THE GODFATHER THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS
by Shaun Costello
In a recent trip to my local library, I came across a crisp, new paperback edition of The Godfather. I have seen the movies (I and II) an embarrassing number of times, but read the book just once, in 1969 when it was first published. So I took it home, curious to know if it still packed the original wallop that made it a blockbuster best seller. The opening pages contained two introductory pieces. The first was headlined A NOTE FROM ANTHONY PUZO, SON OF MARIO PUZO, and it was in caps, as I have written it here. It was two pages of unreadable gibberish, intended, I suppose, to give this volume some kind of familial, folksy varnish, an idea probably hatched in the eager mind of an underpaid, over-confident wannabe in a cubicle at Penguin Random House, where ideas like this one flourish until they flounder of their own mistaken value.
Next came an Introduction by Robert J. Thompson, who turns out to be (I’ll insert this verbatim) The Founding Director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, where he is also the Trustee Professor of Media and Popular Culture at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Well, that’s a dizzying title indeed. I wonder how it fits on his business card. It seems that this worthy academic has published five volumes, all about television, and is now busy finishing his sixth, a history of the medium. The introduction, entitled Introduction, was eleven pages of hyperbolic hipster speak, the pages numbered, as intros so often are, in Roman Numerals. Eleven glib and wittily urbane pages seemingly designed to place Mr. Thompson somewhere between being the lost Corleone son that Puzo left out of the book, and someone you might bump into para-gliding at Club Med, wearing an ill-fitting speedo. And certainly, someone to avoid, should you find yourself behind him on line at Starbucks.
Publishers mystify me. Can there be a book, other than Mein Kampf or The Bible, that has reaped higher revenues for its imprint, down through the years, than The Godfather? I’m guessing not. Yet, at a new projects meeting, in the conference room at Penguin Random House, as ideas were suggested around the table, some young literary Turk spoke up and said, “Maybe it’s time for another go-round with The Godfather”, which was probably received, in equal measure, with the appropriate grunts and moans. To which our young hero responded, “No wait, it might work. Provided we package it correctly. Let’s get someone who knew the author well, maybe a Puzo family member, to write a short introductory piece. And then a project narrative by a media writer. God knows, there’s no shortage of them. We include them as ‘extras’, like a director’s commentary track on a DVD. Packaging. That’s the ticket”.
Ideas like this are not necessarily suicidal, provided somebody rides heard over them, supervising quality control over who is chosen to write the ‘extras’, and what is written. But, more often than not, corporate auto pilot takes over, and important details are ignored. Hey, it’s The Godfather. They’re going to buy it no matter what. So, an intern was tasked with going through all those dust covered rolodexes in the storage room to come up with a willing Puzo family member. This process yielded Anthony Puzo, the author’s son, who gladly agreed to write a few pages about the pain his father went through in struggling to create his masterpiece. And a quick Google search revealed an unlimited number of media writers, with Robert J. Thompson’s name up there at the top of the list. An academic with a title a big as the Ritz. Thompson quickly agreed to deliver eleven pages on The Godfather’s impact on Pop culture over the 48 years of its existence. Hey, the guy’s a Trustee Professor. Whatever he writes will be just fine. Even if it’s eleven pages of self-indulgent clap trap, constructed to portray Thompson’s awareness of the impact of the Godfather on pop culture, rather than the impact itself, and as a result, exuding the coolness this academic feels is his due.
The packaging aside, let’s get to the book itself. It still works. It’s a well-constructed story, with colorful, memorable characters, a brisk pace, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real fault I could find with it is Puzo’s prose. While his descriptive narrative is fine, the dialogue is sometimes awkward and forced. Also, the male-female relationships seem a product of the era (the 1940’s), and the characters (depression era Italian Americans). That said, many of the conversations between the sexes are cringe-worthy. The addition of Francis Ford Coppola, as co-writer for the movie screen plays vastly improved the dialogue, and cleaned up much of the book’s murky areas.
