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Francis Ford Coppola 1939–
American filmmaker, producer, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Coppola's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Francis Ford Coppola is both an acclaimed and a controversial director. His adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather (1972), made him a powerful Hollywood force and also a magnet for criticism. In addition to directing, Coppola is a producer and the head of Omni Zoetrope (formerly American Zoetrope), a studio he started in 1969 to help young filmmakers produce their work.
Trained in film at the University of California at Los Angeles, Coppola worked with Roger Corman as an assistant director and writer. Corman offered him his first opportunity to direct on Dementia 13 (1963). The film was not well received, however, and his next film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), was overshadowed by Mike Nichols's The Graduate, released at the same time. In retrospect, many critics find You're a Big Boy Now a fresh, zany look at the disillusionment and joys of growing up. In 1968, Coppola directed his first—and perhaps his last—musical. His version of Finian's Rainbow (1968) was released amidst a barrage of negative reviews. All during production, Coppola was plagued by the problems of an inexperienced filmmaker attempting to create a large-scale musical. Warner Brothers, however, dealt the death blow. The studio, sure of the film's success, expanded the 35mm print to 70mm to give it the aura of a grandiose musical. In the process, however, Fred Astaire's feet were cut off the bottom of the screen. When his next film, The Rain People (1969), received a lukewarm critical reception, Coppola's future looked questionable. When first asked to direct the film version of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather (1972), Coppola turned it down. He only reluctantly agreed the second time because he needed the money. While Part I was in production, Coppola fought for three things: Marlon Brando for the part of Don Corleone, Al Pacino for the part of Michael Corleone, and the adaptation of the film as a period piece rather than setting it in the present. Because of these aspects of the film, among others, Coppola transformed what some considered a strictly sensational novel into an epic of family loyalty within the world of organized crime. The film ended up propelling Coppola to the top of Hollywood's elite directors. Several of Coppola's productions have been plagued with problems and controversy. The filming of Apocalypse Now (1979) became infamous for its difficult production and skyrocketing costs. The collapse of one of its stars, Martin Sheen, made reworking several of the scenes impossible and caused Coppola to add the last-minute voice-over narration. The filming of The Godfather, Part III (1990), also went well over budget due to time restrictions and obligations to deliver to the studio for a Christmas release. The last-minute replacement of the ill Winona Ryder with Coppola's daughter Sophia drew criticism and the usual difficulties on the set due to an inexperienced actress. Coppola has won numerous awards, including the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival for The Conversation in 1974. Director's Guild Awards as best director in 1972 and 1974, and several Academy Awards.
Coppola's groundbreaking The Godfather, traces the fortunes and misfortunes of the Corleone family, prominent members of the Italian mafia in New York City. The story's main focus is on Michael Corleone as his American and Italian ideals conflict and he changes from a peripheral figure to the head of the family business. The Godfather, Part II (1974) takes up Michael's story again as he heads the family during its declining years. His story is juxtaposed to flashbacks of his father Vito Corleone, the original don, as he leads the family into its ascendancy. Vito represents the old values of family and loyalty while Michael has taken the family away from these traditional values to pursue a more corporate, capitalistic success. In the end, Michael's attempts are unsuccessful and the family is left in a shambles. The Godfather, Part III goes beyond the world of organized crime and American capitalism to include international finance and intrigue at the Vatican. Michael begins to regret his life and goes looking for redemption through the Catholic Church. Among Coppola's more personal, lower budget films is The Conversation (1974), which traces the mental breakdown of a professional wiretapper who loses his professional detachment and becomes overcome with paranoia. Apocalypse Now uses the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, as the organizing principle through which Coppola looks at the Vietnam War. Captain Willard is sent by the American generals to assassinate the renegade Colonel Kurtz, who has led a group of soldiers into the jungle and begun to wage his own kind of war. The major conflict between the generals and Kurtz is the role of morality in the fighting of a war. Willard represents the mediating principle in the film between these two opposing sides. Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) represents his vision of the vampire myth and is characterized by elaborate, stylized costumes and a beautiful, youthful Hollywood cast.
Several critics complained that Coppola's The Godfather glorified and romanticized the mob in America and violence in general. Although Coppola tried to address this concern with less violence and a more pessimistic ending in The Godfather, Part II, critics still found his portrayal of Vito Corleone as too sympathetic and idealized. There is much disagreement about which of the Godfather films is superior, some claiming Part I, others Part II and most agreeing that Part III was one part too many. There is general agreement, however, that Coppola forever changed the gangster genre and that his Godfather saga left a permanent mark on the American psyche. Jack Kroll summed up the first two films' success saying, "Godfather I and its sequel were that rarity, a tremendous critical and box-office success that earned its studio, Paramount, a total of $800 million, plus nine Oscars and a permanent place in American culture." Many reviewers complain that Coppola does not live up to his stated message in his films, especially in Apocalypse Now, which some reviewers said left Coppola's view of America's involvement in Vietnam unclear. Leonard Quart and Albert Auster asserted, "Coppola's strength as a director is not psychological revelation or personal intimacy. It's the pictorial and metaphoric, the strong narrative and the ambitious conception which distinguish his work." Some reviewers have concluded that Coppola strives too hard for box-office success and feel it compromises his artistic vision, but Stephen Farber takes a different view. He stated, "… Coppola is the rare movie tycoon who is also a serious artist, and his best work compares with the best being done anywhere in the world."
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Dementia 13 [director] (screenplay) 1963
Is Paris Burning? [with Gore Vidal, Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, and Claude Brulé] (screenplay) 1966
You're a Big Boy Now [adapted from the novel by David Benedictus; also director] (screenplay) 1966
Finian's Rainbow [director] (screenplay) 1968
The Rain People [also director] (screenplay) 1969
Patton [with Edmund H. North] (screenplay) 1970
The Godfather [with Mario Puzo; also director] (screenplay) 1972
The Conversation [also director] (screenplay) 1974
The Godfather, Part II [with Puzo; also director] (screenplay) 1974
The Great Gatsby [adapted from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald] (screenplay) 1974
Apocalypse Now [with John Milius; also director] (screenplay) 1979
One from the Heart [with Armyan Bernstein; also director] (screenplay) 1982
The Outsiders [director] (film) 1983
Rumble Fish [with S. E. Hinton; also director] (screenplay) 1983
The Cotton Club [with William Kennedy; based on a story by Coppola, Kennedy, and Puzo; also director] (screenplay) 1984
Peggy Sue Got Married [director] (film) 1986
Gardens of Stone [director] (film) 1987
Tucker: The Man and His Dream [director] (film) 1988
New York Stories [co-director with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese] (film) 1989
The Godfather, Part III [with Puzo; also director] (film) 1990
Bram Stoker's Dracula [director] (film) 1992
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SOURCE: "Motifs of Image and Sound in The Godfather," in Journal of Popular Film, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 115-35.
[In the following essay; Vogelsang analyzes the importance of visual and aural clues in foreshadowing the transformation of Michael Corleone's values in The Godfather.]
Out of the darkness, the blacks and whites of Sicilian gangster society (the black screen, the black and white credits, the fade-up from black to the undertaker), we have a three-hour glimpse of the Corleone family, fictional creations, a vision of Italian underworld life in America.
The first line of The Godfather, "I believe in America," is spoken by a man for whom the American system of justice did not work. The story he tells Don Corleone, and the visual and aural components of the opening scene, incorporates most of the film's major themes. This scene foreshadows and details in miniature the conversion of the godfather's son, Michael Corleone, from a believer in America (war hero, college boy) to his final position as the Don and godfather, leader of the most powerful gangland family in America.
Even the film's beginning blackness and its closing blackness, interrupted by those vivid years of soft color—decisive years for Michael—are thematic ingredients and capable of multiple interpretation. Put one way, Michael changes his American-good vs. Corleone-evil perspective of the family business and colors it with emotional meaning and personal importance so that he's capable of seeing the reasons behind the family's actions and no longer sees only a black and white picture of the world. By the end of the film, the return to black and white coincides with Michael's new Corleone-good vs. American-evil point of view—a complete reversal of values which results in a similar visual effect.
Put another way, the original blackness yields to illumination—the film itself—of the Corleone lifestyle. When the conflicts are resolved, the darkness returns. The final image is of a door closing on Kay's (and the viewer's) face. There are, of course, other ways of interpreting the cycle of the monochrome titles, color movie, and return to monochrome. My purpose here is not to detail all the possibilities, but rather to show a consistent and remarkable directorial intelligence guiding the progress of the film—evidence that The Godfather is a significant artistic achievement and not the mere "entertainment" it has been labelled so far.
As conceived and written by the screenwriter, Mario Puzo, what happens to the godfather affects not only him and his immediate family, but the members, employees, and loyal supporters of all the branches of the Corleone empire. The godfather's life also affects the Corleone enemies, and even the careers of those senators, congressmen, police officers, informers, and newspapermen on the Corleone payroll.
Consequently, the circumstances surrounding significant events in the godfather's experience permeate with special meaning the lives of all those connected to him. These circumstances—objects, motives, and attitudes—provide the impetus and are the source for the image and sound motifs which dominate and guide the film. They are for Francis Ford Coppola, the film's director, the real substance and structure of the film, the form and the content of the art object he shapes.
The visual and aural motifs are weaved by Coppola into the structure of the film, either as recurring reminders or as foreshadowing devices and connecting bridges from scene to scene. The motifs combine to create a rich and moving experience for the viewer. Like all aesthetic objects, The Godfather is an experience rather than an idea. It succeeds or fails on an experiential level, just as the fortunes of the Corleones depend largely on the experiences of the godfather.
The central action of the film is foreshadowed in the first scene. The undertaker relates the story of his daughter's attempted rape by some non-Italians after she flaunted tradition by going to the movies unchaperoned with an American boy. She stayed out, drank whiskey, and eventually had her nose and jaw broken in a struggle with the Americans she so innocently trusted. When the camera pulls back from the storyteller's face, we see in the foreground the godfather's crooked jaw. Next we hear his voice and immediately encounter him as a prosperous, gruff, slightly beaten-up patriarch. At this point we don't know these images are foreshadowings but we perceive all of them—broken jaw, beatings, wealth, black and white merging to soft colors—as realistic recreations. It is only gradually as the film progresses that we are struck by the recurring images. In particular, we see in the hospital scene, a turning point for Michael and the film, that Michael's nose and jaw are broken by an American police captain. This event contributes significantly to Michael's dedication toward the aims and methods of his gangster family. The disfiguring of his face also creates an obvious parallel to his father's face. The undertaker's opening story comments on the godfather's appearance and foreshadows the breaking of Michael's jaw later in the film.
In addition, the undertaker's daughter meets her fate in a car. Automobiles are the literal and figurative vehicle for much of the Corleone activity and become a major theme in the film. At first cars are generically representative of American culture and they work against the Italians. As events can culture and they work against the Italians. As events unfold and circumstances change, the car becomes a vital and indispensable gangland tool.
The godfather offers wine to the undertaker during this scene to compensate for the detrimental American influence suffered by the undertaker. The theme of liquids, especially wine vs. water, Italian vs. American, is also a part of the thematic structure of the film.
These themes and others will be discussed separately and traced from scene to scene throughout the film in the following pages.
Coppola's attention to vital detail and his continuing insistence on these details may appear to the casual viewer as random recreations of realism. But these are not just "atmosphere" or details; these are events and objects which take on emotional, social, political, and philosophical importance as the godfather, the old Don and the new Don, encounter them and interact with them.
Oranges and Fish
Oranges, either the fruit or the color, appear in shots involving traitors to the Corleone family, or in scenes depicting misfortune or death in the family. Oranges, an essential factor preceding Don Corleone's wounding and his later death, color irrevocably certain scenes indicating character tendencies and truths in an exclusively visual way. The pivotal orange scene, and the logical motivation for the choice of orange, is the attempted assassination of the godfather.
The first appearance of the orange motif comes in the wedding feast of Connie and Carlo at the beginning of the movie. The main characters are introduced to the viewer much like musical statements are introduced in a symphonic overture. We see or hear the characters we will be learning more about as the symphony unfolds and the themes mix together to create major movements or sequences. Tessio, who betrays Michael Corleone years later at the very end of the film, is introduced to us as he tosses and toys with a large orange.
Proceeding chronologically: when Tom Hagen flies to Hollywood to convince producer Jack Woltz that the Don's favorite godson, Johnny Fontane, should star in Woltz' next picture, oranges are part of the centerpiece on the dinner table. Woltz has worked against the family by deliberately barring Johnny from appearing in his movie. The scene ends with the death of Woltz' valuable racehorse.
When Don Corleone stops in Chinatown to buy fruit, the first one he picks out is an orange. The regular driver and bodyguard, Paulie, didn't show up for work that day and the not-so-bright and ineffectual son, Fredo Corleone, fails to guard Don Corleone against the gunmen who shoot five bullets into him, wounding the godfather gravely. As he falls, a bucket of oranges overturns and spills out over the street. Fredo can only fumble his own gun, drop it, and weep uncontrollably over his father's body. Shortly afterward when the godfather is recovering at home, we discover that Fredo is being sent to Las Vegas to learn the casino business—banishment for his mistakes. Later, in Las Vegas, Fredo (now Freddy) takes sides against the family in an argument Michael is having with casino boss Moe Green. Freddy's actions are more than stupid, they are considered traitorous by Michael, the rising Don. This betrayal of the family is visually foreshadowed earlier in the film by Fredo placing himself quite obviously next to a huge basket of oranges in the godfather's recovery room at home.
In the shot where the godfather realizes he is about to be gunned-down, we see behind him an orange-colored poster advertising a championship boxing match. A few scenes later Michael Corleone waits for the narcotics dealer Sallozzo and his bodyguard Police Captain McClusky in front of famous fighter Jack Dempsey's Restaurant in Manhattan. By the end of the scene, Michael murders them.
When Connie calls her brother Sonny, the interim Don, for help after her husband Carlo beat her up, Sonny goes after Carlo and finds him on the street, acting like a neighborhood boss and dressed entirely in an orange suit. Later, Michael reveals Carlo as a pernicious traitor to the family, the one who betrayed Sonny to Barzini's people and who set-up Sonny to be assassinated.
At the meeting of the five families called by the aging Don to make a truce, we learn who the real traitor is by the placement of oranges in bowls in front of each Corleone enemy, before the Don later reveals it to Tom Hagen. Not only does Phillip Tattaglia have oranges in the frame with him, but the powerful man influencing Tattaglia, Barzini, is also photographed with a conspicuous orange in the foreground. These men will later be disposed of in a multiple, nearly choreographed assassination ordered by Michael.
The death of Don Corleone is visually foreshadowed by his attention to some (orange) goldfish in an aquarium as we fade up on the scene in which Michael is establishing himself as the new Don and talks about the impending move to Nevada.
We have already learned through Luca Brasi's murder that fishes convey the message of death in Sicilian tradition. In a previous scene, Luca enters the Tattaglia territory—a cocktail lounge—on a mission for the Corleone family. We see him in the background talking with Bruno Tattaglia. In the foreground are two large bronze (gold) fish on a glass partition, visual foreshadowings of Luca's and eventually the Don's death. Sonny later receives Luca's bullet-proof vest wrapped around fish, explained in the film as a Sicilian message signifying Luca's death.
And finally, the last traitor to the progress and success of the Corleone family is the old Don himself. We see him with Michael and Kay's little boy sitting in the garden. Years have passed since we first met the Don and he is now an old, useless man dressed in baggy pants, a wrinkled shirt and a cap to shade the sun. He is mopping his brow and teaching his grandson (unsuccessfully) how to use an outsized, antique, pesticide flit-gun. He is also cutting up an orange. He cuts a piece of the orange and puts it in his mouth to scare the boy. The boy cries, horrified by his grandfather's trick. The old Don gets up with the orange still in his mouth and pretends to be a monster. His grandson chases him through the tomato patch trying to squirt him with the flit gun (a clear liquid spills out). The godfather suffers a heart attack and dies. The passing of the old Corleone guard is completed in this scene. The child, the future Don, is betrayed by the old man with the orange-monster trick. The old man has become a useless monster to the family. He no longer makes the decisions or conducts family business. He is in Michael's way because there can be only one Don to a family and the presence of the old man brings up a question of Michael's authority.
Thunder and Screech
Most of the significant violent acts in the film are prefaced with sounds like thunder, loud echoes, and noises like screams. This aural motif can be traced throughout the film and is a pattern that once again has a specifically "realistic" origin in the dramatic moments when Michael murders the men who plotted to kill his father, discussed in further detail below.
The first screeches we encounter are the adoring cries of Johnny Fontane's fans at Connie Corleone's wedding. The godfather hears the screams, and instinctively asks in a concerned way, what is going on outside. While Johnny sings a lovesong, Michael reveals that the Corleone family has committed violence on Johnny's behalf in the past. We soon learn they will again in the future. When the plane that Tom Hagen takes to Hollywood arrives to make Johnny's producer an offer he can't refuse, we hear the wheels screech to a stop on the runway. Brief thunder can be heard outside producer Woltz' estate as the camera dollies in to Woltz' bedroom and Woltz and viewers discover the decapitated head of Khartoum, the producer's prize thoroughbred. Woltz responds with a series of terrified screams. There is a direct cut to a close-up of the godfather's head as he listens intently to Tom, now back in New York.
There are several instances of thunder-and-screech-like noises in the crucial hospital scene when Michael visits his wounded father. It is in this scene, at the Don's bedside, that Michael decides to adopt the family business as his business. The sound structure intensifies the plot structure and parallels it. The viewer's experience of fear and suspense in this scene is largely due to the sound track which reveals more than the story does about Michael's fate.
Michael's experience visiting his father in the hospital is the turning point or critical action in the movie in many ways. As he enters the empty hospital there is a recurring, echoing noise which is eventually distinguished as a record playing over and over the word "tonight." The second instance comes with the loud footsteps of Enzo, the baker's helper—in squeaky shoes—who Michael at first believes to be an assassin come to kill his father. Near the close of the scene when corrupt Captain McCluskey and the police arrive, there is the rumble of thunder and the squeal of patrol car brakes.
Some other instances of this motif in the hospital scene are the echoing front door as it bangs shut, the creak of the bed being moved, and the squeal of tires on a passing enemy car.
Before tracing the thunderbolt motif any further, it is interesting to discuss the hospital scene in terms of its significance to Michael's career in gangster life.
Michael still remains uncommitted to the family business at this point in the film. In the opening wedding scene when he is dressed in a brown Army uniform we hear him explain to his American girlfriend, "That's my family, Kay, not me." Gradually Michael becomes more and more involved with the family so that by the end of the film when he is the new Don he dresses in black and gray, rides in a black, chauffeur-driven limousine, and wears a black fedora. These are the monochromes we began with and the ones to which Michael must return before striking a median. From the beginning of the movie through the hospital scene he still dresses like an ordinary American—Army uniform, brown corduroy jacket, brown overcoat, no hat—and he rides in cabs. Midway in the film when he is in Sicily and experiencing an enforced return to his heritage, he dresses all in gray—a softer, more chromatic version of black.
The selection of Enzo as the other visitor to the Don's hospital room is a significant one. Enzo, we remember from the first scene of The Godfather, is the Italian national, here only on a visa "for the war effort." He is helping in a bakery and wants to avoid being deported back to Italy, preferring to stay in the United States and marry the baker's daughter. The baker comes to Don Corleone to arrange for Enzo's remaining in the U.S. Enzo has one foot in Italy and one foot in America. He can barely speak English, but he will marry the baker's daughter. When Michael murders Sallozzo and McClusky, he must leave the U.S. and go to Sicily. He misses home very much but finally tries to opt wholly for his Italian heritage. He visits the town of his name—Corleone—and marries a Sicilian girl.
In the hospital, there is a shot of Michael watching for the supposed killers in which we see only half his face, the other half hidden behind a wall. He is half-decided to become a true Corleone and is on the look-out for someone who turns out to be the official half-Italian, half-American character. Enzo is the parallel to what Michael will shortly be in Sicily. This double theme is supported in the scene by the two intravenous bottles flowing into the old Don—one white (realistic glucose, metaphoric water), the other dark (realistic blood, metaphoric wine)—by Michael's repetition of "I'm with you now," and by Enzo and him teamed as bodyguards outside the hospital in a pretense that works.
Michael learns to turn another pretense to his advantage in this scene. He realizes, as he lights a cigarette for the shaking Enzo, that he has a steady hand in moments of intense crisis. His physical appearance does not convey his psychological state. Since he discovered this attribute through the means of lighting a cigarette, he continues to use this device for the rest of the film whenever he is deceitful on behalf of the family—when he bluffs Moe Green and when he lies to his sister as she accuses him of murdering her husband. At the very last of the movie, when Michael tells the final critical lie to his wife about not killing Carlo, he is able to put out the two cigarettes he has lit in preparation for the lie. He no longer needs the crutch of even this small action to aid him in the deceit needed in carrying out the family business.
The film ends with Clemenza, loyal capo in the Corleone empire and embodiment of the unconscious solutions to the contradictions between Sicilian culture and American culture (Michael's foil), kissing Michael's hand in respect—acknowledging and joining the new Don.
Returning to the motif of thunder and screech, we come to Michael's first act of murder, the assassination of Sallozzo and McClusky in Louis' Italian-American Restaurant. (A logical setting for Michael's dual loyalties.) When he goes into the men's room to locate the gun that has been placed there for him, and he finds it, we hear the rumbling, thunderous noise of the subway below. He stops, recovers from emotion, and the subway (underworld) thunder dissolves into the screech of subway brakes. Michael walks out to the dinner table and does not immediately follow his instructions to shoot them. He sits down. The subway noises repeat. The sound imagery is committed to the inevitable structure of the film. Because Michael has committed himself to the family, he must go through with the plan. He stands up and shoots them both as Clemenza instructed—twice in the head. The subway sounds from this scene, then, are the integral, realistic source for the use of the thunder and screech motif in The Godfather. The motifs in the film are not random or contrived. They flow naturally out of and into the structure of the work.
In Sicily the appearance of Apollonia hits Michael "like a thunderbolt." Apollonia, the name suggesting a potential balance between the two cultures warring in Michael, will never be able to make the adjustment to America. We see that she takes little interest in learning English and seems unable to extricate herself from her Sicilian heritage. The image-motif appropriate for conveying and intensifying these facts in the viewer's experience of Apollonia follows quickly: she is driving their car, recurring symbol of American culture throughout the film when the bomb planned for Michael explodes, killing her instantly. This scene comes just after Michael learns about Sonny's death and incorporates the thunder, screech and car motifs successfully in a moving and revealing segment of the film.
She was the wrong wife for Michael, just as Sonny was the wrong Don for the family.
The next scream is Connie Corleone's as she is beaten by Carlo. She crashes all of her dishes to the floor in a violent scene with her husband. He beats her and her scream turns into the cry of the baby in her mother's arms as she calls home for help. Sonny talks to her and predictably flies out of the house in a rage of revenge and drives to his death at the tollgate.
The gunning down of Santino seems like a tribute to another very American movie, Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the character of Sonny may have been modeled by James Caan partially on Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow. Both characters took things "too personally" for successful completion of their careers in crime. Each could not concern himself only with "business." Emotionalism and an incomplete understanding of what America is all about (when combined with legend or foreign cultures) cannot sustain an outlaw very long. He will be murdered by those who delete sentiment from their business conduct. The true myth of the 20th-century anti-hero is not embodied in the character of Sonny, but in the more rational Michael. Michael understands how to separate feelings from the essential logic of family business and winds up cold-blooded and unflinching, very much like another famous 20th-century movie hero involved in a similar myth, Humphrey Bogart. In the café scene in Sicily, Al Pacino does a brief Bogart imitation with the inflection in his line, "I'm an American, hiding in Sicily."
The final reference to the thunder and screech murder motif comes at the meeting of the five families called by the old Don to end the gangland war. Vito Corleone promises a truce—no more killing—so long as his son Michael can return home to America unharmed and free from any "accidents," such as the bullet of a police officer, a faked jail-cell suicide, or covering all other possible deaths—"if he should be struck by a bolt of lightning." This is an interesting verbal statement of what has been up to now (except for the meeting with Apollonia) a strictly aural motif.
In the opening wedding scene, the cars parked outside the Corleone residence are scrutinized and the license plate numbers recorded by the FBI (federal police). Sonny and several family members and henchmen rush out to chase the FBI away. They don't succeed. The American automobiles adopted by the Sicilian families work against the family at the beginning of the story. In the undertaker's narrative, his daughter was attacked in a car, reinforcing the initial position of automobiles as hostile American devices. By the end of the film, however, with Michael's take-over, the Corleone family has learned how to use the American policeman and the American automobile to family advantage. In the final baptism/murder scene, one of the Corleone killers dresses like a New York City policeman and motions Barzini's chauffeur to move his illegally parked car. The chauffeur refuses and the fake cop writes out a ticket for the car, taking down its license number. The car doesn't move and awaits Barzini's return. As Barzini approaches, the fake officer pulls out his gun and shoots Barzini. Instantly, a Corleone car pulls up in the foreground and picks up the cop, driving off safely. Michael has had his irony as well as his revenge in this scene.
Cars are a very American symbol in The Godfather. It takes the course of the film for cars to become totally integrated with the Corleone purpose. The history and meaning of the automobile in the film parallels the change and integration of Michael as head of the family. Cars are the literal and figurative vehicle for much gangster activity in the film. When Sallozzo kidnaps Tom Hagen he has only to say, "Get in the car, Tom."
The godfather's chauffeur/bodyguard doesn't show up for work the day the godfather is shot. Don Corleone is wounded when he gets out of the car to buy fruit. His inept son Fredo rests unawares on the running board of the auto moments before his father is wounded. Don Corleone falls onto and bleeds onto the car before rolling off and dropping to the street.
When Michael learns about his father's shooting he is walking down the street with his American girlfriend, Kay, who spots the head line in a newspaper and points out the bad news to Michael. As he crosses the street to phone home, one black car intersects his path.
Paulie, the traitorous bodyguard who failed to show up the morning Don Corleone was shot is himself killed in a car while at the wheel. This is an interesting scene on several counts. Paulie picks up Clemenza at his house out in Queens. Clemenza, as will be discussed later, is the character who plays out in microcosm the concerns of the cosmos of the film. He is the successful embodiment of Sicilian and American culture. He recognizes no contradictions in his life and no hypocrisy. He knows how to cook Italian food, knows how to use American weapons, teaches Michael how to shoot and kill, can at once see the usefulness and danger of cars, and is able to say with no irony, "Leave the gun, take the canolis."
As Paulie pulls out of the driveway on their way to the city, Clemenza admonishes him to "watch out for the kids" as he backs up. Meanwhile, he has arranged for Paulie's death to take place later that afternoon. On their return from the city, Clemenza asks Paulie to "Pullover, I gotta take a leak." As Clemenza steps out of the car and walks over to the weeds to relieve himself (a purifying water runs throughout the film) Paulie is shot in the back of the head and slumps over the wheel. The car is abandoned. Clemenza has effectively used it. He has toured the west side for good hiding places, picked up dessert, and disposed of a traitor all in the vehicle.
When Michael wants to go to the city to see Kay and to visit his father in the hospital, Sonny insists that body-guards drive him. Michael says no, he'll take a cab, but Sonny prevails. Michael sits in the backseat of a black Corleone car as the bodyguards sit in front and drive. The camera pulls back and lets the car drive ahead. It travels down a ramp and into a dark tunnel, just as Michael is travelling deeper into involvement with his family.
At the confrontation outside the hospital, the turning point in Michael's career, police cars arrive from the right side of the screen, Corleone cars from the opposite side. At this point, cars are used by both sides equally well.
In Sicily, Michael refuses to ride with his benefactor, Don Tommasino, preferring to walk to the town of Corleone. The contact with America is through Don Tommasino, a man who needs an auto, a wheelchair, or at least a cane to get around in Sicily (American crutches). Don Tommasino's presence is foreshadowed in the scene where Michael plots the murders that result in his trip to Sicily. In that scene, set in the Corleone house, Sonny enters the frame on the right and inexplicably fondles a walking cane. Like so many significant details in The Godfather, this seemingly random action may go unnoticed as a superficial piece of business. Actually it is a carefully planned preview of something to come, another interconnection.
Michael eschews Americanisms as much as he can in his family and heritage. As he and his two bodyguards walk along the road, jeeploads of American soldiers pass them by. Michael ignores them while his Sicilian translator and bodyguard (and later traitor) tries to hail a ride.
When Michael goes to call on the Vitelli family in an effort to court the Sicilian girl who struck him "like a thunderbolt," he drives there in his car. Next to a true Sicilian, Michael is an American.
Simultaneous with this scene in Italy, back in America Kay arrives at the Corleone residence in a cab. She is very much an outsider in her bright red, square-shouldered outfit and yellow taxi. Kay asks Tom to deliver a letter to Michael and while she is there she asks about a badly damaged car in the driveway. Tom claims it was just an accident in which nobody got hurt. But later in the film brother-in-law Carlo is strangled in a car in the Corleone driveway and in his struggle smashes the windshield very much like this car's windshield is smashed, many scenes preceding.
Santino stops his car at the causeway tollgate and pays for his sentimental rages and for speaking out against the family in front of an outsider by being killed in a flurry of machine gun fire. He dies as he gets out of the car and tumbles to the ground. He would not have been a successful Don.
Back in Sicily, Michael is teaching Apollonia to drive. She is not learning driving or English very well. She cannot be Americanized. Don Tommasino arrives in his car with bad news from America—Sonny is dead. In the next few shots, Apollonia is blown-up in Michael's car by a bomb we suppose is meant for him. She is the wrong wife for the future Don, not adjustable to a working combination of two cultures.
There is an immediate dissolve from Apollonia's burning cartomb to the cars parked outside the meeting of the five families. Family business goes on and the American automobile becomes an integral, significant tool in that business.
The character of Clemenza, loyal capo of the Corleone family, as stated earlier, successfully incorporates most of the major contradictory themes of the film. Clemenza, a character without irony, is perhaps not smart enough to see the contradictions he epitomizes. For Michael Corleone, the transcendence of the conflicts between his Italian and his American sides is a long and difficult struggle of the personality. For Clemenza, it comes naturally.
Fat Clemenza is introduced in the overture-like wedding sequence as he dances gaily with Mrs. Corleone and the other guests and then turns abruptly aside to ask for wine. "Paulie, bring more wine. Paulie, more wine," he says as he sweats profusely. As Paulie brings the wine, Clemenza reminds him to do his job—circulate, keep watching for trouble. A family wedding and the possibility of attack are on Clemenza's mind at the same time.
Clemenza is the man Don Corleone recommends to punish the attempted rapists of the undertaker's daughter. Vito Corleone says, "We need someone who won't get carried away." Clemenza's only excesses are his pounds of fat. He has no extra-marital sexual entanglements (like Michael, unlike Sonny). He knows that the family is all-important. He doesn't lose his head.
When Sonny is home with his wife and infant child awaiting news of his seriously wounded father, a loud noise is heard—gunshot? slam of a door? clap of thunder?—the baby screeches and Clemenza appears at the door. He tells Sonny a fact: the word is out on the street that the Don is already dead. Sonny reacts as foolishly as the ancients who killed the messenger bearing bad news. Clemenza calms him and asks how he can help.
Later, at the Corleone house, Clemenza is making Italian dinner for the men while Michael talks to Kay on the telephone. When Michael gets off the phone after not being able to tell Kay he loves her (there were many people around and Clemenza was listening), Michael goes immediately to the sink and pours himself a glass of water. He drinks the water to purify himself from the call and from the ensuing lesson from Clemenza in Italian cooking—excesses on both ends of the scale for Michael. Significantly, Clemenza's secret to the sauce is the addition of wine. Italian wine purifies Clemenza of the reason he is doing all the cooking. The Corleone family, under Sonny's leadership, has begun hitting their enemies and the men of the family are about to go into hiding.
Clemenza tells Sonny at the end of this scene, "Oh Paulie, you won't see him no more." A few scenes earlier we saw Clemenza executing the order to kill Paulie. While Paulie is shot in the head, Clemenza is out of the car purifying himself by "taking a leak." Again, his instructions to the assassin show he knows all the things important to being a successful Mafia man in America, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli."
Besides the cooking lesson, Clemenza is the one who instructs Michael how to murder. A gunshot begins the target practice scene in Clemenza's basement. Behind them are two photos on the wall. One is the Pope and the other is a 1940's pinup girl. Michael makes light of Clemenza's repeated instructions to drop the gun after the killing and walk out of the restaurant. For a brief instant, Clemenza believes that Michael will sit down and finish his dinner at a table with Michael will sit down and finish his dinner at a table with two corpses, but then he recovers and says, "Don't fool around, kid." Clemenza sees no humor in the act or in the possibility of alternate action. There is only one way to commit a successful murder. As he finishes the shooting lesson Clemenza remarks to Michael how proud the whole family was of his being a war hero. He then makes the comment, as he holds the gun in his hand, "They should have stopped Hitler at Munich. They never should've let him get so far." Again, there is no contradiction for Clemenza between condemning a mass murderer in another country and preparing to murder for the family in the U.S.
In the spectacular baptism scene Clemenza is seen racing up several flights of stairs in order to beat an elevator and be there waiting when the doors open. As he runs up the stairs, he sweats an enormous amount and constantly wipes his brow with a handkerchief. As he reaches the landing, he presses the button for the elevator to stop, the doors open and he shotguns the unsuspecting rival gangsters to death. This act required a great deal of personal purification and the director has once again provided a literal, realistic motivation for the metaphorically necessary water at this point. There is also some comfort in the knowledge that we know this is one of the last violent acts Clemenza will perform for the Corleone family. He has asked to form a family of his own.
The use of a handkerchief to wipe the excess water away is a bit of business used throughout the movie by most of the characters—Sonny (after sex with the girl at the wedding). Luca Brasi (before he attempts to deceive the Tattaglias), Michael (before he murders Sallozzo and McClusky) and by Don Corleone (in the last scene, to compensate for the orange trick). Water compensates for the overly Sicilian act and wine for the excessively American act. The water and the wine are joined significantly in the crucial hospital sequence—the two colors of liquid going into the Don intravenously—and in the final baptismal sequence where both water and blood are made holy.
The culmination of the major themes of the film comes with the baptism of Connie Corleone's baby and the reciting of the baptismal vows by the child's godfather, Michael Corleone, the new Don. While Michael has the legitimate alibi of attending his godson's baptism, the murders he has masterminded—of all the heads of the other gangster families—takes place. Church music plays throughout the long sequence, sanctifying both baptism and murder.
As Michael repeats the vows for the child, he is undergoing his own spiritual union into the community not of Christ, but of the underworld. Intercut with his words, said once by the priest and repeated by Michael, are the ingeniously choreographed killings of all the Corleone enemies.
Each enemy of the Corleone family is killed in a way we are prepared for. Moe Green is shot while he gets a massage. When Michael visited Las Vegas to buy out Moe Green's casino, Freddy denies any disagreement between him and Moe by going over to Moe in front of Michael and squeezing Moe several times on the shoulders in a massage-like gesture.
Philip Tattaglia, called a pimp by Don Corleone and by Sonny, is killed in bed with a girl young enough to be his daughter.
The other, less significant heads of families are killed by Clemenza in the rising elevator. They will no longer rise at the expense of the Corleone family.
Barzini, the master enemy, the man really behind Sallozzo and his bodyguard Police Captain McClusky, is killed on the courthouse steps by a man impersonating a police officer. McClusky was not a true police officer in the traditional sense because, as the Corleone family made sure to reveal in the newspapers, he was all mixed up in the rackets. That kind of policeman is a fake and deserves to be killed. And Barzini gets his justice on the courthouse steps from another sort of fake policeman, a Corleone killer dressed like a cop.
The child is baptized with holy water as Michael is baptized by the blood of his victims. The circle is complete, his American and Italian, water and wine elements are integrated into the new godfather.
All that remains are a few loose ends. He must dispose of the traitor Carlo who set-up Sonny to be murdered. In a clever postponing of Carlo's inevitable death, Michael forces him to confess that Barzini was the man who approached him. Carlo steps into the car to be driven to the airport and Clemenza strangles him from the backseat. Almost all the outstanding debts are paid.
But Tessio, the other formerly loyal Corleone capo, has tried to set Michael up to be assassinated. Tessio must be dealt with. Instead of being true to the Corleone family, Tessio has sold out to Barzini in what Michael describes as a smart move. But Tessio loses his gamble, realizes the Corleones know, and tells Tom Hagen that Michael shouldn't take it personally. It was only a betrayal for business reasons. Tessio is taken away in a car and killed.
Individual deceits, the first of a lifetime to come, must now be committed by Michael. First he must deny to his sister that he had Carlo killed because it was a necessary move to continue the family business. Carlo would not have been trustworthy since he had betrayed Sonny for personal reasons. Michael lies to his sister and has a doctor sent for to calm her. She will recover.
Now to Kay, Michael tries lighting two cigarettes in an attempt to use his old ploy of outward calmness when he is about to use deceit for the good of the family. Kay may know him too well for this to succeed with her. He must put out the last vestige of a crutch for his behavior. He puts out the cigarette, puts down the lighter and faces her squarely. In another of the film's chillingly beautiful moments, he denies the killing to her. It is a triumphal deceit. She leaves to fix them a drink. Once outside the room, she looks back. The new loyal family members and Clemenza surround Michael. Clemenza kisses the new Don's hand in respect. We hear the title spoken, "Don Corleone." One of the men closes the door, shutting Kay out. The last shot is of her face, the knowledge of her husband's real business is in her face, and then the door closes.
Once more we return to the blackness of the opening titles. The closing credits are in black and white. It's a return to mystery in the underworld and for Michael a full acceptance of the family vs. the society in good and evil terms. The film's director has brought us around magnificently to the resolution of conflicting motifs into a final unity even of colors. The glimpse is over.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
SOURCE: "The Godfather, Part II: One Godfather Too Many," in New York Times, December 22, 1974, p. D19.
[In the following review, Canby complains that "Much of the time it's next to impossible to figure out who's doing what to whom [in The Godfather, Part II], not, I suspect, because its mode is ambiguity, but because it's been cut and edited in what looks to have been desperation…."]
If Francis Ford Coppola were a less intelligent and less talented filmmaker, one might indulge the failed aspirations of The Godfather, Part II—if not the thick fog of boredom that settles in before the film is even one hour old. Clumsy directors may not be entitled but because their gaffs are not exactly unexpected, they are more easily accommodated. We snicker and laugh at multi-million-dollar dreadfuls like The Valachi Papers and Crazy Joe. Our good spirits remain intact since there's no particular surprise or sorrow. The earnest confusions of The Godfather, Part II are something else again. They look like the solemn attempts to rip-off one of the best, most successful commercial American movies ever made, Coppola's original screen adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather.
Rip-off is an unkind word and, in this case, not really accurate since it implies a willingness to take the easy way, to exploit in the most obvious, cheapest manner an earlier success. Now I hardly think that Coppola, Puzo (who collaborated with him on the new screenplay) and Paramount Pictures did not hope to make a bundle on Part II, but it's apparent in the physical scope (New York, Las Vegas, Sicily, the Caribbean), expense and shape of the new film that this was meant to be something more than a sequel, something more than a revisit to a planet of murderous, vengeful apes.
Well it is and it isn't.
It's actually two films cross-cut into each other. The first is the story of young Vito Corleone (who grew up to be the Mafia don played by Marlon Brando in The Godfather), from his early days in Sicily when his father was murdered by the Black Hand to his first rather nobly motivated criminal triumphs in New York's Little Italy in 1917. The second is the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who inherited the Corleone Family control from old Vito at the end of The Godfather and here goes on to win a Las Vegas gambling empire, with time out for an aborted attempt to take over the rackets in Cuba just before the Castro revolution.
Part II is as stuffed with material as a Christmas goose. It's a mass (sometimes mess) of plots, subplots, characters, alliances, betrayals, ambushes, renunciations, kisses of death, you name it. Much of the time it's next to impossible to figure out who's doing what to whom, not, I suspect, because its mode is ambiguity, but because it's been cut and edited in what looks to have been desperation, a quality that Part II shares with another Coppola film, The Conversation.
There are dozens of narratives going on more or less simultaneously in Part II, a couple of which give every sign of being material enough for an interesting, self-sustaining individual film if lifted out of this fractured epic. One has to do with the first forays into crime by young Vito, played with a fascinating, reserved passion by Robert De Niro until the shadow of Brando's earlier performance falls over it and turns it into what amounts to an impersonation.
Another promising sequence has to do with Michael's uneasy alliance with a Jewish mob king, Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg, the head of the Actors Studio, in what becomes the dominant performance of the picture), and the efforts of the pair to seize control of Havana with Battista's cooperation.
"We're bigger than U.S. Steel," Hyman says genially to Michael as they sit sunning themselves on the terrace of a Havana (actually Santo Domingo) hotel. The most chilling moment of the film has nothing to do with mob vengeance, with family betrayals or with virtue corrupted. It is a street scene in Havana when Michael watches impassively as Battista's police round up some revolutionaries, one of whom blows himself up with a hand grenade. You suddenly realize not only how isolated from the real world Michael has become, but also how isolated are the concerns of the rest of the film.
One of the most remarkable qualities of the original The Godfather was the manner in which it suggested all sorts of sad truths about American life, business, manners, goals, entirely within a headlong narrative in which character was defined almost entirely in terms of action. The relentless forward motion of the film was as much the content of the film as the gang wars it seemed to be about. The ending was inevitable and tragic.
The cross-cutting in the new film gives it a contemplative air, but the truths it contemplates about fate, family and feuds seem hardly worth all the fuss and time (three hours and 20 minutes).
I've been told that one of Coppola's intentions in Part II was to de-romanticize The Godfather, which some critics had accused (wrongly, I think) of glorifying crime. At the end of The Godfather, Michael Corleone, the once sensitive Ivy League student who has become the new don, is left lonely in his new authority. At the end of Part II he is still lonely, though we are asked to believe that he is now a more ruthless, more wracked man who suspects enemies everywhere around him and as easily orders the execution of a brother as he cooperated in the execution of a brother-in-law in the first film. The difference between Michael in the first film and Part II is not one of real substance but of degree.
Coppola also seems intent on contrasting the comparatively noble criminality of Michael's father Vito, in his early days in Little Italy, with Michael's use of power for its own sake later on. The idea that old-time criminals were somehow less vicious and venal than today's is, however, as romantic as any notion that turned up in the original film. Part II doesn't illuminate or enrich the original film. It simply brackets it with additional information that may not make too much sense unless you've seen the first one.
It also seems to have been written by writers wearing wooly mittens—the dialogue is that clumsy. You get the idea when Kay, Michael's middle-class, WASP wife, admits that what Michael thought was a miscarriage wasn't. "It was an abortion, Michael," says Kay who, though grieving, has a way with words, "just like our marriage is an abortion."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2619
SOURCE: A review of Godfather, Part II, in Cineaste, Vol. VI, No. 4, 1975, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, Quart and Auster assert that despite operating within the commercial form in The Godfather, Part II, Coppola has created "an epic about immigrants which begins to take hold of the whole saga of Americanization and the spiritual dissolution that resulted from it."]
The Hollywood epic has usually meant Charlton Heston in beard, toga, or armor, spectacular effects and battle sequences, an inflated budget, and an adulteration of history and myth. In fact, Hollywood has rarely even bothered to vulgarize American history and myth, preferring to mine less controversial properties like the Old and New Testaments, the Crusades, and the Greeks and Romans.
There have, of course, been a number of puerile and a few brilliant epic films about the American Experience: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane, to name three of the best. Even in these films, however, with their formal virtuosity, grandeur of conception, and moments of revelation, the historical process is usually romanticized, distorted or personalized—reinforcing our mythology, not illuminating it. Gone with the Wind romanticizes slavery, the plantation and the Southern planter; Birth of a Nation romanticizes the Ku Klux Klan, is patently racist, and promotes the most stereotypical versions of Reconstruction; and Citizen Kane eschews the historical and social for the psychological, aesthetic and expressive. The latest effort in the tradition of epics which seriously try to evoke the American Experience is Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II. Though possibly less artistically complete than the three above films, Godfather II attempts to confront the historical process in a manner the other failed to do.
Godfather II is a sequel to a film whose narrative drive and choreographed violence made it one of the better genre films of recent years. It is colder, more severe, less violent and much more ambitious than the original The Godfather. Coppola still operates within a commercial context, often using epic compositions and local color as a substitute for real explanation and exploration. But there is more here than beautiful long shots and interesting lighting; there are moments when the epic and tragic elements are fused and something is revealed about how the dream in America distorted and destroyed immigrants' lives.
