Francis Ford Coppola Coppola, Francis Ford (Vol. 16) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francis Ford Coppola 1933–

American director, producer, and scriptwriter.

Along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, among others, Coppola established the reputation of the textbook filmmakers. He is also 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. But Dementia 13 was not well received and his next film, You're a Big Boy Now, was overshadowed by Mike Nichols's The Graduate, released at the same time as Coppola's film. In retrospect, many critics find You're a Big Boy Now a fresh, zany look at the disillusionment and the joys of growing up.

In 1968, Coppola directed his first—and perhaps his last—musical. His version of Finian's Rainbow 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, received a lukewarm critical reception, Coppola's future looked questionable.

The brilliant success of Coppola's adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather established Coppola in the film world. 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.

Coppola's most recent project, Apocalypse Now, has become as notorious as it is famous. Stories of the difficulties of production and the skyrocketing costs have given the film an aura of unbridled extravagance. For many critics, this has detracted from the film and jaded their perception of it. In The Movie Brats Michael Pye and Lynda Myles have said of Coppola: "[There is] a fatal flaw that eats at Coppola's filmmaking. He makes appropriate noises to hearten his liberal constituency … and then concentrates on performance, style, and rhythm. His skills do not present the message he says he intends." The critical response to Apocalypse Now echoes this view. Most critics find it lush, overwhelmingly beautiful, spectacular … and empty. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Allen Eyles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The horror story is heavily red-herringed and none too credible, and [The Haunted and the Hunted, or Dementia 13] doesn't escape looking a bit of a quickie. But the director, Francis Coppola, has confidently assembled the film and given it a sharp sense of atmosphere. It lacks polish but its ideas are right.

Allen Eyles, "The New Films: 'The Haunted and the Hunted'" (© copyright Allen Eyles 1965; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 6, March, 1965, p. 35.

Stephen Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In You're a Big Boy Now] Coppola shows a fine feeling for New York's grimy excitement, especially in a sequence in which his young hero peeps in and out of porny book stores and amusement parlors on 42nd Street; the cinéma-vérité casualness, bouncy editing, and Lovin' Spoonful music nicely render the city's exuberance without skimming its sordidness. The story, what little there is, concerns a boy's effort to break the complicated parental bonds (his ambivalent feelings toward his father are suggested by his chronic inability to decide what to call him) and discover sex. It is not the freshest idea in the world, but Coppola has enlivened it with amusing details…. Coppola's invention and energy run down about halfway through the movie, and he tries to recover with an arch, frantic slapstick chase. (The rediscovery of Mack Sennett has been one of the most disastrous influences on comedy of the last few years.) In addition, most of the movie, even the funny parts, looks cute rather than true; Coppola seems to have had a good time making it without being really committed to it. There are a few scenes which are much more urgent—those with a tough and vicious dancer named Barbara Darling, especially a brilliant discotheque scene whose psychedelic light effects exaggerate Barbara's body movements to gargantuan, overpowering twitches, and a chilling seduction scene in which she arouses the hero almost to orgasm and then crawls into bed and tells him to go away. In these scenes Coppola makes the aphrodisiac function of rock music clearer than ever, and he creates a truly intense, only superficially comic mood of sexual nightmare that, unlike the rest of the movie, cannot be dismissed as merely larky. These moments are enough to confirm that Coppola is a director worth watching….

Stephen Farber, "Entertainments: 'You're a Big Boy Now'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1967 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XX, No. 4, Summer, 1967, p. 80.

Renata Adler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is something awfully depressing about seeing "Finian's Rainbow" this year this way….

It is not just that the musical is dated. Something lovely and nostalgic could have been made out of old Missitucky for the generation that grew up on "Finian's Rainbow" and "Brigadoon." It is that it has been done listlessly and even tastelessly, with quick updatings of Negro personalities to match what people who have lived in Beverly Hills too long must imagine modern black sensibilities are. The cast is full of children who act as artificially and insincerely as the whole enterprise, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, would suggest….

[The whole story] has just gone dim, as though nobody had troubled with it—hoping only to sell it to television as a family musical and get it over with.

Renata Adler, "'Finian's Rainbow'," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1968, p. 59.

