great American actors and has largely been credited with the popularization of the Method style of acting, which depends on a psychological understanding of the motivations of a role, as opposed to a more superficial portrayal based on surface technique. He burst into popular culture in the 1950s with his creation of the Academy Award®-nominated role of Stanley Kowalski in the sensational A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando followed this with a series of award-winning and popular appearances, including an American production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as Marc Antony, the title role in Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata and rejoining with Kazan as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, for which he won his first Oscar®. However, as the 1960s dawned, Brando became a participant in and was identified with the breakdown of the Hollywood studio system and was also a victim of his own mercurial personality.

Most notorious was Brando's involvement in a production of Mutiny on the Bounty, cast as Fletcher Christian, for which his acting choices were almost universally condemned. When the film went far over budget and threatened to bring down the studioˇsimilar to the way Cleopatra almost destroyed 20th Century FoxˇBrando bore the brunt of the blame. Ultimately, the film sank at the box office. This disaster led to a series of eccentric films in the 1960s that became a legendary string of box office failures. By the early 1970s, Brando was virtually labelled box office poison.

When Coppola insisted to the studio executives that they consider Brando for the role, they imposed harsh conditions, including a screen test and an appearance bond. Virtually ignoring the conditions, he contacted Brando and proposed a makeup test on video. With this footage in hand, Coppola was able to convince the studio that Brando could be the powerful Mafia chieftain on film and work was begun to finalize the casting of the other important characters in the film.

The central theme of The Godfather is family, and Don Vito has three sons, an adopted son and a daughter. The roles of the sons were among the most highly prized acting gigs around Hollywood and in the words of Coppola, "we tested everybody." The studio wanted "names" in these roles and proposed such figures as Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal and Burt Reynolds. Coppola, as expected, had other ideas, looking for a more naturalistic style, and wanted actors that were not as well known. He had worked with James Caan and Robert Duvall in his previous film, The Rain People, and cast them as the eldest son Sonny Corleone and the adopted Tom Hagen, respectively. For the pivotal role of Michael Corleone, Coppola fought for an intense young actor, Al Pacino. The middle brother, Fredo, was played by John Cazale. The rest of the important characters were filled out with a range of unknown to well-known actors. Respected tough guy Sterling Hayden portrayed the crooked Police Captain McCluskey; then unknown Abe Vigoda played an important lieutenant to the Don, Salvatore Tessio and stage actor Richard Castellano portrayed another lieutenant, Peter Clemenza, both leaders of the soldiers loyal to the crime family. Diane Keaton was cast as Kay Adams, the waspish girlfriend of the rebellious Michael.

Other players included John Marley as a hollywood executive, Al Lettieri as the villian Sollozo and Richard Conte as Don Barzini. It is fascinating how these actors drew their performances from the actual crime figures they represented and influenced how future generations of Mafioso would see and present themselves. Coppola began a theme of using his own family in The Godfather movies when he cast his sister, Talia Shire, as Connie Corleone. Ultimately, the father, mother, uncle, cousins, daughter and other relatives were to appear among the cast and crew of the series. Coppola has said that The Godfather films were about a family, made by a family.

When trying to determine what it is about this film that makes it great, first and foremost must be the acting. Brando's performance as Don Corelone is, without a doubt, one of the great performances of American film. Only 47 when the film was made, Brando portrayed a much older man, combining both magnetism and menace in a palpable way. Despite occupying only a portion of the almost three-hour running time, his Vito Corleone is an indelible figure and was to win Brando his second Academy Award®; Pacino, Caan and Duvall all received Best Supporting Actor nominations. However, the realism and authenticity of performances by the actors in supporting roles, including Morgana King (as Mama Corleone), as well as the other family members and "soldiers," create a believable and compelling universe of loyalty and deceit.

Other outstanding attributes include the subdued photography of Gordon Willis, the haunting score by Nino Rota, the Dean Tavolouris production design and the costumes by Anna Hill Johnstone, which all contribute to the overall look and feel of the film and the richness of detail that makes it a visual feast. All of this, helmed by the audacious vision of Coppolaˇwho battled studio executives threatening to fire him every step of the way to make a movie that rose above the melodrama of the novelˇadd up to make significant statements about power and the execution thereof. The film rises above its genre to become an allegorical depiction of human institutions, laying bare the truth that within the rule of law exists a dark side which emerges from the willingness to kill to gain and maintain power.

The Godfather has scenes of astonishing violence that contribute in many ways, for good or ill, to the popularization of graphic depictions of such acts in motion pictures. In the 1960s, filmmakers like Arthur Penn with Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpaugh with The Wild Bunch, raised the bar by employing powerful scenes of graphic violence. The killings in The Godfather are necessary because it is the story of a violent world, but the graphic realism set a new standard and, in some ways, make it a horror film in a way that a drama normally is not.

