A somewhat revisionist look at “The Godfather” trilogy

I rewatched the Godfather trilogy in three nights. I think the first is as great as ever. Pacino has as much or more screen time as Brando in the first one, but would not get my vote in a one-on-one contest. For best supporting actor, a one-on-three contest of “Godfather” nominees, I think I’d go for James Caan, but ratify the choice of Joel Grey from “Cabaret” (he was expecting to hear Pacino’s name rather than his).


I think the third is better than its repute, the second not as good. I’d go with Art Carney in “Harry and Tonto” over Pacino, who is mostly frozen through the second part. There were again three best supporting actor nominees (De Niro won, Michael Gazzo and Lee Strassberg were also nominated; John Cazale’s Fredo went unnominated.) Coppola’s younger sister, Talia Shire, who was outstanding across all three movies, was nominated for the middle one (losing to Ingrid Bergman, who did not think she deserved it, though I recall she thought that Valentine Cortese was her choice).


Sofia Coppola was ripped for her performance as Michael’s daughter, Mary. OK, more for the lack of chemistry with Andy Garcia, who played her older and ultra-hirsute (-chested) cousin, Vincent (losing the supporting actor to Joe Pesci). I don’t know why the lack of chemistry adheres to one side. She has had a crush on him, which seems plausible. What is not is that he would reciprocate his cousin’s love (he played the illegitimate son of Sonny). As the daughter Sofia was just fine.


I think the supporting actor nominee should have been Eli Wallach, who pretends to having retired from scheming, but is still very much in the game, though brought down by his sweet tooth (poisoned cannoli). (I’d bump Pacino from “Dick Tracy” rather than Garcia). I didn’t recognize Helmut Berger (he was no longer the beauty Visconti and Losey presented). I recognized George Hamilton, who was less interesting than Robert Duvall, as the crime family lawyer, being given no characterization.

It is necessary to note that Diane Keaton’s Kay (Michael’s girlfriend, then wife) grows more formidable with each installment. Talia Shire gains self-assurance in widowhood, though I don’t know why she becomes Vincent’s advocate. (One could say they lack “chemistry, “too.)

The plot is overly complex, though it is clear that the new pope (John Paul II) is murdered, along with Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) in another montage of murders, this time crosscut with “Cavalleria Rusticana” in which Anthony Vito, (Franc d’Ambrosio), the son of Michael and Kay, and brother of Mary, is making his debut as Turuidu in Bagheria (,Sicily). (There’s also a dollop of “Nabucco” when Anthony gets Bagheria and the Oscar-nominated song “Promise Me You’ll Remember” was voiced by Harry Connick, Jr.)

I remember being impressed by the church/murders montage in the first “Godfather.” It has lost its novelty and some of its impact. For me there is too much crosscutting in all three movies. I don’t see the need for the young Vito flashbacks in Part II, not least in that they are not flashes back to any character. De Niro was very good and won his first Oscar almost entirely in Italian, but to me these scenes are a separate movie and get in the way of the 1950s story. Also the scene at the end following Pearl Harbor in which Michael tells his brothers (including Robert Duvall’s quasi-sibling and Abe Vigoda) that he has joined the navy. I haven’t seen the chronological reshuffling that puts these before the start of Godfather I, but it seems like a good idea. There are plenty of set pieces spread across the three movies, though I also understand that throwing viewers in to a big fête had a strong impact.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis contributed an often sepia look to all three parts, Oscar-nominated and ASC Award-nominated only for the third.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Innocent Sorcerers


I don’t think that “Niewinni czarodzieje” (Innocent Sorcerers, 1960, written by Jerzy Skolimowski, directed by Andrzej Wadja) is a great film. I find its protagonist — a sports physician named Bazyli, who is also the drummer of a jazz ensemble — played by the alarmingly platinum-blond Tadeusz Lomnicki (the lead in Wajda’ “A Generation” (Pokolenie), and the tailor in the first installment of the “Dekalog”) not just unsympathetic but uninteresting. The “Polish James Dean,” Zbigniew Cybulski (star of Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds”) has a smaller part as Edmund that is also not very sympathetic or very interesting.


Both of them are eager to seduce Pelagia (Krystyna Stypulkowska, who only appeared in three movies, of which this was the first). She chooses Bazyli and toys with him through a night. They play a particularly boring game in which the winner of each round (of flipping a matchbox) commands the loser to remove an item of clothes. Surprisingly, there is a payoff. I admire how Wajda set it up and also a disgruntled boxer (played by Jerzy Skolimowski) whom Bazyli refused to allow in the ring.

