THE CONVERSATION

By Marc S. Sanders

To watch Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation from 1974 is to feel the paranoia of what Harry Caul, the protagonist played by Gene Hackman, endlessly feels as a surveillance expert. Harry is so skillful at his job and yet so modest, that he only believes someone may actually be better. Even he doesn’t believe he’s that good. Still, his own expertise can drive him to insanity.

Coppola opens the picture on a wide lens that gradually zooms in, looking down on a sunny afternoon in a crowded park. There are musicians and mimes. Bums that sleep on a park bench and food vendors, and then there is a couple (Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest) who we are drawn to to get some sound bites of their random conversation. Their voices are muffled at times. Feedback and background noise interferes as well. Harry is spotted trying to keep within a perimeter to allow his hardware to function and get every tidbit of the conversation.

Following this sequence, Harry is back at his fenced in warehouse operation that he shares with a loudmouth partner named Stan (John Cazale) attempting to clean up the recording for his client, only known as The Director. It’s a skill that only Harry has the means to do. Hackman plays the part as a quiet and reserved man, unlike his competitors who proudly boast of their next, great invention to eavesdrop and capture the actions and discussions of any subject. With an awareness of what he’s capable of, I’d argue he trusts no one, even when he’s being praised. Does he even trust Stan, who he works with?

To be good at this kind of work requires the ability to separate yourself from the content of what you’re listening to. Just get an audible recording and move on. The content should be for someone else to stew over. For Harry, this becomes a challenge. He uncovers a hint in the couple’s exchange that suggests perhaps their lives are in danger. When he goes to drop off the recordings and collect his fee, he is not met by The Director. Instead, he comes across a lackey (Harrison Ford) who insists that he was instructed by the client to make the exchange. His paranoia sets in, when the lackey keeps on appearing at random, unexpected moments with Harry. None of it feels right for Harry. So he violates what should be his own rules and investigates further. The risk is whether his own capabilities will undo his sense of humanity and decency, including his connection with God.

Coppola, who also wrote the script for his film, puts Harry to the test in nearly every scene. He writes Harry to be the best at what he does, and yet that doesn’t prevent failure from occurring. He even fails to recognize when he’s being victimized and listened to. A midway point features a party among the men who specialize in surveillance. Harry quietly flirts with a girl only to feel embarrassed when his East Coast competitor reveals that he recorded their conversation from across the room. Seems like a harmless prank, as sophomoric as playground or locker room teasing, but it’s enough to maybe drive Harry into madness.

Harry Caul is one of Gene Hackman’s best roles. It stands apart from other films he’s been in. Harry is very much a three dimensional character who values his religious connection and his sense of morality. The problem is that Harry is a specialist in something that’s really not very moral or ethical. His Catholic beliefs might suggest what he does is sinful. Sure, he goes to confession, but he still pursues actions that are deemed inappropriate in the eyes of God.

Francis Ford Coppola depicts a very telling moment as Harry tries to find a listening device in his apartment. He takes apart everything in the place by either breaking it or unscrewing it. What do you think he’ll do when he comes upon his figurine of the Virgin Mary? Is there anything left to trust? Anything of value or purity in Harry’s world? He doesn’t trust others. He doesn’t trust himself? Does he trust a higher power that he’s leaned on his entire life?

Because The Conversation does not delve too much into the now dated-very dated– technology from the early 1970s, it is a film that is especially relevant in today’s age of cell phone recordings and devices that are relied upon for everyday use. While Harry is possibly thinking he’s on a noble pursuit with his means to eavesdrop, either by servicing a client or even rescuing someone from what appears to be imminent danger, is this the right way to go about it? What will it cost Harry? As well, what does it cost our society to embark on the convenience of what we are now capable of? Does the ability to record someone’s actions contain absolute merit, or are we violating a civil mentality within ourselves and among our fellow human beings?

There’s a lot of hard questions to answer in The Conversation. I think that’s why especially now it’s an important picture to see.

