"If a team of assassins planned to ambush their target at a tollbooth, would it really be deemed necessary that the killers
wear their finest suits and fedoras while hiding before they perform the task? Did murder in the 1940s
require a dress code?" — Edward Copeland
By Edward Copeland
Some movies you love so much, have seen so many times in whole or in part, that when you stop to watch the film with a purpose (such as writing this post as well as the two previous ones, "America's first family" and "Merging art and commerce," to mark the 40th anniversary of The Godfather), you discover things you never noticed before and ideas occur to you for the first time. I still love The Godfather, but haven't watched it this closely in a long time — probably since viewing it in that Midtown Manhattan theater in 1997. When I saw it then, Goodfellas already existed in my life, but the sheer size of Coppola's images filtered through Gordon Willis' magnificent cinematography overwhelmed me so Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, albeit the greater film, didn't intrude on my thoughts then. This time though, I watched The Godfather on DVD on my TV — twice really, once for the movie, once for Coppola's commentary. This screening of rapt attention not only took place semi-horizontally at home, it also marked my first time observing The Godfather closely and in its entirety since The Sopranos entered the world. Because I have a lot to say, this will be a two-part post unlike the first two, which could stand alone. I plan, theoretically, for this final post to flow as a single piece even though I've divided it in half. To be a tease, I'm saving my new observations until the last section of this piece.
This reunion with the Corleones didn't change one aspect that amazed me the first time I viewed the film in a single, uncut setting: its miraculous pacing. Only a few minutes shy of three hours, The Godfather holds its length incredibly well. It never lags and you falsely sense that you've just settled in to the tale when, before you know it, the end credits roll. Coppola and his editing team of William Reynolds and Peter Zinner accomplish this without making the movie seem rushed either. While I knew the film incredibly well before I watched it again, the obvious never stood out until I heard what Coppola said on the commentary that I quoted in the first Godfather-related post, "America's first family," when he talked about seeing The French Connection during editing and thinking, "Compared to that, The Godfather is going to be this dark, boring, long movie with a lot of guys sitting around in chairs talking." On the commentary, Coppola follows that with the quote I put at the top of this post. Of course, the director's stress coughed up the adjective boring, but the film indeed does contain many scenes involving men sitting around talking. When you think about The Godfather, what usually springs to mind involves the masterfully choreographed sequences of violence such as the ending baptism montage or other memorable scenes such as the opening "I believe in America" monologue by the undertaker Bonsasera (Salvatore Corsitto). Those scenes with men talking play perfectly well, but you don't think about it. Not when the film containz scenes such as James Caan's Sonny being assassinated at the tollbooth, which Coppola freely acknowledges as his homage to Arthur Penn's finale in Bonnie and Clyde. "Like my dad always said, 'Steal from the best,'" Coppola says.
The reason all those "talking scenes" work corresponds with the reason all those stylized scenes of violence work: great dialogue. Coppola didn't invent this. From the beginning of the torch Hollywood (and moviegoers) carried for gangsters and the mob, the genre's best examples always brought with them some of the most memorable line in movie history stretching back almost to the beginning of film. Literally, the list extends too long to name all the precursors. Of course, as the years went by, the country allowed more freedom of content in its movies. The Godfather debuted early in the process of those changes, becoming the first gangster film to truly benefit. As you'd expect, the prudes whined about moral decay then — just as many do now. (Those who yell loudest about losing their freedom inevitably also want to take it away from anyone who doesn't believe as they do.) Coppola addresses the issue of violence on the DVD. "The thing about violence in a film like this is you have to try to make every moment be in some way eccentric or have some unusual or memorable aspect so it's not just a bludgeoning or just violence but…there is some sort of context that singles it out," Coppola says. Wwile the big names get the lion's share of praise (deservedly) for their acting in The Godfather, not enough gets said about those in the smaller roles because on top of its other positive attributes, The Godfather, despite Coppola's fights with Paramount, turned out to be an exceptionally well-cast movie. Richard Conte not only performs well as the oily and duplicitous rival boss Barzini, his presence provides a crucial link to the history of the genre, as did several other actors, through films such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz's House of Strangers, The Brothers Rico and Jules Dassin's great Thieves' Highway, which includes a memorable truck crash whose shot of rolling apples echoes the strewn oranges when Marlon Brando's Don Vito gets shot in The Godfather. Another link to past noirs come through Sterling Hayden's turn as the crooked cop Capt. McCluskey after roles in classics such as John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Leaving his mark, sadly an all too brief one, was Al Lettieri as Sollozzo, the Sicilian who wanted to bring narcotics into the city. Lettieri's acting success came late, appearing first on TV in 1957 at 29 but not making a movie until 1965. 1972 truly turned out to be his breakout year, appearing not only in The Godfather but in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway. He died of a heart attack three years later at 47. One final connection, in a way, to noirs and gangsters of old came in the brief but fun performance of John Marley as movie studio President Jack Woltz with the unfortunate horse. Marley worked since the 1940s, mostly on television, but included uncredited work in Kiss of Death and The Naked City and a small credited role in 1951's The Mob. Still, Marley remained one of those familiar faces that no one could name. It wasn't until the 1960s that he began to gain notice with parts in films such as Cat Ballou, a well-received starring role in John Cassavetes' Faces and a 1970 supporting actor nomination as Ali MacGraw's father in Love Story. Woltz's role didn't take up much screentime, but Marley made the most of it, paired mostly with the sublime Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen. The dinner scene between the two men delights every time. Coppola says that Duvall usually only needed a couple of takes to nail a scene, but I don't know how he couldn't crack up since the meal consists mostly of Marley's monologue about why he hates Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) and wants to run him out of the business How Duvall sat there and ate without cracking up constantly I can't fathom. His spite stems because Fontane stole a girl that Woltz had from him, so that's why the studio chief seems determined not to give the singer the part in the movie he desires. "She was the greatest piece of ass I ever had — and I've had 'en all over the world," Woltz yells at Tom. This leads to the famous scene of Woltz waking up the next morning to find the head of his prized $400,000 thoroughbred in his bed, That wasn't a fake head either. Part of the crew went to a dog food company and looked over the horses they planned to kill eventually to turn into Fido's fixings. They selected the horse they liked and had the company save the head in dry ice and send it to them when they slaughtered the animal. Needless to say, many people went ballistic, Coppola said. He always thought it was fascinating how upset people got that they used the head of an already dead horse but the film's many human killings didn't bug many. As for Marley, years later he appeared on SCTV Network when they did their spoof of The Godfather with Joe Flaherty's station owner Guy Caballero as the title character, only Marley played Leonard Bernstein.
