BFI/Palgrave Macmillan £9.99 (96pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Godfather, By Jon Lewis
Friday 12 November 2010
Combining narrative analysis and production history, this slender book reminds us why Francis Ford Coppola's first episode in The Godfather trilogy has been accorded the top spot in numerous polls of the greatest film of all time. Jon Lewis, a professor of English, explores the film's bold style of long set pieces, such as the opening scene of a mob wedding that reveals "a family business that is at once simple and mysterious".
Subsequent scenes, where "gangsters unconvincingly perform the roles of American businessmen", underline the film's theme of power in America: "Everything of importance is achieved behind closed doors". The interior scenes shot in a rich, chocolate brown, which prompted cinematographer Gordon Willis to be dubbed the "Prince of Darkness", are punctuated by moments of startling violence, especially in the five-minute climactic montage that cuts with increasing speed between a baptism and Michael Corleone's ruthless assertion of his authority.
At times, Lewis's commentary seems to be coming from an adjoining cinema seat. During Michael's assassination of a rival gangster and a bent cop, he notes how "we worry for a moment that he might not have the courage to pull the trigger. The action is suspended... so the audience calls even more strongly for its performance." It is an indication of the film's innovatory nature that the first editor on the job insisted that this scene "wouldn't cut", because Coppola "had no idea about continuity".
So accomplished is the direction by the young auteur, and so perfect the casting, it is hard to believe that the film version of Mario Puzo's novel could have been any other than how it is. But we learn that the producer Robert Evans first wanted Burt Lancaster to play Vito Corleone (at 58 he was the right age for the role while Brando was 47) and the directing job was offered to eight others before Coppola. Though the film won three Oscars and rescued the ailing Paramount, the argument over authorship between director and producer smouldered for years. Coppola accused Evans of "ridiculous pomposity". Evans attacked Coppola's "venomous diatribe". Exploring links between the film and real-life gangsters, Lewis notes that the revenge killing of "Crazy Joe" Gallo in "a restaurant on Mulberry Street in Little Italy" six months after The Godfather opened "seemed to assure viewers that Coppola and Puzo had the scoop".
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