It is true that serious objections can and will be raised to the use of the gangster as an archetype of the immigrant experience—especially by those whose success was achieved outside of criminal avenues. Nevertheless, the linking of Horatio Alger and criminality is as old as the epithet "Robber Baron", and the events of the last decades in Southeast Asia, Chile, Watergate, with their plots and laundered bank accounts smack of nothing less and possibly more than the gangster ethos. The gangster and politician may well be the last frontier of the Horatio Alger myth.
Coppola and his co-writer Mario Puzo seek to do more than expose and demythologize the Mafia. They use the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to dramatize the tragic dilemma that dominates the film. In the traditional epic style (Kane's mysterious "rosebud", Scarlett O'Hara's idyllic Tara), there is a flashback to an idealized moment in Michael's life. He remembers his father's birthday party in 1941 and his decision to break from father and tribe, to go to war and choose his "country over his blood." He has made a commitment to strangers, and left the passionate, amoral, but roughly just world of his father, Don Vito Corleone behind.
In The Godfather we see the Don in his old age, a benevolent and moral murderer, mythologized and personalized without a historical setting in which to place him. In Godfather II Coppola has provided us with the early years of Don Vito, taking us operatic vendettas of Sicily, to the nostalgic archetypal scenes of emigration and settlement. Here the future Don moves casually from the life of a stoical, taciturn worker to a role of criminality and power. This part of the film is shot by Coppola thru soft-focus lens and in light, golden-toned colors. Images of the Statue of Liberty, Castle Gardens, tenements, music halls, pushcarts, processions and festivals are reproduced, sometimes looking like the photos of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines.
The detail is rich, vital and aesthetic and Robert De Niro's young Don Vito emanates quiet authority and intelligence, his gravelly voice making a distinct link with Brando's older Don in The Godfather. And though the whole immigrant epic of confrontation with an alien world and the tensions of acculturation are left untouched, the traditional codes of honor, obligation, familial responsibility that bound the first Don come alive. It is this strong tribal world that the young Michael seeks to escape, and though he ultimately becomes an integral part of the mob, he ironically sways it in directions which subvert its basic traditions.
He opts for corporate respectability through a partnership with Hyman Roth—who represents only betrayal and death. Roth is beautifully played by Lee Strasberg, him a facade of lower middle class homilies and tastes; obsessive talk about health and an avuncular manner barely hide his murderous calculations and imperial plans. Roth's life, unlike Don Vito's, is devoid of family and friendship—his sole commitment is to making profits. His vision is not of a tribal chieftain who wishes to sustain and protect his brood while making war with and profit from strangers, but of an ITT executive who desires a Latin American empire and a president of his own choosing in the White House. It's a vision in which flesh and blood don't matter, and all people are mere commodities to be traded, sold and replaced. This world view is shared by a U.S. Senator, Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin), whose venality and racism are excelled only by his pomposity and hypocrisy. These men make natural partners for Fulgencio Batista, the decadent and corrupt dictator of Cuba whose only ideology is a commitment to a share of the profits of international corporations.
Michael's decision to have the family go "legit in five or six years" is his ultimately futile attempt to bridge the gap between the tribal universe of Don Vito's and the corporate one of Hyman Roth. It is also a way to extend his earlier decision, seemingly undermined by the death of his father, older brother and first wife in The Godfather, to make a life in the wider world. Michael's decision is undermined by the world into which he seeks entry. The old Mafia of Don Vito's Genco Olive Oil Company, with its numbers, juke boxes and prostitutes, is nearing its end, to be replaced by a Mafia which is just one more multi-national corporation whose legitimacy is mere appearance. So the old tribal traditions no longer work, but for Coppola their abandonment has only tragic consequences.
The center of Michael's new legitimate empire is a Xanadu upon the shores of Lake Tahoe. The family lives in a beautiful armed fortress, and there Michael tries to bind up its fragments. But the cheerless dancers, the unctuous speeches, and the strains of "Mr. Wonderful" performed at his son's communion are empty echoes of the earthy Tarantella and the bawdy folk songs that opened the wedding sequence in The Godfather. There ethnic and family feeling are authentic and intense, as Don Vito accepts warm congratulations, provides advice and metes out justice to friends and relations. The Lake Tahoe celebration is a cold spectacular, acculturated and alienated, with Senator Geary's hypocritical eulogy to Michael serving as a metaphor for the event.
The family has also gone through changes. Michael's sister Connie, in a self-destructive rage towards Michael, has begun to drift from man to man, and has committed the most heinous of sins, neglect of her children. Fredo, Michael's weak, hapless older brother, cannot control his wife, and feels only rage towards Michael for his younger brother's having assumed the role that by rights should be his. He breaks the familial code by conspiring with Roth in an attempt to murder Michael. The tribal world enters jarringly in the person of Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), an old line Mafia captain, who in melancholy and anger demands a Tarantella at the communion party and the right from Michael to make war on Roth's New York allies. Pentangeli is crude, feeling, colloquial, loyal; he lives in Don Vito's old house in the Bronx and maintains his roots. He is also a murderer, of course. Coppola doesn't romanticize him, but he makes his presence an implicit judgment on Michael and his way of life.
Coppola continually intercuts the Little Italy of the young Don Vito with the affluent world of Roth and Michael's byzantine plots. Much of the plotting and betraying take place in Cuba at the point of Castro's victory. This provides epic material for Coppola's camera, though he sometimes augments the spectacular with a bit of insight into the decadence and destructiveness of pre-Revolutionary Cuba. He also avoids the taint of reflex anti-communism of movies like Che. But though Coppola does wisely recognize the significance of history, the film primarily remains on a pictorial plane—an epic frame for the actions of the family. It is not the history of immigrants or the Cuban revolution which are prime, it's the family's movement through the two films from simple loyalties and unity to complex relationships and dissolution which are at its heart. For Coppola there is history and there are individuals, but he never quite dramatizes the relationship between them. What he does convey is the rapacity of capitalists without ever getting to the root of capitalism. Thus, he includes scenes where the heads of multi-national corporations, including the Mafioso chieftains, gather to divide up the Cuban spoils, but there is no indication that these capitalists have anything to do with the crisis of Cuban society except to cash in on it. Coppola's and Puzo's historical treatment lacks a certain resonance not aided by repeated references to the metaphor of a declining empire. It's an analysis which might have benefited by more Marx than Gibbon, more historical dialectics and less of a belief in historical inevitability.
Though Coppola may not have a profound sense of history, he is entirely capable of illuminating the breakdown of the traditional codes and values, and its tragic impact on Michael and the Corleone family. The decline of the family is filmed in dark, chiaroscuro interiors, in sterile affluent rooms where people are often blurred or seen as silhouettes against lighted windows. It is joyless and alienating and its darkness contrasts vividly with the epic light that suffuses Little Italy and the world of the young Don Vito. In the same way, Michael's ghostly, affectless and near dead countenance contrasts sharply with the quiet grace and warmth of the young Don Vito. Coppola is truly gifted at eliciting the striking image and metaphor.
Coppola, in a profound understanding of the code's decline, comprehends that it doesn't just disappear—there are aspects of it that continue to live, though in adulterated and distorted ways. In what seems like one last gesture for the old ways, Frankie Pentangeli's testimony before a senate crime committee is stilled by invoking the code of silence (omerta). Frankie also commits suicide, following the old imperial tradition of defeated tribal chiefs. But he is an anachronism, and it is Fredo's betrayal of brother Michael, Kay's abortion and her and Michael's separation which are more characteristic of the new world. Kay is a WASP outsider who belongs to the non-racket past of the Michael of The Godfather. Coppola doesn't do much with Kay except use her to illustrate Michael's double-edged relationship to the tradition. When learning that she's aborted his expected child, Michael literally closes the door on her, as he had done in a different situation at the end of The Godfather. She has transgressed the most sacred and fundamental familial and machismo codes—a clear sign of the family dissolution. It is ironic, though, that Michael's connection to this aspect of the code seems ritualistic rather than deeply felt. He obviously wants a son and believes in the sacredness of the family, but it's an abstract ideal for him; he never demonstrates the feeling for his children which the young and old Don Vito radiate and bask in. In fact, it's Fredo who acts as surrogate father for Michael's unhappy son, Anthony.
The death of Michael's loving but submerged mother severs the last link to the Corleone tradition. And even her haunting but ineffectual affirmation of the code, "you can never lose your family", can only be viewed ironically. The family lies in fragments and even the loyal stepbrother and consigliore, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), is baited by Michael, and seems to want out of the whole operation. Michael's alienation is only accentuated by his senseless vendetta against already weakened enemies like Fredo, Roth and Pentangeli—adhering to the forms of the code while losing its substance. Coppola views the violence with a more critical eye than on previous occasions. It's more detached and impersonal than the stern justice that Don Vito deals to personal enemies like Don Fanucci and Don Ciccio, or even the politically meaningful slaughter of the five families at the end of The Godfather. Still, one sometimes feels that Coppola's demystification of the Mafia doesn't go far enough, that the young Don Vito is viewed in too heroic a mold, and that the virtues of the tribal Mafia of De Niro (young Don Vito) and Brando (old Don Vito) absolve it from judgment, and that for Coppola their sense of roots and familial feeling make their criminality less vicious.
But Michael is another story and—like Welles' Kane, dying alone in his vacant baroque palace or, like Scarlett, setting off alone to Tara—Coppola's last shot is of Michael sitting in somber isolation, tragically contemplating his empire. Why is Michael as alienated as he is? Is the tragedy based on his being forced into his father's world without ever having a choice—as is implied by the final flashback at the end? Is it the breaking from his father's tradition, and its consequences which brings on the tragic mask? Coppola never does say. Michael's alienation and emotional deadness are apparent throughout The Godfather as well as here, but never subjected to real analysis. Coppola's strength as a director is not psychological revelation or personal intimacy. It's the pictorial and metaphoric, the strong narrative and the ambitious conception which distinguish his work.
Coppola has worked through the conventions of the crime genre movie to make an epic film about America. The film has its violence, shootouts and murders, but it also comes close to capturing part of America's tragedy and night-mare—one which goes far beyond the parochial world of the Mafia.
From The Godfather through The Godfather, Part II, the Corleones, like most immigrants to America, experienced the transformation of the claustrophobic and sometimes destructive love and loyalty of family and tribe into a fragmented, rootless and materially comfortable form of the capitalist success story. For Coppola to have gone further—to have looked more deeply into the structure of capitalism and its ethos—would have been to risk commercial failure.
But what Coppola has done is weighty and grand. He has made a visually beautiful film, containing strong, distinctive performances by De Niro and Pacino, while operating within a commercial form. And he has taken a giant step from the more accessible, coherent and action-filled The Godfather, to create an epic about immigrants which begins to take hold of the whole saga of Americanization and the spiritual dissolution that resulted from it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2534
SOURCE: "The Godfather Saga," in Film Comment, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1978, pp. 21-3.
[In the following review, Clarens asserts that Coppola's The Godfather epic does not translate well to television, and complains that the film's restructuring does not add much to the film, except in its early sequences.]
Long before the success of Roots in January, 1977, Francis Ford Coppola had envisioned combining the two parts of The Godfather into one seven-hour film for theatrical release. Few directors have been that ambitious, and none from Hollywood. Their work is mainly to be seen in art houses and colleges all over the nation: Mark Donskoi, and the Gorky trilogy; the three films based on the Marcel Pagnol plays, Fanny, Marius, and Cesar, and Satyajit Ray's three-part Story of Apu. But the sudden popularity of the novelistic form on television, as attested by Rich Man Poor Man, Captain and the Kings, and the British Upstairs Downstairs series made it a natural for the TV audience. NBC paid Paramount and American Zoetrope, Coppola's company, a reputed $12 million for both pictures; then Barry Malkin, a friend and ex-classmate of Coppola's, re-edited both films, plus some cutting-room-floor footage, into the shape of a dynastic novel—a dance to the music of violent times in which the one unchanging partner is Death.
Let it be remembered for the record that any hint of ethnicity had disappeared from Hollywood crime movies since the early Thirties, right after Scarface and the vigorous campaign of the Sons of Italy in America. Only averted moviegoers could be sensitive to the modified discrimination that took over the screen. With the pressure groups putting on the pressure. Hollywood retreated further into a flavorless noman's land where the melting pot had overcooked. Films dealing with Italian gangsters can be counted with the fingers of Mickey Mouse's glove. Prior to The Godfather there were The Black Hand (1950), Pay or Die (1961), and The Brotherhood (1968). The one claim to fame in director Richard Thorpe's long career, The Black Hand starred Gene Kelly as a fictional Italo-American who destroys the hold of the Black Hand criminal society on Little Italy around the turn of the century; there is a real, ancestral dread of betrayal buried beneath the MGM all-is-well complacency. Richard Wilson's Pay or Die told the same basic story, with Ernest Borgnine enacting the historical role of a New York detective who laid down his life in the service of his fellow Italo-Americans. The Brotherhood pitted small-time racketeers against the big honchos of crime, and it starred Kirk Douglas and Alex Cord as Italian brothers-in-crime; the director was Martin Ritt. Three films in nearly forty years, if we exclude Raoul Walsh's The Enforcer (1950) and Stuart Rosenberg's Murder Inc. (1960) which played down the ethnic element. Enter Francis Coppola in 1971, with the courage of his convictions and a best-seller in his hands.
There were cuts to be made when the Corleones came to TV. Luca Brasi is pinned down to a bar counter with an ice-pick prior to being garroted; but we don't see the hand being stabbed, which renders the scene unlikely. A U.S. senator is caught in flagrante delictu with a dead prostitute; but we get only a late, momentary glimpse of the blood-drenched woman, which makes the scene unintelligible. Still, it's a wonder that so much violence remained (I had just seen The Wild Bunch mutilated on the tube beyond sense or continuity), and, to compensate for lost footage, many a scene cut for the final release print was weaved back into the narrative. Since the film's structure was episodic to begin with, this posed no technical problem; inserts could be accommodated without the film's losing its continuity. The time element, however, was altered whenever contiguous scenes were separated by new footage.
The new footage works best in the first televised segment which carries Vito Andolini (later Corleone) from 1901 to the mid-Twenties; it provides enriching footnotes to a chapter told perhaps too succinctly in the theatrical release version. In Sicily, two gunmen in the service of Don Ciccio, the rich landowner who has the town of Corleone in his grasp, come to the Andolini home and ask for the child, Vito; his mother tells them she'll bring him in herself. Years later, already a grown man in Little Italy, Vito watches two street kids attacking Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) and slashing his throat; Vito (Robert DeNiro) recoils into a shadowy doorstep to avoid any intervention, as Fanucci collects his own blood in his hat so as not to stain his impeccable white suit, a brilliant illustration of a paragraph in Puzo's original. Vito's home life in New York is enriched with a few short scenes. The tooth-for-a-tooth character of the grown man is conveyed in the return to his homeland as a rich, influential merchant. In the release version, Vito knifes the now-decrepit Don Ciccio; on television he also executes his aging underlings.
DeNiro gains the most from the additions, if only because he operates within the flashback-to-the-roots principle on which the saga thrives. But also in this segment is a personal gesture of the film director to establish his own position in the genealogy of the Corleones. In New York, an ex-gunsmith in the Italian army fashions a gun for young Vito, while the gunsmith's small son, named Carmine, plays the flute in a dimly-lit backroom. The child, we are to assume, is Coppola's father, Carmine, who scored the music for The Godfather, Part II. It's a charming novelistic device that later will parallel Michael Corleone's reminiscence of his own family; it suggests an atavistic memory, a continuity that doesn't depend on actual experience. It's also boldly carried over in the structure of Part II. Whose flashbacks are we witnessing when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), born 1921, reminisces about the turn of the century? The director's, of course.
Afterward, the added footage doesn't really contribute much that is important to the saga, and the strict chronology of events even diminishes some of the power of Part I. In the novel as in the original screenplay, Puzo and Coppola set up the almost demi-urgical aura of Vito Corleone (now played by Marlon Brando) with the Hollywood episode dealing with Jack Woltz (John Marley). Don Corleone demonstrates his power to penetrate the fief of someone as powerful as himself, and play an almost impossible (and impossibly bloody) trick on the man. The grotesque physique that Brando adopted—somewhere between the mask of grief and the traits of an acromegalic: can this be the same character played earlier by Robert DeNiro as a limpid-eyed Bronzino?—and his restraint of voice and gesture function better when the omniscience of Don Corleone has been established. On television, with DeNiro lingering in the mind, we respond much more to the character's humanity.
What becomes a legend most? Not television, for certain. Film passes more quickly through the tube than through the gate of a projector, and concentration suffers from the familiar surroundings; some strategies are therefore exposed a bit nakedly. In Part I, Coppola was following Puzo's bestselling text; in Part II he is largely on his own, if one excepts the Sicilian and Little Italy flashbacks (which are less important to Puzo). But whatever seemed to work in the first is repeated almost identically in the second. This calculated arrangement of episodes that recall each other has been disturbed by the new format. There were precise correspondences: Woltz has to be taught a lesson in humility (Part I) and so does the arrogant WASP senator (Part II); both men are guilty of kinky sexual tastes ("Infamia!", exclaims the Godfather, a family man, upon hearing that Woltz keeps a child star in his home for sexual purposes); both lessons are bitterly learned in blood-soaked beds. Luca Brasi's garroting in a bar rates an encore with Pentangeli in the sequel. The traitor Fabrizio, responsible for the killing of Michael's first wife, dies in exactly the same manner, as his car blows up. (It seems an alternate death for Fabrizio was shot—at the hands of Michael himself in his own Buffalo store—but it was discarded in favor of another mirror image.) Family events like weddings and christenings introduce relationships between the Corleones and the larger "family." And, as in films directed by Chabrol and Bertolucci, communal eating and dancing define tribal customs here. The massacre that seals Michael's takeover is repeated at the end of the saga, both versions, in the cross-cut disposal of brother, associate, and enemy.
It's one of the surprises of the season that The Godfather on television failed to live up to expectations. The series were billed as The Complete Novel for Television, but even with a carefully worded foreword to the effect "it does not represent any ethnic group" and that it was "a fictional account of a small group of criminals," much of the TV audience hesitated before inviting the Corleones to spend a long weekend in their living-room. The Godfather is hardly Roots, nor is it Rich Man Poor Man.
The Godfather, especially as televised, was something of a downer. It chronicled the moral deterioration of a family, the loss of a tradition, the death of the dream; and it accomplishes all this through the metaphor of the criminal organization. Each age has its pleasures, its style of wit, and its own ways of killing (with apologies to Boileau), but even within Mafia generations there is a downward graph. When young Vito Corleone commits his first murder, the killing of Fanucci takes on the aspect of ritual blood-spilling, down to the coup de grace. Vito is dispensing retribution; Michael, his son, will dispense merely death. In the larger sense which the picture strives for—Coppola fashioning a lyrical poem from Puzo's one sentence about the boy Vito arriving in America—the romance of immigration hardens into a power play behind lowered blinds, and the mystical francmasonry of crime deteriorates into utilitarian carnage.
The ending of The Godfather tries for the desolate grandeur of Richard the Third: alas, without the benefit of a few exalting speeches, it comes across differently. What can a man gain in saving his soul if he loses his power? And Al Pacino's not-so-gradual transformation into a lizard is so opaque a performance that it calls for, at the very least, some of the Sam Shepherd bravura vested on a similar case, in the play Angel City.
Viewers could play the guessing game after watching The Godfather on the tube—a game that Puzo eschewed in the novel by having a factual background and naming names like Maranzano, Anastasia, and Lucchese, which reverberate in the mind like pistol shots. The one real gangster actually named in all seven hours of The Godfather is not an Italian, but the legendary Arnold Rothstein. Bugsy Siegel is given the pseudonym of Moe Green, Meyer Lansky that of Hyman Roth. (Yes, Shirl, there is a Jewish mafia, so why isn't Hadassa picketing?) Coppola must have reasoned that to allow the outside world, the honest world which must exist for contrast, to take on any relief would have imperiled his airtight universe. There is a terrifying, unforgettable scene in The Roaring Twenties, the gangster film directed by Raoul Walsh in 1939, where a couple of innocent bystanders are hopelessly caught between warring factions in a restaurant. There are no innocent bystanders in The Godfather—no bystanders period.
The one character who could possibly fulfill the function gives Coppola the worst trouble: Michael's second wife, Kay, who's a New Englander. A film about a society where women are subservient need not follow suit in the dramatic sense. Kay could have given us an insight, as a surrogate of the outside, non-criminal, non-Italian world; instead she is made to nag, to act dumb, to have an abortion, which is nothing but legalized sin. But worst of all, she is a wraith, and Diane Keaton's performance cannot be blamed on anyone; there is no performance when each shot seems to cancel the preceding.
Since the Syndicate has gone legit in so many activities, most of the drama is played nowadays in conference rooms and courtrooms; and it doesn't play too well. The congressional hearing is the least dramatic sequence in The Godfather, also the only one where you'll hear the word mafia on the soundtrack, uttered by a dopey chairman who's no match for Michael's guile. So Part II, if only for the sake of drama, was forced to go after bigger fish abroad. To show that entire nations can be corrupted and that crime can be organized on an international scale, Coppola takes Michael Corleone to Havana and sits him at Batista's table next to the ITT imperialists so that the American mafioso can scoop Herbert Mathews in forecasting the fall of the regime and pull out stakes. Since the Cuba sequences were photographed in the Dominican Republic, where Gulf + Western has vast holdings, and since Paramount backed both Godfathers, is one to infer that Coppola is pursuing his metaphor into the actual making of the film?
In 1972, The Godfather became more than a box-office hit; it became a syndrome, an ethnic rallying point, a source of imitation, here and especially abroad. (Francesco Rosi's Lucky Luciano, 1973, was a Left-wing riposte to The Godfather: it showed mafiosi manipulated by the system, both victims and executioners.) There was an upsurge of mafioso pride with a made-to-order gang war, followed by a refocusing of attention from the part of crime commissions, which made it all a mixed blessing for the mafia. It's always risky to try to account for any one movie's popularity, at least until a certain time of reflection has elapsed and we can see the past in sharp detail. Can we honestly believe that America was in the throes of a Catholic revival when The Sound of Music topped the charts in 1965? Or that we were afraid of flying when Airport became the box-office hit of 1970?
The temptation to indulge in instant sociology is irresistible. In 1972 we were all looking for alternate systems; it was the height of the Nixon administration; in 1974, New York audiences cheered when Michael Corleone slammed the door on Kay's questioning face near the end of Part II. In all her feeble inadequacy, Kay represented doubt and lack of acceptance: she was out of place in the world of the Godfather, where blind allegiance was the price to pay for having our problems solved. There are, in fact, no scenes (other than a family-picture scene) between Brando and Keaton.
But most of us in the audience responded to Don Corleone, consciously or no. If we ever came to him with a real problem or an imagined slight he would right things for us; we'd be in good hands, face to face; and our case would not be lost in the intricacies of the system. America was getting too complicated and, who knows, such a father figure could even take on Con Edison single-handed! In the pages of The New York Review of Books (where some of our most rational fears materialize), Luigi Barzini fears that the New World hungers after myth and transcendence, and fashions it from our shoddiest weaknesses.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4828
SOURCE: "The Discreet Charm of The Godfather," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 76-80.
[In the following essay, Thompson asserts, "The Godfather is so weighed down with the wish to be classy, dramatically precise and socially significant, that it is empty of creative passion."]
How does one convey outrage these days without sounding pedantic or shrill? We have bypassed that tone in the effort to elevate films with goodwill. The role of active dislike is nearly in abeyance. At any event, this is a discriminating attack, and I will be as calm as possible with it, even if outrage is upsetting. But to talk about movies is a matter of considering life.
The public is a pill able to reject any germination. Its members regularly perish, but the body maintains its stumbling, life-like progress. The crowd has had to cultivate an impassivity greater than the dismay of its individuals. We absorb trash, the humdrum and masterpieces with sturdy indifference: the critical labels are no more penetrating than the warnings on cigarette packets. TV, the medium that reaches so many more people in a common instant, mocks connections. It has suppressed the individual with its ratings. It has cancelled the prospect of works of the imagination enriching the masses. We know now that the process merely impacts us, dissolving the strenuous duties of personality and responsibility.
The wonderful and the abominable have collapsed together in mutual resemblance. They measure our time and permit the buying of time that sustains TV, a medium in which the chance of enlightenment has passed beyond the disappointment of half-baked information and dispiriting entertainment to become a household monotone, switched on like a light. TV is a domestic service, a distraction from concentration, solitude and company. It removes burdens we hardly recall: to be troubled or pleased, to be ourselves.
I am trying to deal with The Godfather. It is no longer necessary to specify which of the two parts. TV has amalgamated them, just as it does the volumes of The Forsyte Saga, the tableaux of Civilization and its own daily ingredients—news, drama, comedy, sport, movie, commercial—until they are all chiefly things seen on the box, different complexions of the screen's haze. TV is a liquid in which the sediment of cell life is in perpetual motion, tormenting earlier cultural expectations, such as narrative, understanding and moral sensibility.
I am talking about the two films made by Francis Ford Coppola, which seemed to me on the larger screen a landmark of personal work emerging from the industrial context. Part I had everything except the Buñuel who might have intertwined baptism and gangland coup d'état with barbedwire ribbons. Coppola regarded that compromise with a pained, straight-faced acceptance which now seems fundamental to the entire work. Perhaps he hoped that his inability to take a stance at the end would be read as irony or ambiguity; perhaps he never realised his own predicament. For all his sophistication, there is something guileless in the work and glib pleasure at the smooth machinery of slaughtering rivals intercut with the baptism liturgy. Francis enjoys the sardonic timing as much as Michael does, and may be as unable to see the human consequences that it veils.
Still, The Godfather had the apparent virtue of the best American films: it did not cheat its own compulsive melodramatic energy. Paramount required a wholehearted climax, and Coppola's straight face was too intent on mechanics to handle disintegration. Coppola is misled by expressive perfection; he thinks it alters or places the human situation being treated. The American movie has never dealt with doubt, without the nullifying excuse of self-pity or madness. Its dramas work like trustworthy engines: the gravest flaw of Citizen Kane is that Welles cannot abandon his immature satisfaction with neatness—everything fits, works and hums. The director has fallen for Kane's debilitating ambition: to have the people think the way he tells them to think. American heroes are as convinced as scripts, schedules and release patterns imply. They accomplish and achieve; even the alienated, dying Kane initiates an elegant riddle.
Just as Michael Corleone ended that first part secure, so Coppola had a brimming hit. I doubt if anyone in America, let alone Hollywood, hated or disapproved of him—that is a measure of his negligible risk; it also reflects the sweet poison of the product. In its brief time, The Godfather was the biggest grosser ever, and that easily overlooked the grossness of its own pusillanimous ending. The Godfather was filled with a kind of superficial dynamism that Kane first identified, and which has been the beacon for the intelligent pic trade ever since: it is sensational narrative powered by the hush and detail of gravity and consequence that are never explored because the show must go on.
It is the rhetoric of marketable impact, and it is like a good aircraft, the manufacture of the atom bomb, aerosol deodorants or guaranteed pills. Such things teach our senses inertia (it is necessary to be very cool to fly in a 747 without frenzies of delight or fear, and pills take risk away from actions that ought to be felt as perilous). Such toys and conveniences have a cute efficiency, as detached from any creative personality as The Godfather. Of course, cameras must be included among these glamorous, dead machines, so that it is not surprising if the camera's product suffers from the same lustrous suppression of vitality.
From a full-page ad in The New York Times, November 11, 1977—Pacino's blank saint's face and the massive headline: 'The Godfather as you've never seen it!': 'Starting tomorrow—and continuing for the next three nights—NBC will broadcast one of the major presentations of this or any season. It is called "Mario Puzo's The Godfather: The Complete Novel for Television". For the first time viewers will have the opportunity to see the Godfather story told in chronological order. The keynote of the nine-hour presentation will be the first television showing of The Godfather, Part II plus important film never-before-seen on any screen!… The entire production has been personally—and masterfully—reshaped for television by the man who directed … both Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola. He has been able in this new form to achieve a sense of continuity and scope that simply could not be realised in a theatrical presentation.'
Then, in far smaller type, at the foot of the page, this grim waiver couched as solicitude: 'PARENTAL DISCRETION ADVISED'. Has anyone adding the phrase ever wondered about the actual processes comprising parental judgment? Does anything else in TV help nourish it? Or is it simply the slick escape of the medium from the implications of offence and distress, as opposed to the reckless envy that will go out and buy? Did anyone pause to reflect how far The Godfather is a devout study of the efficacy of cruel parental discretion? Or is the skirting of real parental care only part of the pessimism that supports the inhumane patriarchy of The Godfather?
The network hype has the language of critical judgment, no matter how inflated, but parental discretion so advised is the cowardly side-stepping of any fixed attitudes towards TV's own materials, part of the irresponsible orthodoxy: 'We just carry these programmes … you can always turn off … the views expressed in this programme are those of the contributors, not the station.' 'Parental discretion' is usually invoked to excuse acts of violence, sexual passages and what is called profane language. No one ever advises it in the total matter of watching TV or not, or of submitting to the systematic fragmentation of all programmes, with the aromatic, expansive glue of commercials: The Godfather, say, interrupted and sticky with the unambiguous lyricism of pizza, spaghetti sauce, tomato paste and olive oil—the staples that made a legitimate business for the Corleone family. Perhaps they also perfected a competitively priced paste that could be sold to the movies for a trouble-free and noncancer-causing blood?
Francis Ford Coppola is an American success story. Everyone loved him for his very rapid transit from film school. Corman quickies and off-the-cuff nudies to the prestige, epic panorama and box-office green ones of The Godfather. It was tactful of him to fill that jumbo sandwich with the poised paranoia of so 'difficult' and 'unconventional' a film as The Conversation, in which blood gushes back from the toilet in a traumatic plumbing malfunction. As he finished Godfather II, Coppola spoke to Film Comment. It is a statement of dreamy contentment, decorated with all the ways of sticking kindly arrows in Jack Clayton's fudging of Coppola's script for Gatsby—which is easy to credit, even if so many fond mentions of Clayton and humble deprecations of how little a writer does smack of a mafia kiss.
But in that interview Coppola rejoiced in the big bucks of Part I, the freedom he had won for Part II and the limitless vistas that confronted the movie world's new Don: 'I'm not that rich, but I'm gettin'. I had to go through a lot of agonising decisions because I can always say why don't I just go and make money. I could sit down and write the most commercial movie ever made. I feel I could pull it off. Just make a hundred million dollars and spend the rest of my life … I'm now thirty-five and that's what I thought I was doing with The Godfather and then with Godfather II, I was making a film that would also appeal to an audience. At some time you've got to cut off and say, "O.K. I've made enough money.'"
By 1976 Coppola was no longer so relaxed. The project that he eventually moved on to, Apocalypse Now, was proving as much of a white man's grave as its subject, the Vietnam war. Immense difficulties of scripting, casting, finding locations and military assistance and of violent weather were hindering the picture. Apocalypse When? it has been called in the past year, during which George Lucas and Steven Spielberg slipped past Coppola in the championship for best bankable movie-maker. Way behind schedule, the picture will not open now until the autumn of 1978, and only then if Coppola can fashion something commercially coherent out of 1.5 million feet of film. Perhaps it will prove as glib and catchy as Star Wars, but it may be a Xanadu—sprawling, untidy and housing a monstrous study of human nature too awkward to swallow. That might turn Coppola into something more than a smart student; nothing as yet indicates that he knows the feelings of loss or failure.
Whatever that outcome, it was in the time of Apocalypse that Coppola was called on—personally and masterfully—to reshape The Godfather for TV. It was the first time that a director had an opportunity to reassess a released film. Part I was televised in 1974, to the largest audience ever for a movie—since surpassed by Gone With the Wind. NBC and Paramount immediately worked out a financial deal (reportedly $15 million) for an eventual amalgamation of both parts that used a chronological format, 'laundered' the violence and language and restored some footage cut from the theatrical release versions.
By the time the work came to be done, Coppola was marooned in the Philippines, so that no one can or will say how 'personally' he worked on the TV Godfather. Still, who could doubt that this unique opportunity would have appealed to him? No American director could be blasé about the size of the audience, the thrill of national unity—as tempting to film-makers as to presidents—the chronological clarification and, perhaps best of all, the originality of a venture for a man tempted by the trend-setting lead as young entrepreneur of ideas and imagination. Coppola's editor, Barry Malkin, made an assembly of all the possible material, some of which had to be retrieved from the Paramount vaults. In three months, Malkin compiled a 9 1/2-hour version. This was put on videotape so that Coppola could examine and approve it from the jungle.
Much more had still to be done: two hours were cut from Malkin's assembly, and the whole had to be broken into well-formed episodes that would fit the four-night showing. Great care was taken to anticipate the commercial breaks so that they would do the least damage to a structure of self-contained acts. The two men used telephone and telex, and they met on several occasions. In addition, they had to find a framework for all four nights—an aura for the Godfather Show—that would bind the series. (It is in the nature of such series that they describe events in which the centre does hold and neither ideas nor principles fall apart—again, the commercial glue acts as DNA.) The TV version testified to the ingenuity and thoroughness of the work, even if Malkin did most of it under Coppola's distracted guidance. By March 1977, 'a version edited to our ideas' was put before NBC.
And so it rolled, stopping and starting, on the nights 12-15 November, in three 2-hour episodes and a 3-hour conclusion. What can be said about it in the way of regular criticism, as opposed to this diatribe rigmarole?
1. There was an air of well-being in the land. The press admired the emphatic coherence of its new form. Ordinary viewers congratulated one another on having seen it. The ratings were good, if not colossal. It was an event as widely appreciated as Roots, the running of Gone With the Wind, Star Wars or the live coverage of any celebrity's funeral.
2. Only a fool would confirm the extra 'continuity and scope' of the TV version, yet hardly anyone complained at, or seemed to notice, the wearying shortcomings in those very areas. Chronological sequence on TV was obtained at the cost of having to see 6 1/2—7 hours of film over a span of 75 hours with some thirty interruptions in the film-stream for commercials, introductions and wrap-ups. Of course, no one debated the innate merit of chronology as a structure. The theatrical tension of two distinct approaches to the family, the second framing and reflecting on the first, was mutely sacrificed. Yet again the orthodoxy was heeded that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end, in that order. Eighty years old, the American movie is as pledged as ever to the naturalness of story as a way of taming time and alleviating the critical interpretation of history. What does that do to even apocalypse if there is a beginning, a middle, an end, and a rating, for the end? The screen size (on average) was reduced from about 240 square feet to 1 1/2 square feet. An electronic patterning of lines was substituted for Gordon Willis' photography, and the film's haunting contrast of interior gloom and exterior sunshine was more than a TV set could accommodate. By turns, the movie was glaring or obscure: throughout, it was stippled and miniature—a film on a dusty horizon. This was scarcely remarked on: one might reasonably conclude that TV is not watched. It is endured or countenanced, like a climatic medium.
3. The devices used to bind the film were very revealing. There were persistent voice-overs that the film should not be interpreted as a slur upon Italians. On the first night, Talia Shire, Coppola's and Michael Corleone's sister, appeared on camera—reportedly Coppola himself had declined this chore—to say that it would be 'grossly unfair' to let the Corleones represent all Italians. (It would have been wittier if the real, hardworking and conscientious mafia had been cleared, too.) Titles also announced that, despite bloodiness and the ostensibly favourable portrait of the gangsters, this was actually a study of 'the self-destructive effects of crime and violence.' The film was framed every night with a tragically composed close-up of the brooding Michael Corleone, sitting by the ruffled lake where his last brother had been executed, looking into the past and embodying the lonely travails of presidential retreat—Sunset at Lake Tahoe? The TV film was shaped as Michael's testament, the family history seen through his eyes. No matter the listless decadence of Pacino's presence, it became the tragedy of a man who had become malignant trying to preserve his royal line. Every execution and betrayal is justified by his Nixonian urge to keep the thing together. We now expect and trust an Attila of principles, if he struggles with change, breakdown and the indistinct anxieties of our paranoia.
4. The amalgamated work is a saddened but respectful portrait of Michael. It is dark proof of the attractiveness of the villain in the American movie, so long as he is photographed in repose, seen to think before he destroys, and so long as sincerity persuades him to trample on principle. On TV, this was accentuated by the small screen finding close-ups in what once were fuller, theatrical compositions; where sheer space or another person competed with Michael's head; the TV image closed in on his pensive face. When Michael assures Kay that he did not know, we respond to the necessary damage our hero has had to do to honour and himself for the good reason that the film respects poker-faced deceit and is anchored in Michael's insolent look. It never mocks him—there is no humour anywhere in the film—it only shows him. And whatever such balanced film-making shows it implicitly glorifies. That is why Coppola asserts that he has analysed wickedness while the audience of The Godfather has aspired to its inner basis of noble sacrifice. The public watches in a spirit of wanting to belong to this family, wanting to share its heroic purpose and its embattled unity.
If Coppola sought irony, it has been smothered by the romanticism of the American movie: unflawed melodramatic progress and undimmed glamour bestowed on the people. Together, they promote our dominant response: identification, not any sort of detachment. None of the characters has the all-round raggedness of people in Renoir or Rossellini films, for they are all slyly turned towards us for inspection—they have only that one facet. They are sensibilities aware of being seen, and calculating the effect they make upon the spectator. It is a film tradition flanked by politicians and the grinding charm of people in commercials. The politician has been taught by the American movie, and there is a natural association between The Godfather and recent political manners in America. Michael is a grasping vote-seeker; he campaigns with people, instead of mixing with them. Business, the family, stability and development are discreet cloaks for his one ambition: maintained authority.
5. Al Pacino devours the opportunities offered by the role of Michael and makes him the most baleful, depleted father-figure in American pictures. Nevertheless, the figure out-weighs the drabness of the man. There has never been a study of such reticent iniquity, and no clearer proof of the way presentational style disarms any intention in the characterisation. Perhaps Coppola deplores and fears Michael, but he cannot find a way of communicating that. The process of showing and seeing a central character, without ridicule, passion or dangerous critical rebuke, is insurmountable. Michael is Satan, but he impresses as a wounded angel; the self-destructive criminality turns into the self-abuse of a lapsed saint. The film is inspired by Michael's self-pity.
Let me mention two things in Pacino's performance, one a moment, the other a motif that lasts three hours. When Michael arrives at the hospital to visit his father he finds the police guards gone. He smells a plot, and with the timid baker, Enzio, he mounts guard on the hospital steps to warn off the coming assassins. A black car loiters and then drives away in frustration. Enzio's nerves are in tatters and he fumbles a cigarette into his mouth. Michael's own steady hand lights it for him. The new-found Medici, revealed by ordeal, notices his own calm with a faraway satisfaction that promises the most cold-blooded of the Corleones. He mentions his nervelessness to no one else in the picture, but we see it: it is one of those privileged moments of communion between a lonely character and the anonymous crowd—as when Kane whispers his enticing clue, knowing that there is a link between our attention and curiosity and his hope to explain himself.
Moments later, the fragile Pacino is beaten by Sterling Hayden's crooked cop (a character of nearly amiable viciousness who is made so much more hateful and coarse than Michael's shy Iago). Michael's face swells immediately and a dark bruising stays there for months. Equally, Pacino's childlike speech lisps all the more with the intimation of a broken face, and his fretting hands are often up to guard or cushion it. The bruising never fades. It spreads through the whole face, like the fatigue of someone too suspicious to sleep. The moment of establishing himself also sets off the gradual degradation of his character: as a creative design it is brilliant, but not enough to rise above the passive, beseeching pain that Pacino projects. Even at the end he is a morbidly sentimentalised version of the pathetic waif Vito who came to America with a shipload of immigrants.
6. There is an undeniable pleasure with the TV version in collecting those moments reclaimed from the out-takes. Our family loyalty treasures every incident in the scrapbook: the discovery that the young Hyman Roth was once employed by Vito Corleone; a glimpse of that girl, ruined by Johnny Fontane, and cherished by the movie mogul; vengeance on the Sicilian guard who caused the death of Apollonia; a moment when Michael and his guards stop during their Sicilian ramble, and the guards beg him to tell them stories about America; Frankie Pentangeli remembering the old ways at the first communion of Michael's son, and surreptitiously teaching the boy to drink wine; and Kay and Michael in bed together when Michael might have been with the family. This last detail lays the subtlest hint of his guilt being associated with Kay. She will be his wife, and the instrument he uses to provide a dynasty, but she presents a challenge to his single-minded family loyalty. She is the only outsider in the film not treated with contempt, killed or ignored—and it is a very perilous status.
7. She is also the figure around whom a greater film might have been made; she is the only person who questions the Corleone ethics and who stands for an alternative, if sketchy faith in people. Diane Keaton was quoted amid the fuss of Looking for Mr. Goodbar as saying that in The Godfather she had felt a kind of stooge, helpless witness to all the scenes enjoyed by the men. How wrong that it only shows the career pressures on an actress of uncontrived benevolence. It also accounts for her feeling bound to try the callous novelty of Goodbar. Keaton fits few American stereotypes. Her presence is alive with uncompromising kindness. She is capable of playing a decent person in any film honestly committed to human values. The comparison I think of is with Ingrid Bergman in the Rossellini films.
As it is, in The Godfather she has wonderful moments of pain, crushed innocence and humiliation that her dignity endures: Tom Hayden turns her away without Michael's address; the black beetle Michael returns from Sicily and claims her for a street walk, with a chaperoning car of bodyguards prowling behind, reminding us of the village women who attended his courting of Apollonia—a marriage he never mentions to Kay. She is excluded from the inner chamber at the end of Part I and heartbroken at leaving her children. This is the one act of moral courage in the film, and if illusionist realism was the only mode open to Coppola then it should have been expanded and Kay made central.
Imagine our perception of the Corleones if it came through her eyes—not remarkably intelligent or refined, but capable of being appalled, dependent on a man yet loathing his acts. Kay's dissent could be crucial, but it would have sent the audience away in their millions. Imagine, too, a possible development of her part: suppose that she cut across the half-hearted antagonism of police law and mafia order and uttered a cry of abused nature—of life itself, rather than the methodical business of Murder Inc. That might leave Keaton's Kay as vulnerable and moving as Bergman in Europa 51. Then it would no longer be possible to feel such reverence for the Corleones.
Could Coppola have conceived and tolerated an ending in which Kay informs and is ordered dead by Michael, or would that have infringed on the property of Puzo and Paramount, as well as the comfort of the audience? The Corleones require a quite contrary opponent, not rival hoodlums. They are the body and spirit-snatchers of American cinema; only the mechanisms of impersonal style in movie-making have made them admirable. But that hypothetical film would be as disturbing as Europa 51, and much less 'viable' than The Godfather.
Perhaps it is forlorn criticism to wish that Rossellini had directed The Godfather—though he would have called it 'The Age of the American Mafia', moving attention and questions from the genteel spider to the web of circumstances that form him. Nor does the juxtaposition of things written and spoken by Coppola deny that he is a respectable ringmaster, a Hollywood ideal. The Godfather is the work of a deft engineer at putting a dreadnought together, but a man unaware how the process of that film works. Paradoxically, that is only possible in a system brought up on the simple-minded notion of pure film, detached from meaning, life, society and the thoroughly impure personality of an author.
The Godfather is a supreme American film, but it is not good enough. Worse than that, it resists the potential that makes all imaginative work hopeful: that the public may pursue a more searching sense of themselves and their lives. Coppola's film is a fantasy that urges us to be less concerned with our real experience. It is part of the American movies' mythology that experience is as private as fantasy. The loss of individual integrity allowed by this leads to the blurred mass of millions that constitutes both the success and the meaning of The Godfather: the reassured audience—confirmed in its dreadful nihilism—is the model for a public placid about its own powerlessness to resist authorities.
One must be harsh with Coppola because of his lack of vulgarity. Tastefulness is easily mistaken for worth. He is thoughtful, clean and pretentious; he wants to make a righteous critique of the mafia, not a gangster movie. If he could settle for a simpler target, the film might be wilder, more personal, more touched by poetry—White Heat, say, or Baby Face Nelson, pulp works glowing with energy and vitality, and as funny as they are fearsome. The Godfather is so weighed down with the wish to be classy, dramatically precise and socially significant, that it is empty of creative passion. It has only entrepreneurial force and reliability—like the bombs, the aircraft and the aerosols. Its most prominent personality is the narcissistic and anal Satanism permitted in the moodiness of Al Pacino: not even its villainy is generous or outgoing—discretion is everything.
