“You look terrible. I want you to eat, I want you to rest well. And a month from now this Hollywood big shot’s gonna give you what you want.”
The Hollywood big shot has just given me what I want. Paramount releases The Godfather Trilogy on UHD Blu-ray in wonderful 4K. It’s an offer none of us can refuse. The Godfather films changed storytelling forever. Films before that time, mobster or otherwise, had some very simple but unshakable rules. There was always a fairly clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys always win in the end, and the bad guys always succumb to justice before the final credits. For perhaps the very first time, we were given characters that we knew in our souls were evil men. They killed. They broke laws. They manipulated everyone around them through fear and terrorism to bend to their wills. Somehow, now they are the film’s core heroes, if you will. When Vito is shot, we cheer for Michael, who discards his contempt for his family’s criminal image and comes to his father’s aid. Suddenly this wasn’t just about a gang of mobsters. This was a story about a family. Most of us can’t relate to the mafia ins and outs, but we all have fathers, and even when we dislike what our fathers represent, we will more often than not come to their aid if they’re being threatened. This unique morality paved the way for an entire genre of such characters today. There just couldn’t have been a Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey without The Godfather. While there were certainly protests from aspects of the Italian-American community decrying the violent way our ethnicity was portrayed, most of us from that community saw more than violence and Mafioso. If you’re from an Italian family, you simply can’t help recognizing aspects of your own family in the Corleones. I could see my own grandfather in Vito, sans the mob boss occupation. Many of us took away the strict codes of honor and respect that drive Italian-Americans to this day in very normal lives. We’re a very passionate people, even if most of us are not part of an organized criminal element.
I’m not going to waste any time here taking you through the Godfather Saga. Even if you’ve never seen any of these films, and I can’t imagine anyone hasn’t, you know the story and characters almost as much as if you had. For those of us who have seen these films, it has likely been an experience you have never forgotten. They are like potato chips in that you cannot have watched them just a single time. For us these films are more than merely films. They are memories that we share as a culture. They have surely become a part of American mythology, as much as Homer’s tales of conquering heroes and mighty gods were for the ancient Greeks. We know the names of the Corleones as well as any of Shakespeare’s characters. We’ve quoted these films as much as anything short of the Bible itself. It is entirely outside of the realm of possibility, for me at least, to imagine American culture without them. While the films are over 30 years old, they still shape our films and literature today. What television series hasn’t done a spoof of The Godfather? Phrases like: “An offer you can’t refuse”, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”, or “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” appear everywhere around us.
After 50 years of use and neglect, the remaining negatives of the film were getting badly degraded. There was not only the physical stress of multiuse, but the natural process of age on the chemicals themselves. Dirt and scratches combined with too many splices led to disastrously damaged frames. Time and dubs caused the color to change over the years along with the film’s sharpness. Paramount appeared willing to allow the film to fade away, literally. When Steven Spielberg joined Paramount through the acquisition of his Dreamworks company, Francis Ford Coppola made an appeal to Spielberg to use his newly found clout with Paramount to influence them to spend the money to restore the film. Like Don Vito himself, it appears no one turns down Don Spielberg, and the restoration was underway. Here is where a very vital decision had to be made. Would the restoration team resort to pressure from members of the modern movie audience and create a new, shiny piece of film that conforms to the current digital inspired standards of filmmaking? The technology existed now to almost remake the films. Use of color correction could create a more realistic and brighter looking film. Almost every speck of grain could be washed away like waves on a beach after a storm. Technology always begs a larger question. Just because we can do a thing, does that mean we always should? Fortunately the correct decision was made. The restoration team went to the original persons responsible for the look of the film. They consulted Coppola and cinematographer extraordinaire Gordon Willis. Willis had filmed the movie quite dark in places. He was breaking the standards of moviemaking for the time and took precautions with the processing to ensure the film could not be processed in a way that overrode his preferences. What he couldn’t have seen coming then, or prepare himself for even if he had, was the dawn of computers. Now each film was carefully put together from the best elements available and scanned into a computer at 4K. What that means is that each frame was built from 4,096 pixels per line by 3,112 lines of resolution. This is almost exactly the resolution of 35mm film itself, and about 40 times the resolution of standard television. The result is absolutely magical. That was 2007. As the first film approached the 50th anniversary and with the dawn of new 4K discs and televisions there was a chance to do something rarely done even these days. Would Paramount spring for yet another detailed, painstaking restoration? The discovery of even more original elements appeared to tip the scales in favor of such a project. It started with Coppola’s desire to release the third film in a manner closer to what he and Mario Puzo intended. That release happened last year and set in motion and even more detailed restoration of the entire trilogy, one worthy of a 4K release and taking advantage of the HDR technology that would make this the most extensive restoration of a film ever attempted. The result is a wonder to be seen and heard.
