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.


By Marc S. Sanders

London is being terrorized by the necktie strangler.

In 1972’s Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock hearkened back to his killer classic themes remembered from Psycho. Only this time he is much more macabre with his material. Frenzy is Hitchcock’s only R rated film and his first movie to show outright nudity. Naturally, it’s all pretty eye opening, and considering that the film’s killer is regarded as a “sex maniac,” necessary as well.

Richard Blaney (John Finch) is not doing so well. He’s broke and he’s just lost his barkeep job. Subsequent from that he turns to his ex wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a successful marriage and friendship counselor for comfort. It does not help that Brenda’s secretary overhears Richard violently losing his temper. Nor does it do any good when he has an outburst while dining with Brenda in a crowded restaurant. Why, this could only make him look suspicious of a crime, and the infamous, serial necktie strangler has yet to be caught.

When Brenda turns up dead by means of a necktie around her throat, all accounts point to Richard. Once again, Hitchcock’s protagonist is the Everyman caught up in an unwelcome conspiracy.

Frenzy is thankfully like many of Hitchcock’s best films. It gets straight to the point. Just as the film begins, the naked body of a dead girl floats up from The River Thames. Then it follows through with Richard and introduces likely suspects and or villains including Richard’s friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) and his bar waitress co-worker Baba Milligan (Anna Massey)

Hitch goes more horrifying than he might have had the liberty to do so a decade prior to this release. The necktie strangler’s rape and murder of the first victim is quite graphic and disturbing. This is a deranged individual and his victim is rendered helpless.

What keeps viewers interested in a good Hitchcock yarn is the suspense he manufactures for the one who is blamed, as well as for the killer. Hitchcock doesn’t dwell on mystery. Rather, he focuses on what his principal characters are going to do next, now that they are swept up in intrigue. The strangler continues his killing spree but overlooks one thing that could implicate him. The man who is blamed seems to get little help from anyone. Richard is in quite a pickle after all. As well, how will these two people encounter one another to wrap up the storyline?

Humor also comes through quite nicely with Chief Inspector Timothy Oxford (Alec McCowen) who is blessed with a loving wife who relishes analyzing the gruesome details of his investigation while preparing dinner time meals that look awfully worse than the corpses the Inspector encounters; quail with raisins for example. To look at her concoctions will certainly make you wince. It’s great side humor for the suspense at play.

A film like Frenzy hardly explores dimension in its characters. Many of Hitchcock’s films never get weighed down with too much material. The stories he directs are lean, only focusing on the central plot at play. The fun is in the disturbing angles he uses like a woman’s outstretched hand or frozen expression after succumbing to strangulation. Overhead shots of a man imprisoned in a small room can also be jarring. He keeps you engaged as tightly as the fingers of a dead body gripping a significant piece of evidence.

Films like Frenzy or Psycho cannot be made today. There are too many advances in technology and science to undo the developments of simple, yet grossly disturbing stories like this. DNA evidence and cell phones would wrap up any of these plot lines in five minutes. It’s fortunate that we can still transport ourselves to the period when these tales of suspense were originally developed. It doesn’t make it easy for the innocent man, the victims or the killer. I wonder how Hitch would approach today’s conveniences of modern science. If anything, he’d likely make his signature cameo on the wallpaper of someone’s iPhone. Nevertheless, I’m sure he’d find a way to continue to build his suspense. He had such an eye for his camera, his captions and his edits.

Frenzy is a demonstration of classic Hitchcockian thrills.


By Marc S. Sanders

A politician’s career isn’t being elected. A politician’s career is getting elected. Once it is all over, what does the politician do now?

I’m not sure I understand why Jeremy Larner’s script won the Oscar in 1972; only because I didn’t gather much from this Robert Redford star vehicle. What exactly was the point of what I was watching? Redford plays Bill McKay, an idealistic lawyer recruited to run for the California senate on a Democratic ticket.

He’s sure to lose and I guess he’s okay with that because it’s acknowledged that way early on, and yet he just follows through with the campaign. He’s a kid compared to his seasoned Republican incumbent opponent. So he’s got that to deal with, and he’s remorsefully living in the unwanted shadow of his father, a former good ol’ boy governor. He also occasionally brushes past a girl that follows his campaign. Bill is happily married. Sounds like a good set up, right? Maybe it is. Yet I’m not sure any of this is the set up of the film. There is rarely any conversations in The Candidate. Hardly any dramatic pauses occur either. Nary a scene with his wife. The televised debate midway through is generic cliche really. One good moment occurs when the Republican candidate steps on Bill’s toes during a threatening brush fire. Now here’s some conflict. Now we’re cooking. Except…we’re not. The film returns to its established theme from earlier. For some reason in the last half of the film, it throws two or three punchlines at you, and…well, I guess it’s a comedy now.

The Candidate fills a majority of its two hours with McKay doing a lot of handshaking, baby holding, celebrity meets (Hi Natalie Wood!) and autograph signing. When that’s not happening, we are treated to repetitive close ups of members of his campaign and voters. I felt like I should have known these people. Did I fall asleep during their big introduction in the film, or were those scenes deleted from the finished product? Bill doesn’t say much except to make generic statements that no voter would ever disagree with. That’s okay, I guess, yet really it’s just boring. None of this packs any punch.

Larner was a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and Redford recruited him to write and tailor this script for him to produce and star, in response to his own dismay with the political climate at the time. Maybe The Candidate is supposed to be narrated in a documentarian sense but even if that’s the case, it fell short for me. Scenes here seem about as interesting as someone who unwraps a stick of gum and chews it.

Perhaps the Oscar was merited due to the political climate at the time. Redford’s character told audiences what they wanted to hear and magically Larner’s screenplay is now brilliant. If that’s the case, then I guess The Candidate is now dated. There’s no way this film outshines other political films like Wag The Dog, Primary Colors, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, or from what I hear Bulworth (never saw it).