But this respectability is as much a cultural failure as it is in Buñuel's bourgeoisie. It is the blind eye of the American film, condoning the starriness of its central figures and turning the subject into a monstrous fantasising melodrama. We long to be with the Corleones: they are samurai or Arthurian knights standing on watch for threatened values and defending them to the death, including the death of value. The blind eye is like the face of every Hollywood star who pretends to be unaware of the camera taking the close-ups that will win the hearts of the audience. The realism required for the proper treatment is not photographic or a test of art direction. It hangs upon the attitude of the film-maker—it could be the humane scrutiny of Rossellini or the scorn of Buñuel. It cannot be Coppola's meek complicity. He does not appreciate how far the approach of a skilled mechanic honours the Godfather's code.
As for the public, we have abided by The Godfather's Stalinist implications, without knowing if there is really a mafia. Perhaps no one credits those sinister figures more than the people who make and see films. Movie mafia are the creatures of our insecurity and paranoia—we wish for resolute fathers and comprehensive organizations in what often seems a chronically scattered, undesigned world. To admire the Corleones, to digest their melodrama and the commercials in the same meal, is part of our cultural breakdown, and a symptom of our longing for some domineering conspiracy. It is a movie for those who prefer to live in darkness.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6134
SOURCE: "The Godfather, I and II: Patterns of Corruption," in Film Criticism, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 35-44.
[In the following essay, Ambrogio traces the imperfect repetitions between The Godfather Part I and II and asserts that they demonstrate the breakdown of the Corleone family and its criminal organization.]
NBC's 12-15 November 1977 telecast of Godfather I and II in reedited, almost strictly chronological form, padded by the addition of scenes previously cut, provided some insights into and confirmations of elements in the original films but didn't improve upon the initial structure of the pictures, particularly the point-counterpoint of Godfather II. The "complete novel for television" received disappointing ratings and even provoked some unfavorable critical reassessment of the original films.1 This lukewarm reception contrasts sharply to the rave reviews Godfather I and II received when first released in 1972 and 1974, respectively. In fact in 1974, many critics proclaimed II even better than its predecessor.2 No doubt, II's dual-plot structure contributed to this preference; in II, the early history of Vito Corleone (née Andolini), the Godfather, adapted (and considerably embellished) from the unfilmed portions of the book, alternates with the continuing story of his son Michael (Al Pacino), the new Godfather, taken up from where I left it. Together these two sections of II provide a fascinating framework, backward and forward in time, for the original film. TV disrupted this framework; the Godfather saga lost its epic quality by no longer beginning in medias res, with I.
Despite the flashbacks, which comprise almost half of its running time, Godfather II was advertised as "Michael's story," and most critics were quick to see it as such, since it completes Michael's degeneration, begun in I, from a nice ex-college boy, ex-war hero to a ruthless criminal. (For that matter, I, is "Michael's story," too.) What critics failed to see was the artful way in which this transformation is accomplished.3
For II's modern section, director Francis Ford Coppola and his co-scenarist, Godfather novelist Mario Puzo, the architects of Godfather I, simply went back to their drawing board, unrolled their old blueprints, and remade The Godfather with, however, several significant differences. They repeated the pattern they established in I while playing upon it numerous subtle, clever variations in order to underline the further and complete corruption of the Corleone family: every important incident in the first film has a parallel in the second. Carlos Clarens was the first critic to catalogue in print several of the many parallel sequences between I and II, but he doesn't realize or stress the reason for these repetitions or note that they're imperfect repetitions—by design.4 A complete catalogue—and comparison—of these inexact parallels will reveal that reason and design.
Godfather I begins with a large, outdoor celebration—the wedding of the Godfather's daughter—while the Godfather holds court inside, taking care of business and personal matters (e.g. undertaker Bonasera's request that the Godfather avenge his daughter; godson Johnny Fontane's request for a part in a movie); Godfather II begins the same way—the new Godfather throws a gala outdoor party in honor of his son's first communion and also attends to business and personal matters (e.g. Frankie Pentangeli's trouble with the Guzzardo brothers; his sister's parade of boyfriends and neglect of her children). In each movie, we see that these initial matters are later acted upon; the most notable—and most parallel—of them are the intimidation of movie producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) in I and of Senator Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin) in II. Both the producer and the Senator—after refusing to accede to a Corleone request—undergo ordeals which persuade them to change their minds (the proverbial "offer they can't refuse"): they wake up stunned and bloody in bed, Woltz finds his Arabian stud horse's severed head under the covers and Geary finds his favorite s & m prostitute cut up and dead under the covers. (Clarens also mentions these parallels.)
Early in I, there is an unsuccessful attempt on the Godfather's life; even earlier in II, there is an attempt on the new Godfather's life. Both films proceed from these points to tell tales of gang warfare and betrayal within the organization and the family. Barzini (Richard Conte) surreptitiously leads the Five Families in opposition to the Godfather's organization in I; Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) duplicitously threatens Michael's operations in II. (In both films, the factions ostensibly reconcile. In I, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) calls a meeting of the Five Families; they sit around a conference table while the Godfather makes an impassioned plea for peace. This plea is apparently heeded, and everybody becomes "business" partners again, planning to go into dope dealing together. In II, Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth seem to form an uneasy alliance; they also become business partners and sit around a conference table with others, planning to divide up Cuba together. Of course, reconciliation in both films is only a smoke screen; violence between the two factions erupts again before each film ends. Just as his father balked at becoming involved with drug dealing, so Michael balks at investing money in Roth's Cuban scheme—a smart move, since Castro's guerrillas take over the country shortly afterward. However, in a reversal inspired by I—wherein Michael prevents his father's attempted murder while Don Vito is recovering in the hospital—Michael is prevented in II, from having Roth murdered while Roth is recovering in the hospital. Michael becomes the unscrupulous criminal his father's opponents were.
Trusted Corleone lieutenant Tessio (Abe Vigoda) betrays the family to Barzini in I; in II, another trusted lieutenant, Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), Clemenza's successor, betrays the family to the government. Each pays the price for his treachery. Similarly, brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) betrays the family and sets up Sonny (James Caan) in I; in II, brother Fredo (John Cazale) betrays the family and sets up Michael. In each case the delinquent (family member is given a grace period (no one touches Carlo while Don Vito is alive, nor Fredo while Mama Corleone is alive) before he, like Tessio and Pentangeli, is eliminated. Both movies have as their climax a blood bath, a series of multiple murders carried out under Michael's orders; he uses these executions to consolidate his organization's power, ruthlessly wiping out "business" opponents (Barzini, the heads of the Five Families, and Moe Green [Alex Rocco] in I; Hyman Roth in II), traitors to the group (Tessio in I; Pentangeli in II), and the traitors to the family (Carlo in I; Fredo in II). Clarens also notes this parallel slaughter.
But the parallels do not stop there. In I, Michael convincingly lies to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), assuring her he had nothing to do with Carlo's death, then ushers her out of his office and closes the door on her, effectively shutting her out of his life as he goes back to business. In II, the latent problems in their relationship (re)surface, and her resentment over his refusal to go legitimate causes her to leave him. Exerting his Godfatherly authority, Michael retains custody of their children. On one of her clandestine visits to see them, Kay tarries too long trying to get her son to kiss her goodbye. He is on the verge, about to come embrace her, when Michael returns to find Kay on the threshold. He goes to the door and quietly, firmly, shuts it in her face. This gesture is a repetition of his closing her out in I, but it takes on added weight here because of the different circumstances and has a note of finality to it. Indeed, we do not see Kay again in II.
As is obvious, Coppola and Puzo clothe their retelling of I in different terms, disguising the similarities between the two films by using different locales (Florida, Cuba, and more of Nevada than in I) and the later-model cars, hair styles, and fashions of the fifties in II, and by adding to II a variety of contemporary detail (the Cuban revolution, the Kefauver-like Senate sub-committee investigation)—all to obscure its thematic and narrative duplication of I. Besides returning to I for their inspiration, Coppola and Puzo also return to the book, incorporating flashbacks of the early life and career of Vito Corleone (here played by Robert DeNiro), which helps to contribute to the deceptive "new look" of II. However, Coppola and Puzo's talent and integrity save II from being a mere copy of I: they use its repetitions to expand upon ideas put forth in I, and they use its Vito Corleone flashbacks to counterpoint Michael's contemporary story; they develop possibilities which are only suggested in the hastily and sketchily written (but admittedly fascinating) pages of Puzo's novel.
Godfather II's repetition of key incidents in Godfather I shows the perpetuation of crime and the criminal empire in the second generation of Corleones. At the same time, II's imperfect repetitions show the expansion of evil, the degeneration of crime and of that criminal empire. Coppola and Puzo subtly illustrate the loss of any kind of tradition or honor in this dirty business and the gradual and complete corruption of Michael Corleone, a process which begins in I—when he avenges himself upon Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden), the crooked cop who broke his jaw, and Sollozzo, the "Turk" (Al Lettieri), who had his father shot—but which reaches completion here.
Godfather II may begin with a big celebration, as does I, but the latter celebration is inferior to the former. There is none of the ethnic verve of I's wedding in II's expensive, homogenized communion party, situated in the alien land of Lake Tahoe. Don Vito's suburban New York estate, though somewhat removed from the city, is still close to his roots and to the heart of the Italian community, of which he and his family remain very much a part. In Nevada, the Corleones are strangers in a strange land, where people cannot even pronounce their name correctly.5 In Nevada, there is no Italian community: in I, Italian-American singing sensation Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) croons a love song at Connie Corleone's wedding; in II, a local boys' choir—practically all blue-eyed blonds—sings some innocuous "inspirational" piece at Anthony Corleone's communion party. In I, everybody dances to sprightly or romantic Italian music—Tessio with a little girl, Clemenza with a Corleone soldier, the Godfather with his daughter; in II, all the party guests sit around while two heavily made-up performers do a theatrically torrid tango on stage. In I, an old man leads the wedding guests in a bawdy Sicilian rendition of "C'e la luna 'n mezzo mare," to which everybody—even Mama Corleone (Morgana a King)—adds a verse or sings the chorus; in II, Frankie Pentangeli (a New Yorker, in Nevada to see Michael) tries to get the WASPish band to play something Italian, something as familiar as "La Tarantella," and all it can come up with is "Pop Goes The Weasel"! All the guests laugh, and Pentangeli is ridiculed off the stage; the old ways are shown to be inoperative in modern-American Nevada. This action sets the tone for the rest of the modern segment of II.
Central to Godfather I is the Corleone family structure; that family structure completely collapses in II. No family portrait is taken on this day, as one is at Connie's wedding. Of course, when II begins, the family is no longer complete anyway: some of the Corleones (Don Vito, Sonny) are already gone—and, by the film's end, only one (Michael) will remain. Also, when II begins, several surviving Corleones' present conditions reveal the family's further degeneration: Fredo is married to a non-Italian "broad" over whom he has no control, and twice-divorced Connie (Talia Shire) neglects her children and flits around the world and from man to man, still making the same mistakes in her choice of mates. (Her latest is Merle Johnson [Troy Donahue]—another somewhat beefy pretty-boy in her first husband Carlo's image.) These two are a far cry here from the naive innocents they were at the beginning of I, where Connie was in her virginal wedding white and Fredo—still ineffectual and awkward in his tux—was unattached and unharmed by marital and other entanglements.
The attempt on Michael's life comes much sooner in II than does the attempt on Don Vito in I. Although Michael escapes injury whereas the Don does not, the attack on him is much closer to home than the one on Don Vito: his bedroom is riddled with bullets and his wife's life is endangered along with his. Later, Michael violently decries this infamita, bitterly complaining to Frankie Pentangeli about this breach in the unwritten code: "In my home! In my bedroom, where my wife sleeps, where my children come and play with their toys." The assassination attempt (like Senator Geary's earlier insulting remark about Michael's "fucking family") is not kept on a business level, as is the attempt on Don Vito; Michael's family is indiscriminately threatened.
The attack on Michael is just one example of how much more corrupt everything is in II. The Corleone organization destroys a race horse to get its way with Jack Woltz in I; in II, it murders a woman to get its way with Pat Geary.6 Treachery in II penetrates nearer to the inner circle: brother-in-law Carlo—the outsider—betrays the family in I; brother Fredo—an insider, a blood relative—betrays it in II.7 Likewise, Tessio—the lesser of the two Corleone lieutenants (and not Clemenza, the more favored caporegime)8—betrays the organization in I, but Frankie Pentangeli—Clemenza's successor, to whom the family entrusted its original New York territory, who now lives in the Corleones' former home—betrays it in II.9
Though less extensive than Godfather I's blood bath, II's is more brutal: I's murders are all "necessary," their vengeance "legitimate"; II's murders are gratuitous—they represent an extreme form of vindictiveness on Michael's part. He has to eliminate Moe Green, Barzini, and the heads of the Five Families as a matter of "business" in I—in order to solidify his family's position, and because Barzini is out to get him first—but, in II, he doesn't need to murder Hyman Roth because the old man is no longer a threat to him or his business. Roth's empire, power, and influence are no more; Roth himself is no more than an exile from his adopted country, Israel—a walking corpse because of the disease that will terminate his life in a matter of months—about to be imprisoned by the authorities as soon as he sets foot on American soil. In fact, the hardest part about killing Roth, Michael's henchmen tell him, is getting a clear shot at him: from the moment Roth gets off his plane, he'll be surrounded by reporters and police and F.B.I. agents, ready to take him to jail. But Michael insists the job be done anyway. In I, Carlo—a despicable person anyway—is actually responsible for Sonny's death and deserves to die, but, in II, Fredo—a poor, misguided fool—only bumblingly and unwittingly helps Michael's enemies, never dreaming Michael might come to any bodily harm because of it, so Michael's insistence on Fredo's execution (especially since he knows Fredo's mental limitations and has escaped injury anyway) is utterly unnecessary.
Similarly, Pentangeli's betrayal in II is not as damaging nor as personally dangerous to Michael as Tessio's is in I. Fear, not selfish reasons of gain, motivates Pentangeli: the Guzzardo brothers have tried to kill him (their abortive attempt here parallels the Tattaglia's successful one on Luca Brasi in I—both Pentangeli and Brasi are lured to a bar and strangled from behind); he mistakenly believes Michael is responsible for this attack and only turns to the authorities out of self-preservation. Therefore, his betrayal is not as calculated nor as deadly as Tessio's: it only involves turning state's evidence, not being party to murder.
The Corleone organization neutralizes both Tessio's and Pentangeli's threats, but it neutralizes Pentangeli's before any real damage is done: the Corleones fly in Frankie's brother from Italy and prominently display him next to Michael when Pentangeli appears before the Senate subcommittee. The sight of his brother in the company of his former boss grimly reminds Pentangeli of the Corleones' power, and he tells the committee nothing. Thus, he never goes as far as Tessio, who has already arranged a meeting between Michael and Barzini in I, at which time Michael is to be killed. His actual betrayal of Michael prevented, Pentangeli—convicted of numerous crimes—is doomed to spend the rest of his life in prison; however, that is not revenge enough for Michael, and he persuades Tom Hagen to go to Pentangeli and make him an offer he can't refuse; his life in exchange for the complete monetary and physical security of his family. So, we next find Pentangeli dead in his bath, his wrists slit.10
There is some reason for Michael's cold and calculating behavior in I: he must regain the family's lost position in the underworld and hold his family together. In light of this "necessity," his elimination of his enemies, his lies to his wife, and his other actions are all understandable—even justifiable from his point of view. However, his behavior becomes more of a habit in II, the means become an end in themselves. This change in Michael, along with and as part of the many parallels to I, best illustrates the altered, harsher tone of II. Michael becomes less and less human as II progresses until, like Paul Newman's Hud, he is left with nothing but his empire and his wealth.
One by one, Michael cuts himself off or is cut off from his family. He banishes his brother Fredo when he discovers Fredo has been disloyal to him and only reconciles with Fredo after their mother's death so that Fredo will be conveniently close by when Michael gives the order to have him murdered. Michael has already demoted Tom Hagen from consigliore to the family's Las Vegas lawyer in I; in II, he shunts him aside and distrusts him more and more.11 He loses his mother to illness. Before her death, he has a heart-to-heart talk with her, just as he has with his father in I. However, while Don Vito gives him vital advice, telling him that whoever approaches him with a deal to meet Barzini will be the traitor, his mother's advice about how to be strong like his father and keep the family together in his time of crisis is useless. He loses his wife because of his adamant refusal to give up crime and make the Corleone family legitimate. She tells him she aborted their last baby because she wants to stop this process—which we can see from film to film—of the continuation and perpetuation of one Corleone generation to the next of crime and violence and revenge, these "recessive traits" growing more dominant in each succeeding Corleone. He slaps her when he hears about the abortion, when she calls their marriage an abortion, and thus commits another crime against his family, against his own wife—a crime which only the uncouth Carlo, who constantly beat his wife, Connie, is guilty of in I. And, although he keeps his sister and his children with him, it is only through power and not through love. Connie has been through the mill; after her broken marriages and countless affairs, she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to but Michael, who needs her because he needs someone to take care of his children. (The final irony/indignity for neglectful mother Connie is that she ends up entirely domesticated, chaperoning a brood of kids, her own and Michael's.) He keeps his children to spite Kay and because he must possess them—not because he wants them. He is hardly with them; he merely orders subordinates, such as Tom Hagen, to buy expensive presents for them (especially for his son) because he's usually away for their birthdays and the holidays.12
Michael Corleone's saga is contrasted to his father's through the parallels to Godfather I and by counterpoint to the interspersed flashbacks of young Vito's life. In 1901, nine-year-old Vito loses his family to one of those insane Sicilian vendettas: local Mafia chieftain Ciccio has his father and older brother—and his mother—killed. Friends help Vito escape to America. There, he is shunted around on Ellis Island, given the wrong name, and quarantined for small pox. A pathetic scene shows the boy alone in a bare room, singing to himself (an important image to compare to later shots of Michael). His window affords him a clear view of the back of the Statue of Liberty.
Later (1917), we see Vito the young man now integrated into American society—or at least into Italian-American society: he has a job and friends and has begun a family of his own. When local Black Hand bigwig Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) threatens his job and friends and family, he eliminates that threat by eliminating Fanucci. Soon, he and friends Clemenza and Tessio are prospering in the "olive-oil importing" business, and they gain and command the respect of the community. Now that circumstances permit it. Vito takes his family back to his homeland, where he evens up his score with the now-ancient Don of Corleone.
Vito's vengeance is extra-legal and reprehensible, but it is justified—if no way else—in the manner of Greek tragedy, where only more bloodshed erases a crime of bloodshed. However, like Michael's trio of killings at the end of II, young Vito's two murders are excessive. For example, after shooting Fanucci twice and killing him, Vito shoves his revolver in the dead man's mouth and blows Fanucci's brains out. And Vito feels compelled to plunge his knife into Ciccio even though the old Mafia Don is on his last legs—in worse shape than Hyman Roth—when Vito confronts him. (Nearly blind and practically deaf, he doesn't recognize Vito and can't even hear the name of the person Vito has come to avenge. The added TV footage here underscores Vito's excesses by showing him brutally murdering Ciccio's old henchmen, too—as Clarens also notes.)
Middle age mellows Vito Corleone, as I shows. He operates his organization like a business; there is a civilizing influence upon it and him. He avoids open bloodshed whenever possible and conducts his affairs on a business level, keeping all personal reasons out of them. Just the opposite happens to Michael Corleone. Starting off at a fairly civilized level, he gradually degenerates. The policies of Vito Corleone's heirs become increasingly immoral, beginning in I with hot-headed Sonny's murderous, manic campaign against the Five Families when his father is hospitalized. Michael deceptively "normalizes" conditions when he takes over—until II, when his policies become totally immoral, divorced from any kind of code of ethics.
The last shot of the contemporary sequence of II—a revealing one of Michael, alone—comes in for a close-up of his face, a face which has taken on certain sinister aspects ever since McClusky broke his jaw in I, but which looks colder and harder than ever now. This scene shows clearly what Michael has become and gains even more force by comparison with the final sequence of II, into which it dissolves—another flashback, but to Michael's past, not Vito's. This segment surprises (and delights) the viewer because it seems to be some unshown portion of I. Actually, its date is 7 December 1941, almost five years before the beginning of that film. The place is the Corleone dining room, where the family is preparing for a birthday. Sonny brings his friend Carlo home for dinner and practically pushes his sister onto Carlo's lap throughout the scene (a perhaps too easy irony, but revealing nonetheless: the seeds of Sonny's, Carlo's, and Connie's destruction are planted early, here). All the brothers—Sonny, Tom Hagen, Fredo, and Michael—sit around the table discussing Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor; Sonny dominates the conversation, complaining about the nerve of those Japs to start a war on his father's birthday (another, more subtle irony; it is significant—fitting—that Don Vito's birthday should be on Pearl Harbor Day, since the Corleone birthright is one of war and slaughter, as the two pictures make clear). Tessio, who brought in the birthday cake, mentions that 30,000 men have rushed to enlist. Sonny sneers, wondering who'd be stupid enough to do a thing like that; Michael quietly says that he would: he enlisted in the Marines that morning. Sonny immediately greets this news with a belligerent attack. Tom with an attempt at logical argument against Michael's position, and everybody else with shock.
Sonny can't understand how Michael could do such a stupid thing, especially on their father's birthday; he tells him that the only group ever worth fighting for is one's own flesh and blood. Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Don Vito, and everybody rushes off to wish him happy birthday, leaving Michael sitting alone at the table, contemplating, while they sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" off-screen. (Michael's loneliness here contrasts to his father's isolation when he first comes to the U.S. Then, Vito's isolation was societally ordained; now, Michael's is self-made.)
In both the contemporary and the flashback sections of II, then, Michael is left alone at the end, in an isolation he has created against his own family. And, while on December 7 his isolation may be based on a nobler principle, allegiance to a cause or ideal larger than that of Family, his present isolation—after he has succeeded to his father's position and is now supposedly dedicated to his father's principles and the concept of Family—is due to no high ideal at all, not even that of blood being thicker than water, since his family no longer exists—since he has destroyed it. The movie ends with the image of the earlier Michael, sitting by himself at the table, but this shot—this entire flashback segment—has been superimposed over, has evolved from, the final shot in the contemporary segment and everything that has preceded it: we are made to see how far Michael has fallen. (The importance of this scene coming where it does is evident: the otherwise chronologically presented TV version does not tamper with its original position.)
The wheel has come full circle—and then some. The last surviving member of his vendetta-depleted family, Don Vito had come to America and established a new family, had moved from personal vendetta to businesslike behavior, to rationality and respectability. College student and war hero Michael, at one time not part of the family business, had been the prime example of that new rationality and respectability, his family's best and brightest hope. In I, when it is already too late and Michael has become inextricably involved in the family business, his father tells him during their heart-to-heart talk about those former high hopes. He thought Michael might have become "Senator Corleone … Governor Corleone …" Michael waves away the never-to-be-fulfilled dream. Then, for the rest of I and throughout II, he slides steadily downward from business to personal vendetta to senseless killing.
The two films never specifically deal with the motivation for Michael's degeneration, but the audience never really questions that motivation, either. A viewer takes Michael's actions for granted because he senses that I and II deal with larger issues in which personalities are submerged and subject to manipulation by greater forces: they are a working-out of the age old notion about the sins of the father and the more recent notion about the souring of the American dream.
We don't expect Michael to escape from his heritage, and he doesn't. Ironically, when he finally, wholeheartedly embraces that heritage, he cannot cope with it. He is the victim of his own wrong choices and the fact that the younger generation is not equal to the older. Faced with a set of circumstances similar to those his father surmounted, he tries to but cannot solve them in as satisfactory a fashion (because everything—including Michael—is worse than it was in his father's time). Like father, like son, but—as much as he would like to be—Michael can no more be Don Vito than hot-headed Sonny or feeble Fredo can. His love for his father eventually involves him in the family organization he sought to avoid: his quick thinking at the hospital, which saves Don Vito's life, earns him a broken jaw from McClusky and triggers in him his father's streak of revenge (though he insists to his brothers that his murder of Sollozzo and McClusky is "just business"). Hiding out in Corleone, Michael relives his father's Sicilian experience and loses a loved one (his Italian wife) to a vendetta. After this episode, Michael—unlike his father—can never escape from the cycle of murder and retribution bred in him. He remains the Sicilian killer his father outgrew. Don Vito, during the conciliatory meeting he convenes in I, voluntarily ends the violence: both he and Tattaglia have lost a son; he says they must call it quits—there can be no more killing.
Michael can never call it quits. He is incapable of adopting and still preserving his roots. He displaces his family from the East to the West, and is then bewildered when it falls apart in this incompatible environment. He clings to inappropriate customs, not making allowances for new conditions, and ignores the more important traditions. Always out of step with his family, when he thinks he is acting most like his father, he is actually most unlike him; he tries too hard, and destroys his family while trying to preserve it.
Other directors have sometimes re-made their own films, often to rethink and expand upon themes set forth, to expose flaws inherent but not apparent in their originals (e.g. Ford in The Searchers  and Two Rode Together , Hawks in Rio Bravo  and El Dorado  and again in Rio Lobo ), but none have succeeded quite so artfully as Coppola and Puzo in the two Godfathers. By telling the tale of the Godfather and then essentially retelling it in order to show the deterioration in the second generation of Corleones, they masterfully make the same thing different and the same theme more far-reaching.
1. See especially Carlos Clarens, "The Godfather Saga," Film Comment, 14, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb., 1978), pp. 21-23.
2. For two prominent examples, see Judith Crist, "All in the Family," New York, 23 Dec. 1974, pp. 70-71, and Pauline Kael, "Fathers and Sons," The New Yorker, 23 Dec. 1974, pp. 63-66.
3. I partially except Richard Schickel who, in "The Final Act of a Family Epic," Time, 16 Dec. 1974, pp. 70 and 73, notes the repetition-alteration technique used in the wedding-communion party celebrations of I and II.
4. "Whatever seemed to work in the first is repeated almost identically in the second" ("The Godfather Saga," p. 22). "Almost identically" is the key here. Clarens continues: "This calculated arrangement of episodes that recall each other has been disturbed by the new TV format." True, but the arrangement is so much a part of the two films' inherent structures that it carries over anyway. For example, TV segments I and 3 end at the same parallel point—in the middle of the wedding and communion celebrations, which then begin the next days' episodes.
5. Senator Geary mangles the name "Corleone" when he speaks it publicly. However, in private he has no trouble saying it right. His "real American" contempt for the Corleones expresses what must be the prevailing attitude toward Michael and his "kind." Geary—who doesn't like these displaced, ethnic Easterners with their "greasy hair"—even stoops so low as to make a disparaging remark about Michael's family: he says he doesn't care for his "whole fucking family"—a comment which understandably angers Michael. In New York, in I, people don't make such personal slurs—they leave their families out of business. Even Californian Jack Woltz, Geary's parallel in I, who makes a number of ethnic slurs when he is approached by Tom Hagen about Johnny Fontane, never resorts to the kind of familial insult the Senator does in II.
6. The significant look which passes between Tom Hagen, kneeling by the dazed Senator's bed, and a Corleone torpedo, standing and wiping his hands just inside the bathroom, makes it obvious to the audience—if such confirmation is necessary—that the Senator is being framed for the killing which the hit-man performed. However, an alert observer of this scene may note—in the last shot of the bed, just before the cut—that the victim's stomach does move. This suggests either that the "victim" is in on the frame up or—more likely—that the actress playing the part of the corpse is not a complete adept in the art of shallow breathing.
7. Godfather I foreshadows Fredo's treachery in II. When Fredo tries to defend Moe Green in I, Michael tells him, "You're my brother and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again." Unfortunately, Fredo does not heed these words.
8. Richard Castellano's Clemenza is given far more screen time and is shown to be more intimate with the family than Tessio is. For example, it is Clemenza who makes spaghetti for the group and gives Michael, whom he addresses familiarly as "Mikie," advice about cooking, about love, and—later, when they're setting up Sollozzo and McClusky—about killing.
9. Clemenza himself was supposed to be the betrayer in II. However since Richard Castellano considered his services too valuable and played hard-to-get, he remained ungotten for II. Coppola, figuring that public identification of Castellano with Clemenza was too great to permit him to substitute some other actor for the part, hit upon the expedient of writing Clemenza out of the script (it's mentioned that he died of natural causes) and writing a new character in, one who supposedly got the nod from Clemenza before he passed on. Besides Pentangeli's overall Clemenza-like demeanor, the clearest indication that he was meant to be Clemenza comes when he tries to explain to Michael why he should get better treatment from the Corleones in New York: he says he deserves it because he was with Don Vito in the old days. However, I makes no mention of and never shows Pentangeli, whereas all other characters in II (except Hyman Roth—a necessary afterthought on the part of the scriptwriters, since they'd eliminated all of the Corleones' other enemies in I) can be found in I. Obviously, Pentangeli's speech was originally written for Clemenza. Thus, Pentangeli is meant to represent someone closer to the Corleones than Tessio was.
10. With all of this excess, Michael proves himself to be far less scrupulous than his father, who always only allowed an eye for an eye. When undertaker Bonasera, in I, asks the Godfather to have the two boys who brutally beat his daughter put to death. Don Vito tells him, "That would not be justice; your daughter is still alive." Once Bonasera accordingly alters his request—"Then make them suffer, as she has suffered"—the Don readily complies and orders that the guilty duo be brutally beaten.
11. Michael's demotion of Hagen is all the more telling in II because it follows on the heels of a promotion: at the beginning of II, Michael leaves Tom in charge as acting Don while he goes to Florida, New York, and Cuba on Hyman Roth-Frankie Pentangeli business. When he confers this post upon Hagen, Michael tells him that he always regarded him as a brother. Hagen is choked with emotion. "I always wanted to be thought of as a brother by you, Mikie," he says. However, as II progresses, Michael steadily moves away from this early growing-together; he later makes Tom wait outside while he discusses business with some associates. This belies Michael's action at the beginning of II when he lets Hagen sit in on his meeting with the Senator and others, telling Geary that he trusts Tom implicitly. In the end, he becomes so suspicious of his step-brother that he accuses him of duplicity and disloyalty.
12. When Michael returns from his months-long trip away from his family, he sees his present-by-proxy to his son, the toy car Tom Hagen sent for him, unused and snow-covered on the lawn. When Michael goes inside his home, no one is there to greet him. He wanders through the house and sees Kay at work in front of her sewing machine. She is engrossed and does not notice him. He stands there and says nothing to her. Through these wordless scenes, Coppola visually conveys Michael's estrangement from his family.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4134
SOURCE: "Heart of Darkness and the Process of Apocalypse Now," in Conradiana, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1981, pp. 45-53.
[In the following essay, Hagen analyzes the relationship between Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and concludes, "I tend to see Apocalypse Now as a failed masterpiece, another instance of the fact that the production-editing process cannot bear too much of the conceptual load in a feature film."]
Toward the end of Apocalypse Now we reach that supremely Conradian moment when Willard, the Marlow figure, confronts the object of his journey, Colonel Kurtz. Does he come to rescue Kurtz and, in so doing, test himself? If Francis Ford Coppola had chosen to follow Joseph Conrad here, he might have gotten some desperately needed U.S. military assistance. But that was not the kind of script conclusion the director of The Godfather and Godfather II had planned for his war epic.
Still, Coppola underscores the significance of the meeting by altering his style. When Willard is taken into the temple for the first time, the whole pace of the film slows down, as if in imitation of the ponderous immensity of Brando. Brando-Kurtz slowly emerges into the light and pats water on his gleaming bald head, in a kind of ritual cleansing. The camera holds the shots for a much longer period than usual, allowing movement to be dictated by the actors rather than by focusing in or editing. Dialogue too proceeds at a much slower pace, with pauses occurring within sentences as well as between them. Questions are left hanging for a few extra beats, even when there is nothing particularly threatening about them. Of course, the pace has been slackening ever since the Do Lung Bridge sequence, but this scene is so slow it borders on worship. Brando is meant to by mythic, the still center of darkness, worshipped and self-worshipping, capable of every atrocity including self-annihilation through his double. Willard is so affected by the atmosphere of disorder and stasis, that he has to force himself to kill Kurtz. Through lighting, camera angles, and cross-cutting, the murder itself is transformed into a kind of dance in and out of darkness, creating a visual-aesthetic experience quite as isolated as the slow-motion destruction of a Sam Peckinpah film. The acquiescence of Kurtz and the preliminary appearance of Willard out of black water make the whole affair a kind of rite of rebirth-initiation into the world of Kurtz through slaying of the king.
With the exception of the rather abrupt thematic cross-cuts between the murder and the ritual killing of a caribou, the encounters are quite stunning and organic … visually. We could perhaps accept the deliberate departure from Conrad's novel if the director did not also seek to build in the psychological-moral dimensions of Heart of Darkness. His characters may be caught in a ritual of death and rebirth, but he wants them to have depth all the same. He wants viewers to confront the immensity of this war one more time. Above all, he wants to explain everything through Kurtz. So Coppola picks up Kurtz' last words and tries to build a structural theme for the last portion of the film. By the time we hear "The horror!" for the last time, in a memory replay, we are likely to have worked up that fine wrath normally reserved for all those who quote outrageously out of context.
Conrad's Kurtz mouths his last words as a message to himself and, through Marlow, to the world. He has not really explained himself to Marlow before this final exclamation. Through Marlow's summary and moral reactions, we come to a sense of the possibilities of meaning rather than definite meaning. The message is more Marlow's and the reader's than it is Kurtz'. By contrast, Coppola's Kurtz precisely defines "horror"; the only way we can make his definition our message is to see his horror and enact his definition with Willard. The way to judgment lies through vicarious violence. Judgment is self-judgment.
The problem with even this transaction is that Willard seems almost unmoved by his experience. He certainly expresses no moral judgment. The worst he says is that he sees "no method" in Kurtz' operations. This statement may strike the reader of Conrad as uncomfortably similar to the Station Manager's amoral judgment of Kurtz' atrocities as merely "unsound" or bad for company business. The separation of reason from civilized morality, the fragmentation of the self so typical of the technocrat, causes Marlow to prefer the nightmare of Kurtz. Better to commit atrocities passionately than to account them wrong on grounds of efficiency. Like Dante—whose traditional moral hierarchy he reflects—Marlow can summon up a measure of sympathy for those who succumb to their emotions or appetites and reserve unmeasured scorn for those who pervert reason. Within the film, only the general at the briefing and Chef show the rational or emotional repugnance toward Kurtz; Willard, the professional soldier, is more than halfway friendly with this horror. After Chef joins the heads and Willard becomes part of the horror, we may realize that the whole point of the scenes at the Kurtz compound is to make the audience confront Kurtz' horror without moral mediation. From the very beginning, the shots of the compound were carefully filled with more separate images and actions, especially around the edges of the frame, than the eye could integrate. The eye was always kept moving and focusing on different parts of the screen. We did not have Marlow's field glasses or his sensibility to distance us or focus in sympathetically; we were entrapped and overwhelmed in an amoral medium range. Thus, instead of judgment or self-judgment, we are likely to come away from this perceptual overdose with the feeling that it has been a bad trip, and nothing more.
Other contributors to this symposium will undoubtedly analyze this and other portions of the film to show the many differences and similarities to Conrad's text. Hopefully, they will pay homage to the cinematic power of the film. After all of the analyses, however, one may be moved to wonder just what the director-writer and the other contributors had in mind, with regard to Heart of Darkness, or what process led from the novel to such a mixture of visual spectacle and moral-intellectual vacuity.
The program handed out at the screenings of the 70-mm print of Apocalypse Now gives the following script credits: "Written by John Milius and Francis Coppola; Narration by Michael Herr." Nowhere in the formal credits is Joseph Conrad or Heart of Darkness mentioned. The novel is briefly referred to in the program's log: "September 3, 1976. Marlon Brando arrives. He reads Heart of Darkness and shaves his head for the Col. Kurtz role." Within the film itself, the novel is not accorded reference equal to The Golden Bough or T. S. Eliot's poetry; it is not recited as quotation or included among the books in the bibliographic pan toward the end of the film. Of course, for the cognizant, there are plenty of lines, or echoes of lines, as well as the unmentioned epigraph to Kurtz' favorite poem, "The Hollow Men."
In point of fact, Conrad's name originally appeared in the screen credits, but was removed after one of the listed writers protested through the Screen Writer's Guild. Coppola is quite candid about the three texts that contributed to the final script: the novel, Michael Herr's Dispatches—originally published as a series of Esquire articles—, and John Milius' script, entitled Apocalypse Now, which built some of its passages from Herr's book and Heart of Darkness. The script itself went through several phases: the original 1969 script by Milius, collaborative revisions during preproduction period (1975–76). Coppola's revisions during production, and Herr's narration, added after shooting was completed in 1977.
To read the statements regarding Heart of Darkness by the two main architects of the script, Milius and Coppola, is to confront a tangle of high intentions, self-delusion, and probably self-protection. It is harder to verify what Milius says about his original script or its collaborative revision because, apart from two fragments in Film Comment (July-August 1976), nothing has been published. In an interview included with the script fragments, he claims to have used Heart of Darkness "in an allegorical sense." Kurtz went up the river with a military mission and a moral mission: he was to turn the tribesmen into a fighting force and bring them "democracy and Western civilization." He succeeds admirably in the first mission at the cost of the second mission and his own civilized sanity. Milius depicts him as having made sense of the war by embracing tribal values:
[To Willard] We revel in our own blood; we fight for glory, for land that's under our feet, gold that's in our hands, women that worship the power in our loins. I summon fire from the sky. Do you know what it is to be a white man who can summon fire from the sky?
Milius meant for the audience to confront the tribalization of Americans in the very first scene of the original script. That scene depicts the colonel's team members ambushing a column of Viet Cong. G. I.s emerge from the jungle, one by one, dressed and painted like savages. The camera records the scene from the point of view of the victims: the audience is variously blasted by a shotgun, incinerated by a flame-thrower, and scalped by an American wearing a peace sign on his helmet. Quite apart from the Kurtz behind the spooky voice on the tape recording and the ghostlike images of the photos, then, this was to be the reality Willard moved toward. As opposed to the film, this was madness with enough method for a professional soldier to admire. Willard's journey was to be an odyssey, with adventures that threatened to delay or divert him from his mission, while revealing the purposelessness of our war effort. Encounters with a surfing colonel (Cyclops), Playboy bunnies in a downed helicopter (Sirens), the Do Lung Bridge sequence (visit to underworld for further instruction?), and a meal at an old French plantation (Circe? Lotus-eaters?) would make grand scenes and trigger an analysis of his own role in the war.
The jungle was to have the force of the environment in Bridge on the River Kwai, becoming more powerful and primeval as Willard approached the Kurtz compound. Willard's line in the film—"Even the jungle wanted him dead"—picks up a theme enunciated by Kurtz in Milius' script. He shows Willard a rotting hole in his side and points to the insects swarming around him: "The beast of the jungle did the rest. I haven't long to go … the only justice will be had by the beasts…. Theirs will be final, and we will have made no more mark on this jungle than a stone thrown into an ocean." Even though this may sound like Conrad merged with Lord of the Flies one assumes that the Milius script would have stressed the surroundings as a means of initiation to Kurtz' world rather than as a green backdrop out of which pop tigers, banners, tracer bullets, and arrows. Certainly the above-mentioned opening establishes the jungle and swamp first; the ambushers emerge from underwater and behind foliage.
Given the opening view of savage Americans, the inefficiency of the official war effort, and the power of the jungle, the conversion of Willard to Kurtz' side in Milius' script would seem inevitable. They would join forces and die together. Coppola apparently agreed that some conversion to Kurtz' position was the more logical conclusion, but bowed to audience surveys which indicated a preference for Willard alive and faithful to his original mission. One speculates some problems, however, since Willard was to have undergone psychological change during his journey. Was this change to be represented only by a change of allegiance? His late assertion that he kills because "it feels so good," delivered to Kurtz in the Milius script, would seem appropriate at any point in the script for a man "who exists only because of the war." Perhaps he merely joins the more efficient war. At any rate, the self-doubting, guilt-ridden Willard, established in the first scene of the film, is Coppola's creation.
On the other hand, Milius' Kurtz definitely seems more of a piece than Brando-Coppola's Kurtz. If the jungle environment were actually established as a force, if Kurtz' other lines were as strong as those in the published fragment, if we can imaginatively fill out Kurtz by using the comparison Milius makes to the Paul Newman character in Milius' previous film, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, then Milius' Kurtz would have gone down (with Willard) in a blaze of apocalyptic glory. We would probably have been spared Kurtz' unearned realization of "The horror! The horror!" whispered to us in stereo or sexophonic (70-mm version) sound.
One must be careful, however, not to use a speculated script to construct "the film that might have been." It is quite evident that Milius established much of the plot and most of the lavish scenes in the first half of the film, all of which constitute a major variance from the method of Heart of Darkness. Milius says he wanted the spectator "to see the exhilaration of it all … the horror of it all: you're going right into the war with no holds barred." Certainly his first scene preserves no Conradian mental and moral distance from the action. The direct approach to the war, as a series of perceptual traumas that threaten to reduce the mind to passivity owe as much to the acid journalism of Michael Herr's Dispatches filtered through a sensibility fascinated with war as to what Stanley Kauffmann calls Coppola's "apparent sense that the world is seen most truthfully when it is seen as spectacle." If Milius' Kurtz was more of a piece, he was more a piece of this action, living in splendor with wives, babies, and few doubts.
Coppola was quite dissatisfied with the conception of Willard in the original script. Although Milius claims that his script was not political, Coppola saw the whole thing as "a political comic strip" up to and including the end.
Attila the Hun [i.e., Kurtz] with two bands of machine-gun bullets around him, taking the hero Willard by the hand…. Willard converts to Kurtz' side; in the end, he's firing up at the helicopters that are coming to get him, crying out crazily.
He decided to "take the script much more strongly in the direction of Heart of Darkness—which was, I know, opening a Pandora's box." In particular, one can see problems in his conception of Willard, whom he felt was "literally zero" in Milius' script. He wanted to "psychologize" Willard, following Conrad's lead, but "In no way could he get in the way of the audience's view of what was happening, of Vietnam." The latter statement certainly reveals that Coppola never understood the role of Marlow in the novel. By the same token, I think his instincts were right: one cannot have a spectacle vicariously experienced and an experience filtered through a narrator who has changed mentally and morally as a result of that experience. Scenes which enlarge our sense of a real world, as in the picaresque novel, usually do so at some expense to character; scenes which enlarge or create a crisis for the character who is our vantage point are often not fully objectified. Would the helicopter assault have been as effective if the camera had been restricted to Willard's vantage point? Would Conrad's Kurtz have seemed as powerful if Marlow had faithfully recorded all that he said? Some film theorists would add that Coppola's instincts were right even if he had understood the role of Marlow because film redeems material reality or its immediate perception more naturally than consciousness. Critics who bemoan the medium's tendency to reduce Conrad to large scenes and large characters, to present his work as primarily romantic, might be tempted to agree. At any rate, Coppola's problem was that he wanted it both ways; he wanted the exhilarating episodes of Milius and he wanted the psychological dimension of Conrad's Marlow. Michael Herr's method of grabbing all the experience one can get in the great trip of life would not help him achieve a balance. So he went into production with this problem, hoping that a good actor might help him resolve it. He had hopes that "the part would play the person." The role of Willard was offered to Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, James Caan, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford. Since the problem of Willard was also the problem of Kurtz, many of the same actors were offered the Kurtz role. Apparently, only in the editing room would Coppola realize the results of such contrary impulses—a film with radically different styles in different parts.
During the shooting of Apocalypse Now, Eleanor Coppola, the director's wife, began keeping a journal which was to help her make a documentary film of the production. So far as I know, that documentary was either not completed or not released. She drops all mention of it about mid-way through the journal, where personal and family problems increasingly enter. The journal itself, published by Simon and Schuster under the title of Notes, unfortunately, is too fragmentary and begins too late in the process to offer much information on specific script decisions that moved the film closer to or farther away from Heart of Darkness.
