If you wanted to turn someone on to The Godfather for the first time — a teenager, say, who knew about stuff like the horse’s head from pop osmosis alone but who had never actually seen the film — you’d take him or her to one of the few theaters where the 25th-anniversary rerelease is still playing, right?
Wrong. You’d rent or buy the newly reissued video of The Godfather, and here’s why. Unlike the restoration of the Star Wars trilogy, the rerelease prints of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece have been struck off the same old film elements that have been around for years. The blacks have dimmed to browns, amber flesh tones have devolved to orange, and colors shift, often toward a sickly green, from shot to shot.
The movie needs a squeegee, and that’s where video comes in. Instead of creating a new negative, Paramount has taken the far cheaper step of digitally remastering both Godfather and The Godfather, Part II for home video — meaning that the spruced-up Corleone saga exists only in the electronic realm. It’s a revelation.
From the opening monologue of Bonasera the undertaker to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone (”I believe in America. America has made my fortune…”), it’s as if the viewer were transported back to 1972, watching the perversely stately cadences of The Godfather unfold for the first time. So many great ’70s films have turned visually muddy that it’s a shock to see the young Al Pacino, as Michael Corleone, looking fresh-faced and flesh-faced. The image is so crisp that for the first time in years, you notice the bloody mist that fans out behind drug dealer Sollozzo’s head when Michael kills him in Louis’ restaurant. That’s important, and not just for gore hounds: Coppola used explicit violence to undercut his gangsters’ tremendous allure.
The soundtracks for the first two films have been newly remixed into stereo surround sound as well. That sonic expansion most improves the more ambitious, less overtly entertaining Godfather II: As Michael becomes isolated behind walls of suspicion, guilt, and fratricide, you can almost hear the world receding from him.
It’s worth noting that Pacino’s performance across the entire trilogy looks more than ever to be one of the richest in the history of the movies. Initially playing Michael as a still, watchful fly on the wall of the Corleone mansion, the actor lets layers of corruption slowly accrete around the character, freighting the least movement with Shakespearean portent. And in The Godfather, Part III, which always looked fine on video but is available as a wide-screen tape for the first time, a looser Pacino takes genuine risks: As he renounces his kingdom, Michael steps off his pedestal and becomes tragically human.
The most idiosyncratic of the trilogy, III features moments that are woebegone (Michael’s Monty Pythonesque death, any scene with Sofia Coppola), astonishing (any scene with Andy Garcia), and occasionally both (the scene in which a Lear-like Michael collapses from a diabetic stroke, spews obscenities, and cries out for the brother he ordered killed). But with parts I and II at last restored to their full power, part III takes its rightful place as a coda both sad and wise.
Confusingly, the whole three-film symphony is coming back to stores in a wide array of new-and-improved arrangements. You can buy the three films individually, in either wide-screen or full-frame formats (go with the mildly letterboxed wide-screen versions, since they preserve the painterly tableau quality that enhances the trilogy’s classical feel). You can also pick up all three in a boxed set, full-frame or wide-screen; take home the ”25th Anniversary Widescreen Edition,” which includes Harlan Lebo’s recent book The Godfather Legacy; or pop for the 5,000-copies-only ”Limited Edition” — the films, the book, Coppola’s hand-signed autograph, a useless ”special certificate,” and a neato gold plaque. Or — deep breath — you can buy The Godfather Trilogy, the 1992 expanded and chronologically reedited version of the three films (full-frame only), which also comes with a 73-minute documentary and a booklet. To this panoply, let us add the ”Cheapskate Edition”: a used paperback copy of Mario Puzo’s pulpy novel that’ll run you about 50 cents. Which, come to think of it, might not be a bad place for that teenager to start. A+