This brings us to a question I have asked myself many times over the years. Could Mario Puzo have written The Godfather, had not Peter Maas written The Valachi Papers? Although published in 1968, Maas wrote most of his book between 1963 and 1965. Valachi’s starling revelations about organized crime in America, before Senator John McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in 1963, proved to be an embarrassment to J. Edgar Hoover, who had insisted for over thirty years, that the Mafia did not exist in America. Between 1963 and 1965, because of his friendship with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Peter Maas was given unlimited access to interview Joe Valachi in his prison cell. These extensive interviews would eventually yield Maas’s book, The Valachi Papers. But Hoover was dead set against the publication of a book, the contents of which would make him out to be a fool. After Kennedy left office, in 1965, Hoover put pressure on Lyndon Johnson to lean on Kennedy’s replacement at Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to prevent the publication of Maas’s book.
For over two years, Maas negotiated with Washington to get some version of his manuscript published. He finally succeeded in getting approval to publish a heavily censored version, and The Valachi papers was finally published in June of 1968. Much of Valachi’s elaborate testimony before Congress in 1963, was revealed and expanded in Maas’s book, and America became aware of the details surrounding the enormous criminal enterprise that J. Edgar Hoover had repeatedly insisted was non-existent.
The details, and the history of La Cosa Nostra both shocked and fascinated the world. Joe (Joe Cargo – shortened to Joe Cago) Valachi was born in 1904, in East Harlem to an impoverished Italian American family. He ran with a gang of thieves, committing small burglaries until finally being inducted, in a formal ceremony, into The Genovese crime family. The book revealed his involvement in The Castellammarese War in the early 1930’s. This war pitted the two most powerful crime bosses of that era against each other. Joe (The Boss) Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano would battle for supremacy in New York’s criminal underworld. These were two old time gangsters, called by the younger soldiers “Mustache Petes”. They would compete in deadly combat for the title of Capo di tutti capi (Boss of all bosses). After the death of both gangsters, an organization was formed by this criminal society’s rising star, Charles Lucky Luciano, who would consolidate New York’s criminal gangs into the Five New York Families, overseen by an organization known as The Commission, that would resolve disputes between the Families peacefully. This organization would become known, among its members as La Cosa Nostra or This Thing of Ours. Details were revealed in Maas’s book, like the oath of Omerta, or silence, adhered to by members under penalty of death. The sacred ceremony of admission to La Cosa Nostra. The structure of the society, imitating the hierarchical fundamentals of the Roman Legions. Details about the characters, the language, and the structure of this criminal society were now public knowledge, due to Valachi’s testimony, and Maas’s book.
A year later, in March of 1969, The Godfather was published to rave reviews, and quickly became the best selling novel in the history of publishing. And what was contained on the pages of The Godfather? The oath of Omerta, The Five Families. The Commission, the language of this criminal society; all originally revealed a year earlier in The Valachi Papers. Could this be coincidence?
I knew Peter Maas pretty well when I lived in The Hamptons. Many of us played tennis on Peter’s har-tru court, at his house in Bridgehampton. So, one day I asked him. Did Mario Puzo ever call him up to thank him? He took the high road, which was typical of Peter. He told me that he knew Mario, and liked him. The Valachi Papers, while not yielding the fortune Puzo had made with The Godfather, had also been a best seller, making Maas quite a bit of money. He was sanguine.
My conclusion, from all that is written above, is that The Godfather could never have been the iconic literary conflagration it became, without the publication of The Valachi Papers, a year earlier. Peter Maas had supplied Mario Puzo with the historical events, the characterizations, the language, the structure of La Cosa Nostra, and the every-day experience of ‘life in the mob’, without which, The Godfather could never have been written.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
Ten films (and they’re not the only ten) that, for reasons unknown to me, I have seen at least ten times.
By Shaun Costello
I’ve seen a lot of bad movies, and willingly confess to having enjoyed most of them. Like their better brethren, some bad movies are just likeable. This whole movie thing is so subjective, like books, I guess. What makes us prefer one over another? What is it about certain films, that strikes a chord in us, creating the need to see them again? Is any movie really worth seeing ten times? I have no answers to any of these questions, and readily admit that the aforementioned behavior sounds symptomatic of some kind of psychiatric anomaly. Furthermore, as long as I’m in the confessional, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I unashamedly admit to having spent a preposterous amount of time, sitting in the balcony of the old Elgin Cinema (Now the Joyce Theater of Dance) on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, eyes glued to the screen, absorbing one movie after another, becoming hungrier and hungrier for more of the same. And, to add some full-disclosure here, I readily confess to having had intimate knowledge of the interiors of every movie house in Manhattan, from Fourteenth Street to Eighty Sixth – and river to river. From the trendy, East Side, cup of espresso before the credits venues – to the grunge palaces of 42nd Street, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen, to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. If movie addiction were a crime, I’d be doing life without parole, as a permanent guest of the state.
Does anyone know the name of an affordable shrink?
Where was I? Oh, the over and over thing. Thanks to Blogging, I can share part of my addiction with you, ten examples at a time. While there are probably hundreds of movies that I have seen at least ten times, I have selected the following ten, ten being the magic number of which lists seem to be constructed.
Although some films on my previously blogged lists could easily have been included here, I’ll limit this to as yet unlisted titles.
So, in alphabetical order:
Terry Malick’s hypnotic dramatization of the 1958 Starkweather/Fugate murder spree, across the prairie. The whole movie has an other-worldly feel to it, thanks to Sissy Spacek’s detached, child-like narration, and Malick’s use of Karl Orff’s children’s music. Spacek witnesses Sheen’s sudden, unexpected murder of her parents, and reacts as though the event was an episode of Ozzie and Harriet on television. They set fire to the house and hit the road, as we see Sissy’s life, in a series of close-ups of burning photographs and toys, go up in flames, scored to Orff’s rhythmic syncopation. Her detached narration becomes more bizarre with each of Sheen’s subsequent murders, as they kill their way through the Dakota badlands. Growing more and more paranoid, Sheen creates a hideout in the sagebrush, complete with deadly booby traps to deter their pursuers. Out of nowhere, a Sheen/Spacek desert dance begins to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange”, and ends just as abruptly as it began. Strange and deadly doings, out on the prairie.
Dogs of War 1980
“Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war” Shakespeare/Julius Caesar
My Favorite Frederick Forsyth book, and definitely a film worth seeing. I have no idea why I like this film so much, but Christopher Walken’s both vulnerable, and dangerous persona, makes this thing work. Mercenaries are hired to depose a dictator in a fictional and failed African state. Forsyth’s elaborate detail, and great ensemble work keeps the action entertaining. Cast includes: Tom Berenger, Paul Freeman, Jean Francois Stevenin, and JoBeth Williams.
From Larry McMurty’s novel, Hud is Paul Newman’s cranky cowboy caper. A disappointment to his stalwart, principled father (Melvyn Douglas), and a hero to his younger brother ( Brandon De Wilde), Hud’s just waiting for his Dad to die so he can inherit the ranch. Patricia Neal is hired to help with the chores, creating some lust amongst the longhorns. And have a listen to Elmer Bernstein’s subtly effective score – sometimes using just one guitar. Newman is one nasty cowpoke, but Douglas and Neal steal the show, and win their Oscars. A Best Cinematography Oscar also went to James Wong Howe for some beautiful work in Black and White.
Alan Pakula 1971
Klute was the first installment of what would become known as director Alan Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy”. The other two films are “The Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976). But, I think most people remember it for Jane Fonda’s once-in-a-lifetime performance (and her Oscar) as the jittery hooker with someone on her roof.
The film begins with the disappearance of Pennsylvania executive Tom Gruneman. The police reveal that an obscene letter was found in Gruneman’s office. It was addressed to a prostitute in New York City named Bree Daniels (Fonda), who had received several similar letters from Gruneman. Much to the surprise of the police, Peter Cable (Cioffi), an executive at Gruneman’s company, hires family friend John Klute (Sutherland) to investigate Gruneman’s disappearance.
