A+ List: The Godfather Part II

Both Roger Ebert and David Thomson argued that the Godfather films work because we never see the inevitable innocent victims of the Corleones’ violence. The only people they kill onscreen are other criminals–usually those bent on killing them. But that argument only works if you assume that young, female sex workers don’t count as innocent victims. In The Godfather (which also made my my A+ list), a Corleone hitman machine guns down a mafia bigwig in bed, killing both the bigwig and a young woman (presumably a mistress or prostitute) in bed with him.

In The Godfather: Part II, the (thankfully) off-screen killing is far worse. Michael’s henchmen kill a bound prostitute in what appears to be a particularly gruesome murder–just to get a senator under the family’s thumb.

Writer Mario Puzo and director/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola want you to know that seven years after taking over his father’s business, Michael Corleone is thoroughly evil. He walks around like a man with a dead soul, sullen, sad, and very paranoid (with good reason). He says he loves his wife and children, but he often treats them with the cold authority he uses with everybody else. The nice young man from the beginning of The Godfather no longer exists. Michael’s tragedy is that, with all of his material success, he knows that spiritually he has failed.

I have a strange relationship with Michael Corleone. By this point in his life, he’s a cold-blooded killer who repulses me. But I remember the younger Michael and still feel some affection for him. I want him to outwit the other gangsters and the crooked politicians lined up against him. Yet the means he uses to achieve his goals (note that murdered prostitute) make my blood run cold.

The Godfather: Part II is one of those rare sequels that’s better than the original. And since The Godfather is one of the greatest films ever made, that’s quite an achievement. Only two sequels made my A+ list of films that I’ve loved for decades and still love–and this is the best of the two.

We first reacquaint ourselves with Michael at a lavish, outdoor party celebrating his son’s confirmation. But the warm, loving, old-world charm of the first film’s wedding reception is long gone. Set on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe in 1958, everything at this party looks garish and ugly–conspicuous consumption at its worst.

But that night, someone attempts to kill Michael. Most of the film concerns his struggle to identify and wipe out those responsible. This will put him in an uneasy collaboration with an aging Jewish gangster, clearly based on Meyer Lansky and played by the great acting teacher, Lee Strasberg. It will also take him to Cuba on the eve of the Revolution.

The Godfather: Part II contrasts Michael’s struggle to stay on top with his father’s struggle to get there. Roughly a third of the film plays as a prequel rather than a sequel, showing us the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in the 1910s and ’20s. Vito is the ultimate family man, completely invested emotionally in his wife and young children. It’s for their sake that he becomes a criminal. As he becomes rich and successful, he becomes something of a local bigshot and hero. People come to him with their problems, and he helps.

De Niro is amazing in the role (he won an Oscar for it). Physically, he’s nothing like Marlon Brando. But his voice and gestures easily allow us to imagine him as the same character, 25 years younger.

By cutting back and forth between these two stories, the film shows us the seeds in Michael’s moral downfall. Vito, with the best of intentions, turned to evil means to make his family comfortable. Decades later, and only years after the patriarch’s death, that decision destroys the family.

As The Godfather: Part II comes to a close, Michael has triumphed against all of his enemies. But he has alienated everyone close to him–or at least those still alive. There’s nothing left in him but regrets.

The A+ List: The Godfather

The Godfather tricks you into rooting for some very bad people. You accept the Corleones because they love each other as family, and because they are ruled over by a seemingly fair, loving, generous, and successful patriarch.

That patriarch, Don Vito Corleone, helps the community, plays with kittens and his grandchildren, and reminds his reckless and impulsive eldest son that “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family isn’t much of a man.” But this warm and sweet old man made his fortune, and continues to enlarge it, in crime. Vice, violence, and even murder are part of his successful business strategy.

I first saw The Godfather in the spring of 1972, during its first run engagement. I loved it from the start, although it took a few years for me to realize just what a breathtaking masterpiece it is. It easily makes my A+ list of films that I have loved for decades. To make the grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old, so I know that it’s stood the test of time.