“Innocent Sorcerers” turned out to be one of those movies that are more satisfying after watching than while watching — though these are movies that viewers may abandon part way through.


Roman Polanski plays one of Bazyli’s buddies (a group as aimless as the youth in Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”). Bazyli does not seem to like his buddies other than (possibly) Edmund, but is not as detached as Ethan Hawke is in “Before Sunrise,” Richard Linklater’s more recent exploration of an urban night involving a pickup that is not a “zipless fuck.”

The cool jazz score by Krzysztof Komeda (who went on to score several Polanski movies, including “Rosemary’s Baby” before an early death, and who is one of the buddies in the film) is quite good, reminiscent of Miles Davis’s score for “Elevator to the Gallows” (though not featuring a trumpeter).


The transfer or the original print was not that good, though “Innocent Sorcerers” does not have much in the way of striking visual compositions to compromise (at least after the opening credits sequence of graphic art). There are no DVD bonus features. Given that Wajda usually had interesting things to say about his earlier films on other DVDs, this is disappointing. He might have convinced me that the film is better than I thought even after my estimation rose with the sun during the film! Perhaps there is a political subtext in this portrayal of a certain Bohemian life in Warsaw ca. 1960 that I missed.

“Innocent Sorcerers” may be the place to start with the films of Jerzy Skolimowski. The place to start with Wajda films is the trilogy of films set around the end of World War II in Warsaw.


©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray



The Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn

Even without knowing that his father, Jakub, had been murdered at Katyn in 1940, I wasn’t expecting Andrzej Wadja’s 2007 “Katyn” to be light entertainment, and it wasn’t. The massacre by the Soviet secret police) NKVD, predecessor of the KGB) of 22,000 Poles (of whom 15,000+ were military officers) is not shown until the final ten minutes, after opposing the Soviet coverup (blaming it on the Nazis) led to more deaths.


The steely Anna (Maja Ostaszewska),a version of the director’s mother, survives and eventually abandons hope that her husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), will return alive. There are other characters and bits of romance that cannot last very long. The construction of the movie seems a bit haphazard to me, though the anguish of lost exacerbated by having to condone lies about responsibility for the crimes is very clear.

The foreigners, both Soviet and Nazi, are portrayed as unmitigated villains. There is more sympathy for Polish collaborators, and those gathered to be slaughtered are without characterological blemishes. Yes, the movie before the harrowing climax verges on post-Warsaw Pact agit-prop.


The movie, which was nominated for a best foreign-language picture Oscar, and had big box office success in Poland, is banned in the PRC as well as in Russia, though in 1990 the final Soviet regime (Gorbachev’s) acknowledged NKVD responsibility and expressed “profound regret”


©2016, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

19th-century Polish farce: “Revenge”

Zemsta” (Revenge, 2002) is an adaptation by the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda of what is apparently a verse play dating from 1834 by Aleksander Fredro (1791 – 1876) that is as well-known in Poland as “Romeo and Juliet” is in the Anglophone world. The English subtitles are very prosaic, so a lot is lost in translation. I’ll have to take it on faith that in Polish the characters sound sonorous rather than overblown, though surely the puffed-up Józef Papkin played by Roman Polanski (just after having won an Oscar for directing “The Pianist”) is a windbag in Polish.


Polanski had appeared in Wajda’s “A Generation” back in 1955 and in several of his own movies (most memorably slashing Jack Nicholson’s nose in “Chinatown” and as the paranoid title character in “The Tenant”) and seems to have enjoyed himself in this comic role.

Papak is the coward delegated by a notary, Cześnik Raptusiewicz (Janusz Gajos) to see if a widow (the very buxom (Katarzyna Figura) will wed him and to challenge the owner of the other half of the castle, Rejent Milczeka (Andrzej Seweryn), in which he lives to a duel. Czenik’s niece Klara (Agata Buzek) and Rejent’s only son Waclaw (Rafal Królikowski) are infatuated with each other (very Romeo and Juliet, though the play is a farce rather than a tragedy).