Klute rents an apartment in the basement of Daniels’ building, taps her phone, and follows her as she turns tricks. Initially, Daniels appears to be liberated by the freedom of freelancing as a call girl. In visits with a psychiatrist throughout the film, however, she reveals that she feels empty inside and wants to quit. Klute asks Daniels to answer some of his questions, but she refuses. He approaches her again, revealing that he has been watching her. She assumes that he will turn her in if she does not cooperate, but does not recall Gruneman at all. She reveals that she was beaten by one of her ‘johns’ two years earlier, but after seeing a photo of Gruneman, she says she cannot say for sure one way or the other. She is only certain that the john “was serious” about the attack.
Daniels takes Klute to meet her former pimp, Frank Ligourin (Scheider). Ligourin reveals that one of his prostitutes passed off the abusive client to Bree and another woman named Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan). The original prostitute committed suicide, and Page became a junkieand disappeared. Klute gives his surveillance tapes to Daniels, telling her he is finished with her part of the case. But, realizing that he cannot continue the investigation without her, he re-enlists her help to track down Page.
Klute is one of the great New York Location movies. Others that come to mind are “Serpico”, “The French Connection”, and “Three Days of the Condor”. From the very first credit, Michael Small’s tingly, eerie musical score sets the mood. Alan Pakula went for dark and gritty, shooting in tight locations where entire scenes were lit exclusively with ‘inkies’. The result is a feeling of intimacy that resonates throughout the film, amplifying a sense of impending danger.
Beyond Fonda’s astounding performance, Donald Southerland’s John Klute has a hound dog-like persistence. Roy Scheider does a creepy turn as Fonda’s pimp, and Charles Cioffi is effectively dangerous as the serial hooker-killer. But, it’s Vivian Nathan, as Fonda’s shrink, who steals the show.
The Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis, shines here, creating luster in the shadows. Seemless editing by Carl Lerner, and Michael Small’s relentlessly eerie score make this memorable. Maybe you have to be a New Yorker to love this film, but I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites.
Best scenes: Fonda with her ‘trick’ in the hotel room – “Oh, my angel. My angel”. And Jane tells old Mr Goldfarb about her recent erotic adventure. “No, he was an older man, not unlike yourself. Young men can be so…..silly”.
Lost Horizon 1937
It was the mid Thirties, and the Faschisti were marching across an ever-darkening Europe. James Hilton’s novel described a better place, a place of peaceful solutions, and escape from the
jack boot – somewhere over the rainbow, or in this case over the Himalaya’s, was the secret valley of the Blue Moon, and at its center – Shangri La, where dreams came true and life was eternal, well almost. In my opinion, Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s masterpiece, and a joy for anyone to see.
The director didn’t like the early dailies – something just wasn’t right in those snow scenes. And it dawned on Capra, that there was no steaming breath from the mouths of his actors. So he packed up and reshot in a gigantic meat freezer, somewhere in Brentwood.
Tragically, about fifteen minutes of the original negative has been lost. The producers of the now-available DVD offer two versions; one with the existing picture, and another (thank God) with the screenplay intact, and a black picture over the dialogue scenes where the original picture was lost. I found the latter to be preferable, hearing the entire script, for me anyway, was much more satisfying.
A delicious Fairy Tale beautifully delivered by Capra with: Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, and Sam Jaffe as The High Lama. And, Dmitri Tiomkin’s luscious musical score.
Officer Serpico’s best friend on the police force tells him, “Frankie, no one trusts a cop, don’t take money”. From Peter Mass’ book on New York City’s police corruption, and the true story of the cop who went on record against it. It takes almost the entire film for Serpico to persuade New York’s political establishment to accept the evidence he’s been trying to give them all along – evidence that leads to the Knapp Commission hearings. Director Lumet is
at home, shooting on location, in the city he knows so well, and the film looks it. Dark and luscious lensing by Arthur Ornitz, and strong ensemble work by an familiar cast, filled with Lumet’s favorite actors. But, in my opinion, the smartest decision Sidney Lumet made was hiring Mikis Theodorakis to do the musical score, music that seems to support every image, with lyrical simplicity. One of the all-time great New York location movies, with: Al Pacino as Officer Frank Serpico, surrounded by the Sidney Lumet repertory company.
