If you ask 500 friends and acquaintances, 'What are your Top Five favorite movies of all time?', you'll learn three things: (1) there are hundreds of possibly great films that you've never heard of. (2) Citizen Kane is absolutely nobody's favorite movie despite the American Film Institute's claim that it's the Greatest Movie Of All Time. (3) The Godfather appears on more people's personal Top Five list than any other movie ever made. I know all this, because I did the survey.
Therefore, public interest in Paramount's premium "Sapphire Series" Blu-ray edition of The Godfather should be high. Who could not eagerly anticipate seeing the most popular movie of all time in the glorious, extra magnificent Sapphire Series edition? It just came out last month, and certainly I was looking forward to it.
So, is it any good? In a word, fuggedaboudit. Who knew that a Sapphire Series disc billed as a "Meticulous Restoration" could look so bad? Now, to be fair, this film is done as a period piece from the 1940's. It is designed to look like a dark film from that era. Some scenes are intended to look like low quality film. So color saturation is subdued even in the original. The gold/warm tone throughout the film is authentic. Coppola did not intend for this movie to look like Singing in the Rain. But in some scenes the color is muted to the point of almost being absent. Shadow detail is missing. Highlights are blown out and lack detail. Overall image sharpness is not there. Viewing this on a very large screen, you find yourself staring into shadow areas to see if you can pick out details that you are sure must be there, but aren't. The picture quality makes you wonder to what degree the film was originally made this way, or whether the limitation was in the restoration and transfer. It is some of both to be sure, but it is hard to tell where original intent ends and the limits of the restoration begin.
Noise and grain is quite apparent as an intentional component in the image, although it is not as over-the-top objectionable as it is in The French Connection. But the level of noise varies throughout the film. It appears to be more apparent in the first half of the film than the second half. This may indeed be a meticulous restoration from the master, but if it is, the master must be in very poor condition. And if that is the case, why continue to produce new Blu-ray editions promising exquisite picture quality?
One might justify it by saying, well... looky here at all the new Special Features. But guess what? On this Sapphire edition there is only one. This single disc offering has a long, sometimes rambling, sometimes enlightening commentary by Coppola, and that's it. And he says nothing about Blu-ray, or Sapphire, or what was so meticulous about this latest alleged restoration. Perhaps this commentary was done for a DVD edition, but I don't know which one that might have been.
The bottom line is this: If you have a large-screen home theater, and you buy the Sapphire edition with hopes of getting a high quality picture, you will be disappointed. On the other hand, if you view it on a 50" flat panel TV, it won't look as bad. The noise/grain that is apparent on a 120" screen is minimized, or even disappears, on a smaller TV. Since the picture is much smaller, it will look sharper, and the shadow areas that lack detail will not draw the eye as readily. Since a flat panel TV will usually generate a deeper black than a projector, the apparent contrast will be higher. It will be a much different, and more satisfying viewing experience.
But no matter. Blu-ray is capable of better than this, even with old source material. One can sympathize with those who, based on Blu-ray Sapphire hype, bought this disc expecting a radical improvement over DVD quality. They didn't get it.
The Director's Take
For me, the most intriguing aspect of this edition of The Godfather is Francis Ford Coppola's commentary. To hear him tell the story, it's an absolute miracle that The Godfather was ever made. The original project was budgeted at a lowly $2.5 million. That's why Paramount gave it to Coppola to begin with, who was at the time a 30-year old, unproven director with little experience.
The original screenplay was set in then-contemporary times, the early 70s, in St. Louis. Somehow, it is not clear how, Coppola talked the studio heads into making it into a 40's period piece in New York, thereby substantially increasing production costs in costume design, period automobiles, location shooting, etc. By the time it was done, The Godfather's cost came in at $6.5 million.
Coppola believes he ran afoul of studio interests from the outset. Paramount's president declared in advance that under no circumstances would Marlon Brando, Coppola's choice for Don Corleone, be allowed to participate in the film. Studio heads vehemently objected to his casting of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, on the grounds that he was unknown and too short for the role. At one turn after another, Coppola believed he was about to be fired.
Not only was the management of Paramount aligned against Coppola, but his own production crew despised him as well. His cinematographer, Gordon Willis, was cool towards him at best, and at times could not disguise his contempt. Crew members would ridicule him behind his back. This young, inexperienced director with new and novel ideas just had trouble getting respect from anyone.
Despite the atmosphere of demoralizing hostility and the chronic threat of imminent dismissal, Coppola somehow assembled a remarkable cast the studio didn't want, including Marlon Brando, James Cann, Robert Duval, and Al Pacino. He ended up shooting in New York, Sicily, Los Angeles, and Marin County, kept the studio heads at bay, ran $4 million over budget and produced one of the great masterpieces in movie history. Not bad, for a wet-behind-the-ears director with no support from anyone.
If you have heard Coppola's commentary in Patton you are familiar with this theme of Coppola being the maverick that nobody wanted. Coppola believes he was fired from the Patton project for having created innovative scenes in that screenplay, most notably the opening speech in front of the flag. He might have been, for all I know. But when one hears the same "the world is against me" story over and over again, once begins to wonder how much of it is real. Was Coppola really able to dodge so many genuine bullets, or does he have somewhat of a persecution complex?
It is not my intent to demean him, for clearly Francis Ford Coppola is an extraordinary talent. There is no doubt that the making of The Godfather was intensely stressful for him. But in the end, the pieces don't seem to fit. He claims to have been fired from Patton for the radical opening scene, but the studio ended up using that scene anyway? Paramount decreed that Brando would never play Corleone, but they used him anyway? The studio heads hated Coppola's choice of Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone, but they used him too? Coppola says he had a testy and difficult relationship with cinematographer Willis, but guess who he hired to do Godfather II? So what gives? In the end, I certainly don't know enough to form an opinion. But his reminiscences of facing relentless hostility from every direction leave me with a curious desire to hear the other side of the story.
Other than the frequent references to his own precarious situation, Coppola's commentary on the making of The Godfather is informative and sometimes fascinating. For Godfather fans, there are quite a few humorous and intriguing behind-the-scenes anecdotes. If there is any value to this Sapphire Series edition, it would be in the value of the commentary for fans and students of the film. After all, he is the man to tell the story. Not only did Coppola direct the film, but he co-wrote the screenplay, for which he won an Oscar.
In the end, the tale of how The Godfather was made is fascinating. There is no doubt that Coppola, by sheer force of will, transformed it into something far more transcendent than it would have been had Paramount gone with its initial plan for a low-budget gangster film. There is always something to be gained by hearing the creator of a masterpiece recount his experience of having created it.