Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone
*½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras D
starring Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia
written by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
directed by Francis Ford Coppola
by Bill Chambers I wasn't a fan of 2019's Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, but I'm OK with it existing because Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola's Great American Novel, and I don't think he'll ever truly finish writing it. I don't care that he recut The Cotton Club, either, especially since his intentions with that one were to give the movie back to its Black performers, who got marginalized in the theatrical version of a film designed to celebrate the Roaring Twenties from inside the Harlem jazz scene. And I enjoyed the bloat of The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, though I'm bummed it knocked the original cut out of circulation--the real scourge of these variant editions. Alas, The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (hereafter Coda), Coppola's shortened remix of the famously flawed conclusion to the Godfather trilogy, finally tested my patience for his compulsive tinkering. The Godfather Part III's problems were always foundational, the result of a studio's impatience and parsimony and a filmmaker's baffling interpolation of his own dynasty into the fictional one he helped create, and these are bells that can't be un-rung. To believe that a new edit was the magic bullet is to blame the heroic Walter Murch--who discovered the movie hiding in The Conversation's hot mess of footage back in the day--for the picture's shortcomings. (Patently absurd, in other words.) It's interesting to me that in 1991, The Godfather Part III was upgraded to a so-called "Final Director's Cut" in which Coppola and Murch tried to solve the issue of too much Sofia Coppola by adding more of her, reinstating most notably a rooftop heart-to-heart between Michael (Al Pacino) and Mary Corleone (Sofia) that resurfaces in an abridged form in Coda. (Sadly, the 170-minute Final Director's Cut permanently resigned the 162-minute theatrical cut to the dustbin of history.) Sans Murch, Coppola sentimentally snips a few of Sofia's more girlish line readings, as if it's not too late to spare her from ridicule--as if those weren't the endearing parts of her uncomfortable performance.
Coda is the shortest Godfather instalment at 158 minutes, an epic fail if an epic at all. The Godfather Part III rarely matched its predecessors' gravitas, yet it does recapture the unique timbre of a Godfather movie, honouring the saga's preoccupation with customs and rituals. Coda immediately disturbs that frequency by launching with Michael and Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) discussing the terms of entrusting the Vatican with the Corleone family fortune. One wonders how this movie would play to first-time viewers being confronted with a radically different image of Michael at the outset, minus the contextualizing elements of his voiceover (gone), the montage of old haunts from the prequels (gone), the chyron identifying the year as 1979 (gone), or the pan across the photos on Michael's desk charting the interim maturation of his son and daughter (gone). Michael's papal ceremony, i.e., the reason for the opening party sequence? Gone. (Now the Corleone clan has reunited from miles around to celebrate Michael, er, depositing money in a bank account.) The plot kicks in faster, I guess, but much of the traditional stage setting so vital to these films' seductive power is fatally pre-empted or missing altogether. Just making one of these shorter is counterintuitive enough, but building a teaser into their elephantine presentation further reduces them to television.
That said, because Coppola has framed Coda as a restoration of his and co-writer Mario Puzo's original intentions, I got curious and looked up their 133-page first-draft screenplay of The Godfather Part III. (They may have had the idea to call it a coda and "The Death of Michael Corleone" back then, as Coppola claims, but none of this is reflected on the title page.) Sure enough, there's Michael with the Archbishop on page one, just like in Coda. Obviously somewhere along the line, they rethought the movie's structure, and a big part of the problem with this revised prologue is that it wasn't designed to be an introduction. It isn't simply TV by nature, it's TV in technique, a scene that needed nothing more elaborate as a mid-film exposition dump than a cutaway to the exterior of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral to establish a change of location--the same way "Seinfeld" scenes begin with a stock shot of Monk's Café or Jerry's apartment building. As a follow-up to the gradual reveal of Vito Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather and the text recounting Vito's origin story against the backdrop of a funeral procession in the Sicilian countryside that opens The Godfather Part II, however, this measly cut from a church façade to an over-the-shoulder shot of the Archbishop talking is pitifully basic--whether or not the first line of Coda ("Don Corleone, I need your help") now echoes the mortician's plea at the start of The Godfather, as some critics have smartly observed. Thanks, I hate it, as the kids say.
"Innovation" in the technical and creative sense has long defined Coppola's brand of auteurism (his earliest professional gigs had him refashioning obscure foreign titles into exploitation flicks for the American market). In 2011, he embarked on a new type of cinema with his gothic horror Twixt that would see directors recutting their films on the fly as a form of live entertainment, so that no two audiences would experience the same movie. Coppola envisioned himself touring the globe with a full orchestra in tow until a glitch-filled Comic-Con demonstration of the concept took the wind out of his sails, convincing him to release Twixt as a straight-ahead narrative feature with only a couple of 3-D sequences to distinguish it. Is it a coincidence that the Director's Cuts ramped up soon after? They would seem to satisfy a deconstructive urge, but 30 years of The Godfather Part III being a cultural punchline was bound to skew that impulse towards destruction and cloud the preservationist instinct. (See: George Lucas doing the Ewoks dirty by snipping "Yub Nub" from Return of the Jedi's "Special Edition.") Some 363 (!) changes were made for Coda, few of which, admittedly, alter the meaning of scenes or disturb the picture's pacing despite their irreverence. Who's gonna miss the prelude to Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) advising Michael of his former business partners' dissatisfaction ("As your family's oldest friend, I am always chosen to bring you messages")? Or Michael's reply ("Tell me, Don Altobello")? Get to the point, mafia dudes. Except that when it comes to The Godfather, this rigidly courteous code of conduct among dangerously powerful men is the point--the core irony that drives these violent sagas and a primary target of any attempt to satirize them, proving how essential it is. I'm reminded of Robert Evans objecting to a shortened version of The Godfather that removed all its texture. "Where's the sauce, Francis?" he asked. He meant it literally as well as figuratively; the film had ceased to evoke the milieu it depicted. Technically, you could streamline any of the Godfathers into normal-length movies and be left with something coherent, but you'd be turning them into "content."