George Roy Hill
Oddly enough I never saw Slapshot in a movie theater. My buddy Mal Worob had a tape of it in his Manhattan loft. This was even before VHS – it was probably a Betamax. Mal was the first person I knew who had copies of movies at home.
Anyway, I can remember Paul Newman, in an interview saying, “We got more out of less on Slapshot that any movie I was involved in”.
Newman plays the Player/Coach of a failed minor league Hockey Team, that’s being sold behind his back. So, with nothing to lose, he hires the Hanson brothers (real life hockey players), who are notoriously violent and dirty players, and the Chiefs go on a tear. Slapshot has the look of a film that was obviously fun for the actors involved, and it shows, the cast seemingly in on every gag. And that cast includes Newman, Lindsay Crouse, Strother Mortin, Michael Ontkean, and those effervescent Hanson brothers.
The Professionals 1966
Another Seven Samurai spin-off, but this one’s got Lee Marvin, and Burt Lancaster, and Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode, and Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale, and some of the sauciest, machismo, cowpoke dialogue ever delivered. Richard Brooks’ crusty screenplay constantly parodies itself, and the boys are up to the task. Lee and Burt play tired adventurers, hired for one last mission – bring back the kidnapped wife of a wealthy railroad mogul. They had both fought in Mexico with
Pancho Villa, and are not eager to ride back south of the border but, what the hell, ten thousand dollars a man buys a lot of tamales. Every actor is given quotable dialogue to deliver, and deliver they do. This movie could have been just silly, but director, script, and cast come together here, and the result is a thoroughly entertaining film. Beautiful cinematography by Conrad Hall, and the musical score, by Maurice Jarre, is unexpectedly spicey. Grab this, if you can.
The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
No, not that silly sequel with Pierce Brosnan. I’m talking about the 1968 original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. A big bank heist, simply for the thrill of it. A wealthy and bored McQueen robs the biggest bank in Boston, for fun. And insurance investigator Faye Dunaway is hired to crack the case. Of course, this is a movie, so they become romantically and competitively involved. She tells him she’s going to win, and get her man. He takes the challenge, and goes out and robs another bank, basically telling her, “I’m going to do it, and you can’t stop me, or catch me”.
Sexy, slickly entertaining suds, with two stars in their prime. And, unlike the silly sequel, someone has to win, and someone has to
lose. The chase becomes a chess match, figuratively, and literally. Great use of split-screen, and Michel Legrand’s Oscar winning score, with a great song, “Windmills of your Mind” woven through it. Bank heists, Polo, Glider planes, and Chess for sex. Ah, the Sixties.
Three Day’s of the Condor 1975
Is there a second CIA, inside the CIA? A question Turner (Robert Redford), a bookish, reader/researcher who works for the CIA asks himself, after returning from lunch to find everyone in his New York office has been assassinated. The Agency thinks he’s involved, and unknown forces are out to silence him. He needs time to sort it all out, and somewhere to hide. He kidnaps Faye Dunawaye, and uses her apartment – a place to think things through. Everyone is after him. Atwood (Addison Powell) whose secret network Turner accidently uncovered. Higgins (Cliff Robertson), the CIA’s Deputy Director who’s trying to bring him in. Wabash (John Houseman), a CIA Mandarin who orders him killed. Joubert (Max von Sydow) a hired assassin who befriends him. With the help of his kidnap victim Kathy (Faye Dunaway), he tries to solve the puzzle.
Condor is a fast paced, top notch CIA spy caper, with a clever, ever-twisting plot, and game cast. Pollock’s second best effort, I think. (Tootsie is hard to beat) Lorenzo Semple’s intelligent screenplay is smart and juicy. Slick cinematography by Owen Roizman, with good use of New York locales. Great stuff.
© 2011 Shaun Costello