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Christopher Miller on The Godfather

Christopher Miller watches films so that you don't have to.

Can something be prodigiously under-imagined? Mario Puzo, talking about the book The Godfather, said that he was writing "under his gifts" and the critical consensus has always been that Coppola redeemed him; that he spun gold out of the big bolt of unwieldy cloth that he was given.

I wonder, though. What kind of intelligence should a director have? Coppola is a craftsman. He has an eye for how light and camera angles tease out nuances of narrative. As Pauline Kael writes, the contrast between light and dark "is integral to the Catholic background of the characters: innocence versus knowledge – knowledge in this sense being the same as guilt." The opening of The Godfather is terrific. It starts with a close-up of a funeral director who is telling Don Corleone about the beating that his daughter suffered at the hands of some local thugs. It's like a Caravaggio: he's sitting in a blanket of darkness with a stark light playing upon his face, and it makes him look both battered and vulnerable. The camera pans slowly away from him, and you see the back of Don Corleone. He is part of the room, part of the dark, and, from this angle, he looks much bigger – much more substantial – than the poor man in front of him. It's perfect. The whole film's like this: darkness winning against the light. 

The performances, meanwhile, are great. Mostly. James Caan is all impulse and John Cazale's Fredo is so vividly present that he doesn't appear to be acting at all. Al Pacino's eyes become deader and deader, but he communicates this with such intensity that they still seem more alive than anyone else's. Brando, meanwhile... Well, it's tricky. In Last Tango In Paris he gives a performance that is so intense – there are so many tiny details – that you watch him with the same kind of fascination that you might watch a row of spinning plates. The trouble with this kind of acting, though, is that it's so self-involved. One wrong step and you topple over into empty mannerisms. This, I think, is what happens in The Godfather. He all-but revolves there. He seems to be savouring himself to such an extent that the film has to wait for him to catch up.

Still, it looks amazing. This is Coppola's forte, I think. (Watching Apocalypse Now for the second time, I started to think that it was really just the world's largest firework display.) The score by Nino Rota is poured, like honey, over everything. The pacing is carefully considered. But that doesn't mean that the script is anything but nondescript. Pictorially, Coppola creates an entire world but if you listen to the dialogue – if you really listen to it, speech by speech – you start to realise that it's under-imagined. It doesn't take you anywhere unexpected, and I don't mean by this that it's an old film and that there have been hundreds of gangster epics since then. I mean that there isn't a single character who isn't simply an expression of his or her predicament. This is a long-standing bugbear of mine but I do genuinely think that it tethers the film and I think that, in the end, the whole thing feels almost dutifully old-fashioned. Watching early Scorsese doesn't feel like this but Scorsese is (or was) a visionary and Coppola is conventional. I think that when people talk about an intelligent film they can mean several different things. Coppola has pictorial intelligence. He has narrative intelligence. But I'm not sure if this is enough. What you want from a work of art is a kind of radical thisness: an individuality so intense that it can't be mistaken for anything else. In a film, ideally, you want that at all levels. The Godfather is as beautifully burnished as a Rolls Royce. That and the score together have made it indelible. But the characters don't live. They're stuck in their own fictive predicament, gesturing wildly to be let out.

Christopher Miller is a teacher of film studies and a movie bore.

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