A good friend of mine--the same one I went to see The Godfather Part III with on Boxing Day in 1990--also found Coda comparatively wanting but appreciated the confirmation that Gotti-esque Joey Zaza (Joe Mantegna, who still briefly steals the film from its heavy-hitters) was involved in the Atlantic City shooting, and he didn't miss Connie (Talia Shire) and Al Neri (Richard Bright, a series MVP) somewhat gratuitously OK'ing the inevitable retaliation. I would add, although it's harder to argue, that clarity is a minor virtue in Godfather-land--byzantine plotting and inscrutable character motivations never stood in the way of The Godfather Part II's canonization, after all. It's true that Coda isn't the Ecce homo of Director's Cutsi, but it similarly "improves" a work that wasn't really built to last and the changes are likewise tantamount to graffiti. When Connie shrieks, "No, it's his diabetes!" in a new overdub as Michael has a seizure, it's gratuitous, not to mention coddling, in a way that is beneath this franchise. It certainly doesn't rectify the movie's casting woes, from the absence of Robert Duvall (Paramount lowballed him) to the campiness of his replacement (George...wait for it...Hamilton), to the awkwardness of Sofia Coppola taking over for an ailing Winona Ryder, which lent a distinctive Freudian tang to an already peculiar incest subplot involving Mary's romance with cousin Vincent (Andy Garcia), Sonny's illegitimate son/Michael's nephew.
Indeed, the failure of The Godfather Part III may come down to Coppola co-opting the Corleones for his own autobiographical purposes. "Traditionally, some of the best American films have been studio assignments that the director has managed to penetrate with his own personality and artistic interests--they aren't personal films but films that have been made personal," Dave Kehr wrote in a 1983 review of Valley Girl. That's what made The Godfather and its first sequel so special. The material harmonized with Coppola's ethnicity, his devotion to family and flair for the grandiose and, in the case of The Godfather Part II, his iconoclastic reflex, twice yielding that prize commercial beast: the soulful blockbuster.ii But in The Godfather Part III, there ceased to be a separation between church and state, if you will. It's why, I suspect, everyone from Diane Keaton to makeup legend Dick Smithiii opposed Michael's brush-cut: it completed the character's castration; the "empty shell, insecure and merciless" Ebert describes in his 2008 review of The Godfather Part II became a cuddly patriarch reminiscent of his author. Grief-struck at the time and no doubt forever by the death of his son Gian-Carlo (or "Gio"), Coppola retooled the movie's ending late in pre-production to have Mary die instead of Michael--the loss of a child being a fate worse than death. Coppola, then, portrays the on-screen demise of another of his children to allegorize the death of his son and her brother--although some would say the ritual sacrifice of Sofia Coppola commenced in earnest with the release of the film. This is undoubtedly why Coda often feels like it's making amends, going so far as to delete Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) and Kay (Keaton) from the closing flashback of Michael dancing with the women in his life, leaving Mary as the only one who mattered. It could also be why Michael, unlike in The Godfather Part III, doesn't physically die in Coda: to stop letting him off the hook. Poetic but, you'll agree, perverse in a movie suddenly subtitled The Death of Michael Corleone.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Paramount brings The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone to Blu-ray on a bare-bones platter without any option to view the other cuts. This is disappointing in that Coppola's efforts to restore the picture's original palette and aspect ratio do not extend beyond Coda. In an A/B comparison with the 2008 BD, the 1.85:1 aspect ratio reveals extra slivers of information on both the left and right sides of the frame while shaving a slight amount off the bottom, and the colour grade abandons the cinnamon cast that was applied all those years ago to align The Godfather Part III visually with Robert A. Harris's restoration work on the first two films. The 1080p presentation is rich in gold tones, with crimson accents that really pop. Contrasts are revitalized, though the drop-off to black is noticeably steeper and the most intense highlights tend to clip. In motion, the image is gratifyingly filmic, supported by a tight albeit unyielding grain structure. As a transfer alone, Coda absolutely transported me back to 1990. The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track of the previous disc seems to have been retrofitted for this redux, and I suspect that 70mm six-track prints of The Godfather Part III served as the source of the mix proper, which gathers with the power of a storm during the major set-pieces (the hotel attack, the street festival, the opera climax) and more often than not boasts an immersiveness unusual for a movie of this vintage. That's Walter Murch for ya. An unexpectedly gaunt Coppola provides an optional 1-minute-and-31-second video introduction wherein he says he believes Coda "does in fact act as a coda to the first two films, a summing up, almost an illumination, of what [The Godfather and The Godfather Part II] meant," a statement ultimately as true as it is false. Note that the credits are digitally generated this time around and the SDH captioning is still in that same fancy golden font used for the subtitled Italian dialogue. A voucher for a digital copy of The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is included in the keepcase.
158 minutes; R; 158 minutes; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French DD 5.1, Castilian Spanish DD 5.1, Latin Spanish DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, French SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Romanian, Hindi, Arabic, Korean, Simplified Mandarin, Traditional Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Paramount
i That would be John A. Russo's hate crime Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition.
ii Though not quite the box-office juggernaut the original was, The Godfather Part II won twice as many Oscars and outperformed every other Paramount picture that year (1974).
iii Smith walked off the production--which is why Pacino's makeup in the epilogue looks like they couldn't afford Dick Smith.