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anyone who refused to abandon himself to the pleasure pure and simple of such films as French Cancan or Silk Stockings had better give Finian's Rainbow … a miss. Like Renoir with his rosily moonlit Butte de Montmartre, or Mamoulian with his Paris which loves lovers, Francis Ford Coppola has created a dream world, half-fact, half-fantasy, and all enchantment: a rural paradise reached by way of the Brooklyn Bridge, Mount Rushmore and the Mississippi riverboats, but unquestionably at the end of the rainbow in a never-never America where true love and simple faith conquer all obstacles.

Schmaltz?… [The] point is that Finian's Rainbow is all of a piece, and like all the best musicals, transmits its feelings not by words or even deeds, but by movement. And the movement of the film is pure exhilaration, without trace of schmaltz or whimsy….

Movement, in fact, is quintessential to Finian's Rainbow (which is as it should be), not only in the musical numbers but in the whole structure of the film. Somehow Coppola manages to give the impression that his characters are not merely involved by ones, twos and threes in individual songs and dances, but are all caught up in one vast, informal musical number which is the film itself. His secret seems to lie partly in the way he choreographs the action beyond the limits of the frame, and partly in the impeccable rhythms of his curiously fragmented technique. (p. 43)

[There is] effortless choreographic flow and overall rhythm that hasn't been seen in the cinema since Summer Holiday and Silk Stockings—and allows one to hope that Coppola can and will take over the Mamoulian mantle….

Finian's Rainbow is a stunning piece of cinema. I loved every minute of it. (p. 44)

Tom Milne, "Film Reviews: 'Finian's Rainbow'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1968 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 43-4.

Stephen Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] cannot be quite coincidental that The Rain People … concerns a journey across America…. This film, like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, certainly depends for part of its meaning on American myths of freedom on the open road, our traditional belief in the journey away from civilization as a source of refreshment and renewal. The very first traveling shot of the countryside has an exhilarating sweep and romanticism; the land itself tempts us to believe that Natalie will find on her journey the insight into herself that will redeem her future. But The Rain People sees the general and the mythical through the individual. Although it contains a genuine responsiveness to some of...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If ever there was a great example of how the best popular movies come out of a merger of commerce and art, The Godfather is it. The movie starts from a trash novel that is generally considered gripping and compulsively readable, though (maybe because movies more than satisfy my appetite for trash) I found it unreadable…. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the film, and wrote the script with Puzo, has stayed very close to the book's greased-lightning sensationalism and yet has made a movie with the spaciousness and strength that popular novels such as Dickens' used to have…. Puzo's shameless turn-on probably left Coppola looser than if he had been dealing with a better book; he could not have been cramped by...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hurricane Marlon is sweeping the country, and I wish it were more than hot air. A tornado of praise—cover stories and huzzahs—blasts out the news that Brando is giving a marvelous performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather….

But from his opening line, with his back toward us, Brando betrays that he hasn't even got the man's voice under control. (p. 104)

Like star, like film. The keynote is inflation. Because the picture has so much of the commonplace, it escapes being called commonplace. In no important way is it any better than The Brotherhood (1968), on the same subject. (The word Mafia is never mentioned, but it doesn't need to be.) The Godfather was made from a big best-seller, a lot of money was spent on it, and it runs over three hours. Therefore it's significant.

We're getting the usual flood of comments that the Mafia is only mirror-image corporate capitalism. (All the killings in the film are said to be "business, not personal.") These high-school analogies ignore, among other things, the origins of the Mafia and its blood-bonds of loyalty, which have nothing to do with capitalism. Almost every one in The Godfather is either a murderer or an accessory, so its moral center depends on inner consistency and on implicit contrast with non-murdering citizens around it. As the picture winds on and on, episode after episode, its only real change is the Mafia's shift from "nice" gambling and prostitution to take on "dirty" narcotics. (Time, the late 1940's.) Well, I suppose everything's going to hell, even the morality of the Mafia, but the picture certainly takes a long, long time to get there. (p. 105)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Godfather'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 166, No. 14, April 1, 1972), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 104-05.

