A Blu-ray We Can't Refuse: The Godfather Trilogy - The Coppola Restoration

"Film printing is really a contact sport."

That's a quote from Robert A. Harris, explaining how old film negatives accrue damage through lab handling. Harris and other film experts, in a featurette on The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration, give the clearest explanation yet of the nature of film restoration. And it's only one excellent mini-docu in a score of interesting short subjects and interactive extras. Paramount's four-disc Blu-ray set -- available Sept. 23 -- includes all three Godfather films in stunning, painstakingly restored new high-definition transfers that also deliver amazing Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtracks. It's the kind of release that will influence more home video enthusiasts to take the Blu-ray plunge. (The Coppola Restoration is also available Sept. 23 as a similarly superb set of four new DVDs. Official site.)

If you haven't spent the last 36 years in a coma, the Godfather films need little explanation. The original 1972 The Godfather helped Hollywood regroup after the industry confusion of the late 1960s. Francis Ford Coppola reaffirmed the power of classic Hollywood storytelling, adding epic touches from the operatic style of Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti. Coppola's film also jump-started the comatose gangster genre, dropping the old "crime exposé" format to instead deliver the message that power and violence are part and parcel of all business and politics. The commitment of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to the concept of Family humanizes the gangster as a character central to twentieth century American history.

If the first movie was the crowd-pleaser, The Godfather Part II is the work of art. Coppola and Mario Puzo reverse course to show the ruthless Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) grow cold and hard, destroying his Family's values in the process of preserving them. His line "We're all part of the same hypocrisy" is the key, because Michael isn't true to any of his vows. His real motive is revenge on all the mobsters that betrayed his father in Part 1. The second installment uses parallel flashbacks to contrast Michael's family situation in 1959 with that of his father (Robert de Niro) in 1919. Michael kills his own brother, freezing into the hateful monster his father never was.

The Godfather Part III interrupts the pattern to present a kinder, gentler Don. Michael Corleone has successfully left the rackets but cannot fully escape them. He tries to merge his finances with the Vatican, only to discover that elite European bankers -- and Vatican Bank officials -- behave just like gangsters. The picture works hard for resonance with the first two but bogs down in repetition and operatic overstatement, not to mention a literal opera. Godfather III takes place in 1979, a past more recent than when the first two movies came out. But it uses the same retro music, creating an awkward nostalgia for the future. The most disappointing change is that the third movie no longer trusts in the intelligence of the audience. Much of the dialogue is redundant exposition. Young Mary (Sophia Coppola) clearly believes a particular promise from Vincent (Andy Garcia), but we still hear her say, lamely: "I believe you." This happens constantly, as if storytelling with images was no longer practical. The movie entertains, but it can't quite recapture the spirit of the first two.

I've limited my film comments in order to devote more space to The Coppola Restoration's new high-def transfer and disc extras. With the help of digital technology, Coppola has rescued the damaged original elements of the three Godfather films, transferring them at a 4K bit rate and eliminated many flaws in the earlier video transfers. Often compromised for TV prints and home video releases, Willis's distinctive visual textures have been completely restored. Many scenes were filmed with very little light. Connie's big wedding scene was made to look like an old home movie, with burned-out whites.

Happily, the marketing hype is limited to an insert booklet, leaving Kim Aubrey's HD extras (located on a fourth Blu-ray disc) to examine the films in a critical light. The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't is an exemplary making-of chronicling The Godfather's highly unlikely path to the screen. Key background is given in excellent interviews with Walter Murch, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Peter Bart and Robert Evans, with additional input from other directors and actors. The beautifully organized docu touches on the difficulties of casting and production, comparing Coppola's ethnic vision with the portrayal of Italian-Americans in classic-era gangster pictures.

Marlon Brando in Paramount Pictures

Godfather World concerns itself with the film's legacy, using clips from shows like South Park and The Simpsons. David Chase is on hand to explain how his TV series The Sopranos couldn't have existed without the The Godfather. His characters frequently discuss and debate scenes from Coppola's movies.

Emulsional Rescue gets into the details of the restoration process, using well-chosen graphics and visual examples to simplify confusing concepts. When cameramen Gordon Willis and Allen Daviau explain how over-printing damaged parts of the film negatives, we see the actual reinforced splices that marred earlier transfers. Willis purposely under-lit the movie for a certain look, leaving a negative that doesn't duplicate well. We find out that the 4K scanning process was able to recover one major scene (the shooting of Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo) almost ruined by bad lab work back in 1971. Expert Robert A. Harris follows up nuggets of film wisdom like, "Added resolution is not the same as sharpness" with excellent explanations of the concepts involved. The insightful featurette is especially recommended for viewers uncomfortable with film technical talk.

When the Shooting Stopped isolates some great anecdotes from post-production, such as how Coppola cleverly retained control of the editing when the studio insisted on holding him to a contracted running time a little over two hours. Murch explains why the three-hour film has no intermission. He also remembers that the studio disliked Nino Rota's score so much that he had to re-engineer the music for the horse-head scene. Editor Richard Marks discusses the more experimental cutting in Godfather Part II, and Murch rationalizes his decision to drop the audio for Michael's screams at the end of Part III.

Three short films are orphaned interview bits; the best explains why Richard S. Castellano wasn't rehired to play Clemenza in the second movie. Godfather on the Red Carpet is a less interesting collection of comments from younger celebrities apparently taped at a preview of Cloverfield. Connie and Carlo's Wedding Album is a glossy presentation of photography from the Visconti-like wedding scene in Godfather #1.

The extras become exceptional again with The Family Tree and the Crime Organization Chart, interactive features that lay out the cast of characters for all three films using photos and pop-up info windows. The "Crime Rap Sheet" data on the second chart is especially helpful for keeping straight "Rivals and Associates" like the Tattaglias and Cittis. We need something like this for the books Dune and War and Peace!

The fourth disc also has room for all the extras from the 2001 special edition. This includes the Deleted Scenes, many of which were used for that old linear version of the first two movies assembled for network television. Scenes in 1919 New York resemble bits of D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley, while a cut episode from 1947 Sicily references communists and Salvatore Giuliano.

Francis Coppola's illuminating and effortlessly listenable commentaries for the three films have been retained as well.

Overall, this Blu-ray set has the best added value extras I've seen this year. Many new movies are burdened with puff pieces straight from the marketing department, while older classics are too often slighted with under-funded featurettes made on editorial assembly lines. Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is an exceptionally good Blu-ray release, and its extras elevate the stature of the disc supplement format.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant