Blood is thicker than water

The Corleones are back - in glorious new 35mm prints. David Thomson celebrates 'The Godfather' epic and pays tribute to America's first family

Nothing is getting any easier. The centre doesn't hold and the beef isn't safe. There's no longer enough reason to take for granted the probity and wisdom of the Queen of England, the Holy Father, or the goalkeeper. All over the world, the cynical push of terrorism and corruption is working, and sneering at higher ideals. There's too little family stability, no respect for elders, no weight of obligation and duty. The men who govern our affairs are weary with the knowledge that they can no longer simply shut the door on women and treat them as icons, mothers, daughters, silent consorts - or agreeable hideaway mistresses. No wonder those men stumble sometimes now. To take just the American situation at the moment (obviously the direst), just suppose if the police and the authorities could be as effective and as steadfast, as much there for us, as the Corleone family.

I mean, consider the empire of the Corleones: wild, intemperate kids like Sonny (James Caan) got their come-uppance; the sickly, unworthy boys, like Fredo (John Cazale) ... well, nature eliminated them, a nice combination of real nature (the cold waters of Lake Tahoe) and human nature (the necessary firmness of a dominant brother). People like Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V Gazzo) knew when to take one for the team, and had the wit to see that the one to take was a long warm bath - he'd be dead before the chill hit. There are the eternal facilitators like Al Neri (Richard Bright), the studious, self-made man, never went to college but reliable in any pinch, so that Michael (Al Pacino) can say to Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) with a calm and patience that might quell stockmarket panics, "Tom, if we've learnt anything it is that you can kill anyone".

Then there are the get-togethers, the feasts of meatballs (the beef and the pork and the veal - no questions asked), and the pasta with names like tortellini, penne, fettuccine, the names of heroes, and the art of the sauce passed down by hands stained with tomato paste, oregano and just a little blood, while Mama (Morgana King) and Connie (Talia Shire) sit in the background as still as portraits, with grandchildren on their knees, all-knowing, always consenting - it's uncritical love that lets women stay in the room. Which was something that Kay (Diane Keaton) couldn't learn - but, of course, she was never quite one of us, was she?

If you have any doubts, this news just in: planning for The Godfather Part IV is now proceeding, with script options waiting only on events this November. Broadly, the errors of Part III are being acknowledged: it was a mistake to go to Italy and get involved in Vatican politics; it was doubly inappropriate to have a guilt-stricken Michael in search of redemption. Audience-polling only reaffirmed the profound truth of I and II: we like Mikey mean, in charge, doing the unpleasant things that have to be done.

So the scheme for IV is a President who is half-Clinton, half-Gump. He knows who his friends are and he wants a favour: to stay in office, be rid of all the enemies, liars, scumbags and pretty little things who have been hounding him, and to pass the Health thing.

"Mr President," whispers Michael (Pacino will play him as 80-plus, in a wheelchair, with a very weak voice), "Health has always been our thing, too."

"I mean," says Pres, "with what we're spending on Health, just think what we could do ..."

"I'm thinking," says Michael - big close-up of his eyes shining out of the dark; he is seen in immense, warming shadow, with only the bent figure of Al Neri beside him.

Now, a lot still has to be worked out, but eventually what we have this time is the Corleones moving in to ultimate respectability, in Washington. The family will get a 17.5 per cent administration fee on the socialised medicine plan, the Pres is re-elected and in a monumental murderous finale (set against his inauguration) we will see the knock-out knocking-off of Newt Gingrich, Al D'Amato, Paula Jones, prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and conservative radio-talkshow host Rush Limbaugh. Bob Dole will be revealed as one of Michael's secret plants, and he will off Newt, using his shattered hand (which is really a weapon). Hillary will become ambassador to London, and part of the same trade will have Lady Di serving in her place as White House Official Hostess (WHOH).

The movie will close with Michael and the President at twilight.

"Sir," hisses Michael (he has had another stroke), "I see only one problem."