BULLITT (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

The car chase with the movie attached to it is Bullitt from 1968, directed by Peter Yates, featuring Steve McQueen in the title role.  Why do I phrase it that way?  Well, as far as I can tell in the three or four times that I’ve seen the movie, the main attraction is the well-known, and pioneering, car chase at the crux of the film.  Otherwise, the plot is very thin, with characters that have next to no complexity or dimension.

Frank Bullitt has been summoned on a Friday afternoon to the home of a prosecutor/politician named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn).  He’s been requested to guard a key witness over the weekend ahead of giving a deposition on Monday morning that will expose “The Organization.”  Frank lays out the shift schedule with his precinct partners, and soon after the witness is gunned down and sent to the hospital with life threatening injuries.  Now it’s up to Frank to find out how the organization located the witness and who is behind the conspiracy. 

Bullitt moves at a slow pace.  There are some foot chases through the hospital.  Chalmers gives the standard frustration with how the protection assignment has fouled up, and plenty of close ups are given to the marquee actor, McQueen.  For some sex appeal, Jacqueline Bisset appears as Bullitt’s girlfriend offering up a speech that shows resentment for his occupation amid a world of death and violence.  A better monologue of this sort would come later in Michael Mann’s Heat with Diane Vinora expressing her disdain for Al Pacino’s determination as an obsessed detective.

Nevertheless, Bullitt is an important film to watch, if for nothing else then to see what it has inspired since its time.  The legendary car chase between Bullitt’s dark green Ford Mustang and the silent villains’ black Dodge Charger is nearly ten minutes long, and still holds as one of the greatest ever filmed.  The fact that the film takes place in San Francisco only lends to the scene.  The best car chases take place among the sloping streets of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the chase is not accompanied by music, but rather by well timed sound editing of burning rubber and screeching tires, revved up engines, side swipe banging and chassis slams on the hilly pavements. Yates also includes good close ups of McQueen and the villains in the Charger.  They were not always driving the cars.  There were stunt doubles, but I’m not seeing the difference while I’m watching.  I might see the cars pass by the same green VW Beetle three times, but the editing is so perfectly assembled here that it is fair to argue this is one of the greatest scenes in film history. 

In later years, directors would pull moments from Bullitt to use in their own films like the Dirty Harry pictures, The Seven-Ups, and Heat.  One moment during a foot chase in an airport seemingly inspired moments for later films like The Fugitive and Skyfall.  The hero is looking amidst a sea of crowds for the antagonist.  Peter Yates films bystanders in this moment going from one walking face to another.  He cuts back to McQueen moving his eyes from left to right and back again, looking and looking.  The bad guy that Bullitt is trying to find is just an ordinary white guy with brown hair; no discernable features like you might notice in an Alfred Hitchcock movie or a James Bond entry.  So how do you find the guy who just looks like everyone else?

Bullitt sets up a twist or two.  Honestly though, I can’t recall where those moments are resolved.  The witness being protected undoes the chain lock on the door just before he’s gunned down.  Why?  What was the exact purpose to do that?  As well, who exactly gave away the secret location of the witness, and again, why?  These questions weigh on my mind after watching the film.  Bullitt is not a confusing or multi-layered movie.  It’s pretty simple with very minimal dialogue and works like a showpiece for scenes.  So, I have yet to uncover where I got lost or what I missed that could answer those questions.

Best I can say is that if you’re a film buff seeking out where certain standards started, it’s best to watch Bullitt.  After you watch Nicholas Cage supposedly drive a yellow Ferrari through the streets of San Francisco in The Rock, you’ll at least say, “Uh uh.  Bullitt did it better the first time.”

A CIVIL ACTION

By Marc S. Sanders

In A Civil Action, writer/director Steve Zaillian allows John Travolta to demonstrate the workings of a remorseless ambulance chasing lawyer with a pride for the finest in men’s wear and the title of one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, Massachusetts.  Then, all of that crumbles apart when a self-effacing acknowledgment breaks through. 

Travolta portrays real-life attorney Jan Schlictmann, who heads a small personal injury law practice with three partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy and Zeljko Ivanec).  They go after the cases that promise large settlements from hospitals, insurance companies and multi-million-dollar corporations.  The best cases are where the mid-30’s breadwinning male of the household has suffered irreparable damages.  The victim is not deceased, but permanently handicapped, unable to work and provide for his family.  A dead victim is not as theatrically attractive.   Better to put the poor soul in the wheelchair on stage for the winning cash settlement. 