The Candidate carries no drama, no comedy, no shock value. I’d say no message either, but the unexpected ending (unexpected only because I didn’t know the end scene was actually the end scene) finally told me something that I laboriously waited a long two hours for. The wait wasn’t worth it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Is it possible for a musical to be disturbing? Maybe Bob Fosse’s Cabaret favors that argument.

Liza Minnelli won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1972 for her portrayal of Sally Bowles, a carefree, happy go lucky performer at the underground Kit Kat Club located in Berlin, 1931. She is the lead attraction among a company of dancers doing a different kind of stage vaudeville with its colorful emcee played amazingly by Joel Grey, also an Oscar winner.

The musical numbers are outlandish with caked on makeup and outfits that could make Victoria’s Secret seem like a children’s shop. I gathered from the film that Fosse, who choreographed the numbers as well, offered up the escape of life first, before showing the harsh reality of Berlin in its historical context.

Sally and the Emcee’s performances are first on hand, depicted as silly and showstopping. Thereafter, Sally encounters an English gentleman named Brian Roberts (Michael York) who is a professor of English study attempting to complete his doctorate. As Sally and Brian become closer as friends first, he must reluctantly admit to Sally that he’s a better bed companion with a man than with a woman. Sally doesn’t understand why he didn’t say that in the first place as she attempts to come on to him.

Herein lies the dilemma many faced as the Nazi party was gaining traction in Germany. How necessary is it to hide your true natures to preserve your life? Sally’s underground lifestyle at the club clouds her vision of what’s gradually happening in the world. Nevertheless, they eventually develop a relationship as Brian appears to be bisexual, more specifically.

A side story concerns Brian & Sally’s relationship with a baron named Maximillan (Helmut Griem), who will wine and dine them at his estate only to later abandon the respective relationships he sets up with them to more or less make them feel as cheap as prostitutes. I wasn’t sure what to gather from this extension, however. The irony is that unbeknownst to Sally and Brian they have both been sleeping with Max. Eventually, Sally reveals she’s pregnant but does not know who the father may be, Brian or Max, and an abortion is considered.

An additional side story concerns a wealthy Jewish German heiress named Natalia who falls in love with a German Jew named Fritz living under the guise of a Protestant.

Cabaret is a loose adaptation of The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (the Brian character) and his experience with stage performer Jean Ross (the Sally character). Isherwood’s stories gradually formed into different iterations of stage plays and short stories before making it to Broadway and Fosse’s celebrated film.

Though Fosse apparently took some questionable liberties and departures from Isherwood’s writings, I think it depicts the personal struggles of love and self identity while the world around them is quickly changing into a scary reality where your own self identity could get you killed.

Fosse gives terrifying glimpses of how the Nazi party seeps it’s way into a decadent Berlin of underground showmanship. Though apparently Berlin really wasn’t so decadent as the film has you believe. Ross and Isherwood have gone on record describing Berlin was a more destitute and poor environment, actually.

In Fosse’s film, a Nazi youth is seen early on being kicked out of the Kit Kat Club. A few minutes later, the night club manager is being beaten in an alley. Fosse juxtaposes scary moments like this against the silly debauchery depicted on stage. It’s as if the Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews in the area are unaware of the evil practice that is gradually taking over outside.

Soon, Fosse makes the swastika more apparent in the streets with propaganda handouts. Most telling is when a young boy is seen at an outdoor beer garden gathering singing a number selfishly entitled “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Fosse is frighteningly effective at showing this boy from the neck up. Eventually, he moves the camera down to reveal the boy’s swastika wrapped around his sleeve. The song which seemed to champion beauty and nature now evolves into a march of grandstanding fascism. It completely shocked me. Just as people like Brian and Fritz are reluctant to reveal their backgrounds, both sexually and religiously, the Nazi party is proud to announce their mindset in a converse manner. By the end of the film, the audience at the Kit Kat Club more predominantly shows Nazis in the audience as opposed to just the one shown in the beginning of the film. Hatred has spread its disease.

While Minnelli shines in her role, her showstopping moment really comes at the end when she dangles her carefree attitude while belting out the title song with “Life Is A Cabaret.” Along with Joel Grey’s Emcee closing out the film with the “Finale,” this musical goes against the grain of most musicals’ cheerful close outs or romantic theatrics. Fosse’s mirror image of the Nazi party taking in Sally and Emcee’s performances are chilling. We sense the characters’ time is at an end and wisely the film runs its closing credits among frightening silence with the cold, blurred images of Nazi soldiers staring right at us.

I had never seen the film of Cabaret until now, but I had attended two different stage productions; neither of which I liked. Bob Fosse’s film seems more clear with its content than I ever got from a stage performance. Perhaps it is because the Oscar winning art direction is more apparent than a stage set. We can see the bustling of Berlin change amid a political climate that at first is not taken so seriously. As hurtful and harrowing the relationships of love between Brian with Sally and then with Max, as well as Fritz and Natasha are, none of this will eventually compare to the upcoming demise for Berlin.

As Miguel noted in our recent podcast that focused on musicals, Cabaret won the most Oscars without winning Best Picture (losing to The Godfather). It’s clear how deserving it was of its accolades. The musical numbers are very engaging but the fear of fascism is well developed too. So there is a roller coaster of emotions to absorb from Fosse’s film. I believe in that podcast I noted that Francis Ford Coppola won Best Director. I now realize I was wrong. It was in fact Bob Fosse who took home that prize, and it’s truly evident how deserving that honor was for him.

Again, while I’ve yet to find a stage production I’ve liked, I was terribly moved by the film. Cabaret, the film from 1972, is a sensational and frightening production.