For the few reading this who haven’ seen The Godfather, this sweeping crime epic tells the story of a high-level but aging mafia boss (Marlon Brando) who passes his crown to his youngest and smartest son, Michael (Al Pacino in the role that made him a star). At the beginning, Michael is a warm, sweet guy who loves his family but wants nothing to do with the business. His WASP girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) signifies his movement away from Sicilian values. But incidents beyond his control (well, maybe) drive him into the family business. And as he proves to be extremely capable at that business, his blood turns to ice water. The warmth that made you like Michael, and made you forgive Vito despite his sins, disappear entirely in the new Michael.

godfather pass torch_resized

The screenplay by Mario Puzo (based on his novel) and Francis Ford Coppola (who also directed) gives us time to meet the family and drink in the atmosphere. A long wedding scene early in the movie introduces most of the main characters, with Kay playing the outsider who becomes the audience’s surrogate as she’s introduced to her boyfriend’s family. Then the action moves from the East Coast to Hollywood for a self-enclosed subplot that doesn’t push the story forward but gives us an idea of how the family operates. The main story–involving the new drug trade (the film is set just after World War II)–begins more than 30 minutes into the story. And that is absolutely the right pacing for this story.

Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis (known in the business as “The Prince of Darkness”) create an atmosphere that’s both noir and epic, with powerful contrasts of dark and light. In the first scene, the Don meets with various people on business in his dark and shadowy office, while his daughter’s wedding outside gleams with joy and sunlight. These contrasts continue throughout the movie, especially when a crime war runs darkly through the streets of New York while Michael hides in the beautiful, sun-swept mountains of Sicily.

The Godfather is filled with remarkable set pieces. There’s the opening scene where a local undertaker begs the Don for justice he could not get from the courts. There’s the hospital sequence, when Michael has to think fast and bluff armed gunmen to save his father’s life–and then realizes with surprise that his hands aren’t shaking. There’s the climatic baptism scene, where Michael at the church alter repeatedly renounces Satan while his henchmen rub out his real or imagined enemies.

But my favorite is a very subtle one. Michael and Kay come out of a movie theater and flirtatiously joke with each other. Then they disappear behind a newsstand. When they reappear, Kay’s face reflects some very bad news that Michael hasn’t seen.

The title The Godfather could refer to either the Don or Michael, and their fate are clearly intertwined. Vito became a criminal so that Michael and his three siblings could lead a better life. But his decision eventually destroys all of them, either literally or spiritually.

I’ll discuss more of that in my next A+ article, on The Godfather, Part II.

The A+ List: The General (and The Gold Rush)

The Gold Rush and The General are, by widely considered the two great masterpieces of silent comedy. Walter Kerr called them epic comedies. Both films easily make my A+ list.

For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for decades.

I don’t need to tell you about Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush again. I’ve already written a Blu-ray review and a piece about seeing it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

So let’s get to…

The General

I feel a little uncomfortable praising a Civil War comedy that asks us to root for the Confederates. After all, the South’s rebellion was an act of treason committed in defense of slavery. After all, I’ve been very critical of Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.

And yet, here I am, discussing the genius of a movie where the lovable hero proudly waves the Stars and Bars–clearly a cue for audience applause–in the climactic battle.

On the other hand, as he waves, he steps on a “rock” that turns out to be the back of a cowardly Confederate officer. Buster Keaton, the film’s auteur as well as its star, wasn’t much interested in politics. But he sure enjoyed making fun of the military.

(Several of Keaton’s films, including The Seven Chances, contain racist humor that’s shocking by today’s standards–although completely acceptable in the 1920s. Luckily, he used no such humor in either The General or his other film set in the antebellum South, Our Hospitality.)

Keaton based The General on a true story that held mythical power in the South in the 1920s. In the film’s very fictionalized version, Northern spies hijack a Southern train, and the engineer (Keaton) gives chase to recover his beloved engine. (He doesn’t know that his former girlfriend, who rejected him for not being a soldier, has been kidnapped, as well.) Two locomotive chases dominate the movie. In the first, Keaton chases the spies. In the second, after Buster has retrieved his train and his girl, they’re chased by what feels like the entire Union army.

Keaton loved trains, and he used them frequently as giant comic props. But in The General he created the ultimate train comedy, and arguably the ultimate train movie. Every aspect of running a 19th-century steam locomotive–from chopping wood to tanking up on water to switching tracks becomes cause for comedy.

As does the hardware of war. In the first chase, Buster tries to attack the villains with a snub-nosed canon. As is so often the case with Keaton’s work, the inanimate object appears to be alive–and malevolent.

In the second chase, he adds another wrinkle–the girlfriend. She doesn’t know trains, and therefore makes comic mistakes far greater than Keaton’s. When he tells her to add wood to the fire, she throws in one small stick. Annoyed, he hands her a twig. Not understanding his sarcasm, she dutifully throws that one in as well. His reaction is priceless.

But she also shows some common sense. She improvises a trap for the oncoming Union trains that Keaton clearly thinks worthless. When the trap springs on the hapless bluecoats, it gets one of the film’s biggest laughs.