Robert Hatch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among other things, The Godfather is a strongly nostalgic film. Its period is post-World War II, but its flavor is of at least a decade earlier—it is a "big" picture, a Hollywood extravaganza of the sort that used to bring out the truck-mounted searchlights on opening night and the stars fluttering from autograph book to autograph book….

But that said, the success of The Godfather is deplorable, if you believe that popular entertainment both reflects and modifies social morale. In a sentence, the picture forces you to take sides, to form allegiances, in a situation that is totally without moral substance….

The authors of this film would say that they do not...

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William S. Pechter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Godfather is an incontrovertible demonstration of the continued vitality and artistic power of two things in films whose resources had increasingly been thought to be exhausted: of densely plotted, linear narrative, and of naturalism—social observation and the accumulation of authenticating detail—as a method. And it possesses, moreover, that special excitement and authority available to a film which is both a work of artistic seriousness and one of truly popular appeal, a mass entertainment made without pandering or condescension.

The Godfather is all these things and more, with such immense skill and assurance that I feel almost impatient with my own inability to enjoy it...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

Stephen Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Godfather Coppola has almost reconciled the artistic and commercial impulses in his work. It is a spectacular that isn't vulgar or overblown or contemptuous of the audience; on the contrary, it seems smaller than it is—always thoughtful, often intimate, with a depth of feeling in its portrait of Italian family life that must grow from understanding and firsthand experience. Coppola has not sacrificed the quiet perception that he brought to The Rain People, but this time he has a strong narrative line to give the film dramatic momentum.

Considering the limitations of the material, it is remarkable how much social commentary Coppola manages to introduce….


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Richard Schickel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. Coppola has neither a personal statement to make in You're a Big Boy Now nor a personal style in which to make it.] His story is a compendium of clichés partially disguised in fancy dress, and his style is an anthology of what used to be new among the avant-garde pussycats—tricks and gimmicks that have now been so thoroughly absorbed into film language that you can see them any night on the television commercials. (pp. 98-9)

To give this mess movement, Mr. Coppola relies very heavily on shots of people running through the streets…. Sometimes people run around for no reason at all—they just run, run, run to demonstrate what free spirits some of the younger characters would be if the...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Jonathan P. Latimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world of The Godfather is one is in which the cruelties, the excesses, the vices of the "family" are legitimized, and, in almost every case, imbued with the sanction of moral necessity. Rather than subverting the common morality, this film supports all the traditional sanctions of our society; honor, love, support of family, and worldly success through competition. The film is so constructed that we are not even allowed to consider the true nature of the Corleone's business. (p. 205)

And, most important, there are no victims! We are never allowed to see the real human cost of the family business. We see no prostitutes, no junkies, no victims of extortion, or robbery; none of the actual...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

David Denby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Conversation is remarkably ambitious and serious—a Hitchcockian thriller, a first-rate psychological portrait of a distinctive modern villain (a professional eavesdropper) and a bitter attack on American business values, all in one movie. I feel that Coppola has partially botched the thriller, but the film is a triumph none the less—gritty, complex, idiosyncratic….

The Conversation, which is about a man rather like Watergate bugger James McCord, profits from the great American national uproar over privacy and illegal surveillance. But Coppola claims that he began writing the screenplay for The Conversation in 1966, years before such things became national issues, so let...

(The entire section is 1436 words.)

William S. Pechter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Conversation calls strongly to mind] Antonioni's 1966 film, Blow-Up. Though this is most obvious in the actual "blow-up" (i.e., tape-deciphering) sequence itself, the resemblance extends from the painterly look of the film (some of the shots in Harry's apartment have an almost Vermeer-like quality of sculptured light) to such small details as the appearance of a mime in the opening sequence who seems to constitute a quite pointed reference to the mimes whose appearances bracket the action of the Antonioni film. Indeed, the resemblance extends even to the overall design of the two films: in both, a protagonist, through some means of mechanical reproduction, uncovers a mystery, and in both an...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

Fred Kaplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Much of The Conversation] is very well-made…. There is, of course, no James Bond glamour, and yet Coppola also manages not to show off his sense of realism in any ostentatious manner. It is understated, subtle and at times probing.