What it does reveal is just how many script decisions were deferred till production was actually underway. Coppola the director shot scenes by day, while Coppola the writer rewrote scenes by night. Throughout, he hoped that important elements of plot, character, and theme could achieve conceptual clarity during the process of production. For instance, although he was sure enough about the Willard part to fire Harvey Keitel because he projected too strongly, he apparently did not realize that Sheen's Willard was verging toward nonentity till late in the picture. At that point, probably after Sheen's physical breakdown rendered him unable to reshoot extensively, Coppola made the decision to have Michael Herr work up the voice-over narration to fill out the character. Even if Conrad's Marlow suggested this method, it was not part of the original script. For another more extreme instance, Notes presents Brando as having virtual veto power over his lines and character. "Francis hadn't been able to write a scene that Marlon thought was really right." He arrived without having read Heart of Darkness: he and Coppola had to work out the character, almost in front of the cameras. Coppola rescripted some scenes after viewing the footage of those very scenes. The isolation of Brando-Kurtz from his men, enshrined in his temple compound, is as much due to the problems of working out character on a two-week time schedule as it is to any thematic intention. In the original Milius script and in Coppola's mind he might have been integrated into that part of the film fashioned by "Heart of Darkness and me," but Notes and the interview make it clear that the anxious director and his overweight, opinionated star conceived and filmed the character at almost the same time. "As soon as Brando started to improvise, Frances could begin to direct, that is, see the direction the scene should go." It is not surprising that the character has more physical and visual presence than psychological power. The cinematographer, Storaro, more deliberately planned his effects.
Some critics have suggested that Notes itself should be regarded as a kind of publicity release. (Did husband, who suggested the journal become a book, also suggest changes? Certainly he filled out some details.) Throughout the journal, the director displays self-doubts about his product, while maintaining the highest esteem for his sources, Conrad's novel and our corporate Vietnam experience. The self-doubt, later displayed in the test showings of different versions of the film, rather artfully becomes Coppola's own journey into darkness during the process of filmmaking. The open-ended approach to script fits right in, of course. Almost two months into production, early in the journal, the director's wife sets up a thematic connection that becomes prevalent in the book:
Willard and Kurtz are not resolved…. Now he [Frances Coppola] is struggling with the themes of Willard's journey into self and Kurtz' truths that are in a way themes he has not resolved within himself, so he is really going through the most intense struggle to write his way to the end of the script and understand himself on the way.
More and more it seems like there are parallels between the character of Kurtz and Francis. There is the exhilaration of power in the face of losing everything.
Later, as Sheen settles into his muted Willard and Brando is due to arrive, the resolution of Kurtz becomes the primary problem. Rereading Conrad does not help Coppola: "The ideas of what Kurtz represents are so big that when you try to get a handle on them they are almost undefinable." Unfortunately, his decision to use a star for the Kurtz role and his own realistic proclivities push him in the direction of defining, whereas Conrad is careful to suggest. Where specific outlines are not credible, the character, like his compound, is presented as too large to be contained in the frame. Isolated bigness and hollowness are the result: a huge temple honeycombed with small barren rooms, a large body with a shining oval head, a rhetoric that echoes more than it means.
The director's journey becomes a personal journey for the whole crew, for his family, especially for this wife, who wants to create something herself. Still later, when Sheen collapses, Coppola seems to collapse too and begins talking about divorce. Finally, the creative journey is connected to the war: "there was no simple solution to the script. Just as there was no simple right answer as to why we were in Vietnam." In the program notes, Coppola ties it all together, projecting the journey as an audience catharsis as well:
Over the period of shooting, this film gradually made itself; and curiously, the process of making the film became very much like the story of the film….
I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river….
It was my thought that if the American audience could look at the heart of what Vietnam was really like … they would be only one small step away from putting it behind them.
Coppola's statements here may strike us as pretentious and self-serving, but I tend to think that he has made the common mistake of artists who imagine that the experience of the audience and the stature of the artwork can somehow be predicted by the anguish of the creative process. In wanting to improve the Milius script, especially after the Do Lung Bridge sequence, he turned to Heart of Darkness and the somewhat improvisatory method itself. However, by not working out the precise relation of Heart of Darkness to the conception of the film in script form, Coppola insured a less faithful adaptation. In a process of conceptualization and production, different script considerations externalize as physical factors and personalities. Without a firm script or a director with a firm conception, group spontaneity can all-to-easily give way to anxiety and competition. Costly sets, actors, sound engineers, a tribe of extras, stocks of explosives, a meticulous cinematographer (who wants to organize by shot frames rather than by scenes) directly or indirectly pressure the director to help fill in the blank places of the script. In such a situation, the medium may have more voices than the message.
Ironically, although Coppola wanted to draw the greatness of the film from the greatness of the novel, the section of the film most like Heart of Darkness is the weakest because he makes the rather romantic assumption—which is, in fact, a misreading of the novel—that experience itself will immediately dictate certain discoveries. He forgets the years of reflection Marlow has given to his experience, the "recollection in tranquility" that Wordsworth argued must follow "the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions" if they are to be shaped into art. Although one may shuffle the scenes around like cards, although sound or narration may be added, the scenes themselves cannot be done again; celluloid is much less tractable than words.
I tend to see Apocalypse Now as a failed masterpiece, another instance of the fact that the production-editing process cannot bear too much of the conceptual load in a feature film. Coppola needed something definite to improvise against. I would reluctantly speculate that his film would have achieved greater unity if he had relied more on Milius' scripted version of Heart of Darkness than the novel itself.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8784
SOURCE: "Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now," in American Quarterly, Vo. 34, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 418-39.
[In the following essay, Hellmann traces how Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Coppola's Apocalypse Now use different American genres—the western and the hardboiled detective, respectively—to portray two different interpretations of the Vietnam War.]
Since their respective releases in 1978 and 1979, Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now have enjoyed remarkable popular and critical success. But their wide recognition as contemporary cinematic masterpieces has been accompanied by a corresponding controversy regarding their thematic significance and coherence. In addition, none of the commentaries on either of these two epic-scale films about the Vietnam War has searched for possible connections between them. My first purpose in this essay is to show that each film draws its design from a popular American narrative formula, with the separate formulas providing the basis for the differences between The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now as interpretations of the Vietnam War. I further wish to demonstrate that a link between those formulas establishes an underlying relation between the two films, embodying their essential aesthetic strategy. The allusion of The Deer Hunter to The Deerslayer signals the presentation of the Vietnam War through the popular genre for which Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales are the prototype: the western. Similarly, the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now establish the presentation of the symbolic journey of Heart of Darkness, itself an adventure/mystery tale, through the specific conventions of the hard-boiled detective formula. This use of popular genres that are related as central American myths of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries connects the two films.
A popular genre, as Stanley Solomon succinctly defines it, is "a certain mythic structure, formed on a core of narrative meaning found in those works that are readily discernible as related and belonging to a group."1 As the two most enduring genres of American pulp literature, Hollywood movies, and television series up to the time of the Vietnam War, the western and hard-boiled detective formulas provide The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now with a culturally resonant means for interpreting a national experience. And because both formulas are genres of romance, they provide the directors with the "mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms"2 that Richard Chase has traced as the main strategy of the American literary tradition for encountering the contradictions and extreme ranges of American culture and experience, of which Vietnam is a recent and particularly traumatic example.
Despite its decline in recent years, the western has been the major formula story of American popular culture over the last century and a half, establishing its central significance as American myth. Rather than a single pattern of action, the western is defined instead by the influence of its symbolic landscape, a frontier between civilization and wilderness, upon a lonely hero.3 The confrontation of these basic forces creates a sharply delineated conflict resulting in a variety of stock characters and plot configurations. With its emphasis on the relation of the hero to a frontier landscape, the western deals with the conflict created by the dominant direction of American experience, the flight from community (Europe, the East, restraint, the conscious) into a wilderness (America, the West, freedom, the unconscious).
With The Deer Hunter, Cimino, who in the subsequent Heaven's Gate turned with notorious ambition directly to the genre, presents America's experience in Vietnam through the conventions of the western. While virtually every commentary on the film has pointed out the connection between the protagonists of The Deerslayer and The Deer Hunter, to my knowledge only David Axeen and Colin Westerbeck, in separate articles, have gone beyond this to the perception that the film is presented in the terms of the form Cooper invented. But instead of exploring the specific elements involved, both use the observation to dismiss the film for being, as Axeen phrases it, "fatally oversimplified":
The problem with the Cooper-Cimino Western is that it asks us to suspend our knowledge of history, and ignore the realities of social structure…. Neither Cooper nor Cimino wants to consider the people and forces really in control. They want us to identify with their heroes as natural aristocrats in still unspoiled wilderness domains.4
This familiar criticism leveled at the romantic tradition of American literature identifies the link between that tradition and Cimino's use of the western in The Deer Hunter. As Leslie Fiedler has shown, the "low" forms of fantasy literature, particularly those emphasizing violence and terror, have provided symbolic vehicles for the exploration of basic conflicts within the American consciousness.5 Although the function of the popular western, as John Cawelti has observed, is "to resolve some of the unresolvable contradictions of American values that our major writers have laid bare,"6 the genre has, in the hands of literary practitioners such as Owen Wister and filmmakers such as John Ford, served as a vehicle for sophisticated popular art. In addition, it has also provided an important influence and impetus for the more disturbing explorations of American culture found in Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner. The western formula affords Cimino the strengths of the central national myth in dealing with Vietnam as a collective American trauma. At the same time, The Deer Hunter achieves more than a perpetuation of past myth by its understanding of the essence of the myth and its critical examination of it. Unlike The Green Berets, an unthinking use of the western formula, The Deer Hunter is a western affected by the shift in landscape. The Deer Hunter is an important artistic interpretation of the war precisely because it so fully comprehends the essence of its source and self-consciously explores its meaning in reference to recent American experience.
In The Deer Hunter the actions and character of a lonely hero, Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro), are closely associated with wilderness landscapes, the basis for a structure of violent conflicts and sharp oppositions. The film turns on such characteristic devices of the western as male bonding, the repressed love of the hero for a "good woman," the terror of confrontation with savage denizens of a hostile landscape, dancehall girls, even a "shoot-out" across a table in a crowded gambling room. But even as Cimino thus sets the Vietnam experience squarely in the context of the dominant American historical/mythic tradition, he stands the genre on its head. Assimilating the Vietnam experience into the American consciousness by embodying it in the western formula, Cimino substitutes for its traditional plot motifs (implying the inevitable triumph of white consciousness) a story of traumatic captivity. The accusations of racism made against The Deer Hunter are not correct in a political or social sense; Vietnamese are shown among the victims of the Viet Cong in the Russian roulette captivity scenes, a black American soldier without arms in the military hospital is one of the most vivid statements against war in the film, and white Americans are prominently shown placing bets in the final Russian roulette scene. But the film does employ the imagery that has obsessed the romantic tradition of American literature from its beginnings with a violent confrontation between the conscious and unconscious, civilization and wilderness, played out in the white imagination as a struggle between light and dark. The Deer Hunter, through the western formula, presents Vietnam as yet another historic projection of an internal struggle of white American consciousness, but one where the dream of mastery over nature and the unconscious, or alternatively of benign communion with them, is turned upside-down into a nightmare of captivity.
The defining elements of the western are first presented in The Deer Hunter in a timelessly mythic configuration: the hero, Michael, lives on an edge between civilization and nature. The Pennsylvania steel town named Clairton where he was raised represents both European tradition and modern industrialization, and the surrounding mountain forest embodies the original American wilderness. Cimino has written that he explained to his director of photography "at the beginning my feelings about location, my feelings about the importance of size and presence of landscape in a film—and the statement that landscape makes, without anyone realizing it."7 His mythic intentions are asserted by his representation of a Pennsylvania steel town with a composite of eight separate locations from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, of the Alleghenies with the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, and of the deer with a stag imported from a wildlife preserve in New Jersey—representations that sacrifice authentic setting for a more powerfully symbolic landscape.8
The deer hunter himself has the salient traits embodied in his Cooper prototype and in virtually every western hero to follow. Living on the outer edge of the town in a trailer, he is a part of the community, and yet is clearly separated from it by his alienation from its corruption and by his strict adherence to a personal code closely associated with the uncorrupted wilderness and its original inhabitants. For example, he despises all of his friends except Nick (Christopher Walken) for their inability to understand the ritualistic importance of killing a deer with "one shot." And at the wedding reception he responds to whispers from Stanley (John Cazale) about the actual father of the pregnant bride's unborn child by running down the street stripping off his clothes, a compulsive flight from social corruption. Finding little relevance in the old European traditions of the community, Michael has, like his literary ancestor, turned to nature. In the opening sequence he perplexes his companions by insisting that they go on a hunt that night because the "sun dogs" he sees in the sky are an old Indian sign of "a blessing on the hunters sent by the Great Wolf to his children."9 And in strong contrast to his detachment from the elaborate rituals of the Russian Orthodox wedding, which he knows are mocked by the pregnancy of the bride, he is intensely involved in the proper preparation, practice, and culmination of the hunt. Finally, the taunts of Stanley that Michael does not take advantage of opportunities with women clearly set Michael in the tradition of the celibate western hero.
Michael is also characterized as separated from his community by the more disturbing traits of the western hero. Suggestively, the characters regard Michael with both respectful awe and uneasy perplexity, finding his omen-reading crazy and his hunting prowess extraordinary. From the viewer's perspective also, Michael's characteristics have contradictory significance. His need to prove self-reliant results in reckless activity, as in the scene in which he risks his own and his friends' lives by passing a truck on the inside merely on a casual bet. And his deer hunting, attractive for its skill and sense of value, results in the image of a gutted deer sprawled across his old Cadillac's hood as it speeds down the mountain road to drunken singing. Even Michael's distaste for the practice and consequences of sexual promiscuity is set off against his repressed passion for Nick's girlfriend (Meryl Streep), revealed in his chivalrous courting of her during the wedding reception. Indeed, the narcissistic, promiscuous, and pistol-flashing Stanley, who is Michael's antagonist, is also the dark reflection of Michael's repressed self, just as the outlaw is the mirror image of the western hero. When Michael derides Stanley's obsession with womanizing and carrying a pistol by holding up a bullet and saying "this is this, this isn't something else," his insistence on the bullet's lack of symbolic significance, while he himself cradles his deer-slaying rifle, must be ironic for the viewer. Michael, like the western hero, is a man of extraordinary virtues and resources, which are dangerous unless properly channeled into a role protective of the community.
While the defining elements of the western, the influence of a frontier landscape upon the character and actions of a lonely hero, are those of The Deer Hunter, they are conceived in more complex psycho-symbolic terms. The western has conventionally projected the conflicts of the American consciousness in black-and-white characters representing good and evil (hero versus outlaw, lawmen versus rustlers, cavalry versus Indians, noble Indian tribes versus threatening tribes) in a single landscape. Cimino uses the same psycho-symbolic method and terms, but dramatizes the conflicts within the consciousness of the hero and projects them in a division of both characters and landscape. The film develops through the stock oppositions and melodramatic confrontations of the western, but they are presented more explicitly as external images of the protagonist's consciousness, projections of his impulses and thus of the national consciousness he represents as mythic hero. As a result, Vietnam functions in the film as a mirror image of America, a dark landscape turning upside-down the benign landscape of Cimino's mythic Alleghenies.
This relation of Michael as western hero to the landscapes and secondary characters of The Deer Hunter is brilliantly embodied in the remarkable cut with which Cimino abruptly moves the film from America to Vietnam. One moment Michael, after returning to the bar from the mountain hunt, is in a quiet reverie as he listens with his male friends to melodic piano; the next, surrounded by dead American soldiers, he lies unconscious amid the exploding horrors of Vietnam. The effect of the cut is to have Michael wake up from his dream of the deer hunt to a nightmare inversion of the landscape and its relation to the hero and community. The first third of the film shows Michael in flight to nature and away from a strained, corrupt, but strongly bonded community. But, as Michael recovers consciousness, that flight has taken the viewer into hell. The camera shoots Michael from a downward-looking angle showing him struggling to lift himself from the jungle grass, a sharp contrast to the upward-looking angles of Michael against the sky during the deer hunt. The community, a small Vietnamese village, is surrounded not by snow-capped, pine-forested mountain peaks but by dark jungle foliage. In contrast to the opening shots of the film showing Michael and his friends at the mill harnessing fire to make steel, now helicopters destroy the village with incendiary bombs. Steven's pregnant bride metaphorically and his mother literally dragged him from the male haven of the bar; now a grinning North Vietnamese cadre tosses a grenade into a shelter full of women and children. Michael and his friends found satisfaction in hunting and gutting a deer; now pigs fight over the entrails of dead American soldiers. Nature and civilization are the dominant terms of both the American and Vietnamese settings, but in Vietnam the asylum of nature has become an invading hell.
Yet Michael is revealed as in his element here, for his influence and impulses have been unleashed in this frontier landscape. His countenance immediately verifies this, for the hunter who guided himself by Indian lore now wears a cloth headband about his head and has war paint (for camouflage) streaked on his face. He is, in fact, an airborne ranger, and both his appearance and the term "ranger" link him to the tradition of Indian fighters who used Indian skills, became like Indians, to protect the community from Indians. Michael, who like the Deerslayer and other western heroes could only flee the internal threat of corruption inherent in social relations, responds to the external threat of a darker-skinned man firing on a woman and child by literally purging him from the earth with fire. Michael's intense compulsions in the first third of the film were manifested in reckless driving, excessive drinking, flight from women, and a hunt resulting in the image of a gutted deer. Michael, like the western hero, finds a place for his violent impulses only in a threatened community. This scene classically parallels the image of the frontier hero protecting innocent settlers by killing the savage Indian. But Michaels' method, a furious blast from a flamethrower, visually asserts the deeper ambiguity of the scene—it opened with the village being blown apart by American napalm. The North Vietnamese soldier is only an undisguised version of the evil that Michael's "good" forces bring to the community. And both the "evil" North Vietnamese and "good" American helicopters act out the repressed hatreds against community found in the male culture of Clairton's bars and hunts.
This ambiguity, based in a visual presentation of the "good" and "evil" elements of the western in clear mirror relation to each other, is brought to its fullest implications in the central sequence of the film, the forced Russian roulette scenes. This scene has been the focus of the most outraged attacks on the film, for it has to many critics seemed to present white America as innocent victim of the savage Viet Cong.10 And, indeed, it is a portrayal of America's experience in Vietnam out of that earliest source of the western, the Indian captivity narrative in which innocent whites are subjected to hideous tortures. But there are deep ambiguities within this apparent confrontation between innocent whites and dark savages. The Viet Cong, as they grin, drink beer, and bet money while forcing their captives to play Russian roulette, display the same impulse and even the same iconography as did Michael and his friends in the bar in Clairton when they drank and bet on televised football. And the one-shot nature of Russian roulette is a parallel to the one-shot value of Michael's hunt. Finally, just as Michael has been the restrained, intense leader of loutish companions, the Viet Cong have the look of grinning, stupid brutes except for the impassive, controlled visage of the leader.
The effect is that the Viet Cong function as demonic images of the latent impulses of the American culture, particularly as embodied in the western hero, Michael. The Indians and other darker races, closely associated with the wilderness landscape in which the white culture confronts them, have functioned in the myth and literature of American culture as symbols of forces in the unconscious. The larger symbolic design and implications of the film are a continuation of those elements of the western: the Vietnam jungle and its savage Viet Cong denizens are the nightmare inversion of the American forests and beautiful deer. Nightmare and dream, both landscapes and their inhabitants are projected aspects of the unconscious, a region beyond the confines, restraints, and limits of the conscious mind embodied in the community. The captivity scene, as did the Puritan narratives of Indian captivity, embodies a nightmare journey into the darker implications of wilderness. If the wilderness landscape (the unconscious) is a place to which the hero goes in order to dominate his passions without external restraints, it can also be the place where he may find himself captive to those same passions. The hunter becomes the hunted, the one shot of complete control an emblem of self-destruction.
By making a captivity narrative the central episode of the film, Cimino inverts the terms of the western formula. While the captivity narrative was a major nonfiction genre of early American writing, the western employs its horrors only to set the revenge/quest plot in motion; in effect, the western substitutes a fantasy emphasizing the eventual assertion of white power and value for a genre of historical narrative that had emphasized the dilemma posed by the experience of complete passivity before an alien culture. Conceiving of the Vietnam War as a western in which the captivity experience is the pivotal episode, Cimino makes The Deer Hunter deeply disturbing on the most resonant level of cultural myth.
The final third of the film develops the consequences of the captivity experience. The Deer Hunter presents Vietnam as a frontier landscape so hostile that America, having come as hunter with dreams of omnipotence, is held captive in it and forced to confront the full implications of its own impulses. There is no revenge/quest in The Deer Hunter because it would be beside the point; the point is to determine how a culture proceeds once it has experienced the inversion of its central assumptions about itself. Michael's resourcefulness as western hero enables him and Nick to kill their captors, but not before they have suffered the experience of being held captive to unrestrained violence. Nick, who called Michael a "control freak" and resisted his obsession with killing the deer with "one shot" in favor of "thinking about the deer" and "the way the trees are in the mountains," is psychologically destroyed. In the Puritan narratives of Indian captivity, as Richard Slotkin has pointed out, "captivity psychology left only two responses open to the Puritans, passive submission or violent retribution."11 Nick in effect follows both courses. He first has to be restrained by Michael from repeatedly beating a Viet Cong corpse, but then turns the unleashed impulse to destroy back upon himself. Unable to call Linda, then lured into the Russian roulette of Saigon, fading into dope and finally death, Nick embodies an innocent acceptance of nature that cannot survive the dark revelations of Vietnam. Michael, the hunter who dominates nature (his unconscious) through controlled violence (repression), discovers in captivity that he cannot be omnipotent.
For both of these Adamic characters Vietnam is a "fall," but for Michael it is a fortunate one. In the second deer hunt of the film, which follows the Vietnam captivity experience, he does not shoot the deer despite his increasingly frantic pursuit of it. Instead, when the deer faces him, he shoots into the air and says "okay," then sits by a stream and angrily shouts the word, which is this time echoed back by the mountains. "Okay" is of course an expression of acceptance, and Leo Marx identifies the echo as a standard device of pastoral literature representing the establishment of a reciprocal relationship with nature, the "pastoral ideal" of locating a "middle ground somewhere 'between,' yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and [primitive] nature."12 When at the climax of the film Michael once again faces Nick across a table at a Russian roulette game, he is desperately attempting to bring Nick back from his captivity in the violent compulsions once latent but "controlled" in Michael and subsequently transferred to Nick in the first Russian roulette scene. While Michael has responded to the trauma by moving toward a cautious version of the acceptance of nature that Nick had, Nick has become the alienated nihilist Michael had seemed potentially. Nick had abandoned the "one-shot" obsession of Michael for simple primitivist communion with his benign ideal of nature, but the traumatic experience of captivity has turned his innocence into the opposite extreme of an obsession with a "one-shot" submission to passivity. The same experience has led Michael to abandon his "one-shot" obsession with control, instead accepting a balance, or "middle ground," between the conscious and unconscious.
A common device in such Hollywood westerns as The Searchers and The Magnificent Seven, perhaps originating in Cooper's use of Natty Bumppo and Duncan Heyward in The Last of the Mohicans,13 is the "doubling" of the hero. Typically, the experienced hero rides off at the end, free but alone, and the "novice hero" settles down with a woman, domesticated but "happy." This gives both forces of American consciousness mythic affirmation and thus avoids a cultural choice. Cimino has reversed the usual fates of the two heroes, with the experienced hero giving up his freedom in order to "settle down" in the community and the novice hero now finding himself unable to return to it. In addition, he has substituted for the ambiguous image of riding off into the sunset a clear image of self-destruction in an alien landscape.
In settling down, Michael does not abandon the personal code of the western hero based on the hunter myth.14 He instead brings it to the preservation of the community. After accepting the freedom of the deer, a recurring symbol for the feminine principle of the unconscious,15 he returns to his male companions that night to find Stanley, in response to sexual taunts, pointing his pistol at their friend Axel. In a rage at this mirror image of the compulsion he has just thrown off, Michael purges Stanley through Russian roulette of his dark obsession with male sexual power. With this purgation of his darker self, Michael is able to overcome his initial confusion and passivity upon his return to go back down into town and join Linda, who embodies the feminine values of love and compassion and the possibility of a stable relationship. He also brings the crippled Steven home from the machine-like institution at the veterans hospital, and then returns to Vietnam in an attempt to bring back Nick. Michael's return is set against the background of America's flight from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. His agonized failure is nevertheless a crucial journey The Deer Hunter suggests America must make, a return to its Vietnam experience to face the fact of its destroyed innocence. When he holds Nick's blood-soaked head Michael faces, and thus can fully recognize, the result of his prior obsession.
The controversial ending of the film is thus neither jingoistic absolution for America's Vietnam involvement nor an ironic commentary. All the surviving characters, male and female, have been brought together by the hero to a table in the former male haven of the bar. Close shots of the table being set, chairs lifted, and characters squeezing in around the table emphasize the daily heroism involved in preserving a community. Accepting loss and trauma, the western hero has taken a place in the community. In joining in the spontaneous singing of a tearful "God Bless America," finished by a smiling toast to Nick, Michael also joins it in asserting the continuing value of the ideal embodied in a simple love for America, for the dream of a benignly magnificent landscape, but with a full awareness both of the dangers of chaotic nature and of a person's, or society's, obsession with control. The basic impulse of the western has been the concept of regeneration through violence. In The Deer Hunter this concept is stood on its head, for the regeneration results from the response of the hero to violence turned back on him. Purgation is replaced by shock, and then acceptance. Vietnam is viewed as the self-projected historical nightmare through which America can awaken from its dream of innocence into a mature consciousness.
The opening scenes of Apocalypse Now quickly disabuse the viewer of any expectations that the film will attempt a faithful adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Instead, they signal the development of the broad symbolic outline of Conrad's classic novella through the specific ethos, imagery, and pattern of the hard-boiled detective formula. Many commentators have noted a similarity between the voiceover narration spoken by Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and the narration of Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe, but Veronica Geng, while not perceiving the full use of the formula, has identified the most explicit particulars of this source in the film:
Willard talks in the easy ironies, the sin-city similes, the weary, laconic, why-am-I-even-bothering-to-tell-you language of the pulp private eye…. Our first look at Willard is the classic opening of the private-eye movie: his face seen upside down, a cigarette stuck to his lip, under a rotating ceiling fan …, and then the camera moving in a tight closeup over his books, snapshots, bottle of brandy, cigarettes, Zippo, and, finally, obligatory revolver on the rumpled bedsheets. This guy is not Marlowe. He is a parody—maybe a self-created one—of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's L. A. private eye.16
Geng sees these private-eye elements as vaguely functioning to transform the film into a black comedy with overtones of pulp literature and comic books, but they more specifically signal the use of the hard-boiled detective formula as the structural, stylistic, and thematic center of the film, the specific source by which Coppola presents the Vietnam subject through the broad symbolic vision of Heart of Darkness. Once this is perceived, elements of Apocalypse Now that formerly appeared confused or at least puzzling and gratuitous become apparent as aspects of a complex presentation of one source in the terms of another.
The hard-boiled detective genre, originating in the Black Mask pulp magazine in the 1920s, is a distinctly American version of the classic detective story, raised to a high artistic level by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in fiction, and by John Huston and Howard Hawks in film. The private eye, rather than the brilliant mind of the classic detective, is a twentieth-century urban, and thus more sophisticated and cynical, descendant of the western hero, combining the tough attributes necessary for survival in his environment with a strict integrity based on a personal code of ethics. The setting is a modern American city, most often in southern California, embodying an urban wilderness or "neon jungle" that is geographically, historically, and mythically correct for the genre, because the hard-boiled detective moves through a corrupt society that has replaced the frontier.
There are important similarities, reflecting their common source in quest/myths, between Heart of Darkness and the hard-boiled detective formula. Both have isolated protagonists on a mystery/adventure who are in the employ of others while actually preserving their personal autonomy of judgment. In both works the protagonist encounters revelatory scenes of the depravity of his society in the course of his journey. And the final apprehension of the criminal, while on the surface restoring moral order, actually ends in dissolution, with the protagonist more cynical about his world than before. Thematically, both Conrad's novella and the hard-boiled detective genre are generally understood to be journeys through a symbolic underworld, or hell, with an ultimate horror at the end providing a terrible illumination. In method both combine the classic quest motif of a search for a grail with a modern, geographically recognizable locale. And while the clipped, slangy style of the hardboiled genre has on the surface little in common with the obscure, evocative style of Heart of Darkness, they pursue similar purposes in the dreamlike (or nightmarish) effect with which they render reportorial detail. The one crucial distinction between Heart of Darkness and the hard-boiled genre lies in the relation of the protagonist to the criminal. The detective, despite his similarity to the underworld in speech and appearance, remains sharply distinct from the murderer, for in not only exposing but also judging the murderer he embodies the moral order of the ideals of his society not found in its reality; Marlow, in contrast, comes to identify with Kurtz, finally admiring him as much as he is repelled by him, thus making Heart of Darkness ultimately a psychosymbolic journey within to the unconscious. As a result, while the hard-boiled formula posits an individual integrity as an alternative to a corrupt society. Conrad's novella implies a universal darkness in man.
In Apocalypse Now Coppola uses the hard-boiled detective formula as a means for transforming the river journey of Heart of Darkness into an investigation of both American society (represented by the army) and American idealism (represented by Colonel Kurtz [Marlon Brando]) in Vietnam. The river journey in Apocalypse Now is full of allusions to southern California, the usual setting of the hard-boiled genre, with the major episodes of this trip through Vietnam centering around the surfing, rock music, go-go dancing, and drug-taking associated with the west coast culture of the time. As a result, the river journey drawn from Heart of Darkness takes the detective and viewer, not through Vietnam as a separate culture, but through Vietnam as the resisting object of a hallucinatory self-projection of the American culture. Captain Willard's river journey is both external investigation of that culture and internal pursuit of his idealism. Willard is a hard-boiled detective hero who in the Vietnam setting becomes traumatized by the apparent decadence of his society and so searches for the grail of its lost purposeful idealism. Kurtz represents that idealism and finally the horrific self-awareness of its hollowness. If the hard-boiled detective, denied by his pervasive society even the refuges of nature and friendship with a "natural man" available to the western hero, is forced by his investigation of a corrupt society to retreat into his own ruthlessly strict moral idealism, Apocalypse Now forces the detective into a quest for that idealism itself.
From the beginning of the film it is clear that Willard lacks the genre detective's certainty of his own moral position. Willard has already been to Vietnam, and upon leaving has found that home "just didn't exist anymore." Further, his return to Vietnam is without clear purpose: "When I was here I wanted to be there, when I was there all I could think of was getting back into the jungle." While the opening imagery establishes Willard's identity as hard-boiled detective, it also asserts his diminished version of that figure. The close-up shots of a photograph of his ex-wife and of letters from home represent what he has had to abandon. His drunken practice of Oriental martial arts, as opposed to the controlled drinking and solitary chess-playing of Philip Marlowe, represents a shift from tormented purpose to self-destruction. And Sheen's taut characterization generally embodies this deterioration of the detective's cynical armor for his personal idealism into the explosive alienation of a James Dean. Similarly, the narration written by Dispatches author Michael Herr and spoken by Sheen in voice-over, widely derided as a banal parody of Raymond Chandler, evokes the sardonic perspective of a Philip Marlowe without the strong sense of personal identity conveyed by Marlowe's penetrating wit. Willard takes the mission to assassinate Kurtz as a murderer despite his feeling that "charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." Willard could also be called a murderer, for he has a record of unofficial assassinations. When the soldiers come with his orders he responds drunkenly with "What are the charges?" And in the voiceover narration he says of Kurtz, "There is no way to tell his story without telling my own, and if his story is really a confession, then so is mine." Willard's quest, as that of a hero figure of a central American mythic formula, becomes an investigation of not just corrupted American reality but of the American view of its ideal self.
In melding Heart of Darkness and the hard-boiled detective formula. Apocalypse Now owes more of its particulars to the latter. Willard, having been summoned from his Saigon quarters, an equivalent to the private eye's seedy downtown office, receives his assignment from a general who clearly evokes the manager in Heart of Darkness by speaking of "unsound" methods while engaging in the brutal exploitation of a country. The specific development of the scene, however (as the general tells Willard that Kurtz disappeared with his Montagnard army into Cambodia when he "was about to be arrested for murder"), is made in the terms of a conventional episode of the hard-boiled formula. Sitting over an elegant lunch in the elaborately furnished trailer serving as his headquarters, and with a melancholy expression listening to Willard's record as an assassin before having him assigned to "terminate" Kurtz, the general is, in the context of the Vietnam War, a military version of the powerful client who receives the detective with palpable distaste in his impressive mansion. Marlow's private aloofness from his employers in Heart of Darkness is portrayed in Apocalypse Now as the hard-boiled detective's retention of his self-reliance and judgment while ostensibly working for his client: "I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I really didn't know what I'd do when I found him."
Likewise, while the journey downriver in Apocalypse Now adopts the parallel development in Heart of Darkness of the protagonist's growing repulsion from his society and increasing attraction to Kurtz, this pattern is once again specifically presented according to the hard-boiled formula. In that formula the detective, while pursuing the murderer, uncovers such pervasive corruption in the society that his final isolation and judgment of the criminal is undercut. George Grella identifies the portrayal of the official representatives of society, the police, in the detective genre as "brutal, corrupt and incompetent."17 These traits are consecutively the point of the three major discoveries Willard makes on his journey about how the army is "legitimately" fighting the war. Witnessing Colonel Kilgore's use of over-powering technology to decimate a Viet Cong village full of women and children in order to capture briefly a surfing beach, Willard is shown with expressions of puzzlement and disgust, saying: "If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone." After leaving the USO show where he has seen profiteering and dehumanized sex, the glamorous corruption typical of the detective novel, he comments in voice-over: "The war was being run by a bunch of fourstar clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away." And his reaction to the futile and apparently endless battle of the Do Lung bridge, fought merely so the generals can say the bridge is open, is a disgusted, "There's no fuckin' CO here." These scenes develop vague parallels from Heart of Darkness through the specific terms of the detective formula.
Similarly, Marlow's attraction in Heart of Darkness to the hearsay he encounters concerning Kurtz is developed in Apocalypse Now through a stock device of thrillers: a dossier full of fragments of evidence that the detective must study and interpret. Willard, repelled like Marlow and the hard-boiled detective by the depravity of his society, recognizes in his "investigation" of Kurtz that this "murderer" is the embodiment, in vastly larger scale of his own inner ideals. Kurtz has openly asserted the purposeful action, unhypocritical ruthlessness, autonomy from considerations of personal gain, and adherence to a personal code that are the hard-boiled characteristics of Willard. As a result Willard, like Marlow, finds himself attracted to the murderer. In the voice-over narration, as he looks through Kurtz's dossier, Willard speaks of how the more he learns of Kurtz the "more I admired him," how Kurtz made a report to the Joint Chiefs and Lyndon Johnson that was kept classified because he apparently saw the developing failure of the American approach to the war, and how Kurtz ignored his lack of official clearance to order effective operations and assassinations. Here again Coppola follows the hard-boiled formula while altering its plane to the symbolic investigation of the self adapted from Heart of Darkness. The detective often has a friend or is attracted to a woman who turns out to be the murderer, but he discovers this later and is only then confronted with the dilemma; Willard is attracted to Kurtz after society has identified him as a murderer. Like Marlow, he consciously moves away from a corrupt, inefficient society toward an idealistic, efficient outlaw. By the time he approaches Kurtz's compound Willard has made Marlow's "choice of nightmares";18 "Kurtz was turning from a target into a goal."
This identification of the detective figure with the murderer, never allowed in the hard-boiled formula, is brought to its disorienting climax in the scene that Coppola has called the most important in the film,19 the shooting by Willard of the wounded Vietnamese woman, followed with Willard's explicit explanation: "We'd cut'em in half with a machine gun and give'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw of them the more I hated lies." Just before Willard later kills Kurtz, Kurtz says that there is nothing he "detests more than the stench of lies." By developing Apocalypse Now according to the defining elements of the hard-boiled formula, but extending the investigation into the self, Coppola shocks the audience from a moral witnessing through the detective figure of the external horror of his society into a questioning of the formula's normal source of order; the moral idealism, the uncorrupted honesty, the purposeful efficiency of the detective himself. This scene prepares the viewer to experience the confrontation between Willard and Kurtz as a meeting of the detective figure with the final implications of his moral idealism. Thus Apocalypse Now shows Vietnam forcing the hard-boiled detective hero into the investigation of his unconscious provided by the symbolic motif of Heart of Darkness.
The final scenes of the film, set at Kurtz's compound in Cambodia, represent the most visible use in the film of Conrad's novella. Here again, however, the particulars owe considerably more to the hard-boiled detective formula. In many works of the genre the murderer turns out to be what Grella calls a "magical quack," a charlatan doctor or mystic presiding over a cult or temple.20 Free of social restraint, Colonel Kurtz has, like his literary namesake, set himself up as a god among primitive tribesmen, becoming a ghastly figure of evil. The Russian "fool" in Heart of Darkness, now a countercultural American photo-journalist (Dennis Hopper), still praises Kurtz mindlessly in mystical terms. But these elements are presented within a more detailed portrayal of Kurtz as the "magical quack" the hard-boiled detective tracks down to his southern California headquarters, a significance first suggested by allusions to Charles Manson in a newspaper story about the Sharon Tate slayings and in the similarity of the "Apocalypse Now" graffiti to the "Helter Skelter" scrawled at the LaBianca home. This portrayal is even clearer in the plot development, for whereas Marlow confronts a pathetic Kurtz crawling away in the grass, this Kurtz, if psychologically "ripped apart," is nevertheless still a powerful, controlling figure who has Willard brought to him. Like the magical quack in the hard-boiled detective formula, he sneeringly taunts, tempts, and intimidates Willard. The murderer often scorns the detective for his low socioeconomic position and quixotic quest (Kurtz tells Willard, "you're an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill"), has him held captive and drugged or beaten (Kurtz has Willard caged, brutalizes him by leaving him exposed to the elements and drives him into hysteria by dropping the severed head of a boat crewman into his lap). Grella identifies one function of the "magical quack" device in the hardboiled formula to be an emblem of the desperate search of the faithless for significance in a dispirited world (the worshipping photo-journalist and Willard's converted predecessor on the assassination mission, the zombie-like Captain Colby, embody this trait). Even more important in Grella's view is that
the bizarre cults and temples lend a quasi-magical element of the Grail romance to the hard-boiled thriller—the detective-knight must journey to a Perilous Chapel where an ambivalent Merlin figure, a mad or evil priest, presides. His eventual triumph over the charlatan becomes a ritual feat, a besting of the powers of the darkness.24
The explicit use of Weston's From Ritual to Romance (shown by the camera as one of Kurtz's books) in the final confrontation between Willard and Kurtz involves precisely the ritualistic pattern described above, though once again with the implications of a confrontation with the self brought from Heart of Darkness.
While the hard-boiled formula is completed by Willard's rejection of his attraction to Kurtz when he sees that Kurtz is indeed a murderer without "any method at all," and by his resistance to Kurtz's intimidation and brainwashing in order to fulfill his mission, he himself knows that his slaying of Kurtz is at the latter's direction: "Everyone wanted me to do it, him most of all." The ritualized confrontation further suggests that the detective figure is in fact killing not an external evil, but his unconscious self.22 Willard's discovery of the moral chaos that has resulted from Kurtz's pursuit of a moral ideal has led him to see the darkness that pervades not only the hypocrisy of the army, but also the darkness at the heart of his own pursuit of an honest war. The indulgence in death and depravity, of total power, that Willard finds in Colonel Kurtz's display of severed heads, his reading of selected lines from Eliot, and his parable of a Viet Cong atrocity is a devastating illumination of the same hollowness, the darkness, that in Heart of Darkness Marlow finds in the figure of Kurtz. Here the Vietnam context and hard-boiled detective persona of the protagonist give it a specific commentary on the American identity: not just the corrupted American reality, but the American self-concept of a unique national idealism is itself a fraud, a cover for the brute drives for power that dominate Americans as much as any people. Just as Marlow discovers in Kurtz the essential lie of European imperialism, Willard as hard-boiled detective finds in Colonel Kurtz the essential lie of his own and his nation's Vietnam venture.
Both Willard and Kurtz, discovering the inherent weakness and corruption of their society, have turned mentally to the enemy. Willard speaks admiringly during the film of "Charlie's" purity and strength, observing that the Viet Cong soldier "squats in the bush" and doesn't "get much USO." Kurtz tells Willard that his illumination came when he realized "like I was shot with a diamond … bullet right through my forehead" that the Viet Cong's cutting off the children's arms he had inoculated was a stronger act: "If I had ten divisions of those men then our problems here would he over very quickly." This motif has been mistakenly interpreted as the film's view that America was defeated by its reliance on technology and by its conscience.23 Viewed in the context of the detective formula, it is properly understood as a critique of the hollowness of a "mission" that is based on an illusory abstraction as much as is the redeeming "idea" of Conrad's imperialism. The pure pursuit of an ideal, the obsession with efficient method, becomes the lack of "any method at all," the moral chaos Willard finds at Kurtz's compound, and that dark illumination causes him to draw back from his grail.
In the river journey Willard uncovered the corruption of the actual American mission; in Kurtz Willard finds the emptiness even of the ideal. This is the significance, a virtually explicit reference to the role of the genre detective, of Kurtz's telling Willard "you have a right to kill me … but you have no right to judge me." Willard acts out the reassuring action of an agent of moral order, but in doing so realizes that he is judging himself, taking a moral stance towards his own unconscious self. When Willard leaves with Kurtz's book (a report on which Kurtz has scrawled "Drop the bomb" and "Exterminate them all!") and Lance, the surfing innocent traumatized into acid-dropping acceptance of the surrounding madness, he duplicates Marlow's lie to Kurtz's "Intended." Willard at last sees, like Marlow, that the only possible response to the utter dissolution of his moral assumptions is to preserve innocence and the false ideal. Willard departs a hard-boiled detective who has made an investigation down the ultimate mean streets, his soul: "I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I'd never want another."
The different interpretations of the Vietnam War provided by The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now result logically from the different meanings of the western and hard-boiled detective genres. Since the western is a nineteenth-century myth looking forward to a new civilization, and the detective formula a twentieth-century myth looking around at a failed society, the visions that The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now bring to the Vietnam experience are literally a century apart. In The Deer Hunter Cimino transforms Vietnam into a regenerative myth that makes the traumatic experience a conceivably fortunate fall for the American Adam; in Apocalypse Now Coppola presents Vietnam as a nightmare extension of American society where only a marginal individual may preserve the American ideal. Beyond the implications of the separate use of the two formulas is the different relation of each film to its formula. The Deer Hunter stands the western myth on its head, retaining its central elements while showing that the Vietnam landscape inverts its meaning; Apocalypse Now follows the pattern of action of the detective formula but extends the area of investigation to the self, merging the genre with the theme of Heart of Darkness. The result is that The Deer Hunter insists that Vietnam can be encountered in strictly American terms, while Apocalypse Now undermines the one dependable source of American order, the idealistic self-concept embodied in the "pure" motivation of the formula hero. Cimino sees the Vietnam involvement as a projected mirror where Americans can recognize their darkest impulses, but in response return once again to the original promise Cooper had recognized in the precolonial days of the young Deerslayer. Coppola views Vietnam as the projection of southern California into an alien landscape where even American idealism stands at last exposed.
The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, while presenting distinctly different interpretations of the Vietnam War based on the separate formulas shaping their structures, also have an underlying relation resulting from their common use of major formulas of American popular romance that are themselves linked by the relation between their central heroes. The major criticisms leveled at the two films, their implausibility and ambiguity, are essential aspects of the romance mode by which the major American narrative tradition has dealt with extreme experience revealing basic cultural contradictions and conflicts. Both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now avoid the limits of naturalistic, fragmented, or personal approaches to the war (found respectively in James Webb's novel, Fields of Fire, Michael Herr's memoir, Dispatches, and the film, Coming Home) by couching the terror of Vietnam in American myths. Each of these two films takes a hero who is a version of the national archetype, thus embodying the essential longings and anxieties of the American psyche, and sends him on a quest conveying the aberrant, fragmented, hallucinatory Vietnam experience while giving it a familiar, meaningful structure. Within the generic confines of the western and hard-boiled detective formulas, Vietnam may be contemplated, the terror reenacted, and the meaning probed. These formulaic genres, comprising central moral fantasies of American culture, provide collective dreams through which the trauma of the Vietnam War may be reexperienced, assimilated, and interpreted. Further, since these films significantly invert or undercut the implications of their mythic sources, they suggest the significance of Vietnam as a pivotal experience for American consciousness.
