This is the second greatest American film of the 1970s, but second only to its sequel The Godfather, Part II. Both rank among the greatest American films ever made.
I found it astonishing when it first came out, but it feels even more astonishing today, in a time when films of its scope and craft and taste and power and daring are no longer conceivable in Hollywood. Shot for shot the film explodes with Coppola’s creative energy and filmmaking mastery.
It is in one sense a deeply conservative film, stylistically — rooted in Coppola’s respect for the genius of the old studio system. It is in other ways wildly radical. Its brilliant cinematography by Gordon Willis combines elegant old-school lighting with more than a passing nod to the look of old 16mm color footage from the period the film is set in.
It introduces shockingly explicit sexuality and violence seamlessly into an older Hollywood tradition which treated these subjects more obliquely. Its vision of the utter, profound corruption of American society seems more and more prophetic.
The film is partly the apotheosis of the classic Hollywood gangster movie, partly a riveting family melodrama, partly a timeless fairytale (“There was a king who had three sons . . .”) It is a masterpiece that works on many different levels at once and grows in stature with every passing year. The Blu-ray edition of the film belongs in every American home.
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