Ah, The Godfather (1972). For years it was my favorite ‘best film of all time’. Though partly motivated by way of coolness (of all the official contenders like Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Gone With the Wind (1939), The Godfather was simply the coolest one out there, especially for a teenage boy), it’s undeniable in its stature as a monumental piece of filmmaking. Few films are as engaging in their characters, as arresting in their images and atmosphere.
Of course, there are three Godfather movies, and all three are great in my mind. The story of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone engages from start to finish and leaves me emotionally drained every time I watch it. These movies are a prime example of the collective magic of film. In each respective discipline, be it cinematography, music, acting or writing, the Godfather achieves pure art.
In its cinematography the series always relied on cinematographer Gordon Willis. Just to give some bearings on that name for the uninitiated; Willis’ resume includes The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990), All the President’s Men (1976), Annie Hall (1977) and Klute (1971). All of these are considered classics of modern cinema. So yeah, the guy’s good.
The Godfather is one of those movies that’s filled up with magnificent scenes and shots, each one of them unique and memorable. From the silent opening of Bonasera’s plea to Don Corleone to the tense close up of Michael’s face just before he kills Sollozzo & McCluskey to the eventual doomed closing shot, the movie is filled with artistic flair. Still, I have a favorite and will analyze it in a moment. First, let’s zoom out and look at the cinematography of the Godfather in general.
Of light & Darkness and ‘that yellow look’
One thing that’s beautiful about Gordon Willis’ work, and really comes through in my chosen One Shot is his use of contrast, of playing with light and darkness. Many of the interiors, including don Corleone’s office, are bathed in darkness. Characters move in and out of the light and are often partially obscured by darkness. Famously, Willis lighted Marlon Brando’s face from the ceiling down, creating high contrasting shadows over his eyes, which made him more ambiguous in his thoughts, because we never truly saw his eyes.
That darkness contrasted strongly with the exterior scenes where everything was bathed in glowing warm colors and saturated light. And yet, it never felt dissonant. The transitions between light and dark always felt smooth and natural. There is a consistency in the cinematography that carries on even in parts II & III where the look stays consistent across decades of narrative-time. Sometimes Willis is credited with this amber-yellow look that is prevalent in these movies, and apparently he often was questioned about his use of filters or lightning to achieve that warm color-tone.
Willis once said, ‘…they thought they could duplicate the success of the movie by copying a single element… …The truth is that that color-tone would not have worked without the right lightning and that lightning would not have worked without the beautiful production design and costumes. All of these visual elements are tied together’ (Ettedgui, 1998)*
I love that quote in that it’s so obvious, yet so easy to forget. Film is a multitude of disciplines. It’s a collection of elements. Cinematography in that sense is not just about cameras, lenses and lights. It’s also about set design, make-up, costumes, acting, in some cases even sound design. Getting a certain ‘look’ may depend on using the correct lens, filming with the correct settings to achieve a certain motion, dressing up the set in specific colors and textures and lighting the set and actors in the right way. This multitude of elements is something that is perhaps ignored to often in these days of digital post-production and Instagram-looks.
Besides the apparent beauty of Willis’ work on The Godfather I am most impressed by the way he uses cinematography to suggest story developments and thematic undercurrents. Of course, here we really should call it the collaboration between Gordon Willis and director Francis Ford Coppola, as these sort of creative ideas are often invented in collaboration.
One example is the aforementioned ambiguity of Vito Corleone suggested by the lighting on his face. Similarly the matching shots of the baptism Michael Corleone’s son with shots of Michael executing most of his opponents suggests a moral death of his character. This later comes back in part II when Michael orders the death of his brother as his brother recites a hail-Mary. The movie is filled with these powerful metaphorical images.
But the most arresting and effective use of this visual storytelling shows up in the very final shot of the first film. It’s that well known moment where Michael truly shuts himself off from his wife and, consequentially, from his last connection to a legitimate, and moral, future. Here it is:
When his wife, Kay, finally confronts Michael about his business and his possible murder of his stepbrother Carlo, Michael lies to her and comforts her. Kay, momentarily relieved, leaves his office to get them a drink. As she stands in the hallway she looks back at Michael in his office as his ‘officers’ salute and honor him as the new Don of the family. One of them, Al Neri, walks up to the door and shuts it. But just before we see the door shut, the movie cuts to a reverse shot of Kay looking at the camera while slowly the darkness creeps in over the frame as the door is shut, and she is shut out.
That’s what I mean with visual storytelling, where one single visual tells a whole story through its metaphorical meaning. Kay is literally shut out by the closing door, but you feel it means so much more. It means Michael is now fully taken in by the mafia, and fully detached from the outside world. It means Michael and Kay are now separated, if not in marriage, at least in trust. And it does so by using that great contrast between light and darkness, so prevalent throughout the movie.
That one image, which literally is nothing more than a wipe to black is so significant in this story, and so iconic. It truly is one of the great shots, and great endings, of a motion picture.
*Quote is from ‘Cinematography; screen craft’ by Peter Ettedgui (translated from Dutch)