There is much in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather that marks it as the beginning of a new era in American cinema: its fix on violence, physical and psychological, as the core of contemporary life; its expansive, dispassionate, almost sociological account of the workings of a criminal institution; the boldly deep tones and colours pioneered by cinematographer Gordon Willis.
The Godfather changed the face and the course of modern American cinema. The number of filmmakers who still genuflect to it, testifying to its prime influence on their work, is astounding. In a fascinating essay contained in the 1989 anthology The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches, William Simon argues that it belongs to a group of films that grasp and explore violence as the physical and psychological core of American life – in this respect, belonging with Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975).
Perhaps most striking today, however, is its presciently pessimistic view of men and male power: guys attempting desperately to control and shore up a cold empire that excludes, silences or marginalises women at every key point, including the chilling final moment when a door is calmly shut on Kay (Diane Keaton). Coppola took this dark pessimism about men and their power even further in The Godfather Part II in 1974.
On the other hand, there is an undeniable glamour, gravity and pathos attending these criminal gods forever approaching their inevitable twilight. How could there not be a weighty emotion attached, when these guys are incarnated by such magnificent, commanding actors as Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando?
On this level, there is indeed something magisterially generic, classical and old-fashioned about The Godfather: it is an apotheosis of the gangster film, whose anti-heroes, torn between fierce family loyalty and anarchic social destruction, both attract and repel us – like ambiguous, distorted mirror-images.
Nowadays, every re-release is automatically hyped as a masterpiece or classic – often in a sorry confusion of box-office performance with lasting aesthetic quality. It’s as if any old, acclaimed or commercially successful movie has passed over into a Nirvana where it is beyond evaluation or criticism of any sort. On a technical plane, it is sure good to see The Godfather anew, with almost perfect colour and shading, and an enhanced, digital sound mix.
But, all lame quips about equine heads and unrefusable offers aside, how does it really rate as a work of cinema art? Within the range of films restored to the public gaze in the late 1990s, it is vastly superior to the Star Wars series but not quite in the league of The Wild Bunch (1969), Touch of Evil (1958) or Days of Heaven (1978).
In truth, Coppola's film – and it remains one of his best – is an odd mixture of thinness and richness, like all the most spectacular, tottering highlights of his career, such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and One From the Heart (1982). (His lower-key films, more of a piece, tend to be his most quickly forgotten and underrated, such as Gardens of Stone  or Peggy Sue Got Married ). Magnificent individual scenes are set within an overarching narrative structure that is somewhat monotonous and repetitive: here, an exquisitely slow build-up, four times over, to a bloody, apocalyptic act of violence.
Coppola's grasp of Big Themes (as Claude Chabrol once dubbed them) has always been elementary – as public statements like “Michael Corleone is America” or “the Mafia is America” betray – and his dramatisation of such grandiose conceits (he likes to add, in interviews, that criminality is the model or metaphor for the social world at large) is frequently bombastic.
The Godfather never quite manages to become the sum of its parts. And yet the parts are so often astounding. One of its most revolutionary aspects within the context of mainstream American cinema was its painstaking attention to detail, and its fresco-like approach to vast, elaborate situations such as the wedding ceremony that opens proceedings – long sequences that have the grandeur and sharpness of Luchino Visconti's best work in The Leopard (1963). Martin Scorsese, John Woo, Spike Lee … all, in their diverse ways, took inspiration from Coppola's invention of a new rhythm and density in scene construction.
And, however simplistic the film may be on its grandiose level of intention, no one could deny that its specific dramatic emotions and moods – particularly every clinch and slow-burn that involves menace, suspicion or the threat of intimate betrayal – are brought powerfully alive by Coppola and his extraordinary cast.
To watch The Godfather, or either of its two sequels, is to truly be taken on a long, slow, painful journey – a descent from youthful exuberance and possibility to a morbid state of decadence and moral numbness. It is not a happy or edifying trek, but is certainly darkly satisfying and unforgettable.
MORE Coppola: Rumble Fish
© Adrian Martin August 1997