1. Stanley Solomon, Beyond Formula: American Film Genres (New York: Harcourt, 1976), 3.
2. Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1957), 13.
3. For my definitions and discussions of the characteristic elements of the western and hard-boiled detective genres, I draw largely on Solomon's Beyond Formula and John G. Cawelti's Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976). My discussion of the hard-boiled detective genre also draws on George Grella's fine essay, "Murder and the Mean Streets: The Hard-Boiled Detective Novel," in Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise, ed. Richard Stanley Allen and David Chacko (New York: Harcourt, 1974), 411-29.
4. David Axeen, "Eastern Western," Film Quarterly, 32 (1979), 17. Westerbeck calls the film a western, but only to attack it as a simplistic and "sickening," cowboys-and-Indians melodrama. See his "Peace with Honor: Cowboys and Viet Cong," Commonweal, 2 March 1979, 115-17.
5. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. ed. (New York: Stein and Day, 1975), 142-82.
6. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, 194.
7. Michael Cimino, "Ordeal by Fire and Ice," American Cinematographer, Oct. 1978, 1031.
8. Ibid., 965, 1006-07.
9. Dialogue has been transcribed from the films.
10. See, for instance, Marsha Kinder's "Political Game," Film Quarterly, 32 (1979), 13-17, and comments in "Vietnam Comes Home," Time. 23 April 1979, 23.
11. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973), 145.
12. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), 23.
13. See Michael D. Butler's "Narrative Structure and Historical Process in The Last of the Mohicans," American Literature, 48(1976), 117-39.
14. For a discussion of the relation of the hunter myth to the code of the western hero see "Book Two: The Sons of Leatherstocking" in Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, 49-120, and Slotkin's chapter "Man Without a Cross: The Leatherstocking Myth (1823–1841)" in Regeneration Through Violence, 466-516.
15. See Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence, 429, 490.
16. Veronica Geng, "Mistuh Kurtz—He Dead," New Yorker, 3 Sept. 1979, 70.
17. Grella, "Murder and the Mean Streets," 414.
18. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1971), 63.
19. Greil Marcus, "Journey Up the River: An Interview with Francis Coppola," Rolling Stone, 1 Nov. 1979, 55.
20. Grella, "Murder and the Mean Streets," 422-23.
21. Ibid, 423.
22. See Garrett Stewart, "Coppola's Conrad: The Repetitions of Complicity," Critical Inquiry, 7 (1981), 455-74.
23. See David Bromwich, "Bad Faith of Apocalypse Now," Dissent, 27 (1980), 207-10, 213.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6599
SOURCE: "An Analysis of the Structure of The Godfather, Part One," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XVI. No. 1, Summer, 1983, pp. 75-90.
[In the following essay, Simon provides a close analysis of the narrative structure of Coppola's The Godfather, Part One.]
This essay attempts to perform several critical tasks. It is primarily an analysis of the narrative structure of The Godfather, Part One, directed in 1972 by Francis Ford Coppola. In these terms, my aim is to explain how meaning is created in that film through an understanding of its narrative structuring and the significance of its cultural codes.
At the same time the essay is involved with the application to film of critical methods derived from several important contemporary texts in narrative theory and aesthetics. In these terms, the following constitutes a test of the efficacy and validity in applying such analyses and methods to the study of film narrative. The purpose here is not to apply any one methodology or model of analysis in a rigid fashion. Rather, several central ideas from a number of texts are absorbed into the critical analysis. Perhaps the most important notions to be tested here are derived from Wolfgang Iser's works on reader response theory, The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading.1 I shall attempt to apply Iser's concept of the "narrative gap" and the ways in which this gap causes the spectator to retroactively reread narrative information. As well, I shall rely on the concepts of the hermeneutic and cultural codes from Roland Barthes' S/Z.2 Iser's "narrative gap" and Barthes' hermeneutic code will together provide us with the tools to understand Coppola's ordering of narrative information. I shall also briefly refer to the concepts developed under the notion of "duration" by Gérard Genette in Narrative Discourse.3 The relations of narrative time to story time and the function of ellipses will prove relevant.
This essay can also be viewed as a contribution to the continuing evaluation of American narrative film in the period roughly between 1965 and 1975.4 In this respect, I proceed from the view that this period constitutes one of the richest and least understood and appreciated periods in American film history. The collective work of Altman, Coppola, Kubrick, Scorsese, Penn and Peckinpah, and such major individual achievements as Lester's Petulia. Polanski's Chinatown and Malick's Badlands are marked by an important overarching theme, the insistence that psychological and/or physical violence are at the core of American life. In addition, the films of this period are characterized by major developments in narrative form and structure, by the highly successful absorption into a mainstream popular narrative form of the characteristics of "open structure" associated with modernist narrative. This analysis of The Godfather, Part One treats the film as one of the key works of the period and as emblematic of many of its most basic characteristics and qualities.
Coppola's The Godfather, Part One is distinguished among other things by the number of scales or levels upon which it operates. In its combination of epic structure and highly individuated family melodrama, it is perhaps the American film which most closely approximates the nineteenth-century realist historical novel.
Three levels can be distinguished in the film's story-line. The film concentrates on the members of a single Italian-American family, the Corleones, in the period from approximately 1945 to 1955. At the same time, because the head of the family is the Don of one of the Mafia's Five Families, the film portrays the history of the Mafia during this period. On another level the life of the Corleones as an individual family and its significance as that of a Mafia Family are intimately related over the course of the film, creating an image of the Mafia Family's operations as being dialectically related to the mores and social ethos of the specific Italian-American family. A third level of meaning, one perhaps not as thoroughly interrelated to these first two levels, attempts to have the experiences of the Corleones correspond to an image of America during the decade depicted in the film. Coppola describes this large-scale ambition of the film in the following way: "The film always was a loose metaphor: Michael as America." Also, "I always wanted to use the Mafia as a metaphor for America."5 This metaphor presumably suggests that the experiences of Michael over the course of Part One, emerging from World War II as an innocent hero, becoming progressively corrupted as he becomes involved in the Family's "business," are to be understood as a representation of America's postwar history, Certainly the large contours of the Family's "progress" from first generation immigrants in New York's Little Italy to a home in the Long Island suburbs to total respectability on the West Coast (in this case, Nevada) corresponds to a quintessential American success story.
Aesthetically, The Godfather also operates on at least two levels. In its representation of the Corleone family, it is a deeply realistic work emphasizing highly individuated characterizations and the detailed observation of family mores and behavior. At the same time, the film is conceived on an epic, even operatic scale. It is divided roughly into four "acts," each building slowly to a heightened climax. Many scenes are set within family religious rituals and/or holidays (two weddings, a baptism, Christmas), thus expanding the meaning of these scenes in an epic direction as well.
There is another way of understanding the multiple levels upon which The Godfather, Part One operates. This has to do with what might be considered authorial attitude towards the characters and their actions. Like most gangster films, The Godfather treads a delicate line between valorization of its criminal characters and criticism of them. Certainly the characters in The Godfather conform to two of the central myths of violence described by John Cawelti in his valuable essay "Myths of Violence in American Popular Culture."6 They conform to the "vigilante" myth in that they are positively shown as protecting the weak in the absence of an efficacious law enforcement system. And they conform to the "myth of equality through violence" in the ways in which they use their skills at violence and crime to rise from poverty to a position of wealth and power. In the rhetoric achieved by comparative characterization in the film, the principal members of the Corleone family, Don Vito Corleone and his son Michael, are infinitely more intelligent and less obviously corrupt than any of the other characters.
What is perhaps not so obvious about the film is how a critique of the Mafia and especially the central character, Michael Corleone (and accepting Coppola's intended metaphor, America), is constructed in the film. This critique can be considered an argument which is formulated through the film's narrative structure and its treatment of certain key characters. In the following analysis I shall pay special attention to the unfolding of this critical argument since it provides the ultimate key to the meaning of the film.
One other aspect of the following analysis should be introduced. In discussing American narrative films of the late 60's and early 70's earlier, I suggested that the representation of violence at the core of American society was the central theme of these films. The representation of violence is always a contentious issue but one way to understand its function and significance is to try to understand its narrative and moral contexts in individual works, as Cawelti suggests in his essay.7 Consequently, a large part of the analysis is concentrated on those violent sequences that so often constitute the dramatic climaxes in The Godfather. Special attention is paid to the cultural codes surrounding this violence and the specific and very complex treatment of it.
The opening sequence of The Godfather, Part One portrays the marriage of Don Vito Corleone's only daughter Connie to one Carlo Rizzi. The sequence lasts some 26 minutes of the film's 175 minute running time and is by far the longest sequence in the film.8 While obviously contracting the story time through ellipses, the sequence creates the effect of a linear continuous whole, encompassing the duration of the wedding celebration.
Despite this sense of continuity, the sequence is structured on a strong set of oppositions created by cutting alternatively between Don Vito's study and the celebration in the garden outdoors. The oppositions revolve around the cultural codes that interpenetrate both the Corleone and the Mafia levels of the family. The laying out of these codes helps set in motion the critical argument of the film. The oppositions run something like the following. The interior study is very darkly lit, the characters sitting in dark shadow. The garden is bathed in sunlight. The action in the study consists of Mafia business: a series of men pay their respects to Don Corleone and ask for a service. Contracts are assigned in response to these requests. The study is an exclusive private sanctuary; only males have access to it. It is a space where men report violent violations of their families and arrange for violent reprisal.
The garden provides strong contrasts. The basic activity is the celebration of a marriage, defined as a perpetuation of the family. (References are made to the forthcoming children of the bride and groom.) The activity is open, social and inclusive, embracing not only men, women and children, but even rival Mafia Families. The dancing, singing, joking, and picture-taking are celebratory, privileging the family as a unifying totality.
While the activities of the two spaces contrast sharply, there are also indications that they are inextricably related. For instance, it is made clear that the head of the household cannot deny a request on his daughter's wedding day. Thus, the criminal contracts being established in the study are a direct product of a particular social code of the family. Also, while at this point in the film, the violent stories related in the study seem antithetical to the celebratory spirit of the wedding, as the film unfolds and the marriage of Connie and Carlo turns increasingly violent, it is understood that the violence suggested in this first scene is a dialectical component of that marriage. What appears initially as opposition is progressively understood as dialectical. Violence on different levels is exposed as the inescapable underside of the marriage in the film. Framed by this marriage and the subsequent baptism, the film relates the violence of organized Mafia criminality to family rituals and ethos.
The setting up of the oppositions in the interior and exterior segments of the wedding sequence establishes certain implications. The exclusiveness of the study and inclusiveness of the garden create a system by which certain characters can be understood as "insiders" and others as "outsiders." Obviously, male members of the Mafia Family are insiders while women and children are defined as outsiders. Michael, the youngest son, just returned from the war, still in uniform, educated at an Ivy League college, accompanied by a non-Italian girl-friend, is the most important outsider. He dissociates himself from the family business ("That's my family, Kay, it's not me.") and unlike his older brothers, is seen only in the garden. The overarching plot of The Godfather, Part One traces the shift in Michael's position from outsider to insider and the changes such a shift produces.
The other significant outsider is Kay, Michael's girl-friend. She is an outsider by virtue of being a woman, a non-Italian and a total newcomer to such rituals as an Italian wedding. The degree to which she is an outsider is especially suggested in her dialogue with Michael. She is constantly asking questions about family customs, the wedding celebration and Don Corleone's "business," about which she is especially dismayed.
Kay's position at the beginning of the film as someone who is alien to the values and activities depicted in the opening sequence is especially important in establishing her as the character through whom the critical argument of the film will be formulated. In order to appreciate how Kay functions in this respect, it is useful to observe how she is placed in relation to one of the central cultural codes of the Italian-American ethos of the film, namely the assumption that marriage exists for the purposes of procreation, preferably of male offspring. In different ways, Kay is systematically juxtaposed to manifestations of this code. For example, in this opening sequence, the first close-shots of her are immediately preceded by shots of Luca Brazzi, a brutal and almost retarded enforcer for Don Corleone, rehearsing the salutation with which he is about to greet Don Corleone: "May your first child be a masculine child." Kay's first dialogue is to ask Michael in a dismayed way who this strange creature is. In other words, she is immediately juxtaposed as alienated from this character and his statement of the absolutely central theme of the operative ethos of the film. In the next section of the film, in a scene in which she and Michael emerge from Radio City Music Hall during the Christmas season, she is juxtaposed with the words "The Nativity" on the marquee. Much later in the film during a period when she and Michael have been separated, it is revealed that she is working as a school teacher, that is as a kind of surrogate mother. Much later in the film, when she is married to Michael and has learned something of the family culture, it is she who asks Michael to stand as godfather for Connie and Carlo's son. Her partial assimilation into the family is conveyed through her newfound understanding of this code.9
One last point about the wedding sequence has to do with the patterns it establishes in terms of the representation of violence in the film. In several important senses, the wedding sequence functions as an introduction to the workings of the Mafia, an almost instructional exposition carried out entirely in words. The scenes of petitioners to Don Corleone establish how contracts are made and imply that violence will be part of the execution of the contract. A story that Michael tells Kay about how Don Corleone freed the singer Johnny Fontaine from his contract with a band-leader specifies how violence functions as a central aspect of the Don's "business." However, these references are all verbal; violent action is either described or related, or implied by euphemisms.
The film's next sequence is both a continuation of the series of illustrations on how the Mafia operates and the culmination of the first act of the film. It also alters in complex ways the representation of violence, concluding with the film's first violent climax. Its organization merits special attention.
The action of this sequence grows out of the wedding sequence in that it shows how Tom Hagen, Don Corleone's adopted son and "consigliore," obtains a role in a film for Johnny Fontaine, the Don's god-son and one of the petitioners at the wedding. Unlike the first sequence with its strong sense of linear continuity over a protracted period, this sequence consists of three brief scenes, totalling 7 1/2 minutes of film time and covering 12-15 hours of story time. Prominent ellipses create important narrative gaps from scene to scene.
In the first scene, Hagen confronts Jack Woltz, the studio head, demanding that Johnny be given the part. Woltz violently refuses, asks Hagen to leave, and tells a henchman to find out who Hagen works for. After the first ellipsis, we now see Woltz entertaining Hagen at his mansion later that evening. Woltz is clearly more deferential towards Hagen because, we soon learn, he now understands that Hagen works for Don Corleone. The narrative gap, created through the elision, activates the spectator to fill in missing narrative information. Presumably, in the interim, Woltz's henchman had discovered that Hagen worked for Don Corleone, a fact important enough to cause Woltz to invite Hagen for dinner.
The level of narrative information omitted in this ellipsis is not very significant. The importance of it has to do with the way in which Coppola introduces the procedure of the narrative gap as a way of structuring the spectator's apprehension of narrative information. This gap, in effect, sets the groundwork for the next one which is infinitely more significant and dramatic.
In the dinner scene between Woltz and Hagen, despite Woltz's initial deference, he concludes by stating that Johnny Fontaine will never work for his studio. After another ellipsis, the next scene commences with an exterior shot of Woltz's mansion. Suspenseful music accompanies the series of shots which bring us into Woltz's bedroom where he is sleeping later that night. As the music reaches a climax, Woltz stirs in his bed. He lifts the sheet and discovers the bloody, severed head of his prize racehorse which he had proudly showed off to Hagen during the evening. Woltz screams in horror, a scream which continues over the exterior shot of his mansion which ends the sequence and the first major act of The Godfather.
The narrative gap between the second and third scenes of the Hollywood sequence sets the stage for the sensational effect of the violence in the third scene. The audience has in no way been prepared for the action; no causation has been established. We are put in the position of retrospectively inferring that after Woltz's second refusal, Hagen had commanded someone to sever the horse's head and place it in Woltz's bed as he slept. Beyond the violence of the image itself, the power of this infamous scene derives from the fact that we have not been prepared for it, that we discover the horse's head at the same time as the victim of the violent act does. Furthermore, the mode of narrative information is virtually the opposite of all previous manifestations of violence in the film. For the first time, violence or the horrifying result of it is dramatized and visualized directly. The violent power of Don Corleone and his agents is demonstrated to us directly as we experience it through the victim.
The hermeneutic pattern of withholding narrative information and then gradually revealing enough information for the spectator to fill in the narrative gap operates on a visual as well as a narrative level. In this final scene of the Hollywood sequence, the music signals that something dramatic is to happen but the initial distance of the camera in the exterior and interior shots withholds the information. The camera's slow movements suggest an intentionality, that it is moving toward something, but it is only after some time that the camera draws close enough to reveal the crucial information and its suggestion as to the nature of the elided narrative action. The handling of the camera in relation to narrative information in the space of action in this scene is a complement to the opening shots of the film. Here, the film's action starts on a tight close-up of the first petitioner addressing an unseen and unheard character. A very gradual pulling out of the camera reveals Don Corleone as the addressee of the petition. Only subsequent shots reveal that other members of the Family are in the study. This type of visual patterning activates the sense that the spectator is not always in full possession of the necessary narrative information. It suggests that things are sometimes hidden or obscured. And more often than not, as we have seen and shall continue to see, the missing information attests to the violent power of the Corleone Family or their antagonists.
While the "horse's head" sequence is the culmination of the first act of the film, the next scenes which properly speaking initiate the second section contain two interesting additional revelations about the previous section. The first scene (which consists of the Corleone Family strategy meeting about the attempts of a rival Family to engage them in the drug business) starts with a dissolve from the end of the "horse's head" scene to a close shot of Don Corleone, presiding over the meeting. While it quickly becomes clear that the meeting concerns totally new business, the dissolve acts as a certification of agency. That is, the dissolve strongly suggests that Don Corleone is to be understood as the agent/cause of the severed horse's head. The chain of causality is suggested only after the effect has been seen.
Further, in the next scene, brief reference is made to a garland of flowers standing in the Don's office. We are told that they were sent by Johnny Fontaine on the occasion of his assuming the role in the film. We are to read in that Woltz's discovery of his prized horse's severed head led him to offer Johnny the role. Narrative closure for this episode is achieved slowly and retroactively, activating the spectator to tie together its meaning.
One of the most striking features of The Godfather, Part One is the way in which its four acts are arranged in strikingly different systems of structuring the narrative information, a process already observed in the differences between the wedding and Hollywood scenes in the first act. The second act is also structured according to a quite different system; this quickly becomes clear as it begins to unfold. This section deals with the conflict over the drug business between the Corleone Family and the Tattaglia Family and its partner, Virgil Salozzo. The first part of the act deals with the Tattaglias' attacks on the Corleone Family, culminating in the attempted assassination of Don Corleone. The second part deals with Michael's gradual involvement in the family business as a response to the attack on his father. Its climax is the shooting of Salozzo and the Police Captain McCloskey by Michael.
The first part of the act proceeds as a series of brief quickly edited scenes—none of them more than three minutes or so in length. Several of the scenes are parallel edited in contrast to the continuity of action in the first section. Beyond the contrast in the duration and temporal arrangement of the scenes, several other contrasting patterns operate during this section. Perhaps the most important involves the shift in terms of who is exercising violent power in the film. In the first half of this second act, the Corleones become victims to Salozzo and the Tattaglias. While the attacks on the Corleones are not presented as elaborately or dramatically as the "horse's head" scene, they share with that scene that characteristic of being totally unexpected; they are not prepared for through expository information. Only after Luca Brazzi is strangled. Tom Hagen kidnapped and the Don shot in quick successive scenes do the characters reflect that a large-scale "war" has been initiated by Salozzo and the Tattaglias. Thus, the pattern of unexpected violence continues though directed now at the Corleones.
The reversal of this pattern in the second act of this section commences with the scene of Michael's visit to his father in the hospital. This is the longest uninterrupted scene in a long time, lasting approximately 9 minutes after 13 scenes, none of which exceeds 3 1/4 minutes. In this scene, Michael with the help of one other man, succeeds brilliantly in foiling a second attempt on his father's life. The scene is structured very largely around Michael's aural and visual point of view, one of the few scenes in the film which is so strongly focalized by the perspective of a single character. Through its duration and emphasis on point of view, the structure privileges Michael as he takes the first steps towards total involvement in the family affairs.
This section of the film culminates with another dramatic act of violence, Michael's shooting of Salozzo and McCluskey, his policeman protector. From the first, the structure is radically altered in terms of how the narrative information is revealed. Instead of creating a narrative gap through elision and presenting the violence as an unexpected outburst, this incident is set up with great care. We hear the Family members discuss Michael's suggestion that he shoot the two. When they finally decide to go along with the plan, we see Michael being tutored on how to shoot. Painstaking detail surrounds the plan. Instead of elision, detailed linear causal suspense becomes the operative narrative mode. The function of the continuity at this point is to concentrate attention on Michael's developing character, his intelligence and courage as he establishes himself as the heir apparent. The violence of Michael's shooting Salozzo and McCluskey gains its impact from the detailed concentration on his actions, rather than from its unexpectedness.
The third act of The Godfather, Part One is a transitional one, preparing the way for Michael's final ascendance as Godfather. This section is occupied largely with Michael's experiences in Sicily where he is waiting out the aftermath of his killing of Salozzo and McCluskey and with the elimination of Sonny, the oldest Corleone son, from contention as heir apparent.
While it is a transitional section of the film, Coppola structures it in a very interesting way in order to foreground certain aspects of the cultural ethos underlying the action of the film.10 The section is largely organized around an alternation of scenes in Sicily and scenes in New York. In Sicily, Michael meets and marries a beautiful peasant woman. The atmosphere of the courtship and wedding is idyllic, pastoral, and old-worldly with the threat of Mafia violence hovering for the most part at the edges of the action.
By contrast, the New York scenes trace the increasing violence in Connie and Carlo's marriage and Sonny's even more violent protectiveness of his sister. The Corleone family's enemies use this violence on the family level to eliminate Sonny, murdering him as he drives to gain revenge on Carlo for beating Connie.
In effect, the contrastive editing from Sicily to New York can be understood as being based on the comparison of marriages, of male/female relationships, of domestic situations, all within the pervasive ethos and cultural codes of this film. The specific editing of scenes in relation to each other intensifies the contrasts. From a lyrical treatment of old-worldly Sicilian courtship ritual, we cut to Sonny, hurriedly leaving his illicit mistress in order to beat Carlo to a pulp. The cut back to Sicily is to wedding bells and a romantic old world ceremony, an ironic reminder of the film's opening scene.
The New York scenes fill in details of the cultural ethos. That Mafia business is the province of males only is clearly stated in a family dinner scene when Sonny admonishes Carlo with the words "We don't discuss business at the table." Ironically, Sonny himself had earlier violated this code. This breech by both men links them and suggests that Sonny's inability to live up to the domestic family ethos disqualifies him as the potential Don. His violent overreactions in his brotherly protectiveness lead directly to his death.
If Sonny is negatively criticized according to the family ethos, it should be added that while Michael's situation seems idyllic, the double standard of his situation is also sharply and ironically underlined by the edited juxtaposition of certain scenes. Immediately after the lyrical erotic scene of Michael and his new bride's wedding night, Kay, who has been patiently waiting for Michael's return, comes to the Corleone compound to inquire of him. This juxtaposition emphasizes the degree to which Michael ignores his relationship to Kay. His hypocrisy in relation to her establishes the cultural grounds upon which the critical appraisal of Michael will be carried out in the film's final scenes.
Two manifestations of violence in this third act require attention. The murder of Sonny as he drives to Connie's is another outbreak of violence that is totally unprepared for in the narrative. It is only over the course of the film's final hour that a detailed explanation of the murder is provided. Similarly, the Sicilian section ends with Michael's new wife killed by a bomb exploding in their car, a bomb intended for Michael. Minimal preparation is given for this sudden outburst. Only after the two murders is it clarified that they are the antagonists' response to the murders of Salozzo and McCluskey. Again, the pendulum has swung so that the Corleones are victims of unexpected attacks. The final act of the film deals with the restoration of the Corleones' power.
This final act begins with a series of scenes covering the transition in power from Don Corleone to Michael over an approximately seven year period. Don Corleone arranges for the meeting of the Five Families in which a peace is arranged and Michael is guaranteed safe return from Sicily. Vito tutors Michael and warns him of danger from Don Barzini, a family head who was behind the Salozzo-Tattaglia opposition. The Corleone Family begins a move into Las Vegas gambling. Michael finds Kay and marries her, never telling her about his Sicilian wife. Finally, Don Corleone dies and the stage is set for Michael's ascendance to power.
The climactic scenes of this act of the film revolve around two rituals, Don Corleone's funeral and the baptism of Connie and Carlo's son with Michael as the child's godfather. The funeral is related to the film's opening scene in that the ritual becomes a "front" for conducting Mafia business. As Don Corleone had warned, one of the family confidantes, Tessio, attempts to arrange a meeting between Michael and Don Barzini.
The baptism scene follows immediately after the funeral and is structured in a very complex way, making it the climactic scene of violence. In effect, what happens in this scene is that Michael's elimination by assassination of his five most important rivals (including Don Barzini) is intercut with the actual baptism ritual in a very elaborate montage.
The most basic notion suggested by this intercutting is that the shooting of the rivals and the baptism are happening simultaneously. However, the complexity of the structuring goes far beyond the parallel editing principle.
First it should be noted that the baptism scene is related to the opening wedding scene in that it involves the product of Connie and Carlo's marriage. Superficially, both the wedding and the baptism are positive procreative celebrations but both are represented as having a dialectically related underside. They are situations for violent Mafia activity. Like the wedding scene, the baptism scene is structured on edited oppositions, the baptism ritual ceremony on the one hand and the murders of the five rivals on the other.
Beyond the similarity, there are also several significant differences. Unlike the Mafia business during the Wedding and unlike the treatment of Michael's killing of Salozzo and McCluskey but like so many of the other violent actions, there is no narrative preparation, no causal explanation of what is about to happen. The shots of men readying themselves and the shootings themselves take place in a narrative void; only after the scene is complete do the characters gradually verbalize the significance of the action, that Michael has successfully eliminated his most serious rivals.
The preparations for the killings are shown in very brief shots cut into the early stages of the baptism. We see one man cleaning a gun, another putting on a policeman's uniform, another walking to an undisclosed location. Several of the victims are seen in everyday activities, oblivious to the impending threats. Because none of these activities have been narratively prepared for, these isolated shots remain on the level of hermeneutic enigma. Only as the sequence develops and we see the actual shooting do we understand that the first group of men was preparing to shoot the rivals. At points, the editing of the very brief shots of different activities seems to match or compare the activities. For example, at one point the movement of an assassin cleaning a machine gun is matched by similarity of movement to the priest's hand anointing the baby. The obvious reading is to see the two activities as contrasting but the intent of the montage in its entirety is to suggest the inextricable relations between the activities, that the series of shootings are related to the baptism. The fact that the sound from the baptism ceremony continues over shots taking place in diverse locations in New York and Las Vegas reinforces this sense of identity of the actions.
The brief shots of the actual killings of the rivals are intercut with the crucial phase of the baptism ritual when Michael affirms his faith and renounces Satan. This editing produces an extremely strong effect. Once again, interpreting the juxtaposition as highlighting the contrast between the holy ritual and the brutal violence constitutes the most obvious response to the sequence of shots. However, because we recognize the victim as Michael's enemies, it is also possible to read the shots of Michael intercut with the murders as editing on agency, as declaring that Michael is responsible for these murders. In these terms, the sacrilegious profanation of the baptism ceremony is especially striking; Michael's violent actions totally negate any serious meaning of the vows he is proclaiming.
Ultimately, this extremely complex montage can be seen as positing a double meaning of Michael's experience as Godfather. He is not simply standing as Godfather for Connie and Carlo's son. He is also being initiated as the new Mafia-level Godfather of the Corleone Family. The successful slaughter of his enemies in an elaborately orchestrated plot, represented in the context of his baptism vows, testifies to his power and right to become Mafia Godfather. And the inextricable ties between family and Mafia activities are powerfully demonstrated. The profanation of family ritual and values is established as a necessary condition or attribute of the Mafia Godfather. The horrible double standard of the cultural ethos is exposed in this grand operatic scene.
Some of the implications of this great climactic scene are underlined in the film's few remaining scenes, culminating in the critical portrait of Michael with which the film ends. First, Tessio, the old family friend who had betrayed the Corleones to Barzini is led off presumably to his death. Then, Michael for the first time confronts Carlo with the accusation that he had betrayed Sonny to his enemies. Two points are noteworthy about this brief scene. First, it continues the profanation of the baptism. Michael exclaims to Carlo while trying to make him confess, "Do you think I'd make my sister a widow? I'm godfather to your son." This reassurance leads Carlo to confess and Michael immediately has him strangled to death. In short, the brief invocation of family values is immediately negated by Mafia vengeance.
The other interesting factor is that the accusation of Carlo's perfidy in Sonny's assassination is mentioned in this scene for the first time, approximately 45 minutes of film time and some 7 or 8 years of story time after Sonny's death. This is one of the most extreme cases of the operation of a narrative gap in the film. It causes the spectator to think back to Carlo's actions in relation to Connie and Sonny and to reinterpret them as purposeful baiting of Sonny to leave him isolated for the assassination.
The final statement on the meaning of Michael's new status as Godfather is played out in a scene with his wife Kay. The scene begins with Connie invading the male sanctum of the study hysterically accusing Michael of killing her husband. She is led off, but Kay remains to confront Michael about Carlo. Michael, as the modern Godfather, agrees to break the code that he had previously insisted upon, namely that Kay never ask him about his business affairs. For one of the very few times in the film, Coppola employs a direct shot-counter-shot editing pattern between Michael and Kay during the ensuing dialogue. The directness with which the two look into each other's eyes, reinforced by the editing pattern, establishes a code of privileged honesty and respect between them. Kay asks him if he had Carlo killed. Michael stares into her eyes and answers "No." Kay smiles in relief and goes to the next room to pour them drinks. In a brilliant series of shots, she pours the drinks as in the background, several of Michael's henchmen kiss his hand and address him for the first time as Don Corleone, in effect saluting him for his day's brilliant success. In a shot from inside Michael's study, Kay is seen observing this action. Then, as the door to the study is closed, she is eliminated from view. The screen goes to black and the film ends.
This final shot constitutes a gesture of utter exclusion, virtually a negation of her existence from Michael's point of view as Godfather. He has invoked their marital bond by agreeing to break the male code just this one time, then profaned that bond by lying to her. The exclusion and negation of her performed by closing the door, amounts to the psychological murder of Kay. As such, it comments on Michael's situation as Godfather, negates his position at the beginning of the film. It suggests the denial of human contact and positive social ethos that he is required to assume in his new position. It shows him stone-hearted and isolated, alone with his agents of violence.
Interestingly, in discussing why he decided to film Part Two of The Godfather Coppola stated that he wanted to make clear what he felt had been stated about Michael in Part One but not sufficiently understood. "I wanted to take Michael to what I felt was the logical conclusion. He wins every battle; his brilliance and his resources enable him to defeat all his enemies. I didn't want Michael to die. I didn't want Michael to be put into prison. I didn't want him to be assassinated by his rivals. But, in a bigger sense, I wanted to destroy Michael. There's no doubt that by the end of this picture, Michael Corleone, having beaten everyone, is sitting there alone, a living corpse … Michael is doomed."11
It is my contention that a careful reading of Part One makes it clear that this critical image of Michael and the values by which he lives has already been fully achieved.
1. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose and Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974); and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978).
2. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).
3. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980).
4. The key work in this evaluation is Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980).
5. Coppola in Stephen Farber, "Coppola and The Godfather," Sight and Sound, 41:4 (Autumn 1972), p. 223.
6. John Cawelti, "Myths of Violence in American Popular Culture," Critical Inquiry, 1:3 (March 1975).
7. Cawelti, pp. 523-24.
8. I am indebted to the students in my course, "Seminar in Film Analysis," in New York University's Department of Cinema Studies in Spring 1981 for the timing of scenes.
9. It is very significant that in The Godfather, Part Two, when Kay's and Michael's marriage is shattered, she takes her most dramatic stand against Michael by having an abortion. She purposefully chooses to violate the codes surrounding procreation.
10. It is important to note that the complex structuring of scenes in this section of the film, as well as the cross-cutting of the baptism scene and the elimination of the rivals in the last act, are not handled in this fashion in Mario Puzo's novel. The creation of the complex juxtapositions seems clearly to be Coppola's accomplishment, given the unimaginative linearity of the novel.
11. Coppola, quoted in Robert K. Johnson, Francis Ford Coppola (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977), p. 148.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16966
SOURCE: "Blood in the Marketplace: The Business of Family in The Godfather Narratives," in The Invention of Ethnicity, edited by Werner Sollors, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 176-208.
[In the following essay, Ferraro analyzes the relationship between family and business in Puzo's The Godfather, and how Coppola's The Godfather II and Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor build upon the original Godfather narrative.]
Giorgio introduces me to his friend Piero Paco, hero of the Italo-American breach into American literature. He looks like a massive gangster but turns out to be a plain, nice guy with a lot of folksy stories and no complexes. He doesn't feel guilty about blacks, doesn't care about elevating Italo-American prestige. He's no missionary for wops. No gripes about the Establishment. He just decided in the best American way to write a book that would make half a million bucks because he was tired of being ignored.
"You don't think struggling Italo-Americans should stick together and give each other a push up from the bottom of the pile where they've always been?" I ask him. But he's no struggling half-breed anymore. He's made his pile; he's all-American now.
"I'm not going to push that crap," he says engagingly.
—Helen Barolini, Umbertina (1979)
What, after all, could be more American than the success stories of penniless immigrant boys clawing their way to wealth and respectability by private enterprise? What legitimate American business tycoon ever objected to being called "ruthless," to being credited (like the good boxer) with the "killer instinct"…?
What is more, The Godfather could be seen to represent not only some of the continuing principles of the American way of life, but the ancestral ideals it had somehow inexplicably lost on the way. In Don Corleone's world bosses were respected and loved by their subordinates as surrogate fathers. Men were men and women were glad of it Morality ruled unchallenged, and crime, for the most part, was kept off the streets. Families stuck together under patriarchal control. Children obeyed—fathers, and virtuous wives were not afraid of losing their status to mistresses…. No wonder New York magazine exclaimed (according to the paperback edition's blurb): "You'll find it hard to stop dreaming about it."
—E. J. Hobsbawm, "Robin Hoodo"
In his 1969 blockbuster, The Godfather, Mario Puzo presented an image of the Mafia that has become commonplace in American popular culture. Since Puzo, it has been taken for granted that the Mafia operates as a consortium of illegitimate businesses, structured along family lines, with a familial patriarch or "godfather" as the chief executive officer of each syndicate.1 Puzo's version of the Mafia fuses into one icon the realms of family and economy, of southern Italian ethnicity and big-time American capitalism, of blood and the marketplace. "Blood" refers to the violence of organized crime. "Blood" also refers to the familial clan, and its extension through the fictive system of the compare, or "cogodparenthood." In The Godfather, the representation of the Mafia fuses ethnic tribalism with the all-American pursuit of wealth and power. Since its publication, we have regarded this business of family in The Godfather as a figment of Puzo's opportunistic imagination, which it remains in part. But the business of family in Puzo's Mafia is also a provocative revision of accepted notions of what ethnicity is and how it works—the new ethnic sociology in popular literary form.
During the late seventies and early eighties, there was a short outburst of scholarly interest in The Godfather and its myriad offspring. A consensus about the meaning of the saga's popularity emerges from the books and essays of Fredric Jameson, Eric Hobsbawm, John Cawelti, and John Sutherland. The portrayal of the Corleone family collective allows Americans, in the post-Vietnam era, to fantasize about the glory days of "closely knit traditional authority." The portrayal of the power and destructive greed of the Mafia chieftains permits Americans to vent their rage at "the managerial elite who hold the reins of corporate power and use it for their own benefit."2 The family and business thematics are, in each instance, disengaged from one another. As Jameson puts it: on the one hand, the ethnic family imagery satisfies "a Utopian longing" for collectivity; on the other hand, "the substitution of crime for big business" is the narrative's "ideological function."3 In standard treatments like these, Puzo's narrative is regarded as a brilliant (or brilliantly lucky) instance of satisfying two disparate appetites with a single symbol. This perspective, formulated in the late seventies, seems to have settled the issue of the novel's popularity.
I want to reopen that issue. We need to return to The Godfather because we have too easily dismissed its representation of the Mafia as a two-part fantasy. Of course, The Godfather is not reliable as a roman a clef or as a historical novel: Puzo's details are fuzzy, mixed-up, and much exaggerated.4 "There was things he stretched," as Huck would put it, and everyone knows it. But critics have been too ready to accept his major sociological premise—family and business working in tandem—as pure mythology. The importance of The Godfather lies not in a double mythology, I would argue, but in its taking of the fusion of kinship and capitalist enterprise seriously. Its cultural significance lies not in the simultaneous appeals of "family" and "business" imagery but rather in the appeal of an actual structural simultaneity: the business of family. By failing to pause long enough to consider its surface narrative, critics have underestimated not only the strategies of the novel but the insights and intuitions of its huge audience as well.
Readers have underestimated the business of family because little in traditional theories of the family, ethnicity, and advanced capitalism has prepared them to recognize it. In both scholarly and popular treatments, ethnic culture and extended kinship are interpreted as barriers to the successful negotiation of the mobility ladder, particularly its upper ranks. Southern Italian immigrants and their descendants have long been thought to exemplify the principle that the more clannish an ethnic group, the slower its assimilation and economic advancement.5 Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin's Family and Community, Thomas Kessner's The Golden Door, and Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America essentially update the social-work perspectives of writers such as Phyllis H. Williams and Leonard Covello.6 In 1944, Covello wrote.
Any social consciousness of Italo-Americans within "Little Italies" appertains primarily to sharing and adhering to the family tradition as the main motif of their philosophy of life…. The retention of this cultural "basis" is essentially the source of their retarded adjustment.7
This long-standing tradition of identifying the Italian family structure as a dysfunctional survival runs aground on the Mafia.
Historians and sociologists attest to the difficulty of interpreting the Mafia in terms of a linear model of assimilation and upward mobility. All commentators recognize that the Mafia was not simply transported here; that it grew up from the multiethnic immigrant streets, rather than being passed on from father to son; and that Prohibition was the major factor in shaping its growth. In A Family Business, the sociologist Francis A. J. Ianni concedes these points, only to stress the family structure of the syndicates and the origin of this familialism in southern Italy:
[The Lupullo crime organization] feels like a kinship-structured group; familialism founded it and is still its stock in trade. One senses immediately not only the strength of the bond, but the inability of members to see any morality or social order larger than their own.
Ianni's research tempts him into abandoning the tradition of placing ethnic phenomena on a linear continuum running from Old World marginality to New World centrality.8 His research supports and his analysis anticipates (if it does not quite articulate) the cutting edge of ethnic theory. It is time for the criticism of ethnic literature generally, and of The Godfather in particular, to take advantage of such theory.
Scholars in a number of fields are working to change the way we think about ethnicity, ethnic groups, and ethnic culture. In identifying the social bases of ethnicity, theorists are shifting emphasis from intergenerational transmission to arenas of conflict in complex societies. They argue that we need to examine ethnic cultures not as Old World survivals (whatever their roots) but as strategies to deal with the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and status. In this light, ethnic groups are seen to include not only socially marginal peoples but any groups who use symbols of common descent and tradition to create or maintain power. From a historian's perspective, European family structures and traditions do not necessarily dissolve in the face of capitalism but rather, as they have always done, evolve to meet its changing needs.9 Herbert Gans has spoken of "cost-free" ethnicity among the middle classes, but ethnicity is often profitable as well.10
In his work, the anthropologist Abner Cohen conceives of ethnic groups as "interest groups," in which ethnic symbols function in lieu of more formal structures such as the law. By the symbolic apparatus of ethnicity, he means the emphasis on common history and tradition, endogamy and social boundary maintenance, religion and ritual, and everyday encoded behavior, including "accent, manner of speech, etiquette, style of joking, play," and so forth: the rhetoric and codes of "blood."11 As Cohen explains, the symbolic apparatus of "ethnicity" incites genuine loyalty and emotion, whose power and idiosyncrasy should not be underestimated. But the apparatus also serves utilitarian purposes within society at large, including the economic marketplace. In many of our most familiar examples, the function of ethnic ritual is primarily defensive, organizing a group on the margins of society; but the uses of ethnicity can be quite aggressive as well. The Italian-American Mafia is a case in point. As Ianni and others have demonstrated, it is the ethos of ethnic solidarity that puts the organization into Italian-American organized crime.
In her discussion of The Godfather, Rose Basile Green comes the closest of any critic, I think, to unpacking in Cohen's fashion what she herself calls the "socioeconomic ethnic image" of the Corleone crime syndicate. Unlike almost everyone else, Green takes seriously Puzo's portrayal of the syndicates not as a historical novel about actual gangsters but as a treatise (however romanticized) "dealing with the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power." Yet her analysis splits into typical parallel paths: crime as a means for social mobility versus the family as a locus of traditional southern Italian responsibility. Although Green identifies "a subtle line between personal interest and structural power," she too fails to make the strongest connection between the private family life ascribed to Don Corleone and the illegitimate enterprise he heads. When Green says that The Godfather explores "the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power," she means by "strategy" the tactics of bribery, intimidation, the brokerage of votes, intergang warfare, and so forth, with which Don Corleone conducts business outside the confines of his own organization. But the most noteworthy device for gaining and securing power in Puzo's depiction is internal to the Corleone syndicate. The device is not a gun or payola but, quite simply and obviously, that mystified entity the "southern Italian family."12
"Tell the old man I learned it all from him and that I'm glad I had this chance to pay him back for all he did for me. He was a good father."
As narrator in The Godfather, Puzo adopts the familiar role of cultural interpreter, mediating between outside readers and an ethnic secret society. Puzo's agenda, implicit yet universally understood, is to explain why Sicilian-Americans have made such good criminals. The answer, generally speaking, is their cult of family honor. The Corleones believe, with a kind of feudal fervor, in patriarchy, patronage, and protection. The Godfather is saturated with the imagery of paternity, family, and intimate friendship; with the rhetoric of respect, loyalty, and the code of silence; with references to Sicilian blood and the machismo attributed to it; with the social events—weddings, christenings, funerals, meals, and so forth—that embody the culture of family honor. Always the business of crime is interlaced with the responsibilities of family. In the film, for instance, Clemenza frets over a request from his wife even as he presides over the execution of Paulie Gatto: "Don't forget the cannolis!" Don Vito himself is a true believer. He believes in the mutual obligation of kinfolk. He seeks to expand his wealth and power to protect his dependents and to make his protection available to more and more people. He recruits from within his family to keep the business "all in the family" for the family's sake. "It was at this time that the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path."13 At the same time, "not his best friends would have called Don Corleone a saint from heaven", there is always "some self-interest" in his generosity (G, 215). For everyone recognizes the wisdom of family honor—Corleone's honor—given the special exigencies of operating in a big way in an outlawed underground economy.
In his analysis of the ethnic group as an interest group. Abner Cohen stresses the growth potential wherever there is a sector of an economy that has not been organized formally:
Even in the advanced liberal industrial societies there are some structural conditions under which an interest group cannot organize itself on formal lines. Its formal organization may be opposed by the state or by other groups within the state, or may be incompatible with some important principles in the society; or the interests it represents may be newly developed and not yet articulated in terms of a formal organization and accommodated with the formal structure of the society. Under these conditions the group will articulate its organization on informal lines, making use of the kinship, friendship, ritual, ceremonial, and other symbolic activities that are implicit in what is known as style of life.14
The ethnic ethos means sticking together, respecting the authority of the group rather than that of outsiders, defending the group's turf, and abiding by tradition. The reasoning comes full circle, for tradition is equated with group solidarity. The family is the core element of the group and its most powerful symbol. Under the appropriate conditions the ethos of "ethnicity" is by no means anachronistic in the advanced stages of capitalism, no matter how rooted such values might be to the past of particular groups. Wherever ethnicity can facilitate enterprise, capitalism as a system can be said to be one of ethnicity's primary motors, not its antithesis. Focusing on the old moneyed elite of London, Cohen has argued that ethnicity functions among the privileged as well as the impoverished and among "core" castes as well as racial and national minorities. In another case study, the historian Peter Dobkin Hall implicates family and tradition in the mercantilism of Massachusetts elites, 1700–1900.15 As both Cohen and Hall contend, a precondition for capitalized ethnicity is a legal vacuum. Here I wish to add a corollary based on the history of the Mafia: the desire to engage in enterprise, not simply in a vacuum (where there is no law or formal arrangements) but in an economic zone outside the law and against formal arrangements, makes some form of family and ethnic organization a necessity.
