Ripe Tomatoes: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Turns Forty

by Steed Dropout
July 12, 2012


Berkeley, Ca

Godfather quietly turned forty a few months ago, but except for a joint re-release by Paramount at fifty-five nation-wide Cinemark theaters, the birthday lacked hype. Godfather at forty was as big-screen near Berkeley as Walnut Creek, or San Jose.

The film was first restored in 1997 using state-of-the-art technology, then “transferred last year to files making it available to be seen on Cinemark XD screens.”

“The year it was released The Godfather won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Since its release the film has made nearly $250 million at the global box office and is considered by most to be one of the greatest films of all time,” according to Cinemark flack.

Saddest scene since death of Bambi, Disney, '42. Sonny buys the farm, leaving behind a four picture deal.

“One of the greatest films of all time?” Let the rankings begin.

First you have to know what you are ranking — apples or oranges.

You wouldn’t think of mixing film genres when ranking films. A film-buff might narrow in by sub-genres (for example, crime-comedy), or disambiguate further (for example, crime-comedy-FBI, as in the “Miss Congeniality” series).

In Altman’s “The Player (’92),” players put it this way: “so it’s [the pitch] a psychic, political, thriller comedy with a heart…not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate,” playing for laughs.

Is “The Player,” 1992, the best crime-comedy-on Hollywood — neo noir — technicolor 90’s film ever?

You probably haven’t read film rankings since you scored the latest copy of David Thomson, which ranks films by director and actor, then pronounces judgement on vast expanses of work.

Or ever since you saw “the Player,” which did to contemporary Hollywood self-identity, what Sunset Boulevard did to classic Hollywood twenty years earlier — shaft it.

What if “they” ranked films by genres.

IMDd does just that, and they have collected close to a million votes. They rank by genre, although their genre list is pretty thin, and there’s no attention to sub-genres, much less sub-sub-genres.

Roger Ebert noted many years ago that ranking systems are fluid. He used the example of Citizen Kane’s slippery hold on best-of lists, according to Ebert, who maintains that public approval comes and goes.

This does not stop him from voting in one best of poll, Sight and Sound’s every ten years poll, in which Ebert assigns his 2002 Godfather vote to Coppola’s Apocalypse now. In Sight and Sound’s last film poll Godfathers I & II, ranked fourth. Ebert predicts Godfather will rank high in this year’s poll.

If reluctant rankers, like Ebert, can change their assessments after a decade, we all may need distance, especially since yet another decade of film must be evaliuated. Just one viewing, which is all a reviewer gets, may not yield enough data for ranking. Still, reviewers begin ranking almost immediately. Don’t we all?


Doesn’t the Big Lebowski, ’92 accuse us? Or were the Coen brothers riffing on the film introducer at AMC, when they appended a doltish film introducer to their cult-hit neo-noir.

When I had coffee last month with the Berkeley police chief and a captain, we talked a lot about crime films. Anyone with a head-on should have several films to discuss, and to be able to inter-weave them in talk.

We talked about, “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” ’32, from which we all remembered the perp-in-the-mist scene at film’s end. I noted the film’s contributions to noir.

We fondly recalled the Miss Congeniality series as choice crime-comedy.

I called their attention to “Hollywood Homicide”, “The Last Shot,” and the “Analyze This” and That series, all vastly entertaining crime-comedies-police procedurals.

Friends tell me that you can’t take characters from films, situations, or dialogue to comment on “real life,” but here we were, two crime investigators and a crime reporter taking our film crime lives as seriously — exactly as seriously — as Hitchcock.

Quotes from Casablanca are the lingua franca of our days.

I’ve seen “Up in the Air,” more than 25 times. Casablanca three or four times a year.

I repeated a film course at Cal Berkeley for a decade, during which I began to think like an academic, searching for just the right obfuscating term.

Fortunately for you, dear reader, my latest obfuscations strew the cutting room floor.

I’ve asked film professors whether all our outside-insider information doesn’t spoil the magic of film; they say our knowledge only enhances the film, but they may be protecting their jobs.

I’d give all my film-fluff phooey to see Casablanca, or the Lady Vanishes for the first-time.

Which viewing of a film, first, or twenty-first should be the basis of its rank?

As you watch, and re-watch the same films over the years, you may sink into a cluttered can of film which you may want to flee.

If you can’t rank (as I hold), you certainly can’t pick from a flawed list to arrive at the best film of all time, which would have to include international film — sinking the whole weighty Ship Sails On (Fellini).

Isn’t the entire ranking industry (count the guides) based on reductionism?


Your next big film trivia find may come from your first, or your twenty-first view.

From your tenth view of the restored Godfather DVD, you learn (Coppola’s commentary) are reminded of Brando’s on-set mooning gags, and his closeness to the cast; (he slapped an actor hard to get the actor’s best).

You will learn from Francis how Paramount conspired to fire him in his first week, ignoring some of his most powerful footage (dailies), from the finished film.

In executive Godfather producer Robert Evan’s voice-over for “the Kid Stays in the Picture,” (2002), Evans says he and other Paramount execs found the Godfather script disappointing and undeveloped.

Evans credits himself as having saved Godfather, while Coppola says Evans spoiled it.

Coppola did an end run around Paramount and saved his job and went on to spawn a whole new generation of crime films, especially Italian crime films. But does that make Godfather the greatest film ever?


I’ll never forget my first viewing the death of Sonny.

In the Sixties, we all measured ourselves against actors like Brando. By the time of Godfather, counter-culture vultures ridiculed Brando (his “Stella routine is referenced in “Hollywood Homicide”) and his kleenex-cheeks.

You had to live the times to know that Brando had been a joke until Godfather — cheeks or not.

Now I could see the Brando flourishes for the acting genius they represent.

Brando plays the Don as an indifferent, been-there-done-that commander, wistful when he must order a horse-head decapitation, or de-ball a punk. There’s a rumpled weariness about the man. His henchmen are as funny as any comedy crooks ever minted, only no one knows the laughs are there.

We learn from Coppola the dead horse head in the bed was ready to be slaughtered, as Francis notes, by dog-food processors catering to the privileged dog crowd, who complained about the dead horse, in a film Coppola notes, “where quite a few human beings are killed brutally.”

The horse head was not only real, it was fresh.

Did anyone notice that the dead horse-head, twitching or not, was no race-horse, or were we all too shocked to notice. It’s also the wrong color.

I had to see the DVD twice just to see if the head twitches in the bed. I thought it was sort of quivering under the satin sheets of well-healed Hollywood. Does this make me a bad person?

What about best film ever for Godfather?

Godfather was shot in the noir tradition — darkly, and must be compared to Italian-American crime noirs, like Goodfellas. Godfather has a certain gravitas. I don’t know.

What about Divorce italian Style, a good Italian crime-melodrama-comedy, and espresso-dark humor?

Help, I’m lost in a film can. Get me out.

Editor: BR’s film columnist may be thinking of “the Incredible Shrinking Man,” 1957, who got lost in a can of Prince Albert’s Pipe Tobacco.

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