When Jan is boxed into a corner to meet with the residents of a small New England town, he dismisses their case as an unwinnable nuisance.  The townsfolk believe that their children have taken ill, with some not surviving, due to locally contaminated drinking water.  Kathleen Quinlan is one mother who wants an apology and explanation from whoever is responsible.  An apology holds no tangible value for Jan though, until he observes who the primary suspects are likely to be; two large corporations that own well known brands like Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tropicana Orange Juice, and Samonsite Luggage.  Now the pockets to collect from could go on forever, and Jan does not realize until it’s too late how much of a personal gamble he is undertaking with himself and his partners in tow.

A Civil Action has always left me thinking on so many different levels since I first saw it in theaters.  The value of a life, especially a child’s life, is not very significant when corporate America profits on dollar bills.  The priority of environmental protection and its most precious resource, water, is just as minimal, maybe more.  Zaillian uncovered a fantastic character arc from a very frighteningly sad and true story.   Jan Schlictmann proudly dons an appearance of false care for victims of botched surgeries and car accidents to advance his ego and materialistic nature.  However, then he found a conscience, as he realized that money doesn’t win cases for his clients.  Instead, the acceptance of responsibility triumphs.  That surrendering admittance, though, is not expected to come from these companies.  Not when the burden of proof only comes from a measly platoon of four small town attorneys, who could never bear the expenses of proving such gross negligence and wrong doing.  This is a David & Goliath confrontation. 

Beyond a cast of recognizable faces, there are scenes in this film that just stay with you.  Most especially for me is the unforgiving nature of Quinlan’s suffering maternal character.  She no longer has any care in the world for whatever sacrifices are made by the lawyers to reveal the truth of what happened.  I didn’t think that was fair of her, frankly.  Zaillian demonstrates what these four guys endure as the case prolongs itself.  However, people are unfair.  Sometimes they are unreasonable because they have been pushed down to a bottom they’ll never climb up from.  This movie and the circumstances at play are not here to please me and make me feel good with a tidy ending wrapped in a bow, however.  The script is brutally honest in its characterizations.

What’s also disturbing about this case is simply water.  Countless times, Steve Zaillian gets close up shots of glasses and pitchers of clear, crisp water.  Children are drinking water.  Water is spilled on tables.  Jan’s enemies in trial will indulge in a refreshing gulp from a glass as they finish a scene with him.  The movie reminds you time and again that water is the silent killer.

Robert Duvall is the shining talent on the other side of the aisle from Travolta as an attorney in a fifty-dollar suit with a beat up fifty-dollar briefcase representing one of the large companies that is being sued.  Duvall makes his shark of an attorney appear effortless.  He falls asleep in court.  He tucks away in a corner to listen to the Red Sox play on his transistor radio.  Yet, he’s wise enough to know how to derail an opposing counsel’s case with just his quiet, unspoken presence at the table.  He isn’t even so much a villain or an antagonist as he allows the hero of the film ample opportunity to settle rather than charge on.  His urgencies don’t work however because Jan has changed.  Where he once saw money, he now sees something much more valuable that is beyond any variance of negotiation.  The scenes shared between the handsome, fit and well-dressed John Travolta against the older, short, hunched yet astute Robert Duvall play beautifully here.  There is top notch stage performance work happening here.

It amazes me that A Civil Action is not available on Blu Ray or 4K.  Look at this cast and its direction.  It’s magnificent.  Zaillian’s film moves with a fast pace of easy-to-follow courtroom theatrics.  Additional performances from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, and John Lithgow are so engrossing.  William H Macy is very good too, as the desperate man trying to keep Jan’s cause afloat.  Why is this film not being granted the accessibility it deserves?  I actually had to pay for a streaming rental watch.  No matter, it was worth it.  For like Jan Schlictmann, money is not the most important commodity known to man.  Morality and decency will stretch further than money that’s been spent, never to be replenished.  A noble and most human thing you can do is to experience Steve Zaillian’s film, A Civil Action. Then you will understand what an unjust world any one of us could fall victim to.  Then maybe you will understand the loss a loving mother endures far outweighs any financial liability from a grocery food company.