I know there will be those of you who will disagree with me. You’ll complain about scenes being too dark and about grain elements. I suggest you look up the word “restore”. This team did exactly what it was supposed to do. The recreated an image as close as possible to what it originally looked like when viewed from a pristine print when the film was released. This is exactly what I wanted, while fearing for the worst. There must have been some pressure or temptation to attempt to “improve” upon the original. To consider such an option is sacrilegious and would have borne the contempt of every “true” film aficionado around the world. Filmmakers choose film stock and equipment for very specific reasons. Directors and cinematographers devote a good deal of time to every nuance in framing, lighting, and focus to create not only the image they want, but to capture the atmosphere and emotion they want from any particular scene. Nowhere has this been more true than for the Godfather films. There’s a reason why most American film classes include one or two of these films as required viewing for the filmmakers of the future. Thank you, Paramount, and everyone on the restoration team for tirelessly bringing these films back to life as they once were.
We get both versions of the third film in the series. The UHD Blu-ray disc of the theatrical cut of the film is included as a “bonus” disc. The disc included as part of this trilogy is the newer Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone which was released on Blu-ray just last year. Here’s all you want to know about that cut of the film:
“Our true enemy has yet to reveal himself.”
If anything, the third part of the Godfather series of films is symbolic of when too many sequels are greenlighted, and consequently, the film is doomed to fail. More often than not, the reason why these films crash and burn is because of major studios acting like Adelphia executives and wanting more money, and in using the previous films’ successes as leverage, they lose sight of things like quality. It’s happened to other trilogies. And if you put together previous films with the reputation that the first two Godfather films have, the only question left to answer is whether or not the third film would be a minor or major letdown. Most of the essential players returned, with the exception of Robert Duvall. (Duvall said Francis Ford Coppola never really negotiated with him, while Coppola says that Duvall asked for more money, so who knows?) Mario Puzo helped out with another part of the story, so why did this film not live up to the hype?
Francis Ford Coppola thinks he knows why the film failed. He claims that it was never intended to be a third part of the story but merely a coda to the franchise. That’s where the title of this re-mastered and re-edited version of the film fits in. Coppola claims that Puzo and himself had always wanted the film to be called The Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone. The studio insisted on the version, and title that was released in 1990, and that’s why it failed. The purpose was merely misunderstood. Now I’ve watched the re-edit, and while it does improve the film a bit, all of the issues remain.
Well, this is by no means a slap to Coppola and Puzo, but the story was too nostalgic. A good portion of the film was told with clips from the other movies. While understandable, it didn’t address some of the performances from the cast. Pacino’s performance was pretty good and more subtle than I first remembered, and Andy Garcia’s role as Vincent (Sonny’s bastard child) still stands up after these years too. Talia Shire as Connie clearly is the evil mastermind behind a lot of the Corleones’ present activities in an underappreciated performance. And in considering the evolution of her character from Part 1 to Part 3, her transformation was a little more gradual, but on par with Michael’s. Shire definitely deserves more praise than she got in this series. On to the bigger question: did Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter Mary really stink up the joint in this film? Of course she did. As long as she remains, the film will never match that of the first two. Her 30-year career following this film sure proves the point. She wisely left acting and went into directing and producing. Filmmaking is in her genes. Acting maybe not so much, Nicolas Cage and Talia Shire exempted, of course.
So what does change, you ask? The beginning is completely reworked. Gone, at least for the most part, is the long-winded letter from Michael to his children. That means the killing of Fredo is also no longer included in the film. Instead the film does wisely begin with Michael’s meeting with the archbishop to donate $6 million for their share in the big international conglomerate. That serves two very fine purposes. Firstly, it takes us into the real meat of the story from the start. Secondly, it marries it much better to the first two films. Who can forget that Godfather opening where Brando is being asked for favors? It happens again in Part II with the senator. Now this film opens with Michael posing much like Brando, listening to the archbishop’s story. There’s no question this was a very strong change. The rest not so much. Because a lot of the intro is cut, we meet Andy Garcia as Vincent sooner, and again we get to those important elements with some swift pacing. The rest is just a few different takes or edits. The music cues change, some for the better, most unnoticeable. I like that there are now subtitles during Tony’s playing and singing the main theme. Now we know the song’s meaning, and it makes for some better understanding. Of course, even the stronger intro isn’t as effective for me, because I already have it ingrained the original way. I would have loved to have seen this film for the first time with the new intro. The changed ending is disappointing. We still see aged Michael in his chair futzing with his sunglasses, but we no longer see him die. Instead a quote is placed on the screen that’s much worse than the original ending. We go all this way to call this thing The Death Of Michael Corleone, except now we don’t see him actually die. Sorry, Francis. I give you tons of props for the new beginning, but a big fat zero for the new ending.