The screenplay, written by Coppola in collaboration with Puzo, rightly garnered the Oscar® for screenwriting adapted from another medium. The plot of The Godfather is complex and dialogue driven in a way that few movies have achieved, as scenes of men in darkened rooms conspire to achieve their aims are contraposed with brightly-lit scenes of weddings, funerals and parades, imparting a sense of a super-realistic life and the pools of darkness within it. Following the outstanding opening wedding scene in which the characters are introduced, we are propelled into the "taken from the headlines" story of how the global drug trade crept into the business of the crime syndicate. As a powerful figure with politicians and judges in his pocket "like so many nickel and dimes," Don Vito must decide whether or not to assist the establishment of the immensely profitable importation of heroin into the United States. He decides that the drug business will ultimately destroy his organization and refuses to finance the operation of Sollozo, who is backed by other members of the five crime families that dominate the syndicate in New York City.

Impulsive Sonny reveals his interest in the idea and this leads to an attempt by the other families to kill the Godfather and make a deal with his heirs. They gun Don Vito down but fail to kill him; Sonny hits back hard and the crime families fall into a brutal war of attrition for control of the rackets. Young Michael had not been a part of the family business but events inevitably draw him into the inner circle and when a second attack on the hospitalized Don fails, he proposes to use his position as an outsider to meet with Sollozo and kill him to protect their father. At this point, Michael begins to emerge as the true inheritor with the force of character that made the Don a man of respect in this violent community.

There are so many scenes that feature the finest acting every recorded on film that although the American Film Institute placed The Godfather in third position on the list of the 100 Top American Films of all time, it must certainly be said that it is the best acted film ever made.

The beauty of this DVD is to be able to revel in the sublety of the performances, the nuances of the plot and the attention to detail found in the design of the film. From the gas-rationing coupons and wooden bumpers on the cars to the pain on the face of Don Corleone when he learns of the death of his eldest son, we have simply the finest examples of filmic artistry, both in the collobarative and individual realizations. The Godfather, as a DVD, receives my highest recommendation for those who love the genre of crime films, who are interested in the finest expression of cinema and those who simply love a well-told, well-realized story.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Godfather is definitely a candidate for restoration, and according to HTF's Ron Epstein, the Paramount team spent a lot of time and effort, and are pleased with the results. There are occasional flaws in the source and their seems to be a wide variety of film sources that, in this digital form, have much more apparent defects and back up claims that Paramount was very determined to make this film as cheaply as possible. The stock footage and second unit footage used for some of the externals stand out starkly as of lesser quality. On the other hand, some of the scenes are impressively beautiful, especially in some lovely colored compositions, but there are definite moments of graininess and poor lighting that are distracting. The quality will no doubt disappoint some in the inconsistency and roughness, which cannot be ignored, but this is a source issue and not related to the transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound remix is very good and their are some nice moments of expanded stereo in the larger action scenes. The dialogue, which can be difficult to understand under the best of circumstances in some scenes is well placed in the stereo spectrum and the music elements are nicely used. I detected no noise or hiss to distract the listener. The sound work of the original film was greatly underrated and I think this edition will provide a new aural experience to those who have not given the sound design of The Godfather its due. It is surprising that, given the international appeal of this film and its status as a movie classic, that only English subtitles are provided. For audio tracks, only a French dub (although it is interesting to watch listening to the French audio!) is provided.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Francis Ford Coppola
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The Menu System features alternating scenes from the movie as background and are very simple with a play, setup and scene selection buttons that feature the puppet strings symbol as a highlight. I have to complain about the job done on scene selection. The movie is indexed with only 25 cues and each cue can contain several scenes.

Francis Ford Coppola provides a compelling and interesting commentary that adds to the enjoyment of this film. He details various obstacles that he struggled against to get the film made, and provides many personal insights into his motivations and decisions in realizing the story on the screen. It is an invaluable resource for fans of The Godfather series. There are many occasions where small bloopers are pointed out, production details and descriptions of the genesis of some of the most famous lines and scenes in the film. There is quite a bit of the material that has been known from other descriptions of the making of The Godfather but I didn't mind the repetition (although I would have like more about the process of working with Brando). I strongly felt as if I was sitting in a room with the director, him telling me what he was doing or thinking during the process, which makes for a fantastic personalization of the viewing experience.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

As one of the greatest films of all time, The Godfather is potentially one of the greatest DVDs of all time. To have a DVD player is to desire films that allow one to view again and again and find new points of interest and enjoyment. Here we have a film that can be enjoyed both as entertainment and a work of cinematic art. The performances are among the best ever filmed, the direction is powerfully engaging and the story is as potent today as it was 30 years ago. The Godfather makes a statement that only in understanding the most base evil among us can we truly understand the greatest potentials of the human spirit. This is an excellent story told incredibly well, and despite issues with the film source, this DVD gets my highest recommendation.


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