Tuesday, 21 July 2015
THE DIRECTORS - FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (Part I): THE GODFATHER (1972)
So much analysis has been done on Coppola's GODFATHER films that it's easy to forget how much risk-taking was involved in bringing Mario Puzo's best-selling novel to the screen. An enormous responsibility weighed on its young director Francis Ford Coppola who had the artistic sensibility of his films seeming always to reflect the circumstances of their actual making. APOCALYPSE NOW became a film about itself: the surviving of harsh and strange conditions, personal foibles and an existential ever-changing script meditating on war and the inner self. THE GODFATHER and it's first sequel reflected the skilfull and cunning acquisition of power and then the use and maintenance of that influence both in the fictional business world of the Corleones and the 'real' commercial world of Hollywood.
Initially, Paramount frequently challenged Coppola's authority even as he prepared THE GODFATHER. Although he was an Academy Award-winning screen-writer, his directing career had yet to yield any blockbuster hits. Amidst the other pressures they leaned on him to ditch the unknown Al Pacino as Michael, but Coppola had great instincts for casting and the courage to defend his choices (helped in this case by his wife pointing out the sex appeal Pacino would have for female viewers). The studio was also extremely dubious about having Brando as Don Vito as by now his reputation for eccentric trouble-making was fully established. The director craftily circumvented his actor's nerves and fragile ego by disguising a screen test as one intended just for make-up. This allowed Brando the creative fun of transforming his age, hair and mouth shape literally before his eyes on camera which then sealed the deal for the executives. Also noteworthy is the star-making inclusion of James Caan as the volatile Sonny, every inch the macho Italian stallion yet Jewish in real-life.
As an accomplished writer sensitive to the talents of other writers as much as actors, Coppola also had the wisdom to use as much of Puzo's brilliant novel as he could when constructing the screenplay with him. He pasted the actual book pages into a binder he took everywhere and stuck very faithfully to most of the book's plot and rich dialogue, only removing what there simply wasn't time to translate from a six hundred page original source (i.e. Johnny Fontaine's later career as a Tinseltown mogul).
Coppola surrounded himself with more wonderful collaborators behind the camera as well. The look of THE GODFATHER is largely due to the gorgeous shadowy browns and blacks of Gordon Willis's cinematography, partially obscuring the faces of men whose innermost thoughts 'Never let people know what you're thinking'. The opening computer-tracked shot as the undertaker prefaces his request for revenge murder with a speech about his adopted homeland is a masterpiece of controlled visuals that introduce us to the calm measured judgments meted out by Don Vito.
Another aspect of the display of authority that's so appealing in the film is the subtle use of verbal coercion. The Corleone tactic is firstly to appeal elegantly to the mutual benefit that granting the 'favour' will bring to the proposed giver: 'My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse'. If this fails, a more heavily-nuanced suggestion is then applied. Only if this doesn't work would violence be the last resort. It's highly-intelligent and attractive pyschology that appears to flatter the customer with respect yet always comes from a position of utter confidence in victory. It has influenced every gangster movie's villain portrayals ever after by seeming to conceal the utmost power within an air of relaxed negotiation. When producer Jack Woltz refuses to grant the Sinatra-inspired Johnny Fontaine the dream film role he needs. consigliere Tom Hagen (the excellent Robert Duvall) admirably conceals any frustration even under a torrent of racial abuse. He politely makes to go, remarking 'Mr Corleone is a man who likes to hear bad new immediately'. This chillingly plain parting shot leads inexorably to the infamous horse's head in the bed final offer.
One of the most famous scenes in the film is a classic example of mature control of emotion and technique. When Michael inserts himself into the family business to assassinate Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey at the restaurant, it is composed of an incredibly tense build-up to his first criminal act, Pacino superbly conveys the sense that though this is alien to him, he will commit murder through supreme self-control. Coppola wisely focuses on his face registering almost imperceptible shifts of moment-to-moment mindfulness till he stands and shoots both men in cold blood before fleeing.
By the end of the film, when Michael ascends to the ultimate authority of Don and closes the door on his wife and us, it is not just this young man who has come to power. It is also Francis Ford Coppola. His next film THE CONVERSATION would build quietly on that new confidence before the masterful second act of his GODFATHER trilogy brought him to the peak of his career. Both were made in this same era and will be covered in future blogs...