The seemingly "feudal" ethos of family honor, deeply internalized, cements individuals together in American crime, structuring syndicates and giving them their aggrandizing momentum. Loyalty and devotion to group honor are the values around which individuals are motivated, recruited, judged, and policed in the Mafia. These values are especially good in binding criminals together and in making criminals out of those otherwise not drawn to the outlaw life. They came into the forefront in America when Prohibition created an enormous unorganized sector of the national economy, legally proscribed, but promoted by immense appetites and the willingness of the actual legal structure to play along, especially "for a price." They are also especially needed to hold together the large-scale enterprises, not structured or protected by law, that prohibition creates but that survive after it: rackets devoted to gambling, loansharking, prostitution, various forms of extortion, and eventually drugs. In legitimate business, a prized executive who sells himself and perhaps a secret or two to another company is regarded as an unexpected operating loss. A caporegime who becomes a stool pigeon can bring the whole system down. The ideology of tradition and of group solidarity, principally of the family, is ideal for rationalizing crime syndicates, in both senses of the term "rationalize": ideal for organizing them because it is ideal for justifying their existence and their hold over their members.
Scholars report that actual mafiosi crime syndicates are family based. In A Family Business, Ianni analyzes the structure of a major American Mafia clan—the "Lupullo" family—abstracting four general rules of organization:
the merging of social and business functions into one kin-centered enterprise; the assignment of leadership positions on the basis of kinship; the correlation between closeness of kin relationship and the hierarchy of positions; and the requirement of close consanguineal or affinal relationship for inclusion in the core group….16
Ianni produces several diagrams to illustrate his thesis: a genealogical table of actual and fictive (godparent-godchild) relations; a flowchart of the subdivisions and their operations within the crime syndicate; and a third table, which combines the preceding two.17 The third table diagrams what Ianni calls the "power alliances" (relations of respect and deference) between leaders within the Lupullo crime hierarchy. The pattern of authority within the syndicate mimics the pattern within the patriarchal clan.
In The Godfather, Mario Puzo provides a narrative equivalent of the Lupullos' power chart. During the wedding scene, Puzo introduces the Corleones in terms of their dual roles as family members and company executives. Vito Corleone is president and chief executive officer, as well as father or godfather to everyone within the organization. Genco Abbandando, "consigliori" (right-hand man), has been his best friend during his American childhood, his honorary brother, the son of the man who took him in and gave him his first job. But Genco is dying, and it is suspected that Tom Hagen, Vito Corleone's "adopted" son, will be taking over as counselor. Vito's eldest, Sonny, operates one of the principal three divisions or regimes of the family. The other two division leaders (capo-regimes), Tessio and Clemenza, are comari of Vito, godparents to each other's children. Fredo, the second son, serves his father as bodyguard and executive secretary. Michael, the youngest son, is the black sheep of the family and has nothing to do with its business. By tradition, the women are "civilians." But Connie's groom, Carlo Rizzi (an old boyhood chum of Sonny), expects, through this marriage, to rise quickly in the syndicate.
The network of nuclear family, extended kin by blood or marriage, and honorary kinship is not simply a structural convenience. The ideology of family operates neither as false consciousness in the vulgar sense nor as rhetoric that is entirely and self-consciously hypocritical. The rhetoric of solidarity works to organize the Corleone syndicate because of its hold over the imaginations and passions of leaders and those in the common ranks alike. As Cohen explains it, ethnic symbols function in lieu of formal structures precisely because of their transutilitarian, emotional appeal. This "dual" nature of symbolization is illustrated especially well in Puzo's depiction of Tom Hagen's admission into the Corleone syndicate.
Sonny Corleone had brought Tom Hagen, an orphaned waif of German-Irish extraction, into the Corleone household, where he was allowed to remain. "In all this the Don acted not as a father but rather as a guardian." Only after Hagen goes to work for Don Corleone is he treated as a fourth son:
After he passed the bar exam. Hagen married to start his own family. The bride was a young Italian girl from New Jersey, rare at that time for being a college graduate. After the wedding, which was of course held in the home of Don Corleone, the Don offered to support Hagen in any undertaking he desired, to send him law clients, furnish his office, start him in real estate.
Tom Hagen had bowed his head and said to the Don, "I would like to work for you."
The Don was surprised, yet pleased. "You know who I am?" he asked.
Hagen nodded…. "I would work for you like your sons," Hagen said, meaning with complete loyalty, with complete acceptance of the Don's parental divinity. The Don, with that understanding which was even then building the legend of his greatness, showed the young man the first mark of fatherly affection since he had come into his household. He took Hagen into his arms for a quick embrace and afterward treated him more like a true son, though he would sometimes say, "Tom, never forget your parents," as if he were reminding himself as well as Hagen. (G, 51-52)
In the scene above, Hagen moves into the Don's inner circle. It is a dual movement, enacted simultaneously, into the inner realm of Don Vito's familial affections and into the ranks of his crime organization. Tom touches the Don's heart by volunteering, despite his origins, to submit himself to the Don's will and risk his life and freedom in the company. By the same token, the Don rewards Hagen's voluntary show of respect with a symbolic "adoption" that signifies the bond of loyalty upon which their futures as gangsters will depend. The symbol of paternity here works emotionally and pragmatically at the same time. Indeed, the father-son bonding is all the more powerful because of its economic component, while its utility depends, in the absence of biological paternity, quite precisely upon the psychological density of the tie.18
So far I have been juxtaposing the sociology of ethnic and familial interest groups with various elements of The Godfather, treating the latter as if it were merely an illustration of the former—as if The Godfather were a kind of sociological tract or social-work guide to the Mafia. Of course, The Godfather is not exposition, but a novel; not sociology, but story. Yet the populist, fictional composition of The Godfather does not mean it is any less effective than the scholarship of Cohen or Ianni as a medium for implicating the ethnic family in capitalism. Puzo uses the resources of fiction—imagery and rhetoric, characterization, and, most of all, narrative—to make a case for the interpenetration of family and business. In the instance of Tom Hagen's admission to the Corleone family, Puzo rigs a set of circumstances and unfolds an event in such a fashion that the strands of father-son emotion and corporate personnel management are not phenomenologically separable. Hagen's recruitment/initiation functions as a microcosm for the interpenetration of family and business in the narrative as a whole. Through melodrama, Puzo undermines the still common assumption that family and business operate as separate spheres. Puzo combines family and business within the same narrative site. He also subverts the reader's desire, in keeping with a purified notion of the family and a vilified notion of the economy, to subordinate one phenomenon to the other, as cause and effect, in any given instance. In The Godfather the syndicate never, or almost never, uses family imagery merely to structure itself in lieu of better alternatives, thereby "corrupting" the forms and values of an otherwise sacrosanct ethnic tribe. On the other hand, the family never engages in business simply to support itself, dirtying its hands to keep head and heart clean. Always the two phenomena are causally intermingled. By the deviousness of situation and event, Puzo contextualizes the ethnic family within the capitalist economy while excavating the contribution of ethnic culture and the rhetoric of ethnicity to illegitimate enterprise.
To a greater extent perhaps than we have become used to in analyzing modernist, high-brow literature, the story line is crucial to The Godfather. Even the critics most hostile to Puzo admit that his great gift is storytelling, including the creation of memorable characters, but especially the creation and maintenance of suspense—of beginnings that captivate, middles the keep you going, and endings that satisfy. In The Godfather, Puzo narrates two plots that lock together into a single, resounding conclusion.19 When the novel opens, a breakdown in filial obedience exposes the Corleone syndicate to "a hostile take-over bid" from the Barzini-Tattaglia group. At the same time, business matters threaten the lives of Corleone family members and precipitate dissent among them. This double crisis is the hook that captures our attention: a business in trouble, a family in trouble. We cheer for a solution to both crises—nothing less will satisfy—and Puzo contrives brilliantly to give it to us. Both crises, potentially disastrous, are solved when Don Vito's youngest son, Michael, ascends to his father's place and successfully squelches the Barzini-Tattaglia threat. It is a stunning illustration of the structural logic of family business in narrative terms. The return of the prodigal son alleviates the problem of managerial succession, while the resurrection of the syndicate's power base restores the primacy of family values and commitments. Puzo's story is "dual" in the sense that the ethnic symbols of the Mafia are dual and that Tom Hagen's adoption as a Corleone is dual. So tightly constructed is Puzo's plot around the theme of duality that the novel's denouement seems inevitable. To save the business, you must regroup the family; to save the family, you must regroup the business.
In The Godfather, Puzo uses Connie Corleone's wedding to illustrate the overlapping structures of family and business in the American Mafia of the 1940s. In the Godfather film (the lens of which constantly obscures our view of the novel), Coppola plays with a contrast between the beneficent private life of the Corleones (the sunlit wedding feast) and their business escapades (inside the darkened house, inside their hearts of darkness).20 Yet, Coppola's moral allegory reifies a distinction between the private and the corporate, home and work, explicitly undermined by the novel. In Puzo's design, business associates are the proper wedding guests, because one's family and friends are one's proper coworkers and retainers. The specter of communal solidarity, embodied in the wedding, marks a plateau of harmonious unity from which the Corleones are about to fall. As Puzo introduces the members of the Corleone family at Connie's wedding and their environment, he not only unpacks the functional interdependence of family and business. He explicates and foreshadows a disturbance in family-business equilibrium, reciprocally engendered, mutually threatening, that is the medium for the Godfather narrative. As Puzo imagines it, the incipient threat to the Corleone empire is analytically inseparable from the breakdown in the familial solidarity of the syndicate—including Genco's death, the Don's creeping senility, Sonny's disobedience, the disloyalty of Carlo and Tessio, Hagen's intransigent foreignness, Michael's rebellion. At the same time, tensions in the family arise directly out of the involvement in the business of crime.
At the opening of the novel, Don Corleone is nearing retirement, which has him justifiably worried about the leadership of the syndicate. In standard corporate management, such a problem can be handled either by promotion of the best available personnel from within company ranks or by recruitment from outside the company (intercorporate "raiding"). But for the Corleones, of course, the problem of the company executive is strictly a family matter, and that makes it a problem indeed. The right-hand man, Genco Abbandando, dies on the day of the wedding, leaving Don Corleone no choice but to promote Tom Hagen, an adopted son whose German-Irish descent precludes consideration for the top post of don. Both Clemenza and Tessio, the two capo-regimes, are nearing retirement themselves; moreover, they are not quite family enough. Of the don's own sons, neither Sonny nor Fredo seems finally to have the mettle to be don, while Michael, once favored to head the family, is now an outcast:
[Sonny] did not have his father's humility but instead a quick, hot temper that led him into errors of judgment. Though he was a great help in his father's business, there were many who doubted that he would become the heir to it…. The second son, Fredrico … did not have that personal magnetism, that animal force, so necessary for a leader of men, and he too was not expected to inherit the family business…. The third son, Michael, did not stand with his father and his two brothers but sat at a table in the most secluded corner of the garden. (G, 17)
The leadership vacuum, familially engendered, is the weak link that tempts the Barzini-Tattaglia consortium (fronted by Sollozzo, the drug dealer) to take over the Corleone rackets. Weaknesses in the character of family members and in their relations with one another expose the Corleone family to, quite literally, a hostile takeover bid.
Concomitantly, and inseparably, business tensions have precipitated disputes within the intimate family circle. Michael has fallen out with his family because he objects to the way its members make a living, committing himself instead to the defense of his country and the "straight arrow" mobility of a Dartmouth education. Connie's old-fashioned Sicilian wedding seems to symbolize the unity of the Corleone generations. Yet the garden celebration actually screens dissent between Connie and her father, traceable to Corleone involvement in the rackets. "Connie had consented to a 'guinea' wedding to please her father because she had so displeasured him in her choice of a husband" (G, 20). The persistence of the Corleone syndicate means that one of the qualifications for a Corleone son-in-law is potential for criminal leadership. Don Corleone objects to Carlo Rizzi as his daughter's husband not because he doubts Carlo's qualities as a mate but because he questions Carlo's ability and trustworthiness as a gangster. For his own part, Carlo marries Connie not only out of love but also because he hopes to rise in the Corleone syndicate. When Don Corleone violates the principle of familial promotion, providing Carlo with a living but not an executive role, Carlo seeks revenge on his father-in-law and the family. Carlo sets up the assassination of Sonny, bringing the syndicate to the brink of disaster. By Puzo's design, as demonstrated in this instance, any analysis of family-business disrepair comes full circle: we trace family problems to business questions, only to find the intrusion of business into family life returning to haunt the business.
Carlo's betrayal, like that of Paulie Gatto and ultimately of Tessio himself, illustrates the point of vulnerability in a family business within a competitive market. The principles of maximizing profits and employing insiders are not always compatible. Syndicate leaders are tempted, for the sake of performance, to slight certain inept family members. Syndicate members are tempted, for personal gain, to betray their organizations. As long as a doctrine of familial loyalty is obeyed to the letter, neither temptation wins the day. But when family principles break down, the company is in danger.
The leadership vacuum in the Corleone syndicate is filled by the reestablishment of order in the Corleone patriarchy, when Michael returns to his family, his descent culture, and his filial "destiny." In The Godfather, the crisis of managerial succession is a crisis, as Cawelti notes, of "family succession" which can be solved only familially.21 Puzo resolves the dual crisis by having Michael grow a familial conscience and an ethnic consciousness, mandating his ascent to his father's position as patriarch. At the novel's opening, Michael is a family pariah—scomunicato, excommunicated.22 Before the war, Michael was the chosen heir to his father's regime, but later he refuses to have anything to do with the business and barely anything to do with the members of his family. He courts an "Adams" for a wife. Puzo's narrative counteracts the seeming decline of the Corleone syndicate by charting Michael's rebirth as a Corleone family member and a businessman of crime.
Michael's return as a once prodigal son is enacted in a steplike progression that mirrors the rhythms of religious initiation—baptism, confirmation, the sacrament of marriage or the priesthood. Killing Sollozzo and the police captain. Michael commits himself to his father's honor and a life of crime, simultaneously. In Sicily, he is symbolically rebaptized a Sicilian, learning the history of the Italian Mafia, converting to the old traditions, even taking a local wife (subsequently killed). Back in America, he is apprenticed to his father. When Don Corleone dies, Michael takes over the business and the family, becoming godfather to Connie's firstborn and "Don Michael" to his business associates. During the actual christening of his godson (as Coppola depicts it), Michael's henchmen execute a series of murders that restore the internal solidarity of the Corleone syndicate and enlarge its boundaries and standing. When he acts his father's part, even Michael's face begins to resemble Don Vito's in his prime. Puzo's drama of monarchical, Oedipal succession reverses the familiar convention of second-generation "orphanhood" with which the novel begins.23
Any analytic attempt to separate what Michael does out of an emotional recommitment to his father or his ethnic past from what Michael accomplishes out of a pragmatic enlistment in his father's company is doomed to echo in the wilderness. Readers even vaguely familiar with the Godfather narrative know that the brutal simultaneous killings at the end of the novel reestablish and indeed improve the Corleones' standing in the American Mafia. But it is less well recognized, and the film underplays, how the ending reintegrates the Corleone household. Critics argue that Puzo deploys family imagery to win sympathy for Michael's otherwise morally egregious plans. Critics misconstrue the strategies of the novel, however, when they subordinate the familial pleadings of the narrative to its capitalist melodrama, as if the reintegration of the family were merely an ideological cover for the reincorporation of the syndicate. The two structures are interrelated; neither can rightly be subordinated to the other.
Standing godfather to his nephew, Michael accepts family leadership and embodies family unity, literalizing his newly won title as patriarch of an extended family, crowned "Don" Michael Corleone. Michael tightens the family circle around him. Hagen returns from Nevada. Traitors to family honor—Gatto, Rizzi, Tessio—are weeded out. Michael's success in restoring the Corleone empire is as much the act of a truly obedient son as his godfatherhood is a basis for taking over the syndicate, for the crime organization becomes a structure on which the Corleones are reunited. Coppola's film version leaves us with a trace of dissent in the air, ending with Kay's recognition of Michael's ruthless criminality. In the novel, Puzo restores the equanimity of husband and wife and, by symbolic extension, of the Corleone family at large. Tom Hagen explains to Kay why it was necessary, from the standpoint of their ethos, for Michael to order the executions of Carlo Rizzi, Tessio, and the others. Kay acquiesces to Hagen's explanation and Michael's desire that she come home. She undergoes a rite of cultural self-transformation, to make herself into the kind of Italian-American woman the criminal environment expects. Whereas the film ends with Kay's anguish, the novel ends with Kay's conversion to Catholicism. Every morning she goes to mass with her mother-in-law, there to say, in the final words of the novel, "the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone" (G, 446). The peace of the Corleones is thereby restored. Michael does not mend matters with Kay simply to make the company perform better, any more than he restores the power of the syndicate simply to win his wife back and reintegrate his family; as Puzo has rigged the plot, the two go hand in hand.
The single aspect of The Godfather that seems to have made the deepest impact on the American public is Puzo's use of the central symbol of "the family." This symbol's influence has virtually changed overnight the American public's favorite term for a criminal organization.
For its depiction of an ethnic subculture that functions as an interest group, The Godfather would warrant attention from scholars—even if, like The Fortunate Pilgrim, the novel had disappeared into obscurity upon publication. But the novel has had a major impact on popular culture. The figure of "the godfather" outstrips all but the most ubiquitous cultural symbols, falling somewhere between Huckleberry Finn and Superman, perhaps better known than Uncle Sam himself.24 The novel has possibly been the best-seller of all time. By 1971, when the first film was released, there were over one million hardcover copies in circulation—multiple copies in every library in every town in America—with at least ten million more paperbacks.25 Historically, the reading of the novel framed the film—not, as in academic criticism, the other way around. The novel still sells, another five or ten million to date, in a $1.95 paperback series of "classic bestsellers." The most immediate spin-offs were the two films; versions of those films rearranged for television; and the video format, which frequently offers both films on a single cassette. By 1975, 260 more books on the Mafia theme had been released, principally of the hard-boiled variety.26 In 1984, Puzo himself tried again with The Sicilian, his fictional account of Salvatore Giuliano. Ethnicity in crime has figured in several major films, including The Cotton Club (coscripted by Coppola, Puzo, and William Kennedy), The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight, Mean Streets, Broadway Danny Rose, Heart of the Dragon, Scarface, and Once upon a Time in America. The popularity of the family "dynasty" sagas, especially in their many ethnic varieties, can be traced in part to Puzo's model. More telling still has been the ceaseless production of Godfather clones, emphasizing the fusion of family and crime. Practically a genre of their own, they include (auto)biographical works like Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father, Joseph Bonanno's Man of Honor, and Antoinette Giancana's Mafia Princess; novels like Vincent Patrick's Family Business and Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor; academic studies like Francis A. J. Ianni's A Family Business; and films and teleplays, including "Our Family Honor," ABC's ill-fated attempt to combine Italian-American gangsters with Irish-American cops.
What are we to make of the lasting fascination with The Godfather? Since its appearance, scholars have recognized The Godfather as an artifact of what is called, perhaps misleadingly, the "new ethnicity." The timing of the novel and its immediate offspring, from the book's publication in 1969 to the television series in the late seventies, corresponds to the rise of a celebratory attitude toward ethnic identity. This celebration encompassed not only groups by and large still marginal—blacks, Indians, newcomers from Asia and the Hispanic Americas—but also the descendants of European immigrants, including the Italians, who were increasingly well established in the middle classes. Necessarily, the connections drawn between the increased salience of ethnicity and The Godfather's popularity have been premised on the prevailing interpretation of The Godfather as a two-part fantasy, in which family sanctuary and successful corporate enterprise are polar opposites. My reading of The Godfather, emphasizing the complicity of family and business, calls for a reexamination of the novel's role in the new ethnic self-consciousness. Both the popularity of The Godfather and the celebration of ethnicity are complex phenomena, reflecting a myriad of attitudes toward race, class, and gender as well as toward ethnicity—attitudes often in conflict with one another. By claiming that The Godfather articulates the business of family, I do not wish to mute these other voices. My ambition is to point the way toward evaluating the voice of family business within the larger cacophony of debate.
Scholars like Jameson and Cawelti, working within the frame of traditional Godfather interpretation, seek to locate in the novel an anticapitalist energy—not an overt critique so much as an impulse, the energy of a potential critique partially veiled and misdirected. Both critics argue that Puzo portrays the Mafia as the center of a capitalist conspiracy and, simultaneously and irreconcilably, as a refuge from the conspiracy of capitalism. Because Puzo's Mafia functions as "the mirror-image of big-business," its brutality provides a focus for anticapitalist anxiety and an outlet for anticapitalist anger.27 Similarly, the juxtaposed, equally powerful image of the family reflects, in Jameson's terms, a "Utopian longing" for escape from the prison house of capitalism. "The 'family' is a fantasy of tribal belongingness," echoes Cawelti, "that protects and supports the individual as opposed to the coldness and indifference of the modern business or government bureaucracy."28
In the standard view, The Godfather's putative double fantasy reflects the misdirected energies of the new ethnicity; the new ethnicity arises from frustration with capitalism yet mutes its resistance in clamor about the decline of the family and traditional values.29 My analysis of The Godfather suggests we might hesitate, however, before accepting the majority opinion, that the family in the novel embodies a refuge from capitalism. We need especially to question whether a case for the subversive nature of The Godfather can rest on the myth of the Italian-American family as a precapitalist collectivity, when Puzo mounts all his forces to undermine this false dichotomy. The representation of the southern Italian family in The Godfather is not the kind of saccharine portrayal of innocent harmony—the haven in a heartless world—that scholars take as the benchmark of ethnic nostalgia. In The Godfather, capitalism is shown to accommodate, absorb, and indeed accentuate the structures of family and ethnicity. Americans respond to The Godfather because it presents the ethnic family not as a sacrosanct European institution, reproduced on the margins of America, but as a central American structure of power, successful and bloodied.
The desire of scholars to identify ethnic pietism as a locus of anticapitalist energy has blinded them to an alliance between the new ethnicity and procapitalist celebration of the family. This alliance is an insufficiently recognized strain in recent popular culture. At least until World War II, and perhaps into the 1970s, the dominant attitude toward the ethnic family in the United States assumed its incompatibility with capitalism, whether ethnicity was favored or not. The rabid Americanizers of the early decades attempted to strip immigrant workers of their familial and cultural loyalties. Among immigrants themselves, many feared that the price of upward mobility might be family solidarity, even as most in their midst deployed the family as a basis for group enterprise and mutual financial support. And intellectuals who were skeptical of capitalism, whether partly or wholly, based one strand of their critique on the damage that capitalism supposedly inflicted upon traditional family cultures. These family doomsayers tend less and less to be nativist Americanizers and guardians of ethnic tradition, but the nostalgia among scholars remains loud and clear. While the myth of the natural ethnic family still holds sway among intellectuals, the general public has come increasingly to accept and indeed welcome the idea of compatibility between ethnicity and capitalism. To accent the Italian example, for instance, public figures ranging from Lee Iacocca to Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo emphasize the contribution of family values to their own success stories, occasionally stretching our imaginations.30 Similar rhetoric appears in the reemergence of the critique of the black family, in the widespread lauding of Asian- and Caribbean-American merchants and their schoolchildren, and in the general appeal for a new American work ethic. In this light, The Godfather feeds upon a strain of American rhetoric and expectation that has reached full salience only in the last decade.
Perhaps no artifact of American culture, popular or serious, has made the case for the business of family with quite the force of The Godfather. At no time in United States history has ethnicity enjoyed the vogue that it first achieved in the years of The Godfather's greatest popularity and, in large measure, now maintains. The congruence is no coincidence. The Godfather does indeed participate in the new ethnicity by celebrating the ethnic family. But the Mafia achieves its romantic luster not because Puzo portrays the Italian-American family as a separate sphere, lying outside of capitalism, but because the Italian-American family emerges as a potent structure within it. The ethnic family in The Godfather feeds off a market sensibility rather than undermining it.31 The Corleones can provide protection from the market only because they have mastered it. Indeed, the height of romance is reached in The Godfather with Puzo's choice of the Mafia as a model for family enterprise, for illegal family enterprises are capable of growing and expanding to an extent that the structure and regulation of legitimate capitalism will ultimately not support.
If The Godfather does indeed harbor anticapitalist energies, as a thorough reading of the novel might suggest, then perhaps scholars have been looking for that energy in the wrong places. Jameson concludes.
When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit—surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking. American capitalism in its most systematized and computerized, dehumanized, "multi-national" and corporate form.32
Jameson and the others may be correct in insisting that fascination with The Godfather is motivated, at a deeper level, by anticapitalist anxiety. But the real scare occasioned by The Godfather, however much suppressed, is about capitalism not in its "most systematized and computerized, dehumanized" form, but rather in its more "intimate" varieties—ethnic, familial, personal. My reading of The Godfather suggests that if we wish to press charges against capitalism, we press charges against family and ethnicity, too. One strand of rhetoric in twentieth-century America, familiar to us from Howell's Hazard of New Fortunes and sources pervasive in our culture, suggests that Americans can go home to escape the specter of capitalism. Professionals often complain about taking work home with them, mentally if not literally. How much more frightening, then, is the alternative represented by Puzo: when some Americans go home to papa, they end up confronting the boss. Critics have been quick to interpret the brutality of the Mafia as a symbol for the violence to the individual inherent in capitalism, and to assume that the family represents an escape from that violence. Yet the melodrama of The Godfather implicates the family not only in the success of the Corleone empire but in its cycle of self-destructive violence as well. Michael reintegrates the family business only after burying a brother, murdering a brother-in-law, alienating a sister, and betraying the trust of his wife. For Americans who experience family and economy as interwoven pressures (if not actual combined enterprises), the Mafia genre may allow a focusing of resentments, even if, inevitably, a Mafia analogy overstates them. For the cost of employing blood in the marketplace is finding the company at home.
My speculations notwithstanding, there is no direct way to study popular opinion and pinpoint the popular interpretation of The Godfather. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume there is any single interpretation (any more than there is a single "mind of the masses"). The great strength of popular literature may be its ability to entertain different, even contrary readings. But we can at least consider how other American artists catering to mass audiences have read the message of Puzo's novel. Two of the novel's best offspring—the film Godfather II (1974) and Prizzi's Honor (1982) by Richard Condon—illuminate the novel's reception. Although Puzo receives credit for the Godfather II screenplay, along with Coppola, the film offers a perspective on the Corleones very different from either that of the novel or that of its reasonable facsimile, the first film. Pauline Kael actually throws almost all the credit for Godfather II to Coppola: "This second film … doesn't appear to derive from the book as much as from what Coppola learned while he was making the first."33 For our purposes, however, it is not essential to distribute praise or blame, but simply to note that the film differs significantly enough from the original narrative to constitute a "rereading" of it (even if it is, in part, Puzo's own). Whereas the original Godfather narrative winds the fates of the Corleone family and the Corleone business together. Coppola's Godfather II separates the two strands. In Prizzi's Honor, on the other hand, Richard Condon uses all the devices in Puzo's novel, plus some of his own, to bond family and business tighter than ever. Prizzi's Honor surgically extracts Puzo's theme from underneath his excesses and Coppola's sermonizing and exposes it to a scintillating parody. The greatest testament to The Godfather has been paid not by critics or scholars but by Condon and John Huston, who directed the 1985 film version from Condon's own screenplay. Together, Godfather II and Prizzi's Honor can be construed as leading voices in a debate about the meaning of Puzo's novel and the future of the genre in which all three works participate.
This time I really set out to destroy the family. And I wanted to punish Michael.
Among scholars and film critics, Godfather II is commonly regarded as a greater work of art than the first movie, and infinitely preferable to the novel. In the standard interpretation, the second film sheds the Mafia of its sentimentally familial wrappings and reveals it for what it is and perhaps has always been: capitalistic enterprise in its most vicious form. Pauline Kael interprets this revelation moralistically. Godfather II is to be praised for eliminating the illusion that there might be anything desirable about the Corleone crime family.35 Fredric Jameson stresses the historicity of Godfather II. For him, Godfather II explodes the illusion of the Mafia's "ethnicity" by attributing its origins to social arrangements in "backward and feudal" Sicily and its growth in America to the advanced stages of capitalism. The second film, according to Jameson, submits the themes of the first "to a patient deconstruction that will in the end leave its ideological content undisguised and its displacements visible to the naked eye."36 For both Kael and Jameson, the deconstruction of the family and the ethnic group is a precondition for truth. But to my mind, it is they along, with Coppola himself, not Puzo, who run the greatest risk of romanticizing the Sicilian-American family.
Godfather II narrates the further adventures of Michael Corleone, interspersed with flashbacks to the early days of his gangster father, Don Vito Corleone. The film is a political morality tale with a vengeance. In the original narrative, as Don Vito's business goes, so goes his family: their fates are intertwined. But in Godfather II Michael promotes his criminal enterprise at the expense of his personal family, group solidarity, and the Italian-American heritage. The central plot is a Byzantine series of maneuvers between Michael Corleone and the Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (modeled on Meyer Lansky). In their struggles, both Michael and Roth use a Corleone capo-regime, Pantangele, now living in the old Corleone house on Long Island, as a pawn. To counter Roth, Michael manipulates the imagery of the criminal "family"—Roth as Michael's "father." Pantangele as his "godson"—with complete cynicism. He succeeds by deliberately evacuating the idioms of family and ethnic solidarity of all meaning except as short-term (and shortsighted) instruments in a (transethnic, transfamilial) quest for power.
In the process, Michael's multinational crime outfit is reduced to merely a conglomerate of illegal enterprises. The network of ties with his father's retainers back in New York City unravels; Michael's nuclear family falls completely apart: and the southern Italian ethos that structured his father's world is vanquished entirely. Michael's evil is measured on a scale marked out in emphatically familial and ethnic units. The detail is endless. At the novel's end, Michael arranges the deaths not only of Roth (his "father") and Pantangele (his "son") but of his natural brother Fredo. Fredo has traded information with Roth: but he has also served as the only real father that Michael's children have ever known. Michael wins the trust of his partners and underlings only by blackmail, bribery, and the promise of mutual profit; such trust lasts only as long as convenient for all parties; and such relations frequently end in death as well as dissolution. Family and community have disintegrated among the Corleones. In the opening scene, the band at his son's first-communion party cannot play a tarantella but at Pantangele's frustrated urgings, comes up with "Three Blind Mice." In his portrayal of Michael, Coppola draws upon one of the most familiar of ethnic themes—second-generation infidelity—chastising him accordingly.
The loss of family/ethnicity, coupled with the consummation of Michael's business deals, spell one thing: Michael has Americanized. The Corleone empire has become, in Hyman Roth's phrase, "bigger than General Motors and AT&T." But it has cost Michael and his people their inheritance. It is an old story. By the film's end, Coppola has used Michael to update Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, outfitting the Russian-Jewish merchant as a 1970s CEO in Sicilian garb. Like Levinsky, Michael trades his roots for rubles. The film exploits that peculiarly American paranoia of cultural and social orphanhood amid fortune and fame. Isaac Rosenfeld called Cahan's novel "an exemplary treatment of one of the dominant myths of American capitalism—that the millionaire finds nothing but emptiness at the top of the heap."37 Reviewing Godfather II in Commentary, William Pechter concluded that Michael was "another instance of that unrevivably exhausted cliché: it's lonely at the top."38
By comparison, Michael's father had found the top of his heap quite rewarding:
And even Don Corleone, that most modest of men, could not help feeling a sense of pride. He was taking care of his world, his people. He had not failed those who depended on him and gave him the sweat of their brows, risked their freedom and their lives in his service. (G, 215)
At the end of the original narrative, Michael has lost his brother Sonny and the enforcer Luca Brasi to the five-family war; his capo-regime Tessio and brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi to treachery; and, possibly, his sister Connie, because of Carlo. But around him coalesces a new family regime: his mother, new wife Kay, Fredo, Tom Hagen, Clemenza and his men, the new capo Rocco Lampone and his men, and Albert Neri. In Puzo's Godfather, family and business work in tandem, although with no guarantee of perfect profits or perfect harmony. Godfather II rends them asunder once again.
Ironically, Godfather II would seem to have been more hospitable than the original narrative to the twin appetites identified by Cawelti, Jameson, and other critics. Formal analysis suggests that if Americans in the seventies needed to vent rage at capitalism or fantasize about ethnic solidarity, then Godfather II would be the better vehicle for doing it. In the original story, the "mirror-image corporate capitalism" thesis is compromised, as Stanley Kauffmann has noted, by the unconventional "blood-bonds of loyalty" in the Mafia.39 In Godfather II, those bonds are broken and Michael Corleone's operations are identified as mainstream big-time capitalism. In the original story, nostalgia about the Italian-American family is compromised by the Corleones' criminal enterprise. In Godfather II, the linear narrative of assimilation (Levinsky-style) feeds a yearning for a time when the Sicilian family withstood the ravages of individualism, personal greed, and the capitalist dynamic. For the television special (a mini-series first broadcast in 1977), Coppola rearranged films I and II into chronological order, neatly literalizing this romantic revision.
From directors to actors and critics, the professional film community bestowed raves upon Godfather II, hailing it as a sign that Hollywood could still produce art and rewarding it with the "Best Picture" Oscar for 1974. Yet the public reacted with an indifference that was more than a little surprising, given the unparalleled success of the novel and first film as well as the usual appetite for sequels. William Pechter accurately noted at the time, "I know of no one except movie critics who likes Part II as much as part one."40 Public coldness to Godfather II has, if anything, deepened over the years. Curiosity brought millions into the theaters to see Godfather II the first time around, but most viewers told their friends afterward not to bother, nor did they return for a second showing. America's notorious disdain for unhappy endings may account for the film's unpopularity. Yet, having said so, we need to specify what, after all, makes Michael's triumph over his enemies, both Hyman Roth and the Senate Investigation Commission, so unsatisfying for so many.
As I have argued, Godfather II reasserts in unmistakable terms an antithesis between ethnic familial solidarity and success in capitalist enterprise. Perhaps the unpopularity of the film signals in part a resistance to this delusive dichotomy. Many intellectuals favor the film because they cling to the idea of a naturalistic, precapitalistic family. Most Americans, on the other hand, increasingly believe in the compatibility between family values (which ethnics are now thought to epitomize) and the capitalist system. The original narrative promotes changing expectations; the sequel disappoints them. Certainly, the general audience resents the condescension in Godfather II, in which Coppola assumes he must strip the Corleones of all redeeming value in order to communicate the social costs of their megalomania. Moviegoers are unhappy less with the villainy of Michael's empire, which they acknowledge, than with the film's underlying, regressive sociology: that the breakup of family life is a necessary precondition for syndicate expansion. The tendency in our own era is no longer to underestimate the compatibility of the ethnic family and capitalism. The desire is now to overestimate, and hence romanticize, the growth potential and structural flexibility of the ethnic family business. In the final analysis, Godfather II strips the original narrative of its populist sociology, returning to the well-worn conventions of "up from the ghetto" novels. In Prizzi's Honor, on the other hand, Richard Condon restores the Mafia genre to its original source of strength—the icon of family business—generating a parody of Puzo's novel that is, at the same time, an interrogation of the business of family.
They had to have at least two minds: the group mind that made them need to be a part of a family, and a separate individual mind that let them survive inside the grinding, double-crossing mass of their families, betraying their own people for money again and again, fifty thousand times. She was sure that it was the macho disease that made the Sicilians so fucking dumb. The family lived only for power—and money, because it meant more power…. Money, beyond a point that they had left behind long before, was only grease for the chariot. All those who followed behind the chariot gained money but, in appropriate measures, they were following the chariot because of the prodigious power on the chariot.
Prizzi's Honor, like The Godfather, begins with a wedding as an occasion to bring the Prizzis together and explain the structure of their syndicate and their relations with other families:
Corrado Prizzi's granddaughter was married before the baroque altar of Santa Grazia de Traghetto, the lucky church of the Prizzi family…. Don Corrado Prizzi, eighty-four, sat on the aisle in the from pew, right side of the church…. Beside Don Corrado sat his eldest son, Vincent, father of the bride, a cubically heavy man…. Beside Vincent was his brother, Eduardo, and his third "natural" wife. Baby…. Directly behind Don Corrado sat Angelo Partanna, his oldest friend and the family's counselor…. Behind the first two rows on the right side of the church, captured like pheromones in the thickening smell of hundreds of burning beeswax candles, in serried ranks, row upon row, were lesser Prizzis, one more Partanna [Charley], and many, many Sesteros and Garrones.41
Men from these four families—Prizzis, Partannas, Sesteros, and Garrones—constitute the upper levels of the Prizzi organization. The central character of the novel, Charley Partanna, bears a surname that is the name of a town in Sicily (destroyed by earthquake in 1969), like Vito Corleone. On the internal cover of the hardcover (immediately following the epigraph page of the Berkley paperback), the web of command is diagrammed in a chart reminiscent of Francis A. J. Ianni's breakdown of the Lupollo family…. This structural diagram combines genealogy with company organization, suggesting that not only corporate leadership but also the relation between the units themselves is familial. A web of marriage unites the Prizzis with other Mafia families. "Heavily larded among them were relatives from most of the principal families of the fratellanza in the United States. Sal Prizzi had married Virgi Licamarito, sister of Augie 'Angles' Licamarito, Boss of the Detroit Family …" (PH, 12). Condon explains the system of "profitable repair" operating between the Prizzis and the noncriminal sector of society—"the New York City Police Department … the multinational conglomerates, the Papal Nuncio, the national union leaders,… the best and brightest minds of the media, the district attorney's office, the attorney general's office, and the White House staff"—all of whom are represented at the wedding (PH, 12-13). To an even greater degree than Puzo, with more irony yet more telling detail, Condon explicates the mechanisms of power, responsibility, cash flow, and production: precisely how the semiretired don, counselor Angelo Partanna, boss Vincent (chief operating officer), and underboss Charley, who is in disfavor with Vincent but not with the don, are related; how Eduardo heads the legitimate side of their operations, which does the laundering for the rackets, in what ways the Prizzis differ from other Mafia crime outfits; and so forth. "They took a poll and sixty-seven percent of the American people think that what they all call the Mafia is the most efficiently run business organization in the whole country," quips one of Condon's characters (PH, 122).
At times in The Godfather, Puzo's narrative commentary suggests a tongue-in-cheek guide to the manners and mores of the Mafia. Prizzi's Honor serves the Mafia as Lisa Birnbach's Preppy Handbook serves the old-boy, old-money networks of the Northeast. The Prizzis call themselves a brotherhood—fratellanza—but they mean by that not a coterie of equals but a male hierarchy: "you must obey your superiors, to death if necessary, without question," swears the initiate, "for it will be for the good of the brotherhood" (PH, 43). The Prizzis operate as a unit in both their personal and their business lives, decisions being controlled from the top and always with a mind to "Prizzi's Honor." The main protagonist, Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson's role) personifies the system. In the opening scenes of the film, we see, in quick succession, the birth/baptism of Charley Partanna, the brass knuckles he is given for a birthday present, and his blood-rite initiation into the Prizzis. Charley's father is Don Corrado's consigliere.42 Charley is the don's godson. Charley calls Don Corrado "padrino" ("little father"), a diminutive meaning "godfather." At seventeen, Charley becomes a made man in the family; in his thirties, he becomes the enforcer and underboss; now, in his mid-forties, he is the heir apparent to the family, after the don's son Vincent ("Domenic" in the film) and the don himself. "As we protect you, so you must protect Prizzi Honor" is the Mafia creed (PH, 42). There is no functional distinction, as the Prizzis understand it, between Charley's "birth" into the Prizzi family and his "initiation" into it. From birth, he has been destined to be, in turn, a dependent of this clan, a soldier, its chief executive in charge of security, and, ultimately, boss and don. "Both men, father and son, had been bred to serve their feudal lords" (PH, 53). There is no more distinction between Charley's biological descent and cultural election that between the familial and professional nature of the Prizzi organization.
Condon focuses throughout the novel on the interdependence of family and business, the personal and professional, playing his comedy on the tensions between them. No pretense of separation is maintained. Boss Vincent resents underboss Charley, for a scandal caused by his own daughter, Maerose; so Vincent deals not through Charley, as custom dictates, but through his father, Angelo. The personal penetrates the professional, and vice versa. Business is conducted in homes as well as in offices, and frequently over meals. Don Corrado lives in a grand old city mansion, "as befitted a business executive," but owns neither the home nor any of its contents, out of respect for both "the rules of humility and austerity" and the diligence of the Internal Revenue Service. Don Corrado's house, literally, is his business quarters. The lack of private lives is underscored by the virtual absence of women in the inner sanctum of the Prizzi family, a literalization of both Mafia mythology and Puzo's narrative precedent.43
The structural hierarchy, male bonding, and Sicilian cult of honor constitute the context for the action of the novel. Like that of The Godfather, the plot in Prizzi's Honor involves a botched caper that exposes the Prizzis to hostile maneuvers by the other New York families and leads to a crisis of managerial/familial succession: familial double-crosses, with Charley acting Michael's role as the prodigal son, who temporarily turns against the family; and a murderous resolution that brings the appointed heir to power, restores the primacy of the crime organization, and resolidifies the nuclear and extended family of the new don. The details in Condon's novel and in Huston's film echo those in Puzo's and Coppola's works in an amusing game of one-upmanship. A wedding initiates both works, but Puzo/Coppola produce an adman's fantasy of a Sicilian garden party. Condon and Huston, on the other hand, produce a credible representation of an actual Brooklyn wedding: the women dressed in black, not white; a VFW hall, rather than a garden; Sinatra tunes as well as old folk songs; and so forth. The closer attention one pays, from first phrase to last, the funnier and more pointed the connections. More important than the refinement of The Godfather's cultural milieu is Condon's brilliant plot conceit, which highlights and at the same time satirizes the family-business mentality of the Prizzis.
Prizzi's Honor is, in the words of a Playboy reviewer, "the best episode of As the Underworld Turns since Puzo's Fools Die."44 The reference to the soap opera is not gratuitous, since the action of Prizzi's Honor involves a problem marriage between its central characters, Charley and Irene (née Maida Walcewicz) Walker, who is a free-lance assassin, or "contractor," in the occasional employ of the Prizzis. The marriage between Charley and Irene violates the sanctity of the Prizzis' family business. Irene is a Catholic Pole, whose former husband (murdered by Charley on orders from the don) is a Russian Jew. "How come you aren't a wop and I meet you at Teresa Prizzi's wedding?" asks Charley, who falls in love and marries her against that logic (PH, 33). Irene's foreign background is merely a symbol for her real outsiderhood. "You and this woman see everything with the same kind of eyes," Maerose tells Charley, knowing better and setting Charley up for a fall (PH, 96). True, both Charley and Irene kill people for the mob; otherwise, though, their operations are like night and day, "Let's see how it goes," warns Angelo. "A mixed marriage" (PH, 144).
The film plays up the comedy of middle-class manners between Charley, an Italian chauvinist, and his wife, Irene, who wants to keep on working after marriage. In the novel. Irene's sexual autonomy is, quite explicitly, a corollary of her independence in the marketplace of crime. Irene is a loner, a one-woman company, an entrepreneur whose approach to business exemplifies the norms of a free market:
The fantastic thing about Charley was that he was a Boy Scout. Charley paid his dues to his life. Charley believed…. Charley knew he was serving a purpose, not a buck…. It was different for [Irene]…. She wasn't locked into any family, she was a straight, commercial freelance who couldn't expect any protection from anybody if she didn't do the job right…. (PH, 117-18)
While Charley is a sottocapo, Irene is a contractor. The idiom is perfect. Irene makes deals independently, strictly on a cash basis, accepting no retainer and maintaining no ties to any particular outfit. As a cover, Irene is a tax consultant. To her the world operates simply as the circulation of dollars; loyalty is just a matter of the origin of the next paycheck. She is therefore the perfect foil to a family-business mentality.
Just prior to the novel's denouement, the Prizzis appear to be in shambles. No money is coming in, the Filargi caper has soured, and the other families are maneuvering to take over the entire business. Vincent has been assassinated, and Charley is turning traitor. The Prizzis suffer as the Corleones suffer after Sonny's death. Condon resolves the crisis by duplicating one strand of The Godfather's narrative logic, turning the family over to the rightful heir—in this case, Charley. Don Corrado offers Charley the position of boss, second-in-command, with the promise of that of don after Don Corrado's death. The Prizzis need Charley, yet Charley needs to earn that promotion. Charley must repair the family's relations with the other syndicates and with the police; and, in the dual logic that organizes these narratives. Charley must prove his fidelity. The price is steep: he must deliver Irene to the cops himself—dead. "Zotz her? Clip Irene?" (PH, 294). The borderline in Charley's decision is clearly demarcated. Will he honor his contract with Irene or the Prizzis' ethic of familial loyalty?