The General just might be the most beautiful and spectacular comedy ever filmed. Shot mostly in rural Oregon, it’s filled with breathtaking scenery. And sometimes that scenery is filled with massive armies moving across the landscape or–in the climax–in battle.

But Keaton knew how to use spectacle in the service of comedy. One particular shot, which just may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era, shows a train attempt to cross a burning bridge and fall to its doom, while soldiers below ford the river. It was done without models, and the visuals take your breath away. But it’s also a setup for a gag whose punchline is a medium shot of a one man on horseback.

If The General has a moral–and I don’t really think it does–it’s that the professional technician is superior to the professional soldier. Buster makes a lot of mistakes, but the officers on both sides pretty much make nothing but mistakes. And one very funny moment, involving a Northern train engineer, shows us that the technical professionals are the smart ones everywhere.

I’m not sure, but I may have seen The General more times than any other single feature film. I first saw it in a college lecture hall, off a 16mm print, with no sound except the laughing students. I’ve heard it with live accompaniment by Bob Vaughn (at least three times, probably more), Christoph Bull (my single favorite General experience), The Alloy Orchestra (twice), and others I don’t remember. I’ve owned it on Laserdisc, DVD, and now on Blu-ray.

I’ve yet to tire of it.

The A+ List: The Third Man and its new restoration

I missed the new restoration of the greatest film noir of them all, The Third Man, when it played in my local theaters. But last week I visited family in New York City, and I caught it at the Film Forum.

What a great film! It easily belongs on my A+ list of films that I’ve loved dearly for decades, and continue to love.

American film noir came out of the moral desolation of the Second World War–we had saved the world from fascism, but only by killing tens of millions of people. The Third Man, set and shot in Vienna, showed real desolation of the bombed-out city. The destruction of our humanity gets a powerful visual metaphor–always a benefit in cinema.

The Vienna of The Third Man suffers other indignities. The victorious powers have divided the city into sections, and it’s controlled by a not-always-collaborating group of Russians, French, American, and British soldiers.

The original screenplay by Graham Greene brings us deeper and deeper into this world of moral compromise. American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna, strapped for cash, but with a promise of a job by an old friend named Harry Lime. But Martins soon discovers that Lime has just died in a car accident. Then a British officer (Trevor Howard) tells him that Lime was a horrible criminal. Naturally, Martins sets out to clear his friend’s name.

I won’t go into the story beyond that. If you’ve seen it, you already know it. If you haven’t, just see it.

The film has a lot of fun with Martins’ apparently dreadful western novels, which have titles like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at Double-X Ranch (although none of the names are as garish as Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail). We meet one ardent fan of his work; needless-to-say a comic relief character.

Greene and director Carol Reed fill the picture with other entertaining and sometimes fascinating characters. Lime’s lover (Alida Valli) mourns him more than anyone, but her devotion will cost her considerably. And Orson Welles shows up at the end of the second act in a pivotal role. His charm, wit, and wonderful voice steal the picture.

Producers Alexander Korda and Davis O. Selznick provided enough money to realize Greene’s and Reed’s joint vision. Robert Krasker’s camerawork casts deep noir shadows, yet also shows the expanse of the ancient and ruined city. And Anton Karas’ music, performed entirely on a zither, is one of the most memorable and effective scores in cinema.

Indeed, the score was so important that the opening credits are super-imposed over an extreme close-up of the zither strings. The main theme was a hit record in 1950.

The final chase, in the ancient sewers below the city, is spectacular, exciting, and unlike any other chase. In the end, Martins gets a chance to be the western hero he writes about. Not that that does him any good. (And no, that’s not much of a spoiler.)

About the restoration: At this point, I’ve seen so many excellent 4K restorations that they rarely surprise me. This is just another one. But I noticed details I had never caught before, such as a small but very racist poster on a café wall .

I saw a beautiful 35mm print of The Third Man early last year. I think this digital version is better, but it’s impossible to accurately compare the image quality from two screenings more than 18 months apart. But I’m glad that we have both good 35mm prints and an excellent DCP.

Yet another great American film list–and like the others, mostly about white people

We’ve got yet another all-time greatest films list. So what’s different about this one? It’s a list of American
films, but it’s not an American list. It comes from the BBC, and was created through a survey of film critics from around the world (and yes, Yankee critics were allowed to submit their opinions).

Of course, there’s always the question of what is an American film. When the American Film Institute made its own 100 Greatest American Movies list in 1998, Lawrence of Arabia came in 5th. When the AFI did it again in 2007, Lawrence came in 7th. I suppose that Americans like to think of Lawrence as an American film, and the British prefer to consider it British.

