You see it as the Paramount logo first appears onscreen, awash in golden tones, as if the sun were setting in front of the iconic mountain.
When the "I believe in America" guy's face appears out of the black, he looks borderline jaundiced.
This, Francis Ford Coppola says, was the way "The Godfather" was back in 1972. He thinks.
"I don't (truly) remember what it looked like," the director confesses. "Not many people are alive who remember." As the prints aged and the various video formats rolled by, he says, he couldn't see the deterioration -- like a parent oblivious to the short-term growth of the kids.
Upon viewing the digital restoration used for the new DVDs and Blu-rays, Coppola says, "I was astounded at how beautiful it was, how rich the photography was. It's even more beautiful-looking than I ever remembered."
"The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration" does in fact blow away any other video incarnation, especially when seen on Blu-ray. The golden tone on the first film should prove controversial, though -- at times the characters look as if they'd used some cheap indoor-tanning products. I found this occasionally annoying, but for the most part the color scheme works and the presentation is handsome and satisfying.
Outdoor scenes -- such as the wedding with its blown-out bridal whites -- can look like old colorful postcards, easing up on the dark tone from the interior photography.
The visual improvements are pretty much across the board, notably in the removal of the speckling and the reversal of the fading that were so apparent on 2001's "The Godfather Collection." The first two films feel fresh, contemporary.
This DVD blog is recommending immediate upgrades for owners of the old discs, followed by a weekend of going to the mattresses in order to take in these fine new discs. Anyone waiting for a reason to buy a Blu-ray player has just been served -- in HD, it's like seeing the movie for the first time.
The "Coppola Restoration" box comes with a terrific short docu called "Emulsional Rescue: Revealing The Godfather" that covers the efforts of Robert A. Harris and various collaborators as they resurrected the first two movies. They point out that "The Godfather" needed about five times as much work as its sequels. This is as good as a restoration tutorial as I've seen, with director Kim Aubry making sure her talking heads explain all of the concepts, aided by animations.
A couple of major issues confronted the restorers. The original negative of "The Godfather" had long been destroyed, as it had been used to make a parade of copies. Also, cinematographer Gordon Willis "created a negative that no one could mess with" -- intentionally thin, with blacks that are almost absolute.
"There is only one way to print the 'Godfather,' and that is dark," says Harris.
The restorers consulted "Gordie" and followed his simple instructions for color: four points yellow, one point red. (The original golden tone on the 1972 master was added in post-production via color timing.)
"The Godfather" exists as a digital Frankenstein now, created from the best remaining prints and elements, some from private collections. This is "a representation" of the original film, Harris says, although nothing is missing.
You get a good sense of the tension as the restorers ran the film negative through the scanner, terrified of scratching the priceless images. The scanning process with old negatives is a "contact sport," in which the film elements always are subject to scratching or worse, Harris says.
In the case of the pivotal restaurant scene in which Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) assassinates a rival gangster and a crooked cop, the restorers discovered that a lab tech had underdeveloped (failed to push) the second half. The problem was corrected digitally 35 years later, since the information was in fact on the negative to some extent.
The restoration docu says the proof is in the scene's final minutes, in which Pacino's eyes dance wildly just before he blows out the brains of his fellow diners. Now the eyes can be seen and the results are revelatory, the line goes. I found, however, that the scene read perfectly well on the 2001 DVD. This is quibbling, though, since the brightening of the restaurant scene is indeed a tremendous improvement, with heightened drama.
A-B comparisons of the new and old DVDs quickly demonstrated why there were so many calls for a full restoration. Even when the 2001 DVDs were given the advantage of upconversion, there was simply no contest. Comparing the Blu-rays and the old DVDs proved ... ridiculous.
The audio on "The Godfather" is crisp and clear, with Folely effects coming through lifelike, even though the audio remains distinctly front-centered. The rear channels get no respect, aside from limited duty with echo and presence. The audio employs more of the soundstage on the second film.
Of "The Godfather's" golden veneer, cinematographer Willis says: "I had a strong idea of how (the movie) visually should be put together. I grew up in New York in the '30s and '40s, and felt this thing should be a brassy yellow. ... I feel it's the appropriate patina for the movie."
Coppola recalls being pleased and surprised when he saw the first dailies: "It looked like home movies or something."
"The Godfather Collection" of 2001 came with a generous and worthwhile collection of extras, which are found on a separate disc in the DVD set. The new extras come on a separate disc. (On the Blu-ray, one discs contains all extras.) This segregation of the new and old special features makes a lot of sense and eliminates confusion about what was made when. Here's hoping other studios consider this alternative to the usual mass grave for extras.
The new short docus, from Aubry, cover the restoration, the legacy, post-production and the real-life drama that almost rubbed out "The Godfather" before it was shot. Coppola, producer Robert Evans and some of the other original participants provide more insider dish than on the old docus. Steven Spielberg tells the story of how he lobbied for the restoration once Viacom bought DreamWorks, landing him at Paramount. Other participants of note include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, William Friedkin and ... Richard Belzer?
The special features are somewhat cluttered with the thoughts of people with no apparent connection to the film, reaching a nadir when the actors from "Cloverfield" are asked about the gangster classic. There are a handful of lightweight shorts, including a look at a zany one-man show of "The Godfather."
Coppola's three commentaries also are ported over, a solid decision. These are classics of the DVD talk genre.
The director's comments are focused and instructive, with pauses that let the scene amplify his points. Coppola speaks throughout about his early battles with Paramount and, especially, production chief Evans. (The new extras show two versions of the horse-head scene: One with the foreboding original music that Evans hated, and one with the straightforward music he'd insisted upon after seeing the dailies. Evans was dead-on right.)
Coppola made most of the picture "in great danger of being fired," with Paramount full of complaints about choices such as the casting of Marlon Brando (too much mumbling), Pacino (a bland unknown) and Nino Rota's non-commercial score (make it more like "Love Story").
The turnaround came, Coppola says, when he provided dailies of the restaurant assassination scene.
Coppola's commentary strips away a good bit of the first film's mystique. Shot on a tight budget, the production was "pretty flimsy," he says. Doubles are used extensively to speed shooting. Extras blunder their way into shots. A key actor can't handle his lines while facing the great Brando. Even the great wedding scene was rushed and fudged. Sleight of hand is everywhere. It was all "very sloppy," Coppola admits.
After "The Godfather's" phenomenal success, Coppola had a blank check for the sequel. But by the time of the third film, he was back wrestling with the studio, unable to use his chosen title for the movie: "The Death of Michael Corleone."
More "Godfather" content:
Preview of 'The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration'
DVD review: 'The Godfather Collection' (2001)