"The family were what he had been since Sicily started breeding people. They were his food. They had been with him forever. There were hundreds of thousands of them, most of them ghosts, some of them bodies. They were all staring at him, waiting to know what he would do" (PH, 296). The weight of all the Prizzi tradition, his respect for his padrino and father, who are waiting for his decision, and Charley's training and dreams overdetermine the decision:
He thought of becoming Boss of the Prizzi family. His entire life had pointed him toward that. He had trained for that since he was thirteen years old and now it could happen. He could feel the power as if it were the texture of fine, strong cloth between his fingers. He could taste it as if his mother had come back to cook one more glorious meal for him. He though of the money … eight million dollars a year, every dime tax free, every dime safe in Switzerland…. (PH, 269)
Becoming boss means filling his father's shoes, his mother's expectations: family is money is destiny when you are born into the Prizzis. Eight million dollars and Mom's home cooking, too! In Prizzi's Honor, as in The Godfather, the working out of the Oedipal crisis prompts the return of the prodigal son and the reintegration of the crime family. Charley's quest for power runs along pathways of filial obedience; the strength of the Prizzis depends on Charley's urgency to obey. Being asked to become don is for Charley, as for Michael, an offer he can't refuse.
Charley sets Irene up for the kill, by telling her that the don accepted her terms of settlement, paying all she asked. Irene knows that Charley is lying, because the don would never settle the Las Vegas score by returning the money she stole from the Prizzis.45 She considers the love-match canceled. In accordance with her own methods, Irene prepares to kill Charley, transmuting the marriage contract into a murder contract in her mind: "She didn't feel the grief anymore. Charley was a contract she had put out herself, and had given to herself; full fee" (PH, 305). In contrast to Irene's cold-bloodedness, Charley feels the righteous conviction of Praise duty:
[Irene] had a different and much paler, thinner meaning when he judged her beside the total meaning he got from his family. He was now Boss of that family. He had to set an example that would be remembered as long as the family stood. He saw dimly that it was right to sacrifice the woman he loved so that the family could go on and on fulfilling its honor, which was its meaning. He suddenly saw clearly that Irene had stepped so far out of line that there was nothing left to do but to whack her. (PH, 300)
Charley kills Irene before Irene is able to kill him. Charley wins not because he is technically more proficient or luckier but because he has the emotion of Praise honor motivating him and the full force of the Praise clan backing him up. However much the business of family causes friction (the "grinding, double-crossing mass of their families"), still there is a corporate front (PH, 103). Irene dies because she stands alone, without a family, without protection.46 The structural equivalent in The Godfather is the death of Carlo Rizzi, kin by marriage, but an outsider, a traitor. In the ending of each novel, the integrity of the crime family is reinstated by sacrificing a "family" member whose membership was suspect in the first place and compromised by that member's activities. The murder of Irene is also an ironic footnote, highlighted in the film, on the conventions of romantic love so favored in American popular culture.
"The surprise ending will knock your reading glasses off!" runs a blurb on the paperback, credited to the New York Times. Yet the eliminating of Irene, and Charley's having to do it, is a perfect culmination for the novel's strategy of playing feudal capitalism off against free-market independence. Alternatively, Charley and Irene could flee the Prizzis and go together to Hong Kong, where they would be outfitted with new identities. (Irene's past misdeeds to the Prizzis, and the current difficulties with the police, preclude Irene's remaining with the family.) This alternative ending would require a conversion in Charley's character, to the point where he could see himself turning his back on history for autonomy and romantic love. But at least such an ending would remain consonant with the hypothesis of the narrative—namely, that feudal capitalism, which dominates the American underworld, operates by sacrificing individualism to the group. Readers and film viewers are surprised because they expect a dreamy ending, in which Charley gets his family and Irene, too. Such an ending, however, violates the business of family in the world of the Prizzis. The principle of family honor precludes romantic love because romance presumes a free-market logic of one-to-one relationships. In the film, the overlay of sappy music and the casting of Nicholson as Charley, who acts superbly but is mistaken for Nicholson the loner, tips expectations in the direction of a romanticized ending. To conclude with Charley as the don, while still happily married to Irene, would be to entertain a fantasy of irreconcilables (of the sort that scholars characteristically misattribute to The Godfather). In the final chapter, Charley calls up Maerose, initiating their reconciliation. Maerose and Charley are now both outcasts who have returned to the family. Maerose's claim on Charley is ethnic. She reminds him in the film. "We grew up together, Charley. We are the same people." By marrying Maerose, Charley reunites the Prizzis and Partannas in the incestuous bond that maintains the power of their family.
What are the implications of Praise's Honor as a revision of The Godfather? Like Puzo, Condon makes it clear from start to finish that the theme to be pursued in a Mafia narrative is the question of business and family. Condon's comedy is effective because we, as readers, already understand the structural interdependence of business and family in the Mafia and accept it basically as truth. Condon does not mean, of course, to celebrate the business of family. Whereas Puzo provides a thin coat of narrative irony, Condon paints in layers and layers of satire, usually comic, but occasionally courting a grimmer dimension. From start to finish, Puzo eliminates no more than a dozen or so mobsters, who deserve it anyway. Condon burns down the Palermo Gardens nightclub, with 89 people dead, 217 severely burned, and 4 blinded, most of them innocent guests and "civilians." Condon also corners his main character into killing his wife. Both Godfather II and Praise's Honor submit the Mafia to moral scrutiny. Godfather II depends on a romanticized ideology of family for its critique, so that Coppola, in the final analysis, is caught within a family-business hermeneutic circle. Praise's Honor adopts a position truly contrary to that of the family-business mentality; it assumes, in the figure of Irene, the possibility of a free marketplace, in which individuals function independently of one another and the realm of the personal is uncluttered by the operations of business. In so doing, Condon is able (like Puzo in the first novel) to question the naïveté of free-market spokesmen and ethnic romanticizers, who think that the domains of "family" and the "group" are extra-economic. But Condon accomplishes something far more emphatically than does either Puzo in The Godfather or Coppola in Godfather II: that is, to chart the special costs of doing business familially.
In Praise's Honor, the family business grows beyond its members' need for wealth, annexing their freedom to its own dynamic, the growth of the syndicate. "Money, beyond a point that they had left long before, was only grease for the chariot" (PH, 103). The Praise organization empowers its members, but it also imprisons them, psychologically and literally. Other, more legitimate forms of family business may not police their boundaries with quite the brutality of the Prizzis, but they may not prosper as much either. In The Godfather, the loss of individual liberty among the Corleones, however implicit, is buried under the glorification of familial loyalty, whereas Richard Condon's carefully developed "surprise" ending etches in the popular consciousness an image of familial tyranny to give nightmares: Charley knifing Irene, in the throat, from the marriage bed.
As an analysis of the mechanics of family capitalism and a critique of its appeal, Praise's Honor supersedes The Godfather. Let us not forget, however, that Puzo made the way for Condon's accomplishment. Puzo is often maligned for exploiting the stereotype of Italian-American criminality, which has long been used to discriminate against the general Italian-American population. But, in the final analysis, The Godfather does not so much rehash an old tale, whatever its strands of inheritance, as tell a new one. In The Godfather, Puzo refashions the gangster genre into a vehicle for reversing the traditional antithesis between ties of blood and the American marketplace. In so doing, he transforms the stock character of the Italian-American outlaw into the representative super(business)man; and he transforms the lingering image of immigrant huddled masses into the first family of American capitalism.
1. It is not unreasonable to assume that Puzo derived his emphasis on the familial aspect of the Mafia from the reports of Joseph Valachi, whose Senate hearings were in 1963 and whose book came out in 1967. In The Italians, itself a nonfiction leading seller of 1964, Luigi Barzini summarized how Valachi's testimony reshaped common American ideas about organized crime:
The convicted American gangster, Joseph Valachi … explained the facts of life of the Sicilian village, probably as old as Mediterranean civilization, the principles guiding Homeric kings and heroes in their decisions, to a Senate committee and an awestruck twentieth-century television audience. He patiently pointed out that an isolated man was a dead duck in the American underworld; that he had to belong to a family, his own, or one which accepted him; that families were gathered in alliances, and the alliances in a loose federation called Cosa Nostra, governed by an unwritten code.
Luigi Barzini, The Italians (New York: Bantam, 1965), 284.
Puzo may have derived his view of the Mafia, then, not only from his Hell's Kitchen experience but from Valachi, either directly or through Barzini's explication (Don Corleone's biggest competitor is named Barzini). But if Valachi first introduced the notion of family crime, and Barzini explicated it, it was Puzo who made the symbol ubiquitous.
2. The preceding two quotations are from John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), 78. The tandem reappears in John Sutherland's Bestsellers and in essays by Fredric Jameson and Eric Hobsbawm. E. J. Hobsbawm, "Robin Hoodo: A Review of Mario Puzo's The Sicilian." New York Review of Books, Feb. 14, 1985, 12-17; Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." Social Text I (1979). 130-48; John Sutherland, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), chap. 3.
3. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 146.
4. Puzo's own, scattered comments on the social realities behind The Godfather reveal little. In an interview, he emphasizes that the novel was meant to be not realistic but romantic: "To me The Godfather isn't an exposé; it's a romantic novel." As quoted by Tom Buckley, "The Mafia Tries a New Tune," Harper's, Aug. 1971, 54. In The Godfather Papers, Puzo claims to have written the novel "entirely from research," then testifies that actual mafiosi found his fictional depictions very true to life. Mario Puzo, The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (New York: Putman, 1972), 35.
5. Puzo's autobiographical novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), seems on its surface to exemplify the long-standing tradition of interpreting Italian-American familialism as a barrier to mobility. One reviewer wrote. "The writer renders with fidelity the life-style of an Italian-American community in which Old Country values of propriety, order and obedience to established authority collide with New World ambition, initiative, and disdain for tradition." Sheldon Grebstein, "Mama Remembered the Old Country," Saturday Review, Jan. 23, 1965, 44. Yet, I would argue, the novel harbors a countervailing analysis, demonstrating how the Puzo family used traditional values to ensure a steadily progressive mobility, culminating in Mario's freedom to become a writer.
6. Herbert J. Gans, Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (New York: Free Press, 1962); Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880–1930 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977); Thomas Kessner, The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City, 1880–1915 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977); Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America (New York: Basic, 1981).
Most Italian immigrants to the United States originated from the Mezzogiorno, the regions of Italy south and east of Naples, including Sicily. The traditional view of Italian-American ethnicity is extrapolated from several very well known, mid- to late-twentieth-century studies of southern Italy: Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America: A Handbook for Social Workers, Visiting Nurses, Schoolteachers, and Physicians (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1938); Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1947); Edward Banfield, Moral Basis of a Backward Society (New York: Free Press, 1958); and Ann Cornelisen, Women of the Shadows (New York: Dell. 1976). These essays prompted American social workers like Leonard Covello and scholars like Herbert Gans, Rudolph Vecoli, Thomas Sowell, Thomas Kessner, and Virginia Yans-McLaughlin to adopt a variant on the "culture of poverty" argument for blue-collar Italian Americans, although Cornelisen, for one, warns against approaches based on "residual vestiges of peasant mentality." Cornelisen, Women of the Shadows, 220.
For an overview of traditional scholarship on Italian Americans, including an analysis of its limitations, see Micaela di Leonardo, The Varities of Ethnic Experience: Kinship, Class, and Gender among California Italian-Americans (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), 17-25, 96-108.
7. Leonard Covello, "The Influence of Southern Italian Family Mores upon the School Situation in America," in Francesco Cordasco and Eugene Bucchioni, eds., The Italians: Social Backgrounds of an American Group (Clifton, N.J.: Kelley, 1974), 516. Covello's extremely influential essay was originally written as a dissertation in 1944 and finally published as The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child: A Study of the Southern Italian Family Mores and Their Effect on the School Situation in Italy and America (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972).
8. Francis A. J. Ianni, with Elizabeth Reuss-Ianni, A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972), 55. Ianni notes that "the acculturation process works in crime as elsewhere" (61), but nonetheless traces the familial structure of the Luppollo syndicate back to Italy: "The origins of this familialism are Italian and not American" (155).
The urgency to place the Mafia along an Old World-New World continuum resurfaces in the work of the historian Humbert S. Nelli, who adopts the opposite position from Ianni's. Nelli concedes the "group unity" and "cooperative effort" of Italian-American mobs, but stresses almost entirely the individualism and "American way of life" of the gang leaders. See Humbert S. Nelli, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), 255-57.
Scholars of the Mafia in southern Italy also insist on the evolving interdependence of familial and/or fraternal organization and capitalist enterprise. The Italian Mafia in recent years is thought to have been restructured in imitation of the Italian-American Mafia. See Pino Arlacchi, Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans., Martin Ryle (New York: Schocken, 1986); Anton Blok, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860–1960: A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs, with a foreword by Charles Tilly (New York: Harper & Row, 1975); and E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, 2d ed. (New York: Praeger, 1963), chap. 3.
9. Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). Zaretsky's small book, little known, is an extraordinarily lucid reappraisal, spanning several centuries, of the relation between Western family structure and capitalism.
10. For a review essay on what I am calling the new ethnic theory, consult Werner Sollors, "Theory of American Ethnicity, or: "? S ETHNIC?/TI AND AMERICAN/TI, DE OR UNITED (W) STATES S SI AND THEOR?" American Quarterly 33 (Bibliography, 1981), 257-83. I am myself indebted to this article for bringing Abner Cohen, among others, to my attention.
The rise of the new ethnicity, as represented in the work of Michael Novak, Peter Schrag, Richard Gambino, even Glazer and Moynihan, has prompted severely critical responses, primarily from the political Left. Typically, the work of the ethnic demythologizers challenges the romance of ethnicity either by dismissing ethnic cultural difference altogether or by reducing difference to a variable entirely dependent upon class. In Stephen Steinberg's The Ethnic Myth, ethnicity is, for all explanatory purposes, entirely discounted. In Herbert Gans's very influential work, family values are interpreted as the product of working-class status and are hence "panethnic," shared by blue-collar folk of all backgrounds, whereas the ethnicity of the middle class is what Gans calls "symbolic," meaning that it is private, a matter of individual identity and friendship without socioeconomic significance. Tellingly, Gans says middle-class ethnicity is "cost-free" without inquiring into its profitability; the middle-class family is implicated in capitalism, once again, only as a buffer or safety valve for the system. See Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America (New York: Atheneum, 1981); Gans, "Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America," in Herbert J. Gans et al., eds., On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1979); Gans, foreword to Neil C. Sandberg, Ethnic Identity and Assimilation (New York: Praeger, 1974).
11. The quote is from Abner Cohen, Two-Dimensional Man: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), 99. See also Abner Cohen, "Introduction" to Urban Ethnicity, ed. A. Cohen (London: Tavistock, 1974), ix-xxiv.
Major critical efforts to reconceive ethnic literature in the light of new ideas about ethnicity include William Boelhower, Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature (Venice: Edizioni Helvetia, 1984); Jules Chametzky, Our Decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Selected Jewish and Southern Writers (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1986); Mary V. Dearborn, Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986); and Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).
12. Rose Basile Green, The Italian-American Novel: A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1974), 355, 357, 364.
For a brief yet elegant discussion of The Godfather, in the context of an overview of Italian-American literature, see Robert Viscusi, "De Vulgari Eloquentia: An Approach to the Language of Italian American Fiction," Yale Italian Studies I (Winter 1981), 21-38. Implicitly challenging traditional accounts of ethnic literature, Viscusi acknowledges the inventive role of the imagination in the creation of a post-European ethnic culture. His language-oriented approach is itself calculated to invent terms in which we might appreciate a previously ignored literature. By emphasizing the linguistic savvy of Italian-American writing, Viscusi means to present this literature in the strongest possible light, given the bias toward language of the journal sponsoring his essay and, more important, of the critical community it represents. Whereas Viscusi's highly "literary" approach seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with business, is it a coincidence that the most important property he attributes to Italian-American literature is its ability to "be diplomatic, to negotiate the terms on which Italian America can exist" (emphasis mine)?
13. Mario Puzo, The Godfather (New York: Putnam, 1969), 216. Further references to this edition are given in parentheses in the text.
14. Cohen, "Introduction," xvii.
15. Peter Dobkin Hall, "Marital Selection and Business in Massachusetts Merchant Families, 1700–1900," in Michael Gordon, ed., The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, 2d ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1978), 101-14.
For other discussions of ethnicity, economics, and ethnic businesses, see Ivan H. Light, Ethnic Enterprise in America: Business and Welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972); John Bodnar, Roger Simon, and Michael P. Weber, Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians, and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900–1960; Thomas Sowell, Race and Economics (New York: McKay, 1975).
16. Ianni, A Family Business, 157.
17. Ibid., 64-65, 92, 116-18.
18. The don reminds Tom of his real background, less to take away from the meaning or Tom's initiation into the don's nuclear family than to highlight, by contrast, that meaning. Tom's marriage to an Italian-American, like his adoption by Don Corleone, constitutes a rebirth as an Italian-American on his wedding day.
19. There is much excess baggage in this sprawling, desperately populist novel: great detail on postures of war between the families, which Sutherland deviously and persuasively attributes to Puzo's reaction to World War II (Bestsellers, 45); well-stroked portrayals of the making of the Corleone soldiers, including Rocco Lampone, Luca Brasi, and the ex-cop Albert Neri; speculations in the National Enquirer vein into the activities, both private and public, of Frank Sinatra and friends; painfully unnecessary excursions into the sexual lives of Sonny, his mistress Lucy Mancini, and Dr. Jules Segal. In my experience teaching the novel, the reactions to these tangents vary. Sinatra merits a passing interest, the sex lives of Sonny and the doctor hardly any at all. The passages that chronicle the making of McCluskey the bad cop and Neri the enforcer are avidly read; similar chronicles become hallmarks of the Mafia genre subsequently. In The Godfather, the tangents do not so much detract from the main narrative as fill it out during its middle stretches, sustaining interest while holding final revelations in abeyance.
20. "The visual scheme is based on the most obvious life-and-death contrasts; the men meet and conduct their business in deep-toned, shuttered rooms, lighted by lamps even in the daytime, and the story moves back and forth between the hidden, nocturnal world and the sunshine that they share with the women and children." Pauline Kael, "Alchemy: A Review of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather." New Yorker, March 18, 1972, 132.
21. "The novel is a tale of family succession, showing the rise of the true son and heir and reaching a climax with his acceptance of the power and responsibilities of Godfather. It tells how Michael Corleone comes to understand his father's character and destiny and then allows himself to be shaped by that same destiny." Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance 52-53.
In his review of the first Godfather film for Commentary, William S. Pechter was perhaps the first critic to emphasize that while the icon of "the Godfather" meant Don Vito Corleone, the narrative belonged to Michael:
What is the family whose claims override all others in The Godfather? It is, for one thing, a patriarchy, and the story the film has to tell is basically not Don Corleone's but Michael's: a story of his initiation into the family by an act of murder, of the succession of the youngest, most assimilated son to the patriarchal powers and responsibilities and the ethnic mystique of his father.
Pechter, "Keeping Up with the Corleones," Commentary 54 (July 1972), 89.
22. "[The southern Italian peasant] despised as a scomunicato (pariah) anyone in any family who broke the ordine della famiglia or otherwise violated the onore (honor, solidarity, tradition, 'face') of the family." Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), 4.
23. Mary Antin wrote in 1912, "I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over…. Did I not become the parent and they [her parents] the children, in those relations of teacher and learner?" Antin, The Promised Land (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), xii. In 1981, Richard Rodriguez echoed Antin's Emersonian image of self-birth, in an aside to "my parents—who are no longer my parents, in a cultural sense." Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Boston: Godine, 1981), 4.
24. Claude Brown reports that "godfather" ranks among the most popular handles, or nicknames, of black inner-city America. New York Times Magazine, Sept. 16, 1984, 38. I have a suspicion that The Godfather is also a secret vice for very different segments of American society. More than one professor of English has confessed that Puzo may, after all, have some considerable gifts. A black woman, also an English professor, told me she had read the novel five times and once saw the film at a theater three days in a row! I hope, by explaining my own fascination with the text, I do not deprive others of the mystique of a favorite vice.
It is also a wonderful fact, without being a coincidence, that Puzo's major project after The Godfather screenplays was scripting Superman: The Movie and Superman II. For what is the story of Superman if not a meta-narrative of immigration, about a refugee whose power derives from his dislocation, whose secret identity is hidden under a disabling Anglo-conformity (as Clark Kent), but whose true promise is revealed in his fight "for truth, justice, and the American way"? And who, conversely, is Don Corleone if not the latest in a continuing series of ethnic supermen? For a discussion of superman imagery in the context of American ethnicity, consult Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, chap. 3.
25. "The Making of The Godfather," Time, March 13, 1972, 61. By 1980, reports John Sutherland, The Godfather's publishers were claiming worldwide sales of fifteen million. The title Sutherland gives the novel, "the bestseller of bestsellers," echoes nicely the Sicilian phrase for the boss of bosses, capo di tutti capi. Certainly, no other contemporary work has sold as well. How one compares a present-day popular novel with, say, Gone with the Wind or Uncle Tom's Cabin is no easy matter. Sutherland, Bestsellers, 38, 46.
26. For a review of the Mafia literature from 1969 to 1975, see Dwight C. Smith, Jr., "Sons of the Godfather: 'Mafia' in Contemporary Fiction," Italian Americana 2 (Spring 1976), 191-207; the statistical reference is from p. 192. A shorter bibliography appears in Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance, 304n.
27. In Jameson's view ("Reification and Utopia," 145), the butchery of the Corleones symbolizes the "wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence" of capitalism in America. Cawelti adds (Adventure, Mystery, Romance, 78). "I suspect there is a definite relation between the fascination with limitless criminal power … and the public's reluctant awareness of the uncontrollable power of violence in the hands of the government."
28. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 146; Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance, 78.
29. "At a time when the disintegration of the dominant communities is persistently 'explained' in the (profoundly ideological) terms of the deterioration of the family, the growth of permissiveness and the loss of authority of the father, the ethnic group can seem to project an image of social reintegration by way of the patriarchal and authoritarian family of the past," Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 146-47.
30. Well into the seventies, even after the rise of the new ethnicity, it was conventional to attribute the poor performance of Italian-Americans in the professions, the arts, the American Catholic church, politics, and big business to the tenacity of familial values and southern Italian culture. In the last few years, however, the conspicuous rise of Italian-Americans has reversed the age-old formula. Stephen S. Hall wrote in a 1983 cover story for the Sunday New York Times Magazine:
Is there a single thread that runs through all these [stories of successful Italian-Americans]? If anything, it is the unusual propensity to merge, rather than separate, the professional and the personal. Borrowing from a culture in which the extended family can easily include 30 to 40 "close" relatives, Italians thrive on community. They are accustomed to large numbers of people, and they seem to have developed an emotional facility in dealing with them. Even in large companies, they have a knack for keeping things on a human scale. "The professional community," explains one Italian-American psychotherapist, "becomes the next family."
Hall, "Italian-Americans: Coming Into Their Own," New York Times Magazine, May 15, 1983, 29.
31. It is amusing to speculate how Puzo's usage of ethnicity in his career as a writer parallels, broadly speaking, the usage of ethnicity depicted in his novels. Puzo began his career in the now venerable fashion of aspiring American literati, with a novelistic account of his years as an expatriate (in postwar Germany), The Dark Arena (1955). Only subsequently did he specialize in ethnic narrative and become known as a specifically Italian-American writer. With The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), Puzo was able to promote himself as an earnest realist, little known but "serious," as if Italian-American writers toiled honestly on the margins of the American literary community just as their characters worked on the margins of the American economy. With The Godfather (1969) and its offspring, Puzo launched himself on a career as both a popular novelist and a Hollywood screenwriter, exploiting ethnic materials for power and profit, as if in faint imitation of the exploitation of family and ethnicity by his Mafia characters.
32. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 145.
33. Pauline Kael, "Fathers and Sons," New Yorker, Dec. 23, 1974, 64.
34. Francis Coppola, as quoted by William S. Pechter, "Godfather II," Commentary 59 (March 1975), 79.
35. "Many people who saw 'The Godfather' developed a romantic identification with the Corleones; they longed for the feeling of protection that Don Vito conferred on his loving family. Now that the full story has been told, you'd have to have an insensitivity bordering on moral idiocy to think that the Corleones have a wonderful life, which you'd like to be part of." Pauline Kael, "Fathers and Sons," 64. See also her review of the first film: Kael, "Alchemy," 132-44.
36. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 147.
37. Isaac Rosenfeld, "David Levinsky: The Jew as American Millionaire," in Abraham Chapman, ed., Jewish-American Literature: An Anthology (New York: New American Library, 1974), 619.
38. Pechter, "Godfather II," 79.
39. Stanley Kauffmann, "On Films," New Republic, April 1, 1972, 26.
40. Pechter, "Godfather II," 80. Pechter, furthermore, is the only critic I know who prefers the first film to the second, and the only one to recognize the retrospective romanticization of Godfather II. He emphasizes how "the schematic ironies of Part II—that Michael's fall should parallel his father's rise—dictate that the young Vito Corleone be glorified (as a pre-organization-man gallant bandit) far beyond any such romanticization in part one." I would stress less the explicit romance of Vito as bandit than the implicit romance of the more mature Vito's family. The precondition to Michael's fall is a state of grace, represented not by young Vito but by the Corleone family of his youth.
41. Richard Condon, Praise's Honor (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1982), 11-12. Further references to this edition are given in parentheses in the text.
42. [Puzo uses the term consigliori, with an "o" and an "i," throughout The Godfather; Condon spells it "consigliere," with the "e"s, in the Italian fashion. Condon's spelling seems to be much the more common usage.] Both authors liberally spray italicized words throughout their novels, in a longstanding tradition of ethnic representation. Condon uses even more Italian terms than Puzo (Charley is always cooking up something) and takes care to spell correctly in (western) Sicilian dialect. This is another instance of Condon's fine-tuning of Puzo's detail.
43. Don Corrado, Angelo Partanna, and Vincent Praise are all widowers (exceedingly strange, in a world in which men kill men, that these three have outlived their womenfolk). Eduardo takes mistresses but does not marry. And Charley, who lost his mother as a child, is a bachelor pressing fifty. These men "mother" each other, incorporating the female realm into the male, the personal into the professional. "[Angelo] swore to God he didn't know how Charley did it. 'I'm telling you, Charley, I close my eyes and I think your mother cooked this.'" Appropriately enough, the one significant Praise female, Maerose (the only Praise who cooks better than Charley), is an outcast. Exiled, Maerose spends the course of the novel conniving to be forgiven for her sins and readmitted to the family.
44. I am quoting the blurb from the 1985 movie tie-in paperback edition: Richard Condon, Praise's Honor (New York: Bantam, 1986).
45. It is preposterous that Irene could keep the money from the Las Vegas scam, not to mention her life. It is also preposterous that Charley would not imagine Irene's participation, especially after learning the nature of her profession. The novel assumes that Charley is willing to cover for Irene; the film supposes that Irene lies to Charley and that Charley is so in love that he is willing to take her word.
46. Operating within the mob's sphere of influence, never mind subcontracts, is tricky business. As Barzini paraphrases Valachi, "An isolated man was a dead duck in the American underworld;… he had to belong to a family, his own, or one which accepted him." Barzini, The Italians, 284. Henry Hill's autobiography, written with Nicholas Pileggi and entitled Wiseguy, could restore the image of the mob outlaw to respectability.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5145
SOURCE: "Narrative Structure in Apocalypse Now," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, 1990, pp. 225-37.
[In the following essay, Whillock explores how Coppola set up oppositions in environment, characters, and story-motifs, and used mediators to bridge the opposites.]
I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
It smells like victory.
Major Kilgore in Apocalypse Now
When Francis Ford Coppola made public his decision to produce and direct Apocalypse Now in 1975, there were only a few films that depicted the Vietnam conflict in any direct way. While The Boys of Company C and Go Tell the Spartans were released before Apocalypse Now, The Green Berets was the only film in release that directly treated America's involvement in combat during the Vietnam conflict. Because of Coppola's past cinematic success in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), anticipation for a definitive film about the Vietnam war was high in both cinematic and historical circles. However, because of the film's lengthy production process (four years), Apocalypse Now was the last of several films released in the middle and late 1970's.
Films that focused on Vietnam in the 1970's for the most part investigated how the conflict affected the returning veteran and his placement or displacement in American society. Only two films released in the 1970's, Go Tell the Spartans and The Boys of Company C, placed their characters in combat situations. Gilbert Adair in his book Vietnam on Film considers these two films as opportunistic in the wake of the pre-release publicity of Apocalypse Now:
While neither The Boys of Company C nor Go Tell the Spartans is absolutely devoid of interest, they are what one might call "quickies"; if not B movies then resolutely A minus, whose existence seem motivated solely by opportunism … inspired by the hope of cashing in on the much delayed Apocalypse Now.1
Apocalypse Now made its public debut at the 1979 International Cannes Film Festival in France. The film entered as a "work in progress," and shared the top picture honor. the Palme d'Or, with the West German film The Tin Drum. John Simon wrote in the National Review that one reason Coppola's film was so long in production was that an ending to the film was not easily conceived.2 At Cannes, Coppola had hoped to resolve the indecision which had led him to film three different endings. Yet Coppola presented an ending at Cannes that he later dropped for the American release.3 On October 3, 1979, the decision was made by United Artists to release the film nationwide after a two-month marketing trial in Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York. Apocalypse Now met with mixed critical response but was nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture, direction, adapted screenplay, supporting actor, cinematography, art direction, and sound. The film won two Oscars: sound and cinematography. Apocalypse Now remains a controversial film in two regards: its adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness and its surrealistic depiction of the Vietnam war.
THREE POINTS OF ANALYSIS
Methodological foundations for critical analysis have become commonplace in contemporary academic criticism. The importance of any method is underscored by film scholar Bill Nichols when he writes that "methodologies are a tool to aid the writer and reader in understanding the world: [that is] how things relate, or better, how relationships function."4 In the following investigation of Apocalypse Now, a narrative structural analysis based on the theories of Lévi-Strauss will focus on these functional relationships.5 This analysis will be developed through three narrative elements: 1) the environment portrayed in the film; 2) the characters; and 3) the story motifs. The environment of the film consists of the physical setting and the cultural background of the opposing societies caught in the conflict: Vietnam and the United States. The analysis of the characters is concerned with both major and minor characters and their relationships to each other as well as their function(s) within the story. In contrast, the story-motifs will investigate those elements of the plot that underscore binary demarcations that are found not only in dialogue and narration, but in action as well.
The analysis of each element is achieved through the identification and discussion of each "constituent unit" (which Lévi-Strauss has termed "binary bundles of relations") and how such binary opposition within the story are resolved. The resolution, according to Lévi-Strauss, is dependent upon a mediator.6 A mediator is any element within the story that facilitates the resolution of the binary opposition.
The resolution, achieved through the mediating device, is the transformation of the opposing binary units into a closer relationship. As the mediating device "permutates" (transforms) the binary opposition toward a more middle position, the characteristics of each binary unit will become less distinctive. The resolution of the narrative takes place once the transformation of opposition is complete.
Using this method Lévi-Strauss allows the film scholar to view the Vietnam war film as an entity in itself and separate from the American war films of the past. The justification and method of war found in World War II films, for example, are clearly seen as righteous. However, the Vietnam war film does not present these elements in such a biased manner. In fact, the justification for the war is at issue in these films. By using Lévi-Strauss we are compelled to explore both sides of the equation. By resolving the contradictions found in the narratives through the mediator, the viewer comes closer to his/her own resolution of the war.
In Apocalypse Now, the basic constituent unit found in the environment is that of the binary opposition between controlled/uncontrolled. Lévi-Strauss defines such binary opposition as Culture/Nature. By extension of Lévi-Strauss' formula for the structure of myth, the relationship of the oppositions would thus be: nature is to culture as uncontrolled environment is to controlled environment. The opposition between the uncontrolled environment and controlled environment in Apocalypse Now is more specifically exemplified as city/jungle.
The environmental conflict is introduced in the first sequence of Apocalypse Now. Willard's alcoholic opening nightmare is of a peaceful lush green jungle immediately bursting into an apocalyptic red explosion of napalm as an air attack is in progress. He awakes from this nightmare only to be confronted with the realization that he is "only in Saigon." As he approaches the window, the camera reveals Saigon as an ordered and modern city. Concrete buildings, modern domestic vehicles, and paved streets assure Willard that he is not in the jungles of Vietnam. Willard laments his position by expressing his knowledge that every day he remains in the city he gets "weaker," while every day that "Charlie squats in the jungle," Charlie gets stronger. (This strong/weak opposition becomes a significant point later with the confrontation between Kurtz and Willard.)
There are five separate physical settings that deserve attention in this analysis. They are: 1) the combination of Saigon and intelligence headquarters at Nha Trang; 2) the battle for the Vietcong village at Vin Drin Drop; 3) the episodic experiences of the journey up the Nung River; 4) the last American outpost at Do Lung Bridge; and 5) Kurtz's fortress near Nu Mong Ba in Cambodia.
These environments represent permutations (transformations) between the binary oppositions of controlled and uncontrolled. As Willard's mission up the Nung River takes him through these environments, the opposition between controlled and uncontrolled moves closer to resolution. An analysis of each environment will clarify their function in the transformation.
Saigon and Nha Trang. Saigon and intelligence headquarters at Nha Trang are the most controlled environments in Apocalypse Now. The Mayor's request over the radio that off-base American soldiers not hang their laundry in the street windows informs the audience that the city government of Saigon has a strong control of the city's internal affairs while there exists a force of United States soldiers to control "outside" problems that might come into the city from the jungle. The COMSAC headquarters at Nha Trang is also a highly controlled environment because of its need for security from "outside" intruders. As Willard enters the perimeter of the headquarters, he is carefully checked and signs a security sheet to be allowed to enter. Once inside the headquarters, the controlled environment is maintained through Army regularity as he is met by a Major who informs Willard that he may "stand at ease." (This maintenance of discipline within the Army system begins to dissolve as Willard moves further away from Saigon and Nha Trang.)
Battle for Vin Drin Drop. Once Willard receives his mission, he is taken to Major Kilgore who is currently involved with "mopping up" an attack on a Vietcong strong hold. The contrast between the ordered life of both Saigon and Nha Trang, and the chaos of battle is evident in this sequence. (The oppositions between Culture and Nature are particularly exemplified by buildings: a burned-out French church standing among the bamboo structures of the village huts.)
The next morning Kilgore and his Air Ninth Cavalry attack the village at Vin Drin Drop. This Vietcong village also underscores the differences between the controlled environment of a "hot" society (culture) as compared to a "cold" society (nature). The village is physically in opposition to Saigon. There are no concrete buildings in this village and the streets are dirt paths into the surrounding jungle. However, there is an internal order in this village. As the attack begins, a grade school is in session. The guard on duty sounds the alarm and the children are removed in an orderly fashion. The soldiers that defend this village are trying to protect themselves against "outsiders" from the air, not the jungle. Indeed, the jungle for this village is friendly as its density protects the defending soldiers.
The war machines in these separate environments are also indicative of the binary oppositions between the film's presentation of nature and culture. The American war machine, which depends upon the notion of "replaceable parts," is in direct opposition to the village war machine, which is made up of old machine guns and vehicles that are for the most part not replaceable. In light of such a differential, the Vietcong village is quickly destroyed, as the village war machine is no match for the American. The Vietcong run into the jungle to be protected by its dense cover, while Major Kilgore radios in a napalm strike from Air Force jets. Militarily, there is no equality within the binary opposition of modern war machines/antiquated war machines.
Nung River. The Nung River is the mediating environment between the opposition of controlled/uncontrolled environment. The importance of the river as a linking device is echoed by Willard when he states that the Nung River "snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz." The river touches both the controlled environment of the city (culture) and the uncontrolled environment of the jungle (nature). The river remains a kind of fulcrum that balances the extremes of culture and nature (controlled/uncontrolled environments). This is exemplified when Chef, one of the characters in the boat, wants to go ashore into the jungle to gather mangos. While in the jungle, he and Willard are surprised by a tiger. After the incident Chef exerts his preference for a more controlled environment by expressing that he must remember never to "get off the boat." This preference is echoed by Willard who suggests that one should never get off the boat unless he is willing to go "all of the way." In fact, he reminds us that Kurtz got off the boat and is now fully indoctrinated into the uncontrolled environment of the nature opposition. Willard's point becomes important to the narrative when he leaves the boat to assassinate Kurtz.
The river as mediator can be illustrated by comparing the city (culture) to the jungle (nature). As discussed earlier, the opposition found in the environments of Apocalypse Now is Saigon (city) and Kurtz's compound (jungle). The Nung River, because of its relation between that of Saigon and Kurtz's compound, is a mediator between the two. The Nung River carries Willard's boat from Saigon, yet it also carries the boat back. Thus the river is both of Saigon (culture) and of Kurtz's compound (nature). As a result, the river's function in Apocalypse Now is that of a mediating device.
Aptly, the closer the river gets to Kurtz and the further from Saigon, the less control there is over the environment. While Willard is on the river, the opposition between nature and culture becomes pronounced when a Vietnamese sampan is stopped by the American boat to search for smuggled weapons. The orderly search is suddenly ripped apart by an over-anxious crew member who kills the family on board because of a sudden movement by one of the family members to protect a hidden puppy. The death of the members aboard the junk is a turning point on the river. From that point on, the river is no longer a symbol for safety. This is underscored by the events at Do Lung Bridge on the Nung River.
Do Lung Bridge. This bridge, we are told, is the last American outpost before Cambodia. Willard and his crew arrive during a phantasmagoric night battle to destroy the bridge. A controlled environment does not exist here. As the boat arrives, American soldiers at the bridge jump into the river begging the crew to take them back to civilization. Willard is met by a dispatcher who is also anxious to leave, telling Willard he is in the "armpit of the world." When Willard tries to locate the commanding officer at the outpost, he is met with remarkably unstructured methods of warfare. There is neither order nor a commanding officer; there is only chaos and death.
As the crew leaves the bridge and gets closer to Kurtz, the environment has transformed from culture to nature. The boat passes burned villages and wrecked war machines as they move upstream. Half of a fuselage and stabilizer of a crashed B-52 stick out of the river, symbolizing the loss of control that the American war machine has over the jungle. In fact, the symbolic fulcrum represented by the river slowly dissolves as the boat goes deeper into the jungle. With the death of two crew members (one by a Vietcong bullet, and one by a native spear), the boat itself is no longer safe.
Kurtz's fortress. Willard and the remaining two crew members arrive at Kurtz's fortress to find that the Colonel has gone insane. The bodies of dead North Vietnamese, Vietcong, and Cambodians-are left decaying in the jungle heat. In contrast to the environment in Saigon, cultural control is missing. There is no rank among Kurtz's army, no distinction between the native Montagnards and the invading Americans with Kurtz. In the fortress there are no streets nor buildings. Only the Buddhist temple serves as a protection from the jungle. Kurtz's army sleeps in the open leaving the jungle to control the outer perimeters of the compound.
The resolution between controlled environment and uncontrolled environment is represented by the Nung River. The "balance" of the story begins to shift toward the jungle and its uncontrolled environment after the Do Lung Bridge. Equilibrium is restored only after the death of Kurtz when Willard leaves the uncontrolled environment and makes his way back down the river toward Saigon.
In this fashion, the river connects both the controlled and uncontrolled environments of the narrative. Willard uses the river to travel to and from both environments. The extreme end of the uncontrolled environment in the binary relationship no longer exists at the end of the film; however, neither does the controlled environment. Willard's experience has led him (and the audience) to conclude that there is no controlled environment. Recall how the battle of Vin Drin Drop revealed a madness of a distinct method without real control. At the Do Lung Bridge, both method and control are absent.
The resolution of the binary environments is one of several within the story. Lévi-Strauss argued that to analyze a myth all such bundles of relations must be investigated before stating whether there is a resolution within the myth (narrative) or not. The oppositions between characters may give further insight into the question of resolution within Apocalypse Now.
While there are several constituent units found among the characters of Apocalypse Now, two units in particular deserve attention in this analysis: first, the binary opposition between the Generals of the United States Army and Colonel Kurtz, and second, the binary opposition between two minor characters, Lance and Chef.
Generals/Kurtz. The central binary opposition in Apocalypse Now is that between the Generals of the United States Army and Colonel Kurtz. The generals have decided that Kurtz's methods are unsound and his command must be terminated. In an intercepted taped message, Kurtz says that the Vietcong are animals that are not threatened by the orderly, methodical form of combat orchestrated by the controlled environment of the generals. Thus, Kurtz must be annihilated. The Generals tell Willard that Kurtz has taken the war into his own hands and is operating in an un-orderly, non-methodical war "without any human decency at all."
Kurtz is full of contradictions himself. He views the war through the binary oppositions of purity of will versus corruption of will. The answer for Kurtz lies in the dialectic existence of life and death (also to be discussed as a thematic opposition under story-motif). Kurtz's view of the war is in direct contrast with the Generals' view. The Generals want a war with rules and moral decency, while Kurtz feels that the war cannot be fought without the strength of the primordial instincts of survival, no matter what the moral cost. The opposition between the Generals and Kurtz is placed in the dichotomy of method/no method of war. Willard is sent by the Generals to resolve the conflict that exists between them. The conflict is resolved for the Generals by the assassination of Kurtz.
Willard serves as a distinct function in this conflict. Like the Nung River in the constituent unit of controlled/uncontrolled environment, Willard plays a mediator in the opposition between the characters of Kurtz and the Generals. The character of Willard is the mediator because of his centered position in the continuum between the Generals and Kurtz. Lévi-Strauss would see Willard as mediator because of his "position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character." This is exemplified by Willard's indecision about the mission. While he agrees to take the mission, Willard describes his concern over killing an American and fellow officer. However, Willard also recalls killing "six people close enough to blow their last breath in [his] face." The audience realizes that he is not necessarily of the "orderly decent humanitarian world" that was described by the General at Nha Trang. The experience of the Vietnam war has changed him. He is no longer a cultural being, yet his resistance to killing Kurtz implies that he is equally not of the "evil" world that the Generals have proclaimed Kurtz to be a part of. Thus, Willard is ideologically in the middle, binding the two points of view together.
As a true mediator, Willard resolves the conflict between the Generals and Kurtz. He solves the Generals' problem by killing Kurtz. However, he also resolves a problem for Kurtz. Kurtz wanted his view of the war presented to his son. After killing Kurtz. Willard takes the position paper written by Kurtz to give to Kurtz's son. With the paper in hand, Willard exits the compound leaving both Kurtz and the Generals behind. After his mission is complete, his orders are to call in an air strike to destroy Kurtz's headquarters. Instead, he shuts off the radio, the only representative of culture left in the film, and begins his journey back down the river. Even in one ending of the film when an airstrike does destroy the compound, the viewer is left with the impression that it was not Willard who called it in.
Chef/Lance. A particular relationship between two crew members of the boat is also indicative of the binary oppositions between nature and culture in Apocalypse Now. The crew members Chef and Lance are representatives of culture and nature respectively. Chef is a New Orleans Saucier who represents, through his profession, a high cultural role. Chef was raised to become a professional chef. He has, in essence, a pedigree. He was trained through his early life to become a specialist in sauces and was preparing to study in France when he was drafted. The cultural side of Chef is also underscored by his desire not to kill. This is illustrated when the boat detains the Sampan on the river to search for weapons. When a sudden move on board the junk begins the carnage, it is Chef who does not shoot his weapon even though he is directly in danger.
At the other end of the continuum is Lance, a secondary character who represents nature. He is a professional surfer. Instead of transforming a raw material into something for use, as Chef does, Lance becomes part of that which he uses. The natural wave of the ocean is his tool and it remains untransformed for Lance's use. His name alone underscores a natural image (a lance is a native weapon used by Kurtz's warriors). Another strong indication of Lance's function in this opposition is found in Lance's behavior going up the river. The closer the boat gets to Kurtz's compound the more Lance takes on the look of a native. By the time the crew reaches the compound, Lance has adopted their dress. Because Lance has accepted this existence, he is spared the cruel death that awaits Chef.