Like all such lists, this one has something to please every cinephile and something to make every cinephile burn with rage. I mean, did everuone just forget about The General?

I found some surprising choices here, especially in the high numbers. Movie 100, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, falls apart with ridiculous ending. And I think this is the first time I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate on such a list. I’ve yet to see the movie, remembered for being the critical and commercial disaster that destroyed United Artists, but people are beginning to re-evaluate it.

And very close to the middle, at number 47, we have one of Alfred Hitchcock’s worst films, Marnie.
Rear Window didn’t even make the list.

Following tradition, Citizen Kane came in number 1. I’m glad to see it on top again, and not knocked off its perch by Vertigo, as happened on Sight and Sound’s latest survey. (Vertigo came in third, after The Godfather. It wouldn’t have made my list at all.)

I decided to put this list through the test I discussed in Race and Casting in American Movies. You start with a list of American films, then remove all of them with a white protagonist. Then you remove those where the protagonist couldn’t possibly be white. Finally, you remove those whose protagonist is a cop, a criminal, or a soldier.

How did this group fare? 92 of the films had white protagonists. Of the remaining eight:

Some of the films are kind of a gray area. Touch of Evil has a Mexican hero, and West Side Story has a Puerto Rican ingénue, but they’re both played by white movie stars. I don’t think that counts. The documentary Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have a protagonist–or any kind of character. And although The Lion King has a protagonist, he isn’t human; there are no people in this animated film. You can’t really talk about the race of a lion. (For what it’s worth, the hero is voiced by the white Matthew Broderick.)

Killer of Sheep, Do the Right Thing, and 12 Years a Slave all have African-American protagonists. But considering what these films are about, there wasn’t much of a choice there.

And that leaves Night of the Living Dead as the only film on the list where the protagonist isn’t white for the simple reason that a white person wasn’t cast in the role.

I don’t blame the BBC or the critics surveyed for this. I blame the American film industry.

I haven’t done a similar examination considering gender. I’m sure that would also provide some interesting results.

Check the list out yourself. You’ll find plenty of your favorites. But you’ll also find a lot that will make you cry “What were they thinking?”

The A+ List: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Pacific Film Archive

Sunday night, I attended a screening at the Pacific Film Archive of one of my favorite western’s, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–another film on my A+ list of movies that I’ve loved dearly for decades.

The PFA screened it as part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

In his last masterpiece, John Ford summed up the myth of the American west that he had weaved into the fabric of his long career. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays almost all the tropes of a Ford western–the drunk doctor, the dead man’s hand, the shootout, and the conflict between the wilderness and civilization. But this time around, we know it’s a myth. Ford knows it’s a myth. And even the protagonist knows that this isn’t the true story.

In Liberty Valance¸ Ford and his screenwriters (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck) split the conventional western hero into two men, neither of which is complete without the other.

The most important of these, the character through whom we see the film, is Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)–an idealistic young lawyer newly arrived in the west. Rance, as his friends call him, has none of the skills we associate with western heroes. He can’t shoot a gun or ride a horse. But he knows right from wrong, objects to the macho posturing around him, and in the end proves braver than anyone.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has all the skills that Rance lacks. He’s the toughest guy around. He’s basically descent, in that he’s not a criminal and will occasionally help people in need. He pretty well fits Winston Churchill’s description of America: You can count on him to do the right thing–after he’s tried everything else.

Let’s consider those names. Who would name their newborn son Ransom? And the shortened version of his name suggests rancid. As the story unfolds, and we learn that he’s been living a lie for decades, we can see how the guilt from that lie has rotted him, making the word appropriate. And the name Doniphon sounds like a mispronunciation of Donovan–as if something is just not right.

And then there’s the name Liberty Valance. Why give the movie’s villain a name that suggests a swashbuckling hero? Especially this villain. As played by a not-quite-yet famous Lee Marvin, he’s one of the craziest, most sadistic thugs ever to grace an American western. Everyone except Tom is terrified of him.

Of course if Tom was sheriff, or just civic-minded, Valance would be dead or in jail. But Tom isn’t interested in any battles but his own, and town marshal Link Appleyard (another strange name; played by Andy Devine) seems only interested in saving his own hide. It’s absurd that this broad comic character would have a position of power, and it’s never explained. But the story requires an ineffectual sheriff, and making him funny helps us accept the absurdity.

Ford fills the town of Shinbone with memorable characters. Consider Dutton Peabody (an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien) as the talkative, muck-raking, Shakespeare-quoting, yet alcoholic newspaper man. Or Tom’s handyman Pompey (Woody Strode)–apparently the only African-American in town. Dignified and uneducated, he bears the weight of entranced racism, eating dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen rather than the dining room.