But when he starts in with the whodunit nonsense, the whole film begins to fall apart. Replacing the cool intellectual detachment, there emerges a frenetic paranoia wildly hopping about….

In the most crucial spots, in fact, The Conversation is muddle-headed, phony and cheap. Muddle-headed because although Coppola appears, at times, to say that Harry Caul is responsible for his actions and their consequences, we see, at the conclusion,...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The daring of ["The Godfather, Part II"] is that it enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the first film; "The Godfather" was the greatest gangster picture ever made, and had metaphorical overtones that took it far beyond the gangster genre. In Part II, the wider themes are no longer merely implied. The second film shows the consequences of the actions in the first; it's all one movie, in two great big pieces, and it comes together in your head while you watch. Coppola might almost have a pact with the audience; we're already so engrossed in the Corleones that now he can go on to give us a more interior view of the characters at the same time that he shows their spreading social influence. The completed work...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Godfather, Part II] strikes me as better than its predecessor, though this is lukewarm praise at best….

Better an honest gangster than a crooked politician, [The Godfather, Part II] is saying, as if those were the only possible choices.

Repellent as these stances are, they at least occupy the mind that tries to oppose them. There was nothing to think about in The Godfather except when, of what sort, and how big the next bloodletting will be. Here there is less bloodshed, more scheming and counter-scheming, which is more interesting. (p. 31)

However, the final argument in favor of Part II is that it is better made, of sounder workmanship....

(The entire section is 321 words.)

John Yates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Godfather, Parts I and II, are at their deepest level a brilliant revelation of the family, how it worked through the generations, and how it now falls apart. In Part I Coppola and his actors create a real, living, breathing world. Coppola presents his world with what Pauline Kael calls an open camera; everything is shown, the detail is absolutely convincing, and it is convincing because the viewer is allowed to take it all in naturally, without comment by the director. Watching the movie, you know that this is how life is. The director reveals, he does not preach.

Coppola reveals a family, in that first grand scene of Part I, engaged in the most familial of rituals, a...

(The entire section is 907 words.)

David Denby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Corleones were portrayed—at least in the first half of The Godfather]—as a model of health, yes, as happy monsters whose violent behavior emerged from a high appetite for life as much as from the family's peculiar way of doing business. The ambivalence was morally audacious for a popular movie, and it's a mark of Coppola's skill that he got almost everyone to accept it. By the time Michael Corleone shoots his father's enemies in the restaurant scene, Coppola had most of us where he wanted us; the hair-raising use of conventional narrative techniques secured our acquiescence and complicity. With an awed laugh, directed at ourselves as much as the screen, we accepted the notion that Michael's violence...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

James W. Palmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is a perplexing film about a wiretapper named Harry Caul who becomes involved in a murder. Harry is less a character in the traditional sense than he is a symbol or cipher for modern man immersed in a technological society that undermines human values and thwarts human needs. As a technician in this dehumanizing environment, Harry seems unwilling or unable to relate to people or to take the moral action necessary to change his life or even save the lives of others. Hired by the director of an unnamed corporation, Harry tapes a conversation between the director's wife and her lover. Although this conversation forces Harry to see the terrifying consequences of his work, he...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)

Stanley J. Solomon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Coppola's insight into the [crime film] genre reveals itself in his handling of the film's structure, which features a gallery of criminal types with wit, charm, courage, and heroic stature (who never change or develop)—an achievement that can only by accomplished by limiting the film's sphere of life to the criminal element. Coppola certainly understood that if the world of crime obtruded into the realm of society's ordinary activities—if, for instance, the general citizenry were shot at—ordinary moral concerns would dominate our relationship to the figures in the film. But The Godfather is populated only by criminals and their relatives or by people corrupt enough to belong to their world…. The...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Robert K. Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first of the seven films [Coppola] has directed, Dementia 13, is not a horror-film classic nor an embarrassment. It has some thoroughly effective sequences, and it has some bland or belabored scenes. Basically, the photography is adequate; the acting, pedestrian; and the dialogue, functional. The film is only of any special interest because it is the first full-length film that Coppola directed.