The function for Willard as secondary-character mediator is a simple one. He is neither a part of Lance's nature nor of Chef's culture. Willard's mediating role between Lance and Chef is developed early in the journey up the river. It is Willard who goes with Chef to gather mangos, and it is Lance who accompanies Willard at Do Lung Bridge. More important, after the other crew members are killed, the three remaining characters become representatives of the binary oppositions that exist in the narrative. The boat thus becomes a microcosm for the larger conflict.
In this structural analysis, the binary oppositions of the characters as represented by the Generals and Kurtz exemplify the extreme binary opposition of the continuum between nature and culture, and other characters (Chef and Lance) represent a closer relationship between nature and culture. The permutation between the binary characters occurs through the continuum of relations between other "closer" characters. With Willard as mediator, the two extreme oppositions between Nature and Culture come closer together. Resolution occurs when Willard kills Kurtz and takes Kurtz's position paper back with him. Neither extreme triumphs over the other as Willard mediates a compromise in this element of the narrative.
The resolution of character and environmental conflicts has, overall, a direct influence on the outcome of the story. However, more subtle conflicts also give the story a depth of meaning. These subtle recurrences of binary oppositions, the story-motifs, give the narrative an internal structure which allows the more obvious conflicts of characters and environment a progression toward resolution through their mediating devices. It is these subtle conflicts within the story that support the major "spine" or focus of the story.
One binary opposition is foremost between two elements of the story-motif that supports the characters and environment of Apocalypse Now. This conflict is found in the story-motif of method of war/no method of war.
The underlying theme of Apocalypse Now is Kurtz's unsound method of warfare versus the General's sound method of war. Kurtz finds war an immoral event that should be fought without judgment and with moral terror. Kurtz's method has in essence become unsound because the war for Kurtz is not the "conventional war" fought by the Generals of a cultured nation.
Kurtz emphasizes this lack of morality in the Vietnam war when he tells Willard of his experience in the Special Forces. Kurtz was assigned to inoculate the children of a village for polio. After the forces inoculated the children and left, the Vietcong chopped the inoculated arms off of the children to stop the infestation of the American serum (cultural medicine). What Kurtz found so ingenious is the purity of will that it took to achieve such an act. He says, "it was as though a diamond bullet went into the center of my forehead and I realized that it was this kind of purity of will that would win the war. If I had ten divisions of men with that kind of will, I knew I could win." For Kurtz, an Army of men without human compassion would win the war. To the Generals this was no method for fighting a "humanitarian war." While Apocalypse Now does not exemplify the type of war the generals or Kurtz embrace, a permutation (transformation) of the story-motif between the binary oppositions of the General's method of war and Kurtz's no-method of war is represented in the film's presentation of the battles of Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge.
The battle of Vin Drin Drop and the Do Lung Bridge are permutations that are indicative of the developing resolution between the two extremes of Culture (method) and Nature (no-method). In Apocalypse Now the permutations of the story-motif, represented as method/no-method of war, resolve the conflict between binary oppositions. By bringing together both binary oppositions in the two battles (Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge) the extreme oppositions are placed closer together in the continuum. Thus, resolution takes place between the two extremes in the story-motif of Apocalypse Now.
To discuss the resolutions found in Apocalypse Now, we must break the narrative into three specific elements: transformation, opposition, and mediation. The transformation that occurs in Apocalypse Now is Willard's decision to bring Kurtz's story back with him after he has killed Kurtz. Willard's decision metaphorically offers the audience a way out of Vietnam. Through the process of the film the audience has an opportunity to view the war as a confusing conflict between the General's ideal method of war and Kurtz's non-method. Through Willard's mission up the Nung River, the horror of war is presented as the insanity of both methods. The audience becomes a witness to war and will hopefully understand its futility.
The binary opposition between the Generals and Kurtz is one of many in Apocalypse Now. While that particular constituent unit is the focus of the narrative, there are other binary units that have an indirect relationship to the General's/Kurtz opposition and which affect the outcome of the resolution that occurs between the central characters. Using the three levels of analysis (environment, characters, and story-motif) and the major binary opposition of nature/culture, we can chart several examples of constituent units found in the narrative within each level. These binary demarcations can be illustrated through the following series of antinomies.
|The United States||Vietnam|
|"Hot Society"||"Cold Society"|
|Method of War||No-method of war|
|Modern Machinery of War||Antiquated Machinery of War|
|Corruption of Will||Purity of Will|
With this list there is evidence that Apocalypse Now is structured by binary oppositions. However, according to Lévi-Strauss the function of the narrative is to resolve the binary oppositions. In Apocalypse Now there are several oppositions resolved through the permutations achieved by the mediators. As developed through the preceding analysis of environment, characters, and story motifs, the constituent units of Saigon/Kurtz's compound, the Generals/Kurtz, and method of war/no-method of war are transformed and resolved through mediating devices. The binary opposition between the major characters of the Generals/Kurtz is resolved through Willard; the environment opposition is resolved by the Nung River; and through the mediating device of the events on the Nung River (battles of Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge), the binary opposition in the story motif of method/no method of war is resolved.
The permutations leading to the resolution of method/no method of the war and between that of culture/nature in the analysis of environment are dependent upon Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge. As battles, these locations are a midpoint between the General's idealistic viewpoint of the war and Kurtz's lack of "sound method" for waging war. As geographical locations they are of special importance in the transformation from the ordered city of Saigon and the unordered jungles of Kurtz's compound. Whereas the permutations and resolution between culture/nature in the analysis of characters is developed through the mediating device of Willard, Willard remains a fulcrum between the major character opposition of Chef/Lance.
One of the most important underlying story-motifs, as expressed by method/no method, is exemplified as corruption of will/purity of will. This "theme" in Apocalypse Now is the "unpronounced" conflict in the method/no method opposition. This binary opposition is finally resolved through Willard's assassination of Kurtz.
What special insights, then, does this analysis give us? The development of the Vietnam war in our culture has taken on mythic proportions. Media representations of the Vietnam war give us an opportunity to investigate our social fabric and help understand the war and its effects on our culture. These representations also allow our culture to articulate interpretations of a historical event through narrative forms to new members of our society. Through the narrative structure of Apocalypse Now our cultural contradictions may be played out on the screen and through a cinematic resolution we may come to terms with our own doubts and confusion about the war America lost.
1. Gilbert Adair, Vietnam on Film (London: Proteus Publishers, 1981): 114.
2. John Simon, "Apocalypse Without End," in Mass Media and the Popular Arts, Fredric Rissover and David Birch, eds., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981): p. 444. There were three separate versions of the ending in Apocalypse Now. For this analysis the ending used in the theatrical release 35 millimeter version will be used. This ending portrays Willard leaving Kurtz's headquarters safely with a subsequent airstrike on the headquarters after Willard departs.
3. Eleanor Coppola chronicles the development and the production of Apocalypse Now in her book Notes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).
4. Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods: An Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 1.
5. Using Lévi-Strauss' formula, the application of the opposition between nature/culture and uncontrolled environment/controlled environment is possible. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Volume I, Trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963): 228.
6. Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Volume 1: 226-228.
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SOURCE: "The Corleones Return," in Newsweek, Vol. CXVI, No. 26, December 24, 1990, pp. 58-9, 61.
[In the following review, Kroll describes the problems which plagued Coppola during the filming of The Godfather Part III.]
The pressure is unbelievable," says Francis Ford Coppola. "This is just another movie. It's a Godfather movie. But it's become a big sporting event. It's about Francis—is he going to die or live?" In the last frantic days before the release of The Godfather Part III on Christmas Day, Coppola feels like a bull facing an army of matadors—the public that's been waiting for the next chapter in the Godfather saga for 16 years, since the release of the second Godfather in 1974. It's doubtful whether a movie director has ever felt this much pressure. Godfather I (1972) and its sequel were that rarity, a tremendous critical and box-office success that earned its studio, Paramount, a total of $800 million, plus nine Oscars and a permanent place in American culture.
For 15 years Coppola was besieged by successive regimes at Paramount, begging him to do a third Godfather. Always he refused, cracking that the only way he'd ever do it was as a farce, "Abbott and Costello Meet the Godfather." It was Paramount's current chairman, Frank Mancuso, who finally broke down Coppola's resolve. After a succession of classically inane ideas of how to do a Coppola-less Godfather, involving directors like Soviet expatriate Andrei Konchalovsky and actors like Sylvester Stallion and Eddie Murphy, fate came to Mancuso's aid in the form of financial catastrophe that overwhelmed Coppola. A slew of box-office disappointments like One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, Gardens of Stone and Tucker forced the director into an apocalypse now of debts; litigation and bankruptcy. Mancuso ambushed Coppola as neatly as Don Corleone waylaid his victims. A rat-tat-tat of dollars—$3 million to direct, $1 million to write the script, 15 percent of the box-office gross—and the deed was done.
Problems, problems: What followed was nearly a year of filming, in Rome, Sicily and New York, that made the problems of the first two "Godfathers" look like a makeup fix on a Pee-wee Herman movie. Budget Problems, starring a rise from the projected $44 million to $54 million. Casting Problems, starring the last-minute drafting of Coppola's inexperienced, 18-year-old daughter. Sofia, to replace an ill Winona Ryder. Most of all Coppola Problems, starring a brilliant American director who couldn't understand why the gods kept singling him out for troubles and torments. "What is there about me that invites this controversy?" asks Coppola. "Why do I have to be an oddball on the edge of extinction? Why do people enjoy that?"
Between daily self-questionings in this Jobean vein, Coppola managed to finish his movie in time for the Christmas 1990 release that Paramount had desperately beseeched. Coppola points out that meeting this deadline caused the kind of financial hemorrhaging that escalates budgets. Working with an "army of editors," he says, means that "we're paying maybe 50 times what it would cost if we could just mix with one editor." Plaintively he adds. "I started out saying 'I'm going to be a good boy. I'm going to do everything perfect. I'm going to work day and night.' And unavoidably I got tagged with my budgets going over. It's impossible to be a good boy." Mancuso bears out Coppola's self-defense. "No one was more responsible about the budget than Francis himself," he says. "He did everything possible to live up to it. I'm upset with the perception that he's irresponsible. It's absolutely untrue."
Now, as technicians are whizzing out 1,800 prints for a wide national release (Coppola is rightly concerned about the quality control that could affect Gordon Willis's lusciously somber, Renaissance-hued cinematography), reactions are coming in from professionals, critics and cinema sneaks who have seen the early screenings. These range, perhaps inevitably, from thumbs turned downward with dislocating force to huzzahs for the best Godfather of them all. While the nation prepares for an orgy of Godfolderol, let's pan-and-scan through one of the most dramatic production stories in movie history.
First, Coppola and Mario Puzo (whose 1969 best-selling novel was the cause of it all) meet in the spring of 1989 to bat out a screenplay. They do this in the inspiring ambience of a gambling hell in Reno, Nev. "We'd work for hours and when we ran out of ideas, we'd go down to the casino," says Coppola. "Mario would play roulette and I'd play craps or 21. After a while we'd be embarrassed about losing so we'd go upstairs and work on the script."
Pooping out: Coppola needs six or eight months to write the script. He and Puzo get six weeks. This means that when shooting starts in Rome he spends every night plus weekends making revisions. When Robert Duvall angrily rejects Paramount's cheapskate offer of $1.5 million to reprise his role of Tom Hagen, the Corleone family consigliere (Al Pacino gets $5 million as mob scion Michael Corleone, Diane Keaton $2 million as Kay, his ex-wife), Coppola has to write Duvall out of the script and beef up George Hamilton's role of B. J. Harrison, Michael's smooth WASP lawyer. Paramount doesn't want Hamilton (a pale reflection of the studio's recalcitrance on Gl, when they didn't want Marlon Brando. Pacino, Keaton and just about everyone who made the movie a classic. But those were autres temps and autres schmoes).
The Duvall matter is soon eclipsed when Winona Ryder, who has been making one film after another, poops out. The timesqueezed Coppola calls on his daughter, Sofia, a Mills College freshman on holiday, to play the role of Michael's daughter, Mary. Sofia, fresh from the shower, is whisked to the studio to do a scene immediately. Everyone, from Paramount officials to Coppola's wife, Eleanor, is aghast. The director is accused of "child abuse" and warned that nicekid Sofia, who had only played walk-on bits in her father's films, would be "scarred for life" by vicious reviews. But Coppola, who has in fact written Mary with Sofia in mind, accepts the trade-off of an unfledged actress for "the real thing." "Mary is this kind of idealized, innocent daughter," says Sofia, "and he definitely sees me as his innocent daughter." Once again fate has linked the mythic Corleones with the real Coppolas. Sofia, who joins Coppola's sister, Talia Shire (as Michael's sister, Connie), Coppola's 80-year-old father, Carmine (composer), and sundry other relatives in what the director calls "the biggest home movie in history," is clearly answering an inner need of her father. "I knew the only way I could come through with this film was to make it as personal as I could." says Coppola. Assigning Sofia a place in the fateful Corleone saga clearly helps Coppola to exorcise the grief that still clings to him over the loss of his 23-year-old son Gian-Carlo, who died in a boating accident in 1986 during the filming of Gardens of Stone.
The gutsy Sofia breaks down and cries several times under the pressure, but she gets stronger. She is aided by a dialogue coach who takes her through "psycho-relaxation" exercises, and by the entire cast, especially Andy Garcia as Vincent, the sexy killer who falls for first-cousin Mary. Whatever the fate of the film, it's clear to everyone that G3 is going to make Garcia a big star, as Gl did for Pacino and G2 did for Robert De Niro. The darkly handsome 34-year-old (The Untouchables, Internal Affairs) can smolder, explode, charm and, best of all, act. In his scenes Garcia loves to improvise, land unexpected punches, which delights Coppola but drives the meticulous Gordon Willis nuts. As Coppola puts it: "Andy is an exciting and essential part of the story; without him it would be rich old guys brooding about their sins."
While Garcia is heating up the film, Pacino discusses Shakespeare with Bardo-philiac Coppola, who sees elements of Lear, Hamlet and Coriolanus in the character of Michael. Coppola creates a diabetic seizure for Michael inspired by the mad scenes of Lear and Hamlet. But the Method-trained Pacino says: "As much as I love Shakespeare, I couldn't really connect it to my role. I was busy figuring out how to get from one side of the room to another." Coppola, says Pacino, is "an amazing asset. He fills you up with the world of the movie."
It's a tough world. Coppola's problems range from a financial lawsuit that crops up in the middle of shooting, to worrying about Diane Keaton, who is going through a real-life romantic crisis with Pacino. "She didn't really want to do it," he says. "It's tough to come back 16 years later and still be in the thankless job of a supporting player. You could tell it was tough for both Diane and Al, especially when they were both in Rome but not living together."
Another problem is the violence that Paramount, and Godfather fans, expect Coppola to cook up not as fast-food action with gore sauce but as haute cuisine. "Everyone's seen everything," he says. "The trick is to stage it so that some detail or odd thing makes it stick in your mind and renew its horror," Despite his stated aversion, Coppola comes up with some recipes for carnage in G3 that are classics of shock, worthy of Kurosawa, whom he calls "the great father of screen violence."
Bedeviled: The real violence is the disruption and anxiety that buffet Coppola as he wills together these huge, exhausting Godfather movies, his recognized masterpieces toward which he has ambivalent feelings. They are "their movies," he says, meaning they really belong to the system, not to the artist. He says he prefers his small, intimate films like The Rain People (1969) and The Conversation (1974). Of course he is wrong and he surely knows it. There is more poetry, more inspired invention, more fun and wit and vision and power in the G-movies than in any but a few American films. The fear and terror that bedevil Coppola on his globe-trotting, money-gobbling, deadline-crushing Godfathering may really be the fear that this is his true work, work he has been dragooned, cajoled and forced into by the failure of his more cherished projects. "It's not as though we were walking around in the Godfather movies thinking we were making art," he says. "We were just trying to get through it." Not to force a comparison, but Coppola's favorite, Shakespeare, probably said the same thing. Necessity is the Godmother of invention.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2478
SOURCE: A review of The Godfather Part III, in Cineaste, Vol. XVIII, No. 2. 1991, pp. 41-3.
[In the following review, Jaehne lists several of the faults of Coppola's Godfather III and concludes. "Maybe its's time for Coppola to give up sequels and create some original sins."]
A baroque vision of life at the top of the criminal ladder in the rusty hues of blood and dried blood, The Godfather Part III is about the cost of redeeming one's soul, especially when that soul has been so neglected it looks like the dilapidated house at Lake Tahoc where Godfather II stopped and Part III begins. Michael Corleone's life is redeemed, apparently, during the flashforward to his death in the garden, when he falls off his chair. Straight but stiff.
"The only wealth," sighs the Godfather (Al Pacino) in the first of dozens of epigrammatic lines of dialog, "is children. More than power or money." Aha! So a child is what he will have to pay for his soul! But which child? Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio), who's given up capos for opera capes? Nah, he's abandoned the Family for Art. But here comes Mary (Sofia Coppola), with a madonna's resemblance to Michael's first wife, whom he married during exile in Sicily. She died for his sins, when she got behind the wheel of his car.
When the crimes of the fathers are visited on the sons, there's nothing like a female sacrifice to elevate the tragedy. It reeks of ancient blood ritual, recalling the Oresteia, that Greek trilogy in which Aeschylus immortalized the horrors of the House of Atreus—child sacrifice, fratricide, patricide, matricide, even genocide at Troy, but also a new order of justice ushered in by a democratically-inclined Athena to cleanse Orestes from the terrible traditions of blood revenge.
Godfather III needed to present such a transition to a new and higher form of justice, but in the by now apocryphal six weeks in a Reno casino that it took to write the script, clearly nobody thought of anything new or lofty. This tale of decadence only hints at a dark past seeping into a dark present with some properly Viscontian touches—opera, incest and seething Sicily.
The political engagement of Godfather III is equally tiresome and second hand. While it may have been shocking in the Seventies to assert that one could make a business out of crime or that Mafia "businessmen" could wield substantial political clout, the last twenty years of indictments against public officials and financiers, along with the utter collapse of integrity in American leadership makes mincemeat of many of the film's brave assertions. "I don't need tough guys. I need more lawyers!'," says the Godfather. Tell it to Ed Meese. "The higher I go, the crookeder it gets." Tell it to the Iranscam Special Prosecutor.
"Politics and crime—they are the same thing." That one is emblazoned across the screen in subtitles, indicating that the Italians knew long ago the lessons of the S&L scandals. And when a Cardinal "contemplates eternity," he's playing for time. The dialog recapitulates the cynical lessons of two decades, adding nothing and merely recalling that several of the Watergate engineers also found God somewhere between the White House and their publishing houses. Wouldn't be it great to read The Memoirs of Michael Corleone: Doin' the Vatican Rag?
Our disappointment in the film goes beyond the customary stupidity of sequels rushed through production to satisfy studio release patterns. After creating one of the great mythic characters of American cinema, Coppola shows the effects on his own life of the last two decades by taking a dive for Paramount Pictures. But beyond sheer need or avarice (reportedly $5 million if he could get the film out in 1990), most annoying is his failure to cap the theme running through the previous Godfathers—the transfer of power from one generation to the next.
The previous films showed us the decline of power from a father in the old Mafia to a son who must carry on in a modern mob. In part III, however, we see the decline of power from God—he who made and rules the very universe—to his children who purport to carry on his works on earth, the Vatican fathers. The sons of God upstage the sons of Sicily.
The script of Mario Puzo and Coppola retains the structural framework of the other two films: the opening scene at a family ritual celebration; the family's position within the Mafia being challenged; the intrafamily disputes calling for a new Godfather; the unsuitability of the 'crown prince'; the perception of their 'business' as the cutting edge of the American way and the concomitant search for new 'markets,' culminating with a challenge to the family's supremacy that exacts an act of violence from the wannabe Godfather even against his will, leading to a spectacular series of killings, as a newly designated heir seizes control of the clan and discovers in his power only splendid isolation. The old don succumbs in his garden like those Roman Emperors who, after the savagery of Ancient Rome, retired to contemplation and cabbages.
The grandeur of the conception is not diminished by using a formula, but the formula serves both the content and style to make of it a kind of 'spaghetti Bertolucci' movie. The frame is too ornate for the picture, and the plot fails to carry us beyond melodrama. The affectation of style becomes the content, as in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. This Family doesn't feud: it squabbles. Their business is not the crime intrinsic to the American Way of Life. They just have nasty colleagues.
Like the "just say no" culture of the Eighties, they want to get clean and sober and into an international conglomerate. That is presented as an abstraction by the name of Immobiliare (the word means real estate and has a cognate in every European language). Once beyond the confines of Little Italy, the Corleones are tiresomely amorphous and have the occasional glamour of folks promoted by Vanity Fair. They wear designer clothes and act elusive. They may found Mobsters Anonymous!
When we first rejoin la Famiglia Corleone, Michael is being celebrated at a mass as he receives the Order of San Sebastian for his benevolence. Anyone daring to express surprise at his newfound stature is silenced with a rude "Shaddup! Ya tink ya know beduh dan da Pope?!" Infallibility has never been the Pope's forte: now come the Corleones to reinforce it.
Still, the key to this Godfather is nothing less than theological, forcing us to ask if an old mobster's soul can be saved according to the doctrine of the Church (none of this weird fundamentalist stuff). Michael himself asks, "What is the use of confession, if I don't repent?" Damned good question—but keep your eye on the business implications of following the letter of the law: a confession usually prompts absolution (in the movies it always does). Indeed, Michael's confession of his sins to the man who would be Pope is the linchpin of the film (even if the scene seems to lack the creative force we expect of such a moment). He admits to having killed his brother and the confessor blesses him. He's not even sent off with his rosary for a Hail Mary!
Because the priest to whom he entrusts all this becomes Pope, that Pope can then permit Michael to join the worthy board of Immobiliare. We are forced to ask ourselves if this is the reason for the poisoning of that Pope; it is only suggested, but we do get a clear picture of foul play with the Pontiff. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the Pope's knowledge of Michael's crimes implicates the Pope himself in any intrigue. On the contrary, Michael has been forgiven, and his confessor is the only one who knows for sure. Michael can repent later, once he's seen his daughter die in his place on the steps of the opera house.
It has been difficult to get two or more critics to agree on the financial details of the plot, depending on the need to acknowledge the international banking and business conflict that constitutes the motor of the storyline. Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) approaches Michael to help him out of the embarrassing situation of accounting for a $750 million deficit in the Vatican coffers (betrayed by an unscrupulous or atheist accountant). Michael says, "Let's make a deal."
Their negotiation culminates in Michael giving $600 million to the Vatican directly or making it an investment into the business (this is unclear) in exchange for a sizable chunk of Immobiliare Internationale, twenty-five percent of which is controlled by the Vatican. But the upright European businessmen on the board of Immobiliare hesitate to permit this known criminal into their midst.
They apprise Corleone of ancient, gnarly rules that bind their decisions, which may even require the consent of the Pope himself. (About financial matters? Could Michael Milken be Pope?!) As a kind of option. Michael contributes $200 million to a church fund through the new $100 million endowment of the Corleone Foundation, headed up by the virginal Mary Corleone.
When the Pope falls ill (as happened in 1978 when two popes died in suspiciously quick succession), the Vatican bells toll and the byzantine process of electing a new pope stops all business. Michael hangs out in Sicily waiting to be let in back in Rome. And here we pick up the developing relationship between Michael and Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia).
Vincent is the illegitimate (everything else is illegitimate; why not the next Godfather?) son of Michael's brother Sonny (James Caan). He is also a hood who has been creating havoc among the New York mob because he staunchly defends Uncle Michael against upstart mobster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), his employer. Even if Vinnie's methods are those of a blabbermouth street kid who has crashed Michael's all-too-legitimate party, he brashly gets what he seeks in an audience with the Godfather.
He's like a mutt from the pound about to be trained like a German Shepherd. Most important, he is the protégé of the now murderous Aunt Connie (Talia Shire), who warns Michael, "They fear you!" To which he cannily replies, "They ought to fear you." Yes, the women have become as monstrous as the men. The only ironic comment comes from ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), now a socialite who shows up to tell Michael, "Now that you're respectable, you're more dangerous than ever."
If the movie has a message, that's it. Watching the refining process of Vincent, we rather regret his transition from a volatile street fighter into a manipulative mobster. He is the life of the film, this leather-clad, fast-talking stud, the only one with enough charisma to interest either Michael or us for an entire three-plus hours or into another sequel. It is inevitable that we compare Vincent to Michael. Garcia to Pacino. And to Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro as the original.
Andy Garcia plays the gangster as a man with the strong family loyalties of someone trying to get under an umbrella he really needs. But he also has a keen intelligence honed by the martial arts rather than The Method. He can't throw away lines, as did Brando and de Niro; nor can he reproduce Pacino's dormant volcano persona. Garcia is like a cat prowling and pouncing, nothing escaping his youthful predatory instincts. He is only dull when he preys upon Goddaughter Mary. Here, we should see the crackle and spark of sin: instead, she is so flummoxed in his presence that he can only coax her through her lines with eyes that widen in patience rather than desire. A taboo requires recognition: poor Sofia Coppola plays the role as a maiden gently awakening to love not lust.
This relationship needs to feed into the Corleone family's increasing resemblance to the mythic Borgias of the Renaissance, a theme underlined by dialog like "What's this with the Borgias? Those days are over." At the Minetta Lane Tavern, an infamous Greenwich Village pub frequented by gangsters, Vincent and Mary rendezvous. She asks if her father killed Vincent's father Sonny, and Vincent tells her reassuring stories. The children propagating family legend dare not face the family history.
If the past has shaped these characters, it's hard to know why. Even their Sicilian roots have been spruced up; when did the Sicilian wing of the family move from the traditional square stucco villa outside Agrigento to the elegant Santo Domingo Hotel in Taormina (a seventeenth century baroque monastery renovated to five-star status)? Stolid Tom Hagen replaced by day-glo George Hamilton?
For a film decrying excess and corruption, its own departure from verisimilitude and credible characters allows for no moral or esthetic yardstick: you are forced to go back and see the first two films to figure out why Michael is nattering on about the legitimate world. We got glimpses of legitimacy and commonplace expectations in those films; we knew just how abnormal each family member was. Godfather III, however, breathes the thin air of the thoroughly idle rich. The muscular ambition of Andy Garcia as Vincent provides some foil to what often feels like a Robin Leach tour of lifestyles of the rich and famoso. The token violence, isolated as set pieces, makes this "mob manqué."
It attains grand guignol when Aunt Connie gives a neat package of poisoned cannoli to poor old Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) an old Sicilian family friend who turned on Michael. Under the gaze of her opera glasses, he devours his gift during the opera's canzone. Which returns us to the original dilemma of making this film in a society where law and order have ceased to command respect! The Borgia ethic is the rule rather than the exception. A casino full of capos gets strafed in Atlantic City—that's hoary news compared to the corruption of Pete Rose or the plagiarism of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps it's a harbinger of things to come that the Godfather is worried about his soul. Michael's search for redemption could have made a formidable foundation for this unwieldy plot construction, even as his old gang lined up behind him, hoping the cleansing affects of the Immobiliare deal could stretch to purify their money too. The business deal with the Vatican, however, is a Hydra-headed problem of the plotline that distracts us from the Godfather's spiritual struggle.
"The power to absolve debt," says the worldly archbishop, "is greater than the power of forgiveness." Lines like this seem to speak to Coppola's reasons for making the film, from publicized bankruptcy in 1990 to the tragic death of his son Gio in 1986. But absolution, as any Hollywood Catholic knows, cannot be had from Paramount. Maybe it's time for Coppola to give up sequels and create some original sins.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1225
SOURCE: "The Grandfather," in New York, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 7, 1991, pp. 57, 64-5.
[In the following review, Denby complains, "The Godfather III has its moments, but I think one can state as a principle that a man's desire to withdraw from life cannot serve as the center of an epic drama (not, that is, without Shakespeare's poetry)."]
For much of its two-hour-and-forty-minute length, I waited for The Godfather Part III to explode, and for a long time it only wheezed. The movie certainly isn't boring, but much of it is heavy-spirited and glum, as if the Mafia and the Godfather movies themselves had become unspeakably important facts of American life, permitting neither levity nor excitement. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), only about 60 but old in body and spirit, sets the tone. The hollow-eyed Pacino performs brilliantly, but he appears to be sinking within himself, and for a long time the movie sinks with him. Fortunately, Godfather III finally does come to life: The last half-hour will become legendary.
In the original Godfather (1972), the twin elements of family piety and hair-raising violence nourished and enlarged each other in ways that were unsettling and funny. The intensity of the Corleones' love for one another drew us in, yet as soon as we began to think that they weren't quite monsters, that they were vital and attractive, they would kill someone. The bullets slamming into bodies, the feet kicking through windshields, rebuffed our weak sentimentality. Francis Coppola's story moved ahead fiercely yet with just enough space for texture and detail—for the interweaving of major and minor characters, foreground and background, mob and America. The narrative possessed a fullness and decisiveness without equal in American movie history.
Part II (1974) extended the Corleone family saga forward into Michael Corleone's unhappy maturity and the period of the family's control over Las Vegas in the fifties and sixties, and backward to Vito Corleone's youth in Sicily and Little Italy early in the century. Though perhaps not as exciting or as emotionally involving as the first film, Godfather II was a work of aggressive high intelligence, a bitter and sardonic view of the corruption of America and a frightening embodiment of paranoia as a way of life.
Godfather III renews the emotions established at the end of Part II—those moments in which Michael, desolated by the enormity of his responsibilities and the horror of his crimes, grows increasingly lonely and motionless in his lakeside Nevada house. By 1979, a shrewd but self-disgusted man, he's become sick of gangster life. He has moved back to New York—a large apartment on Fifth Avenue—and has taken the Corleone family out of the rackets altogether. A financier, he buys himself respectability by contributing millions to the Catholic church. Part III opens with a huge party, which matches the wedding scene at the beginning of The Godfather, though without the bounding, sunshiny happiness. The party has the grayness of Michael's face. Pacino's hair is combed up, bristling; his brow is deeply furrowed. Hunched inside his rich man's business suit, he looks smaller, as if lifetime habits of calculation had shrunk his body.
Michael tries to buy a controlling interest (with Vatican approval) in an international conglomerate and runs afoul of an Italian Mr. Big, a corrupt financier misusing church funds. Set in the Vatican Bank and the Vatican itself, much of this intrigue, resounding hollowly in the gloomy, magnificent rooms, is grand yet muffled, distant from us and from the first two films. Coppola and Mario Puzo (who again collaborated on the screenplay), seizing on fresh real-life scandals and rumors (not just the Sindona Affair but the surprising early death of John Paul I), seem to have forgotten that the first two films were about crime as the American way of business, about a powerful family preying on the corruptibility of the country. Suddenly, the American theme is lost, and Coppola and Puzo are off in Rome remaking The Shoes of the Fisherman. A lot of the screenplay is overexplicit and stiff—lazy—and the hushed solemnity gets a little thick. The movie needs someone like manic Joe Pesci from GoodFellas scampering across the marbled floors of its self-esteem.
Nothing quite commands us emotionally. Michael's sister, Connie (Talia Shire), slinks in and out, a fierce witch in black plotting murders. Kay (Diane Keaton), though remarried, experiences a mild return of affection for Michael. (So what?) His son, Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio), wants to become an opera singer and rejects his dad, but he's no more than a sweet-faced cipher. In a catastrophic decision, Coppola, ever his own Godfather, cast his daughter Sofia as Michael's daughter Mary (the talented Winona Ryder had dropped out). Miss Coppola has a thick, curled upper lip that she doesn't have the training and technique to use as an actress. She appears raw and unprotected, naked almost, and since she has a flat, uninflected voice as well, the exposure is complete. When the rising young hood Vincenzo (Andy Garcia), the bastard son of Michael's brother Sonny, and a dangerously attractive man, falls in love with her, we are baffled. His semi-incestuous desire for her is meant to be the mainspring of the plot, but the spring isn't wound.
Michael seeks redemption. But like all movie gangsters, he's pulled back into feuds and revenge—the knife in the stomach, the blood on the floor. The Godfather III has its moments, but I think one can state as a principle that a man's desire to withdraw from life cannot serve as the center of an epic drama (not, that is, without Shakespeare's poetry). Anguished and saturnine and at times deeply funny, Pacino gives a detailed, moving performance. But the emotions that he's playing—self-abnegation, despair—don't fuel a large film. If the talented Garcia, as the young Mafioso, had been allowed to take over the movie, just as Pacino took over The Godfather when Brando's Don Vito withdrew. Godfather III might have worked. But Garcia's character, a hothead who suddenly matures, doesn't develop in an interesting way.
Gordon Willis is on hand again as cinematographer, and the interiors have his usual dark splendor, the Sicilian scenes a golden lushness that is both enchanting and heartbreaking. The level of craft is very high, but until the end there's only one sequence that flows with Coppola's old mastery—the assassination of a New York hood (Joe Mantegna) during a Mulberry Street festival. Mantegna is the latest in a series of Godfather actors with tremendous presence. Playing gangsters, these actors must feel they are someone in the world. That, of course, was always part of the comedy of the films—the elaborate punctilio among thugs, which eventually collapses into shooting.
In the final sequence, an obvious parallel to the climax of the first movie (with elements of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much thrown in), Michael's son makes his debut in Cavalleria Rusticana in Palermo, and Coppola cuts together the action onstage, assassination attempts in the opera house, the settling of scores in the Vatican and elsewhere. Passion, sacrifice, murder—an overwhelmingly rich Italian diet. The sequence, both darkly voluptuous and lurid, is obvious in the way that Cavalleria Rusticana is obvious, but it's also thrilling and great. The tragedy of Michael Corleone is complete at last. No movie lover could truly wish it to go on any longer.
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SOURCE: "Blood Sell," in Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1993, p. 14.
[In the following review. Showalter discusses the vampire genre and Coppola's version, concluding, "More about coffers than coffins, this Dracula will neither join the canon of vampire classics nor enrich Coppola's artistic reputation."]
"There is not a theatre in Paris without its Vampire!" a French critic exclaimed in 1820; and London and New York might say the same today. From Francis Ford Coppola's new Dracula to John Landis's sexy Innocent Blood, from Nigel Finch's stylish updating of a nineteenth-century German opera by Heinrich August Marschner for BBC2, and Shimako Seto's melancholy Tale of a Vampire (shot in Deptford library, Chiswick and Rotherhithe), to Mark Morris's startling ballet, everybody's doing that Transylvanian rag. Vlad the Impaler, an adaptation of Marin Sorescu's play, The Third Stake, was broadcast on Radio 3 in November 1992, and the latest title in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles", The Tale of the Body Thief … is on the American bestseller lists, as is Bram Stoker's original Dracula (1897). In the breathless words of a BBC press release, "the world is poised on the brink of vampire fever".
In his history of the horror film, Dreadful Pleasures (1985), James B. Twitchell suggests that epidemics of vampire fever strike in twenty-year cycles, but there is always a reason why a country has vampire trouble, and each era has offered its own rationale for the children of the night. The vampire's Romantic resurrection in 1819, in a novel by Byron's friend, Dr John Polidori, which became the source of Marschner's opera, came from metaphysical scepticism and fantasies of foreign threats to the stable British family. If Stoker's Dracula has been filmed over 150 times, it is because it offers a potent cultural mythology as well as a series of erotic and horrific images. Not only the most aesthetic but also some of the campiest Draculas have succeeded on the screen because directors from F. W. Murnau to Andy Warhol so clearly put the stamp of their own moment on the story. Whether out of German post-war expressionist malaise (Murnau's Nosferatu, 1921); English Cold War longing for new cultural blood (Hammer Studio's Horror of Dracula, 1958); American racism (William Marshall's Blacula, 1972); bisexual decadence (Tony Scott's The Hunger, 1985); or teenage homosexual panic (Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys, 1985), directors have found a way to use the vampire legend to illuminate issues and styles of their own time. Even Batman, who is to Dracula as Jekyll is to Hyde, has been revamped as a contemporary neurotic.
In the 1990s, the Dracula legend has taken on new political and cultural meanings. The weekly New York digest of the Romanian TV news begins with a montage of national heroes including the original Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, who defended the country against the Turks in the fifteenth century, although one might think his habit of staking his enemies in the rectum and arranging them artistically about the landscape would be somewhat off-putting. In Mad Forest, Caryl Churchill's play about the Romanian revolution of 1989, Dracula is one of the characters, a sleek aristocrat desperately courted by a starving dog, in an allegory of a poor country's cringing susceptibility to tyrants. Since vampirism is a sexually transmitted disease of the blood, parallels to AIDS must resonate in every contemporary version, whether or not the director intends them, and Coppola's shots of blood cells and transfusions led the New York Times critic, Frank Rich, to see the film as an allegory of AIDS.
One of the most consistent interpretations of Dracula has been to see it as the projection of Jonathan Harker's unconscious. On the eve of his marriage, this rigid, buttonedup, obsessively punctual young solicitor goes on a journey to the east, where he meets his double, the lascivious Count Dracula, who will act out his repressed desires. In the German "Nosferatu" versions of the story, Harker is actually bitten and turns into a vampire, despite his wife's effort to save him by spending the night with Dracula so that he will be surprised and killed by the rays of the rising sun. Indeed, although no director has noticed it, in the Stoker novel Harker recognizes one of the female vampires who come to seduce him in the castle; he "seemed somehow to know her face and know it in connection with some dreamy fear". Stoker hints that this "fair girl", who bends over him with scarlet lips as he closes his eyes "in a languorous ecstasy", is Lucy Westenra, the best friend of Harker's fiancée, Mina, and a Victorian vamp who receives marriage proposals from all the other men in the novel. Because Harker, too, secretly desires her, Dracula fixates on her even before he gets to England, and she is his first victim.
Coppola saw the Harker role as relatively unimportant, and cast the wooden Keanu Reeves, whom he has quaintly called "a matinée idol", in the part, in a misguided effort to pull teenage girls into the audience for the film. But his Dracula has other attractions: weird and interesting performances by Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman; surprisingly active heroines played by Sadie Frost and Winona Ryder; beautiful operatic costumes by the Japanese designer, Eiko Ishioka, drawing on exotic fauna such as the Australian frilled lizard and fin-de-siècle artists including Mucha. Beardsley, Klimt, Leighton and Moreau; clever use of retro cinema techniques by Coppola's son, Roman Coppola; and buckets and buckets of blood. From beginning to end, the film is a series of allusions and homages to cinematic classics. The script by James V. Hart (fleshed out into a book as the curiously-titled Bram Stoker's Dracula: The novel of the film) echoes the historical framing-device of a vampire seeking his lost bride through the centuries from Blacula; the opening battlescene of impaled bodies against a red sky follows Kurosawa's Kagemusha; the blue flames around the wolves come from Murnau's Faust; the setting of Dracula's castle pays homage to Cocteau's La Belle et La Bête; the plot ending suggests Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and, as Coppola himself notes (in his introduction to Bram Stoker's Dracula: the film and the legend, the "only official companion book"), "the whole thing climaxes in an enormous John Ford shootout—no one had ever portrayed that".
What Coppola's Dracula lacks, however, is a coherent aesthetic and ideas of its own. Victorian vampire trouble came from the sexual repression of women, but Coppola's heroines do not need any help from a vampire to express their pent-up sexuality. Mina hotly embraces the prudish Harker, lets Dracula pick her up in the street, and take her to dinner with absinthe. Lucy, in a series of low-cut orange chiffon dresses out of Flaming June, flings herself at her suitors with all the finesse of a Mae West, reaching for the Texan's Bowie knife while pleading "Quincey—let me touch it. It's so big." The girls giggle over pornography, and writhe in masturbatory pleasure in their beds.
The sharp contrasts between British empiricism, research and domestic decorum, and "Transylvanian" superstition, timelessness and polymorphous perversity, which make Stoker's novel so delectable, break down in Coppola's sloppy goulash. Anthony Hopkins's Van Helsing is as batty and incestuous as Dracula, a raving replay of Hannibal Leeter. The "Victorian young guns" who court Lucy and hunt Dracula are half-crazy themselves: Dr. Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum that looks more like Bedlam than the sedate retreats of the 1890s, is a drug addict. Most problematic, despite his frequent metamorphoses into beasts, Gary Oldman's Dracula is a loving and uxorious fellow at heart who seems much happier in London (where, hippie sunglasses apart, he dresses like a normal Victorian gentleman) than at home in Transylvania, where he is weighed down by Kabuki robes and a haircut that resembles the frontal lobes of the brain. Coppola, whose masterpieces (Apocalypse Now, the Godfather saga) and disasters (The Cotton Club, Tucker) have tended to be over budget and over time, has been disarmingly honest about his hopes to make a lot of money with this film, in order to finance more experimental projects for his studio. American Zoetrope; but, after grossing $32 million in its first weekend in the United States, Dracula dropped 49 per cent at the box office.
Coppola calls the vampire's reincarnation in London "Young Dracula", but Gary Oldman does not convey a sense of youth. In the BBC2 series. The Vampyr, however, Omar Ebrahim's Ripley is youthful, sexy and frightening. Marschner's original opera played to full houses at London's Lyeeum Theatre for sixty performances in 1829, and the modern version directed by Nigel Finch, should also be a hit, for, unlike Coppola's Dracula, it succeeds in bringing a distinctive contemporary vision to the vampire myth. The Vampyr mixes Polidori, Faust and Jack the Ripper in the story of a vampire who, disinterred by real-estate developers, rises to power in the ruthless world of London high finance and must kill young women in order to stay alive. Combining British suspicion of the foreign entrepreneur with women's fear of serial killers, The Vampyr successfully taps some of the major urban anxieties of the 1990s. Handsomely filmed in locations around London, and magnificently sung by an attractive cast including Fiona O'Neill, Philip Salmon and Richard Van Allen, this "soap opera" could reach the wide audience Coppola aimed at. Finch, who directed The Lost Language of Cranes, does not shy away from the homoerotic subtexts of the vampire story, and both the slangy contemporary libretto (by Charles Hart, who wrote The Phantom of the Opera) and the generous use of nudity and violence, are intended to bring new life to a neglected work and broaden the television viewers' appreciation for a serious art form.
In contrast, Coppola's cinematic decisions and Columbia Pictures' manic mega-marketing of Dracula tie-ins seem to have no purpose beyond the cash register. More about coffers than coffins, this Dracula will neither join the canon of vampire classics nor enrich Coppola's artistic reputation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349
Bogue, Ronald L. "The Heartless Darkness of Apocalypse Now." Georgia Review XXXV, No. 3 (Fall 1981): 611-26.
Interprets the ending of Coppola's Apocalypse Now based on the assertion that the film is an imitation of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, as opposed to an adaptation.
Calhoun, John. Review of Coppola and Eiko on "Bram Stoker's Dracula," by Francis Ford Coppola and Eiko Ishioka. TCI: Theatre Crafts International 27, No. 2 (February 1993): 56.
Discusses the importance of the costumes in Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, as exhibited in the director's book with designer Eiko Ishioka.
Chown, Jeffrey. "What's in a Name?" Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola, pp. 217-23. New York: Praeger, 1988.
Discusses Coppola as a Hollywood auteur.
Cowie, Peter. "Coppola Remarried to the Mob." Variety (3 January 1990): 1, 10-1.
Discusses how Coppola became involved in the making of The Godfather Part III.
Crist, Judith. "All in the Family." New York 7, No. 51 (23 December 1974): 70-1.
Praises Coppola's The Godfather Part II as being even better than the original.
Gow, Gordon. Review of The Godfather Part II, by Francis Ford Coppola. Films and Filming 21, No. 10 (July 1975): 42-3.
Complains that "The Godfather, Part Two is remorselessly protracted, dwelling lugubriously upon the central figure of Michael, for whom Al Pacino, so fine in The Godfather, Part One, can in the present circumstances arouse very little of my interest."
Haskell, Molly. "The Godfather Part II: The Corleone Saga Sags." Village Voice (19 March 1989): 88-9.
Complains of the lack of dialogue and active thought in Coppola's The Godfather Part II.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Review of The Godfather Part II, by Francis Ford Coppola. Sight and Sound 44, No. 3 (Summer 1975): 187-88.
Asserts that while in many ways The Godfather Part II is superior to the original, the film actually adds nothing new to the Corleone saga.
Sarris, Andrew. Review of The Godfather, by Francis Ford Coppola. Village Voice (16 March 1972): 63.
Discusses the secrecy surrounding Marlon Brando's performance in The Godfather, and notes other fine performances in the film.