NETWORK

By Marc S. Sanders

Without question, what would become the absolute most prophetic film ever made is Sidney Lumet’s biting, satirical masterpiece called Network with its script from Paddy Chayefsky. 

Network works on all cylinders because it was released following a shedding of maybe the last of pure American innocence.  The country had finally pulled out of a losing war in Vietnam.  Our President Nixon was shamed out of office.  Happy housewife programs like The Donna Reed Show and Leave It To Beaver were behind us.  The outright, prejudiced Archie Bunker was who Americans were tuning in to each week.  There was even an incident of a newscaster, named Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself dead on live television.  Looking back, today in 2022, it all seems inevitable that we would arrive at where we are now; where we are always seeking some semblance of showmanship and we’ll get our own brand of infamy no matter how desperate we become.

Chayefsky’s script focuses on the fictional network of UBS in present day, 1976.  Well known newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces on air that the following week will be his last broadcast as the network has opted to let him go due to poor ratings.  So, he entices his viewers to tune in when he will kill himself live on the air.  It’s a hilarious scene actually due to the ignorance of everyone else in the studio.  The director is flirting with his assistant. Another crew member is eating a sandwich.  No one is even paying attention to the centerpiece they have on the air.  Howard Beale has been taken for a granted as a has been for so long, it really doesn’t matter what he has to say as long as he’s reading the cue cards.  Who’d ever announce on live television in front of millions of viewers that he was intending to kill himself?

Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the news division, takes his friend into hiding from the media frenzy suddenly created.  Yet, the next night and after much convincing, Beale is permitted to go on the air again, and make a statement to undo whatever outlandish damage this has all become.  Instead, he decries that life is bull shit.  Max, fed up with the corporate tugs of war already, opts to leave him on and ironically a new opportunity presents itself.  Beale’s moment of insanity and his gradual mental breakdown might be real, but man, this could also pull the UBS news division out its ratings slump and bring it ahead of CBS, NBC and ABC. 

The young and energetic Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) in the entertainment division, works her way into the news division and takes over its programming from Max.  She convinces the corporate honchos like Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to use Beale as a ratings appeal.  The entire company eventually understands what Diana foresees could actually work when a rain-soaked Beale storms on to the studio set urging his viewers to shout out their windows that they are “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Now, the evening news consists of sections featuring Howard’s ranting and ramblings, as well as Sybil The Soothsayer and other such nonsense, most notably a new program from an actual terrorist group known as The Ecumenical Liberation Army. 

From there, the detritus of what UBS commits to for lead ratings night after night only validates that television is not about morals and objectivity in the industry of news reporting.  A slight telling moment has Beale come to Max with an old black and white photograph of them posing with the likes of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite.  They reflect joyfully on the memories, but now they are just memories. These kinds of men of the airwaves no longer exist. Beale is now a jester to the masses who tune in for his mad man speeches labeled as “news.” 

Long before the buffoonery of out of touch Presidential Candidates and over opinionated newscasters who lacked any merit or research to uphold their viewpoints, Chayefsky and Lumet were nervy enough to actually believe moviegoers would buy this satire. 

No matter the medium, satire is maybe the riskiest category of entertainment.  Someone is going to be pissed off and offended.  Others won’t believe this could ever be possible.  In elementary school, I remember reading a short story that proposed cutting down on overpopulation by having people eat their young.  You know what?  After much discussion with fellow classmates at the time, the idea had some logic to it.  Recently, Adam McKay wrote and directed a film called Don’t Look Up that presented a what if scenario to the inevitable end of the world by means of an incoming comet crashing down into Earth.  Unlike Network, some of the elements in that film didn’t work for me.  So, satire is a crap shoot.

