washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008
Stop what you're doing and clear a space on that crowded home entertainment center shelf. Room must be made for "The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration," ($69.99) the box set that releases today and delivers one of the most influential series in cinema history, looking better than it ever has before.
A team of technicians spent more than a year meticulously restoring the three "Godfather" films, which also make their debut today on Blu-ray disc ($124.99). The results? A sun that shines even brighter on Connie Corleone's wedding day in "The Godfather"; blacker-than-midnight shadows in Michael Corleone's study in "The Godfather Part II"; and blood that pops with crisper crimson color during the Atlantic City shoot-out in "The Godfather Part III." In short, anyone who loves the movies simply must experience filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola's classics -- or at least the first two, since, let's face it, the third one most of us could take or leave -- through these DVDs, which capitalize on modern technology in a way that only enhances Coppola's and cinematographer Gordon Willis's original vision.
For those whose adoration of The Godfather" borders on religious fervor -- you know these people, they're the ones who can never resist a "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli" joke -- this collection is the definitive one to own. Everything that came with the 2001 box set, including several featurettes, 34 deleted scenes and three solid commentary tracks by Coppola, is here. But so is another disc with an all new slate of excellent extras, including one that explains every detail behind the restoration of the movies in more technical terms than some fans may have ever thought they needed.
Another smart addition: "Godfather World," a featurette that has great fun digging up homages to the mafia saga in everything from "The Simpsons" to "The Sopranos" to a recent Audi commercial. A wide range of admirers -- "Sopranos" creator David Chase, "South Park" mastermind Trey Parker, Coppola pal Steven Spielberg -- also appear in the interviews to explain why these movies have so widely influenced pop culture. (As actor Joe Mantegna puts it, "The Godfather" is "the Italian 'Star Wars.'")
Given the intense popularity and acclaim earned by this trilogy, some viewers may be surprised to realize how perilously close "The Godfather" came to never happening at all. The half-hour documentary "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't" delves into all that ugly behind-the-scenes history. For Corleone family scholars, many of the details -- about the shake-ups at Paramount in the late '60s and early '70s, the studio's desire to remove Coppola from the production and Al Pacino's near failure to be cast as Michael -- will sound very familiar. But for those just discovering these epics, the documentary does a fine, concise job of explaining this Oscar-winning enterprise's place in cinema history.
Most Oddly Comforting Bonus Point: With the economy on shaky ground, many Americans may find themselves living in fear of getting fired. Maybe some of them will feel better to know that, as "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't" and Coppola's commentary explain, the director lived with that same fear. And this guy is one of his generation's finest filmmakers. "It's a good reminder of what a delicate thing it is to create a really fine work of art, in any discipline," notes San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle. "And how dangerous it is to interfere with that."
At one point, Coppola was almost fired. Tempers were short. Arguments were constant.
"I was pulverized by the story and the effect the film had on me," Steven Spielberg says in documentary material accompanying the new, digitally cleaned and remastered "The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration." The new DVD edition of the "Godfather" trilogy is out Tuesday.
"I also felt that I should quit, that there was no reason I should continue directing because I would never achieve that level of confidence or the ability to tell a story [as well as Coppola did in 'The Godfather']," he added. "In a way, it shattered my confidence."
Behind the scenes, things weren't going as well. Besides casting, Coppola and studio executives battled over music (the studio didn't like Nino Rota's score) cinematography (Gordon Willis' compositions were considered too dark), locations (Coppola wanted New York; the studio suggested cheaper St. Louis) and even era (Coppola wanted a period piece, the studio wanted the present day).
"There were people on the crew trying to take over the production," Coppola protégé George Lucas recalls in the documentary material.
Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch, a longtime Coppola friend, recalls the director being saved by the Italian restaurant scene in which Michael kills two opponents. "The feeling up to that time was, 'What is this movie? It's not turning out the way we thought it would' -- whatever that was," he says in the DVD.
The bickering continued practically up to the release date, with Coppola overshooting the two-hour, 10-minute running time the studio desired and the studio -- though pleased with the final two-hour, 55-minute cut -- uncertain how to please exhibitors who longed for more showings. Paramount came up with two solutions: eliminate an intermission -- de rigueur for long movies -- and open it in many theaters at once.
What emerged was a phenomenon.
"The Godfather" opened wider than any film before, changing Hollywood economics, and became the most successful film in history up to its time. ("Jaws," its successor as box office king, would codify the wide opening once and for all.) The film won best picture, gave the language such lines as "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," and spawned two sequels, a video game, more Puzo underworld novels and -- essentially -- every gangster work to follow.
"When we started 'The Sopranos,' [referencing 'The Godfather'] was one of the original conceits," says "Sopranos" creator David Chase in the DVD set. Indeed, "Sopranos" characters are forever quoting from the films, thinking of them as a model for the mob experience.
"The Godfather Part II," which came out in 1974, did what no sequel has done before or since: win best picture. With its more intricate structure, many critics consider it the best film of the three. The third film, "The Godfather Part III" (1990), though the least successful, still contains some fine work; as a character on "The Sopranos" said, "A lot of people didn't like it, but I think it was just misunderstood."
The American Film Institute ranks the first film as the second-best of all time, after "Citizen Kane"; Internet Movie Database denizens have ranked it as No. 1 or No. 2 for years. It's been more than 35 years now, and the films still have a hold on the American psyche.
Just ask Joe Mantegna, who starred in "Godfather III" and plays Fat Tony on "The Simpsons" -- a character that owes an obvious debt to "The Godfather."
" 'The Godfather' was the Italian 'Star Wars,' " he says in the DVD.
‘THE GODFATHER: THE COPPOLA RESTORATION’
Many of Francis Ford Coppola’s films, including the recent “Youth Without Youth,” have been haunted by the passing of time and an acute awareness of its destructive handiwork — the sense that once a treasured moment has been lost, nothing can be done to recover it.
But now a piece of Mr. Coppola’s own youth, which also happens to be one of the greatest works in American film, has been recovered, and spectacularly so. On Tuesday Paramount Home Entertainment is issuing the three films that make up Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather” saga, miraculously rejuvenated by a team of digital restoration experts under the supervision of the film preservationist Robert A. Harris. Offered both in high-definition Blu-ray and standard DVD editions, Mr. Coppola’s three films seem to have reclaimed the golden glow of their original theatrical screenings — a glow that has been dimmed and all but extinguished over the years through a series of disappointing home video editions.
Most of Mr. Harris’s work has gone into the first (1972) and second (1974) films in the trilogy. The later and less well-received third installment (1990) did not need as much effort, having been shot on a newer generation of film stock and never subjected to the abuse that nearly destroyed Parts I and II. By all accounts, the original negatives of the first two films were so torn up and dirty that they could no longer be run through standard film laboratory printing equipment, and so the only option became a digital, rather than a photochemical, restoration.
The final product, which the studio is calling “The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration,” combines bits and pieces of film recovered from innumerable sources, scanned at high resolution and then retouched frame by frame to remove dirt and scratches. The color was brought back to its original values by comparing it with first-generation release prints and by extensive consultation with Gordon Willis, who shot all three films, and Allen Daviau, a cinematographer (“E.T.”) who is also a leading historian of photographic technology.
The tight grain of the image, so important a component of Mr. Willis’s original low-light photography, has returned to particularly spectacular effect in the four-disc Blu-ray edition. The effect is not unlike that of a pristine 35-millimeter print projected in perfect focus — a rare enough phenomenon in a movie theater and, until quite recently, inconceivable in the living room.