I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four or five times before I realized that Tom Doniphon is an alcoholic. We don’t see him drunk until quite late in the film. But twice, people who know him well go out of their way to keep alcohol from touching his lips. What’s more, we learn early on that he died penniless.

That’s not a spoiler. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens decades after the main action., when Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles as the film’s ingénue) return to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Most of the film is a flashback–an old man’s memory of his youth.

And what a memory it is. The film has two severe beatings, a political convention, a showdown in a frontier restaurant, and a one-room classroom scene where men, women, and children–black, white, and Mexican-American–learn about democracy.

What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.

In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.

Unlike Rance, Ford was able to expose that lie, and even to some degree validate it. He would make four other films after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never made another masterpiece.

Up until Sunday night, it had been more than 30 years since I last saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen. Although it’s not a visually beautiful film, it was still a major improvement over my DVD. I could enjoy the details of the town. And the audience laughed and gasped in all the right places.

The 35mm print, supplied by Paramount, was serviceable but disappointing. Some scenes were washed out, and much of it was scratched. I can only hope that Paramount will one day take the time to restore it properly.

After the movie, I hung around with other members of the audience and discussed the movie. We all agreed that the PFA should show more westerns.

The A+ List: 8½ (also Children of Paradise & City Lights)

Getting back to my list of all-time favorite films–the near-perfect masterpieces that I’ve loved for decades.

In strict alphabetical order, the next movie on my list is Marcel Carné’s love letter to France and the theater, Children of Paradise. But I’ve written about it twice already, so you can read my appreciation and my Blu-ray review.

Next on the list is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. I wrote a Blu-ray review of that one, too.

So let’s skip ahead to the next greatly-beloved film that I haven’t dedicated an article to.

Federico Fellini’s surreal, autobiographical, self-referential comedy (of a sort) captures the dread of writer’s block, the pressures on a filmmaker, and the male mid-life crisis better than any other film I’ve seen (Barton Fink may equal it in terms of writer’s block). Fellini takes us deep into the worries, dreams, and memories of a successful writer/director who doesn’t know what his next film–soon to go into production–should be about.

And Fellini does it all with humor, stylish visuals, and an enthusiastic embrace of the cinema as exciting as Citizen Kane‘s. The camera swirls and dances through extras drinking mineral water or waiting for a mud bath. Reality slips into fantasy and back again as easily as a Steadicam can slip from one room to another. I’m still not sure which part of the ending is fantasy and which is reality. Since is an auteurist film about an auteurist filmmaker, we can reasonably assume that Fellini based the main character, Guido, on himself. Of course the part is played by Marcello Mastroianni, who was far better looking than Federico Fellini. But hey, this is a movie. I’d want my cinematic alter-ego to look like Mastroianni.

Guido has a lot on his plate. His next film is headed towards production–sets and costumes are being built–but he’s lost his confidence. He’s delayed the shoot. He avoids talking to his stars about their characters. His producer is losing his patience. And his writing collaborator–apparently the only person who’s read the script–does nothing but tell him how bad it is. This collaborator/critic becomes one of the film’s best running jokes. As he continually points out flaws in the film to be made, it begins to sound as if he’s criticizing (“It doesn’t have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks”). It’s as if Fellini beat the reviewers to the punch by panning the movie inside of itself. (Not that has these flaws, but I could see how some people might think it did.)

All this is set in an upscale spa resort where Guido has gone for unspecified health reasons. It appears as if he’s brought his entire production company with him, and that the film will be shot (if ever) near the spa.

To make Guido’s life even more complicated, his mistress arrives (played by Sandra Milo–Fellini’s real mistress at that time). Then his wife arrives. And he keeps seeing fantasies of Claudia Cardinale.

The film contains a number of great set pieces. There’s Guido’s walk, mostly shot POV, through the spa to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries. The descent into the mud bath to interview a cardinal. His childhood memory of watching a woman dance and being punished for the “sin.” And, of course, his harem fantasy where all of the women he’s loved and wanted happily do his bidding. I’m a bit hesitant to call a comedy, although on reflection I think the word fits. It’s nowhere near as funny as The General or Some Like It Hot, but it is often funny in a sardonic way.

I was still in high school when I first saw and fell in love with . I saw it at least three more times in college. But the real revelation came when I revisited it in my 40s. With its flashbacks, regrets, insecurities, and sexual fantasies, is very much about the middle-aged male. I don’t think a young person can catch everything about it, although–as my younger self proves–you can catch a great deal.

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