Had I seen Network when it was first released, I wonder what I would have thought.  Would I have bought all of its absurdity?  I believe I saw it before reality television became such a novelty and ever since that first time watching, I truly accepted the logic that comes across the decision makers at the UBS network.  Corporate functionality, no matter the industry, relies on monies.  Nothing else matters.  UBS quickly learns that image can be spared.  Money is what keeps everyone happy and afloat.  If the performance of the company falters, changes need to be made; no matter how desperate those actions may appear to be. 

So, Howard Beale becomes a sensation for the UBS network and he is at least besting or tying with top rated shows like All In The Family and Little House On The Prairie.  Yet, Howard is also a mentally ill raving lunatic who needs treatment.  What happens when he declares something to the public that is detrimental to the corporate future of UBS, its top one percent, and its shareholders.  You can’t censor a lunatic with reason.  Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the all-powerful, emperor like CEO, delivers a commanding scene that is one for the ages in response.  He truly deserved his sole career Oscar nomination here…all for one scene perfectly staged in a dimly lit board room with his giant stature poised behind rows of green banker lamps.  He turns Beale into his own prophesized pawn.  Now, that may satisfy the man at the top of the pyramid, but at the end of the day, what about the ratings?????

Chayefsky’s script is one of the greatest ever written.  Not only are the satirical ideas so clearly drawn, but the dialogue is biting with truth in its sarcasm and wit.  When Diana suggests giving The Ecumenical Liberation Army its own weekly program depicting real life footage of their massacres and kidnappings across the country, a staffer retorts “What do you wanna call it?  The Mao Tse Tung Hour?”  When Beale asks the god like image of Arthur Jensen “Why me?”, the response is simply “Because you’re on television, Dummy!”

Maybe we thought the limit of influence stopped with television.  The script for Network felt sure of that.  Yet, we’ve graduated from the simplicity of television and we’ve entered the age of the internet.  Suicides and violence, pornography, slander, opinions and viewpoints can all easily be conjured up by the devices we use to access the internet and we can slant our own news stories in our own way.  News is no longer reported with an objective, omnipotent narration.  It’s dramatized.  I may be a resident in Florida but if someone captures a live on-going police car chase happening on the freeways of Los Angeles, it’s brought to my attention for the thrill of the story.  From a news perspective how is a car chase on the other side of the country relevant to me?  I don’t know the drivers or what motivated them.  I don’t live there.  So, it’s not going to affect my commute home.  Yet, my local news station finds it imperative to show it to me.  No matter the heights of insanity a subject may be, if it’s watchable with a ratings potential, I can rely on my local journalists to bring it to me fast and immediate with zoom in close ups and hi definition.  They’ll even replay it for me in slow motion a hundred times, just to stretch the story until the commercial break.

Network also explores the corporate obsession America entered into by the mid-70s.  Chayefsky uses the Diana Christensen character as a departure from the wholesome Donna Reed image.  Women are working in the offices now.  They are beautiful, smart, strong and assured.  Yet, have they also lost their humanity?  Has this happened to only women?  Diana uses her edge to sleep with her mentor, Max, a much older married man of 26 years.  The aging Max surrenders to his libido but is it worth it?  Diana is too quick in bed and while she’s love making, she’s orgasming to the latest ratings poll from her wunderkind, Howard Beale.  Chayefsky demonstrates how maddening corporate America has become by sucking any emotion of love, loss, happiness and sadness that people are heretically born with.  It’s as if a cancer has killed whatever natural stimuli people were gifted with, and he’s not wrong.  People don’t work 9 to 5 jobs any more.  They work 12 to 12.  When they are not working, they are enhancing their “social status” by means of social media. 

Network is one of the greatest films ever made.  Lumet and Chayefsky put everything on display in its no holds barred honesty.  Still, the performances must be recognized.  This film has one of the greatest casts ever assembled.  Dunaway is magnificent as the young woman with the drive to turn the television industry on its ear.  She deserved her Oscar.  Robert Duvall never received enough credit as the unforgiving corporate lackey resting just under the top while making sure profit is provided before anything else.  William Holden was already in his golden years of film acting by this time.  With Beatrice Straight, playing his wife (in her brief but Oscar winning role), they represent an honorable profession and household that is now long gone.  His character is fired twice within the first hour of the film by the modern corporate mentality, and then he’s resigned to write a tired book about his journalistic accomplishments because there is simply nothing left to do.  He’s a dinosaur in the modern age of television and business.  Peter Finch was the first to win a posthumous Oscar for his turn as Howard Beale.  If this character were real and was televised as the film demonstrates, I can’t deny that I would buy into his raving rhetoric.  I’d have no idea what he’s talking about.  I wouldn’t care, but I would tune in later in the week when John Belushi would mimic him on Saturday Night Live.

