Going Back to Films on Cable – A Personal Essay on Watching The Godfather (1972) – Andrew Williford

I have a soft spot for catching The Godfather (1972) on AMC, edited for language, violence, sexual content (despite being able to attest to its power in its true form on the big screen). This was how I first watched it. I recorded it on my family’s DVR when I was thirteen and I watched it multiple times in that manner. At the time, my awe at the film itself was frequently interrupted by overt reminders that I was watching an inferior version of the film. However, upon this most recent viewing, I found that this kind of viewing experience can have its own merits.

On a Saturday evening, my younger brother – who I had wrongfully assumed still disliked the film – tuned the TV to AMC just as Salvatore Corsitto’s raspy voice says over a black screen “I believe in America.” It played in the background as my mom, brother, and I prepared dinner. I might very well have been the only one still watching, or at least trying to watch, my ear straining to hear the dialogue over the sizzling of meat on the stove. As I struggled to hear what the characters were saying and keep track of the narrative’s chronology, it started to finally hit me just how quiet this film is.

It is far from uncommon for a new viewing of a film, particularly The Godfather, to unveil something I had never noticed before – hell, it was not until my tenth or so viewing when I was sixteen that I realized just how much racism plays into the Five Families’ positions of power. But this realization was more pronounced after my viewings of Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006) in the past year. Those films are loud and fast, always moving forward, always showing something happen (I am not knocking these films in any way, I like them both very much). They both have their comparatively quieter moments, but not like those in The Godfather.

Gordon Willis’s camera never rushes to catch something, nor does William Reynolds’s jump to, or away from, the most violent image. There is never any active attempt to embellish the violence. It simply occurs. Gunshots ring in the air as fresh corpses lie still.

This extends to the performances as well. Sonny Corleone’s death may be far more over the top and gruesome than that of Tommy DeVito’s in Goodfellas, but think of the scenes immediately following, when their loved ones learn of their murders. Michael Ballhaus’s camera quickly dollies in as DeNiro’s James Conway smashes the pay phone, cursing up a storm and crying. But Gordon Willis instead slowly dollies into a dark room toward Duvall’s Tom Hagen, sitting alone, drinking a much-needed glass of whiskey. A still recovering Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) needs to gently pry what’s troubling Tom out of him. When Tom finally tells him “They shot Sonny on the causeway. He’s dead,” a grief-ridden sigh tumbles out of Vito. No scream. No shouting. No banging a fist on something. Just the tired exhale of an old man.

My dad, who joined me for the second half of the film after dinner, grinningly noted how Pacino is “just bottled up with rage here.” This struck me as especially true given the kind of Al Pacino performance we all became used to in the decades afterward (e.g., “She’s got a GREAT ASS.”). This might very well have applied to Michael’s argument with Moe Green or his final conversation with Carlo had the film been produced later in the century. Instead, Michael keeps his voice low as he asks Green “You straightened my brother out?” He keeps himself contained as he exerts his power over Carlo.

Despite the commercials and the censoring by AMC, I found myself more especially moved by the film during this viewing than I had during any other. Vito’s final conversation with his son – where he struggles to balance his love for his son, his worry for his safety, and his grief for the life he could have had – struck a chord with me like never before. Watching him play with his grandson for the last time, no music, no cinematic embellishments at hand – watching him struggle for just few breaths, just a few more seconds of life, just a little while longer with someone he loves, only to fall dead in a garden – hit me really hard this time.

The inability for Vito to fix the mistakes he made in the face of the passage of time, the descent of Michael’s sense of self and morality, the downward spiral of the American Dream – all interrupted by ads for paper towels, another Walking Dead spinoff, and near-dystopian presidential campaigns – still managed to create a lump in my throat this time.

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