"What's that, Mike?"

"This is your second term."

"Right! Then I get to golf seriously."

"You'd give it all up?"

"Well, Mike, that's in the Constitution. President can't serve more than two terms."

"No?"

"Golly, no, not without some God-awful emergency - why, I can't hardly think what it would have to be."

"Tell me about it."

"Mike?"

"We give them a crisis they can't refuse."

YES, I'M kidding you - no movie company would permit such a scurrilous travesty; no President would stoop to such manoeuvres; and, finally, there is no such thing as organised crime. After all, when you're that organised you claim your place in the mainstream.

This is all a way of saying that Artificial Eye is about to issue new 35mm prints of the epic of our time (or the first two-thirds of it at least). And I have to tell you that The Godfather (1972, 175 mins) and Part II (1974, 200 mins) are as good as American film gets.

The record speaks for itself, and the movies are as eloquent and gorgeous as ever. The original and Part II both won Oscars for Best Picture and Script (and they had real competition - Cabaret, Deliverance, Chinatown and Coppola's other 1974 film, The Conversation); and Coppola won Best Director for Part II. Brando won Best Actor in Part I and De Niro Supporting Actor in Part II - yet we can see now, more clearly, that Pacino's is the greater performance, maybe the most influential character study in modern American film. Parts I and II are also among the most commercially successful films of all time.

Those are just the basic facts. That the film works so well is also due to the assured structure and writing. The dialogue has passed into common memory, but then consider the pacing: the build-up to the moment when Michael shoots two men in the Italian restaurant; the flashback in Part II; the extended finales. Remember the browns, blacks, greys and whites by Gordon Willis: colour films are rarely so bold with darkness. Think of all the sets and the astonishing period accuracy - the work of Dean Tavoularis, Warren Clymer, Anna Hill Johnstone, Angelo Graham, Theadora van Runkle. Imagine the test of the editing, listen to the stealthy sound, and begin to appreciate the contribution of one of the least known geniuses of film - Walter Murch.

And don't forget the acting - the textured reality that brings finesse and panache to every role. Remember Richard Castellano as Clemenza in Part I - he asked for too much money on Part II, and so his part was changed into Frankie Pentangeli. Who can forget the hangdog face of Abe Vigoda's Tessio? Alex Rocco as Moe Greene! Al Martino as Johnny Fontane! Sterling Hayden as the greedy cop! And then in Part II there's Lee Strasberg's Hyman Roth, so gentle, so deadly; and GD Spradlin's Senator Pat Geary, so noxious, so dishonest; Dominic Chianese as Johnny Ola. And there are gems like the stricken look on the face of Salvatore Po (as Pentangeli's brother): he says nothing, but his mere appearance stills Frankie's testimony.

Part III is not of the same class. Coppola was no longer the same man. There were grave mistakes in story and casting: Sofia Coppola, the director's daughter, was a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder as Michael's daughter; Robert Duvall excluded himself by demanding too much money. And the picture was rushed to make a Christmas release date. Later on, Coppola re-edited, added some fine scenes between Pacino and Diane Keaton that make for a better film. It is to be hoped that that version will play now on television.

And yet ... if The Godfather is the best America can do, then times are bad. For, despite all the period authenticity and the truth of great acting, The Godfather is a beguiling fantasy that says murder is fun, that the world of violence and corruption is excused by the glamour of outlawry and its urge for order. We love the film because we want to be Corleones: we want to dream of the brotherhood, the bravery, the superb plans, the call for sacrifice in others, and the savage elimination of enemies. Michael is a presidential figure - and it is hardly accidental that he coincides with the age of Nixon. It is the business of American film to make us offers we cannot decline, and to sustain the notion that we relate to our world not through intelligence, service, responsibility and participation, but as fantasists. The Godfather - God help us.

! 'The Godfather' opens at the Lumiere Cinema, WC2 (0171 836 0691), on 5 July. 'Part II' follows on 26 July.

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