With regard to what have been called his "personal" films, You're A Big Boy Now, The Rain People, and The Conversation, the first is by far the best. The pace of both The Rain People and The Conversation is too slow. The stylistic shuttlings in The Conversation...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)

David Denby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Apocalypse Now is about Americans in Vietnam, and its themes are the perversion of the natural by the technological and the eerily sensuous beauty of war, in which the nightmarish all too easily becomes commonplace.

The images are not intended to be totally subjective or surreal; they are meant to illustrate the very real stages of demoralization—the rituals of defilement—that marked America's self-destruction in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now feels like one of those doom-laden pieces by the Grateful Dead that go on forever in a spreading luxuriousness of panic and dismay, leaving a residue of anxiety in your stomach while making you high at the same time. It's a two-and-a-half-hour...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For] all of Coppola's emotional involvement in [Apocalypse Now], it is a remarkably cold film. Coppola undoubtedly felt strongly about the Vietnamese War, but the vehicle for his feelings is constructed in such a way that none of the characters can project them. Hence, the characters tend to be either animated cartoons (vide Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore) or ciphers (Brando's shadowy Kurtz)….

[If] two-thirds of the film are great, and one-third problematical, is not Apocalypse Now superior to most other movies? Of course it is. Certainly it is better than Alien or Moonraker or The Amityville Horror or Meatballs or The In-Laws or...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Veronica Geng

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Viewed as a conventional updating of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" … "Apocalypse Now" looks like not much more than a cannibalization. For better and for worse, the movie confirms the idea that a work of art consists of local particulars. To use somebody else's work of art as a skeleton, you first have to turn it into a skeleton. Where "Apocalypse Now" is least successful (the last half hour), it seems to have been made by people who have read Conrad with their teeth. Where it is amazingly successful (the first two hours), it takes least from Conrad—or, rather, it takes subtly and delicately, for form and inspiration…. The movie is inconclusive not in the sense that it is meaningless but in the sense that...

(The entire section is 893 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Apocalypse Now] ends in a welter of bathos that has to be seen to be believed, and that weighs down the whole work with its mournful freight of clutching, unappeasable ambition. But the film holds together well enough until it reaches its final muddle, and it has scenes and moments unequaled in recent European or American movies. Indeed, it has one long sequence so right and so powerful that it actually causes the confusion of the end, since it leaves Coppola with nothing to say. He cannot discover the promised "heart of darkness" in the murk of his conclusion, because he stumbled across it much earlier—earlier in the finished film and in the shooting—on a bright, noisy beach strewn with soldiers and...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

John Tessitore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toward the end of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," the camera casually, almost randomly, roams across a disheveled hut, passing a small number of scattered books lying in such a way as to suggest recent usage. One of these books is Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough." It is no accident. Indeed, this book holds the key to understanding the conclusion of the film that has baffled—and annoyed—most critics and will very likely be unsettling a number of moviegoers now that "Apocalypse Now" is entering general distribution….

If, as most critics have done, we look to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" for the answer, we will be … disappointed. True, the film does rely upon Conrad's novella for...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

James Monaco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Godfather is arguably the most important American film of the 1970s (especially if both parts are considered together) not only because it struck a deep, mythic chord in most Americans, but also because it demonstrated clearly that a highly popular film need not be superficial, that art and commerce need not be antithetical. (pp. 339-40)

Coppola is by no means a filmmaker, the way Cassavetes and Altman are. He makes movies, and thus we tend not to pay attention to his mise en scène. We shouldn't. He obviously wants us to concentrate on the mythic dimensions of his movies, not their cinematography and montage, not even their acting. Nevertheless, as a cinéaste Coppola can hold his...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Michael Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Apocalypse Now seeks less to meditate on the war and more to plunge us as viscerally into it as any movie possibly can. Structurally, it is a river movie the way Easy Rider is a road movie, a succession of events and set-pieces. The characters are quite simple; apart from Willard and Kurtz, hardly any register for more than a sequence….

The shot of the chopper in the tree quotes from a similar image in Aguirre, Wrath of God, a boat high above the river which looks like a mirage to the conquistadors. Visually—with its concentration on the immensity of the jungle, the strangeness and the intermittence of riverbank existence, the textures of the water, pristine vistas of...

(The entire section is 1355 words.)