Sunday, March 18, 2012

It's an offer you can never refuse

The discovery that you are truly your father's son is decidedly unnerving. For some, the revelation is instant.

For others, it unfolds gradually, building towards the inevitable "My God...I'm him!".

For me, it revealed itself initially one Sunday lunchtime while I was engaged in a pre-middle aged rant about people mindlessly dawdling around supermarkets.

On suggesting that Sainsbury's should put brake lights on their shopping trolleys, my father chimed in by declaring: "I was just saying the same thing to your mother the other day". My shudder must have been detected by seismologists.

Since then other traits have appeared as further layers of the hereditary onion have peeled away. One, of note, has been a highly selective compulsive obsessive disorder: my father can never pass up an opportunity to watch The Cruel Sea, the 1953 film adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat's wartime yarn starring Jack Hawkins as a British navy officer battling U-boats. An impending broadcast will prompt my father to spend several days walking around the house muttering "It's the war, No.1" as grimly dispatched by Hawkins to his trusty lieutenant, Donald Sinden. The airing itself is a televisual event, like The Queen's Speech, and in the pre-digital days of the video recorder, my dad would even re-record over previous recordings of the film.

I can't mock. Well, not any more. For I have my own Cruel Sea - one of the finest films ever made: The Godfather.

Nominated for ten Oscars and winning three including Best Picture and Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Francis Ford Coppola's stunning dramatisation of Mario Puzo's somewhat trashy Mafia novel has, since its release 40 years ago this week, consistently appeared at or near the top of just about every list of the all-time greatest films ever made.

Wherever I am in the world - and regardless of the language it is being shown in - I will watch it, even though I possess just about every home video format Paramount has ever released it in.

"It's like a drug," Alec Baldwin says in one of the extras on the recent Blu-ray Disc release. "It takes away your free will. You're going to watch it whether you planned on it or not." And he's right.

I have, genuinely, lost count of how many times I've watched The Godfather, but each time there is something new to discover. A nuance in the wedding scene, a line by Al Pacino in the Sicilian sequence, even a reaction by Marlon Brando in a performance that still divides critics (i.e. those who thought it one of the greatest character turns of all time, and those who felt the by-then highly capricious actor had mostly delivered his performance by phone).

You could argue - and there are plenty who have tried - that The Godfather is just a gangster film, no more than a 1970s take on Angels With Dirty Faces or the original Scarface. But we all know that it is closer to Greek tragedy or Shakespeare - a King Lear with double-breasted suits. 

In the 40 years since its release, The Godfather has not only aged perfectly, but it has evolved far beyond its literary origin, becoming a cultural institution. People who have never seen it can still quote "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse," even mumbling it with a nasal drawl and protruded jaw.

The Godfather also holds the dubious distinction of leading a pack of films (that must surely 
include Apocalypse Now!, The Blues Brothers and Withnail & I) that men - and, I stress, exclusively men - can recite vast tracts of dialogue from without hesitation. Who hasn't had a Christmas festivity 'hilariously' livened up by the amusing uncle telling his young nephew: "Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking again"? 

"So Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. 

That's a true story, Kay, that's a true story."

The Godfather has found itself referenced in more places than any film, ranging from Peter Sellers in The Revenge Of The Pink Panther to Hannah Montana (thanks, IMDB, for that one...). The mere mention of sleeping with fishes, severed horse heads or the briefest 11-note extract from Nino Rota's iconic Godfather Waltz is enough for a joke to work. 

It even found its way with deliciously audacious irony into The Sopranos - the Bada-Bing! strip club named after Sonny Corleone's assassination advice to Michael ("You've gotta get up close like this and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit."); in the pilot, Soprano crew members Christopher Moltisanti and 'Big Pussy' Bompansero engage in a discussion about which was best out of "One" or "Two" while they knock off a truckload of DVD players; and it's probably no coincidence that The Sopranos' matriarch Carmela was named after Vito Corleone's wife.

Unlike any of its peers, The Godfather has been examined every which way in countless books, articles, documentaries, college dissertations and film club musings. Much has been made of its place in the canon of Hollywood's remarkable collection of Roman talent, including Coppola's other masterpiece Apocalypse Now!,  at least Goodfellas from the Scorcese oeuvre and Brian De Palma's Scarface. This trio of Italian-Americans were an essential part of the 'bigger' 1970s cinema - the American Dream imagined by Italian-American auteurs, delivered by Italian-American actors, and filtered through the prism of the Italian-American criminal mythology.

Over-examining The Godfather is an utterly self-serving exercise. There is too much to dine on, of course, such as the casting for a start.

We've all heard about Paramount's preference of Robert Redford, Warren Beatty or Ryan O'Neal over the-then unknown Al Pacino for the role of Michael Corleone, and that Coppola had to fight like mad to convince Paramount that Pacino was Michael Corleone. An inspired choice, in the end, not least because, unlike any of his challengers, Pacino is of Italian stock (his maternal grandparents even come from the very real Corleone in Sicily...).

But the best way to evaluate The Godfather is to strip away all the paraphernalia that has built around it over the last 40 years - the poor-quality impersonations, the lame sitcom references, the atrocious commercials for frozen pizza and awful puns such as fish and chips shops called "The Codfather" - to just revel at a true magnum opus.

The Godfather, together with its acclaimed first sequel - one of the few to win equal quantities of accolades - as well as the second sequel (which we will politely describe as being not as acclaimed as the first two parts of the trilogy) is the foundation of a fascinating depiction of 20th Century America.

The Godfather is a sumptuous examination of revenge, betrayal, sibling rivalry, family politics, corruption and, above all, the power of money in post-war America, all the elements that power the rise of the monster mobster that is Michael Corleone - the naif, college boy and hero Marine captain who becomes the emperor of all he surveys, morally ambiguous and, eventually, morally abandoned.

It is a film that begs to be watched endlessly. And I get the feeling that it will...

I understand. You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you, and there were courts of law. And you didn't need a friend of me. 

But now you come to me and you say: "Don Corleone - give me justice." But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship; you don't even think to call me 'Godfather'. 

Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder, for money. 

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