With each viewing of Network, you find something new to relate with every time.  The reason is that it stays consistent with the evolution of our planetary function.  Even in this age of Covid where stories are never consistent yet always hyped for dramatic impact, there is something to nod at and understand from the messages of Network.  It could be a world war, a new president, an assassination, a school shooting, a police chase, a riot or a pandemic.  Network had already considered the response to any topic that’s ever been the top story. 

Network is one of the most important films ever made.

THE GODFATHER PART II

By Marc S. Sanders

The first film to use the number 2 (or Roman numeral II, in this case), in its title and the first sequel to win Best Picture is Francis Ford Coppola’s continuous adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Corleone family legacy in The Godfather Part II. It is worthy of all of the accolades it collected as an individual film. Yet, it does not best the first film.

Unlike the 1972 classic, Part II does not provide much character arc for anyone. We’ve already seen Michael (Al Pacino, silently ferocious here) change from good college boy and war hero to the evil puppet master Mafioso he eventually became. This film shows him exercising his threateningly murderous deeds as he works in conjunction with a sly Nevada Senator, a Jewish Miami mob boss (an excellent performance from Lee Strasberg) from the time of his father’s reign, and another mob guy from New York (Michael V Gazzo). We get a whiff of all these guys early on during a commencement celebration for Michael’s son. Coppola keeps this a running theme of grand openings in all three films. It’s a great method of introductions each time.

Following the party, an assassination attempt is brought against Michael. But who did it? Problem is this is where the foundation of the film is not so strong. It’s never really made clear who betrayed Michael. That’s a little bothersome.

Coppola depicts another storyline altogether with the early 20th century origin of Vito Corleone flawlessly played by Robert DeNiro who hardly speaks any English while communicating in a Sicilian variant of Italian. Young Vito immigrates to America following an escape from the Sicilian Don that murdered his family. In New York we witness his rise to power. Famed Cinematographer Gordon Willis washes out these flashback images to enhance a pictorial history accompanied by Angelo P. Graham’s art direction of early brick and mortar architecture and the muddy streets of early Little Italy, New York. It’s a time travel back to a historical age. It’s magnificent.

Back in the 1950s, Puzo and Coppola bring authentic fiction to real life history as Michael considers a go at a business enterprise in Cuba. However, will the rebellion uprising interfere with his plans, and what will it cost him? As well, there’s a great sequence where he has to testify before a congressional hearing in response to suspicion of criminal activities. Coppola used the infamous McCarthy hearing footage as inspiration for this predecessor to what C-Span would eventually look like.

Yet, there’s another story to become involved with as Michael must contend with his dim witted older brother Fredo. John Cazale is superb as the guy who wanted more but was limited by the influence of competing factions and his loyalty to his brother. Pacino and Cazale always had great chemistry together. A great conversation moment occurs in the third act following a terribly surprising twist. One of the best scenes in the film occurs on the porch of the Corleone compound.

More story elements come into play as Michael attempts to balance his married life with Kay (Diane Keaton). She’s pregnant again. Yet, what will that mean for the future of the family?

The sequel to The Godfather assembles another stellar cast. So good, that the film garnered three Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actor category alone (DeNiro, Gazzo, Strasberg) as well as a nomination for Pacino as Best Actor and Talia Shire (Supporting Actress) as Connie, Michael’s sister. That nom left me a little dubious only because there’s not much material for Shire to play with here.

Coppola’s detail is at the top of his game again. The film, like the first, feels like a true life biography.

Puzo offers heartbreaking moments, most especially in the film’s shocking end which leads to a flashback assembly of characters from the first film. That scene alone plays as a great reminder of what Michael once was before becoming the hideous monster that closes the story. Puzo’s whole Godfather franchise hinges on well defined, crushing tragedy.