Each film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 50 mbps but often going much higher. Both the original 35mm sources and the restoration intermediates are all native 4K, so there’s nothing being upconverted here. As I’ve already indicated, I am happy the grain of the film survives. There was a bit of an uproar from mostly younger audiences about what they considered noise on the film, particularly that iconic opening shot on the first film. That’s not noise, people; that’s called film. The uproar took Paramount by surprise and caused them to make a huge mistake when they released Gladiator on Blu-ray. They put that film through extensive DNR and created the kind of “modern” glossy film they thought the public demanded. The backlash from true film fans caused them to go back and redo the master, retaining the grain and offering it as a replacement disc. It’s good to see the lesson remained. Now the grain in that shot has been cleaned ever so slightly, but it’s still prominent, and I’m happy with the result. The HDR here works in so many ways. The nice sepia temperature of the film remains, while detail has been improved as well as the soft focus of some background material particularly at the first film’s wedding scene. The increase in contrast that offers many more levels of shadow definition also brings out some of that wonderful shadow cinematography. Now Brando’s face is fully lit, while the eyes remain shadowed as was always intended. It’s a haunting effect that was one of the best uses of lighting I can recall. All of that returns in ways only original filmgoers can truly appreciate. Colors are dated and truly products of the film stock, and all of that reproduces nicely here. All of these things are wonderful, but it’s the wonderful detail here that reminds us just how good these performances and the production designs truly were. My Fair Lady still remains the best UHD image I have yet to encounter, but much of that comes from 70mm film sources. It makes me wish I could go back in time and get Coppola to use 70mm on these films. But I doubt future generations will see much if any improvement over what you’ll get here.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio tracks deliver in ways you simply have to hear to believe. I was glad that there wasn’t an effort to create an overly aggressive surround mixes, since that’s not the way the films were released. Most of it happens up front, and that suits me just fine. Dialog is fine and always perfectly placed. What makes this a winner is the presentation of the fabulous scores. From the first trumpet theme to the delicate strings of the closing credits, the music shines throughout the trilogy as powerfully as ever.
The UHD discs contain just the film’s and any original audio commentaries. One UHD bonus disc contains the theatrical cut of Part II, and a Blu-ray disc contains a mix of new and archived features. Here is a list of what’s new here.
Full Circle – Presenting The Godfather: (16:21) This feature gives us a nice look at the restoration process. They compare images with the 2007 restoration and talk about what elements were since discovered and offer a look at the condition of much of the source material. Plenty of restoration participants offer their input into the process.
Capturing The Corleones Through The Lens Of Photographer Steve Shapiro: (13:21) Steve Shapiro was a photographer from Life magazine. He approached Paramount with the proposition that they would grant him access to photograph on the set of the first film if Life gave them the cover, which they had never before promised even when requested by Frank Sinatra. Shapiro got them to make the deal, and this feature is on those photo sessions with plenty of samples described by Shapiro.
The Godfather Home Movies: (9:08) When I was a kid growing up in an Italian family, many would joke that they were going to screen home movies and refer to The Godfather. Well … there were silent 8mm films taken on the set of the film, and you get to see them here. I looked and looked but couldn’t see anyone from my family there.
Restoration Comparisons: You get to see two scenes side by side with the 2007 restoration and also original elements. Most of this is covered in the restoration feature.
I own the Godfather films in all of their home video formats. I have the old CED video discs, Laserdisc, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and now the UHD (4K) version of the film. As much as I’ve enjoyed these films over and over again, it’s almost as much fun to look at the evolution of home entertainment with these films. The first wide version was the CED release. The laser was only the trilogy presented in chronological order as it was done on television. It was full-frame but included many of the deleted scenes incorporated back into the film. I’ve also seen them in the movies. Except for III, I was too young to remember the nuances of the films from those early 1970’s release dates. All I remember is that I fell in love with them then and have continued to treasure them today. This UHD Blu-ray release is everything I could have hoped for, and so much more. Perhaps one day the technology will exist, and these films will look even better than they do now without compromising the original films. I’m not holding my breath. You need to get them now. If you don’t have a UHD Blu-ray player, now you have a reason to own one. Yes, they may look better someday., “Someday, and that day may never come …”