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Killer's Choice 

Wednesday, Mar 19 1997
The Godfather
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, from Puzo's novel. Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Sterling Hayden, and John Cazale. At the Castro, March 20-27.

I spent the 68th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre watching The Godfather with the new soundtrack prepared for its 25th anniversary. The scene was a mixing room in the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, and the master of ceremonies was much-honored editor and sound expert Walter Murch, credited as "post production consultant" (i.e., sound-effects supervisor) for the movie's 1972 release and now responsible for bringing it into the digital age. As he explained to the key member of his small audience -- the film's director and co-writer, Francis Ford Coppola -- Murch had three goals: scraping away the random noise, which in a demonstration sounded like the pop, crackle, and fuzz from a hissy tape or dusty old LP; spreading the monophonic music into a new stereo balance; and "subtly and discreetly giving the sound more light and air -- augmenting the gunshots, adding a few footsteps." (Simultaneously, in Los Angeles, Paul Haggar, Paramount's longtime post-production chief, was supervising the movie's visual restoration before shipping it to New York for inspection by Gordon Willis, the film's rigorous cinematographer. In Berkeley, Murch used a standard studio print for his audio work; even that looked a lot sharper than recent video editions.)

Throughout the first reel, Murch went back and forth between the old and the new audio, and the difference was astounding. I had always loved the way Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone fondles a cat while clad in a tuxedo, doing business in his study during his daughter Connie's wedding party. The careless caressing of the cat (a Brando improvisation? It wasn't in the script) effortlessly conveys both domesticity and lordliness. In the 1991 home-video version, you can barely hear the cat's meow. On the Murch-engineered track, the cat's purr crawls right up your spine, and chirping wafts in from the birds in the garden. The sounds not only underscore Brando's uncanny acting, they also set off the poetry of the visual design: Killers dwell in shadows while family and prey flutter outside. The music now has an operatic size befitting the scale of the characters, without obscuring the clarity of their speech. Referring to a scene he and his family had contributed background lines to, Coppola said, "I can hear my voice; I can hear my mother's voice."

At the first reel break, Coppola acknowledged a "big difference," but also said he was a little worried about Bonasera, the undertaker -- who starts the film with the signature first line "I believe in America" -- coming off "a bit too sharp." Murch explained, "It may be the sound has to be that brilliant to survive 600 people in a theater." (He later quipped, in a deep wry tone, "But we don't want to fool too much with anything so deeply entrenched in the civic consciousness.") But in the end, Coppola said, "I found myself feeling cheated when we left the new version for the old one; I found myself getting caught up in watching the movie, then jarred out of it, so let's stay with it."

Having an excuse to see The Godfather on the big screen again is itself a pleasure. It was not a wide-format film, but unless you have a laserdisc player and a super monitor, there are details and nuances you can't catch on TV. Since the great American movie acting of the last three decades was rooted in this '70s epic, I was delighted to note the poster for a Jake La Motta fight pegged to a wall behind the Don when he surveys the goods on a fruit stand. And Gordon Willis' cinematography, with its dramatic contrasts between deep brown interiors and sun-kissed landscapes, between spontaneous action and classical tableaux, remains one of the seminal visual influences on crime movies, on period movies, and on movies, period.

But just as the restoration of Bernard Herrmann's score almost stole the show in the new prints of Vertigo, the sound may well prove to be the highlight of a repeat Godfather experience. This is a movie of gasps and tears and exclamations, of lines that gain in irony and resonance the more they are repeated ("It's not personal, it's business"), and of music (by Nino Rota) that lends the action a lyrical surge and ties the Corleone history of nonstop vendettas into a haunting, melancholy waltz.

Coppola orchestrates it all with a feeling for nuance that can still bring tears to your eyes. There's a rending moment when the Don is brought home after he's shot. Fredo, the son who falls apart from anguish, goes into his room to see him, but the Don's thoughts are elsewhere, with his favorite son, Michael (Al Pacino, who has fled to Sicily). A clue to why the scene is so affecting came during a reel break in the Valentine's Day screening. Coppola asked, "Does the music come in earlier now for the fade into the Sicilian scene?" Murch pondered a moment, and replied, "No, but I think the sheep bells might be coming in a little sooner." Coppola responded, "Maybe that's it, because the point of the scene is that Fredo is thinking of his dad while his dad is thinking of Michael, so the sheep bells should start when we're looking at the father's face."

Although Coppola has often been depicted -- and loves to depict himself -- as primarily an emotional and intuitive director, The Godfather is a film filled with correct choices, painstakingly thought out and passionately carried through. And part of what made it a breakthrough as a crime movie is that it's about gangsters who make choices too, and aren't propelled simply by bloodlust and greed. They're battling for position in New York's Five Families, circa 1945-46. If Don Vito Corleone and successor Michael come off looking better than all the others, it's because they play the power game the cleverest and best -- and the game is sordidly exciting.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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