Coppola's Classic

As a more observant fan could have told you long ago, oranges are everywhere in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece. Don Corleone is buying oranges when he gets shot in Little Italy. There are oranges on the table in the boardroom scene where the five New York "families" make the peace after Sonny is shot on the causeway. And everyone remembers the scene when the Don, moments before his fatal heart attack, tries to amuse his grandson by putting an orange peel in his mouth and pretending to be a monster. Oranges, bright as light bulbs in this umber-toned movie, should be symbols of life. Instead, they almost always act as harbingers of death. Coppola picks up this idea in "Godfather II" when Johnny Ola brings Michael Corleone an orange from Hyman Roth, "our friend in Miami," who in fact wants to kill Michael, but then almost everything in the second movie is a variation on events in the first one. (Everything in "Godfather III" is a variation, too, but by then the variations just seem like tired repetitions of a formula, and watered down repetitions at that, e.g., when Michael has a diabetic attack while visiting the Cardinal, he is given orange juice, not the real thing.)

At first I was proud of myself for my little discovery. I went around for several days patting myself on the back for my visual acuity. Then I started having second thoughts. Film scholars had probably been writing theses on the subject for years, and if I ever bothered to read film criticism, I would have known this. Or maybe the English major in me was getting the better of my judgment. Maybe I was symbol-hunting where there were no symbols. So when the deluxe DVD edition of all three Godfather films came out last month, I couldn't wait to see what Coppola had to say about it.

As DVD fans are quickly discovering, one of the great additions in this format is the commentary track. Not every DVD comes thus equipped, but the more classic films usually have this feature. With the punch of a button, you play the movie but instead of hearing the dialogue, you hear someone telling you about the film as it unreels. OK, too often the commentary is done by some film scholar who just winds up telling you what you're seeing. These guys all sound like Fleber, the pompous film professor in "The Freshman" (who, coincidentally, gets his comeuppance at the hands of none other than Marlon Brando parodying his Don Corleone role). But sometimes you get lucky. "The Seven Samurai," for example, has commentary that by itself is worth the price of the DVD. And on the Godfather films, Coppola himself does the talking.

It would be nice to think that sometime you will be able to buy the Godfather films individually, but for now you buy the package or nothing at all. I'm sure the manufacturers know all too well that nobody is going to shell out for the third one unless they have to. At least they kicked in a bonus disc that contains a few cool things--cool if you're an addict like me, but who else is going to pay between $75 and $100 for this thing? Besides the usual DVD extras (theatrical trailer, bios of the cast), the bonus disc contains extra scenes, storyboards and documentary footage of the filming of the Little Italy scenes from "Godfather II." There's also an audio recording of Coppola meeting with composer Nino Rota--who plays him the Godfather music for the first time--and interviews with Coppola and Mario Puzo on the screenwriting and Gordon Willis on the cinematography. But for my money, what makes this boxed set worth the price are the beautiful prints (can you call something on DVD a "print"?), and the Coppola commentary. The "Godfather" films have never looked this good outside a theater--the darkness of the scenes just turns to mud on video. And Coppola is simply a world-class talker.

Watching the first "Godfather" with Uncle Francis at your elbow, you learn that the studio fought most of his casting decisions, including Brando and Pacino--in Pacino's case, even after filming had begun. The idea was to shoot a cheap gangster movie--with a contemporary, 70s setting!--for a couple of million bucks with a then-unknown director that they thought they could push around. Coppola, of course, is the hero of his own narration, but if you allow for a certain amount of ego in his version, you wind up believing that he's probably more accurate than not.

The main reason you trust him is that he is so unfailingly generous when it comes to praising the contributions of his team. He goes out of his way, for example, to point out that one of the most famous lines in the movie, "Leave the gun, take the cannolis" was adlibbed on the set by Richard Castellano. And the director is as honest as he is charitable. Discussing sequels at one point, he admits that the first couple of works in a series, whether it be novels like "The Alexandria Quartet" or, by implication, "The Godfather" trilogy, are almost always better than the final installments.

Nearly all of his anecdotes are first rate. They shot this epic movie in a mere 61 days. In the very first week, they filmed several key scenes: when Michael learns that his father is shot, when Solozzo kidnaps Tom Hagen and when Michael kills Solozzo and Capt. McCloskey. The boardroom scene, in which the Don learns that "it was Barzini all along," was shot in one day and the Don's funeral in two. But the most mesmerizing discoveries lie in Coppola's attention to detail. In the scene where the Corleones and their lieutenants are eating Chinese food, Coppola insisted that the food containers on the table be blank, as they would have been in 1946, not decorated as they are now with those images of Chinese pagodas. Out of such obsessiveness comes art.

Since I got my DVD copy of the trilogy, I've watched "Godfathers I & II" and part of the third while listening to Coppola. I'm doing it slowly, and savoring the experience, because it's not often that you get to hear a first-rate artist discuss how something wonderful came into being. My only regret, my one tiny piece of chagrin, is that so far he hasn't said a word about oranges.