Of the larger supporting roles in The Godfather, the actor and character I come away admiring and enjoying more each time I see the film in whole or in part continues to be Richard Castellano as Pete Clemenza, one of Don Corleone's capos and best killers. He also happens to be the funniest character in the movie. If any of the creations in The Godfather universe reminds me of someone who could turn up working on Tony Soprano's crew, Clemenza would be the one. Castellano gets so many classic bits, whether he's teasing Michael (Al Pacino) about not being able to tell Kay (Diane Keaton) he loves her on the phone in the kitchen full of Corleone soldiers. "Mikey, why don't you tell that nice girl you love her? I love you with all-a my heart, if I don't see-a you again soon, I'm-a gonna die," Clemenza needles him with a mock girl's voice while he makes a huge pot of "gravy." Among Clemenza's other duties, he teaches well. Not only does he try to pass on the recipe to Michael, he's the one who instructs him how to pull off the hit on Sollozzo and McCluskey. Castellano worked wonders grabbing a laugh before or after whacking someone. When Carlo (Gianni Russo), the no-good husband of Corleone sister Connie (Talia Shire), gets in a car, believing Michael when he says that he's only exiling him to Vegas and kicking him out of the family business as punishment for setting up Sonny, Clemenza sounds perfectly friendly as he greets him with, "Hello Carlo" from the back seat before throttling him to death. According to Coppola, Castellano also improvised his most famous line (and one of the most repeated from the film as well). After a brief scene where Clemenza leaves his house to head to work, his wife (Adelle Sheridan) yells to him to remember to pick up cannolis. The top item on Clemenza's work schedule that day, by Sonny's orders, involvee killing Paulie (John Martino), the don's usual driver/bodyguard who conveniently was out ill the day before when Vito was ambushed. As Paulie drives Clemenza and Rocco (Tom Rosqui), one of Clemenza's crew, Clemenza asks Paulie to pull over so he can take a piss. As Clemenza gets out of the car, Rocco kills Paulie. Clemenza returns and utters those immortal words that Castellano improvised, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Later, in that kitchen scene where Clemenza cooks and ribs Michael, Sonny comes in and asks him simply, "How's Paulie?" "Oh, Paulie…won't see him no more," Clemenza states matter-of-factly, never pausing in his stirring of the sauce. One thing I noticed this time that slipped by me before is that Clemenza actually supplied me with the origin of the phrase "going to the mattresses." It's so obvious in meaning I don't know how it escaped me, especially since Tony and his men did exactly that in the penultimate Sopranos episode. In the Godfather sequel, Bruno Kirby played the young Clemenza, but Castellano's presence was sorely missed. They couldn't reach a deal on a contract. In a rarity, the issue had nothing to do with pay. Castellano insisted that a friend of his had to be hired to write all his dialogue personally for The Godfather Part II. That request proved way too easy for Coppola to refuse and that's how Michael V. Gazzo's character of Frank Pentangeli got created for Part II, earning Gazzo a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Castellano received a supporting actor nomination, but not for The Godfather. His came for the 1970 comedy Lovers and Other Strangers. The actor died in 1988.
Another good supporting performance brings with it a great story. As I mentioned before, throughout his DVD commentary Coppola offers advice to new directors. One tip he gives repeatedly, actually he suggests it for directors at all levels of experience: Always hold at least a day or two of open auditions. He did this on The Godfather and filled several roles this way, but his best find (according to Coppola and I agree) turned out to be Abe Vigoda as Sal Tessio, Corleone's other main capo. Vigoda turned in a great performance, especially at the end when it's figured out that Tessio betrayed the Corleones and he knows he's being taken off to his death and makes a quiet plea to Duvall's Hagen to get him out of it "for old time's sake." Vigoda went on to become such a cult figure after playing Fish on Barney Miller and his short-lived spinoff Fish to getting much mileage out of premature reports of his death, especially through frequent appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Vigoda continues to work, having turned 91 in February and, according to the Inaccurate Movie Database, in pre-production for a feature comedy called The Mobster Movie co-starring Alice Cooper to be released next year. Vigoda's final moment in The Godfather should be a lesson to all directors to hold at least a day or two of open auditions because "you never know who is out there," Coppola said.