The Godfather Part II is nothing short of mesmerizing and wholly engaging. You can watch it over and over again. It’s layered in rich storytelling and narratives that provide endless amounts of material for a family meant to be mired in secrets, deliberately hidden in the dimly lit rooms that Willis photographed.

It’s a treat to be the fly on the wall wherever Michael and his family move to next.

THE GODFATHER

By Marc S. Sanders

Probably the greatest character story arc in all of film is of Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather based upon Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel. (The film is a thousand times better than the book.)

Michael is the youngest of three sons intended for a legitimate life separate from his Mafia family. The masterful opening sequence of his sister’s lavish wedding show him courting his eventual wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), and never feeling proud of the actions of his notorious father, Vito (Marlon Brando), nor his brother Sonny (James Caan) or their consigliere, Tom (Robert Duvall). He’s an innocent war hero in uniform with an open mind of an untarnished future. It is only when bad blood circumstances are tested that he feels forced to strike with the same intent that the Corleone family is infamous for.

Coppola presents quiet, subtle moments of expression in Pacino on camera. You see the change in Michael sneak up on you and you see a character develop into something else entirely. What starts as a false impression to appear as if he’s carrying a gun in his pocket, soon after leads to murder, by means of nothing personal but “strictly business.” From there, he retreats and hides until he is blessed with carrying on an evil legacy.

Yes, the first chapter in the operatic trilogy of crime, is mostly known for a grandstanding performance by Marlon Brando but the story relies on Pacino as Michael. Michael Corleone at least must be one of Al Pacino’s greatest roles. He arguably has one of the most impressive resumes in all of film. Here is where it jump started.

The direction by Coppola is a film student’s required studying. With Puzo’s script, the best idea was to open the film with a wedding. As the film offers so many characters and much back story among all of the guests, the interaction and workings of the family are efficiently condensed into this 25 minute opening sequence. Don Vito meets with people needing favors while outside the home, the crew is dancing, doing their jobs and minding who is watching. By the end of this opening you have a full grasp of the family tree and who works for who and what their characters are like. Sonny is the hot head. Michael is the innocent. Fredo (the middle son played by John Cazale) is not doing much but being a cut up, Momma Corleone is the valued matriarch and Tom is the well managed advisor. You even get a glimpse of some “very scary guys,” some competing hoods, who’s cheating on who, and some people who need help with citizenship and film casting.

Art direction from Alex & Dean Tavoularis is magnificent, depicting a post WWII New York, and a historical Sicily stagnant in open plains, romance and murderous pasts.

The cinematography is better today than it was originally. Gordon Willis returned decades later to (for lack of better word) lighten up the picture. The interiors remain dark in secret and comfort, but the characters are more illuminated. The Blu Ray restoration is a fantastic return to the classic film and its two sequels.

The Godfather is endlessly quotable and never dull no matter how many times you watch it. Puzo’s screenplay plays like the biography of a real person and family, much like his adaptation for the screen of 1978’s Superman: The Movie. It is an American classic rich in a history we believe has been told and carrying on the tradition over the course of a 10-12 year period.

I return to praise Pacino to remind you how his appearance even changes as he gradually builds his strength and accepts his title of Don. I feel like I’m looking at two physically different people from the beginning in his Marine uniform with boyish looks, to his independent walkabout way during his Sicily retreat, to a more broad shouldered, slicked back hair, dark suit tailored appearance during the film’s third act. It’s an uncanny transformation that is built on performance and expert direction and writing from Coppola and Puzo. I still get chills as Michael in his college boy sports jacket volunteers himself to satisfy a family vengeance. Coppola zooms in on him slowly as he sits in a leather arm chair, arms at his side, legs folded. We are seeing a new man in charge for the first time. It’s chilling.

The Godfather is one of the greatest pictures that will ever be made. It’s a perfect chemistry of technical achievement, attentive storytelling and sensitive, yet powerful performances from probably the best cast ever assembled.

I’m amazed that I know of some friends who still have yet to see it.

The Godfather is the film that everyone should see before they die.