Rejent wants his son to marry the widow for reasons of property as well as to spite Czenick, which makes Czenik eager to marry the young lovers to spite Rejent for ruining his marriage plans. (The widow seems to have initiated Waclaw to sex some time before her most recent widowhood, or even before that marriage). It’s all pretty standard farce (the later French playwright Jaques Feydeau’s in particular) with lack of knowledge about identities and inheritance foiling the plots the characters concoct to attain wealth, property, and conjugal bliss.

The movie (shot by Pawel Edelman, also fresh from Polanski’s “The Pianist”) looks like a play, with all the scenes, except one early on of Papkin trudging through the snow toward the castle, set in the castle in which the two grumpy old men unpeacesfully coexist and connive.

I think one needs to be Polish or at least to understand Polish to appreciate this movie. But the plot would have even fewer surprises then. I’d never heard of the play and I knew from the setup pretty much how things would turn out for everyone except the widow.


©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Wadja’s “Danton” (and Robespierre)

Andrzej Wajda’s first movie made outside Poland, “Danton” (1983) is remarkably lacking in point of view or striking visual compositions. Gérard Depardieu, in the title role returning in 1794 to try to quell the reign of terror, and Wojciech Pszoniak, as Maxim Robespierre, go through their motions of rallying The People, and the Terror is ongoing at the end I don’t know why Wajda (fresh from the struggles of Solidarity that underlie his “Man of Iron”) wanted to make a movie about the French Revolution’s Stalin triumphing over its Trotsky (with Louis Saint Just, chillingly played by Boguslaw Linda, as its Lavrentiy Beria).


Though talky (based on a 1931 play “Sprawa Dantona” by Stanislawa Przybyszewska), it has confrontations, not just monologue lectures, and is relatively cinematic. Much of the dialogue is very stilted (plus the dubbing into French of many Polish actors’ lines) and the street scenes are low-budget studio shots. Though very long (138 minutes), those unfamiliar with the history of “la Revolution” in power will find the context confusing and certainly not laid out in the movie. There is very little backstory and no text at the end telling audiences what happed to Robespierre and the bloodthirsty St. Just.


Georges Danton, who first proclaims “Despotism is killing innocent people so that the guilty don’t escape,” and later “I’d rather be executed than be an executioner,” predicted that if he were executed, Roberspierre would soon follow, and was right. As a favorite of Robespierre who chose to die with Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Patrice Chéreau was a standout in the cast.


Depardeieu’s Danton is much earthier than Trotsky and Wojciech Pzoniak far more fastidious than Stalin. I doubt they were on Przybyszewska’s mind, though they certainly must have been on Wadza’s at the time of his exile, along with the Solidarity revolt that had been the subject of his previous movie, “Man of Iron” (with General Jaruzelski as an inhibited Robespierre?)

©2006, 2018, Stephen O. Murray


Six daughters in a 1920s Poland manor

Andrzej Wajda’s 1979 “Panny z Wilka” (released in the UK as “Maidens of Wilko,” in the US as “Young Girls of Wilco”) was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar (losing to “The Tin Drum”). It has to be one of Wajda’s least political films. Indeed, if it were in Swedish rather than Polish, I would guess that it was a film made by Ingmar Bergman rather than one made by Andrzej Wajda. The title characters are six daughters of the Wilko manor.


Some time during the 1920s, Wictor (Daniel Olbrychski) returns to stay with his aunt and uncle at the next manor. He stops briefly at the Wilko manor and learns that Fela, one of the young girls there who had been besotted by him before the war is dead. Wictor’s return after fifteen years stirs up the surviving sisters who had been rivals for him and one, Tunya (Christine Pascal), who was then too young to be a contender, but who resembles Fela and is very available.

Her elder sisters vie for Wictor’s attention. Two are married, though only one husband is in residence (a miserly ogre) though rarely present on screen. Wictor pretty much has the run of the hen house again. He and the women of Wilko have regrets about his failure to choose one of them when he was 20.

Wictor is as oblivious to the pain he causes on his return visit as he was as a youth. In some way he cannot choose one sister, because he is in love with them as a set. It doesn’t seem to me that he wants to be a brother; more like he would like a harem all doting on him. Passion is not within his character and he fails to recognize or understand it in others (to the frustration of his aunt and uncle as well as to the Wilko women who all feel spurned).

Wiktor is so lacking in agency, self-knowledge, or taking responsibility for anything as to be very unsympathetic. I think that this means that Daniel Olbrychski did a great job. It is easier to credit Krystyna Zachwatowicz’s Kazia, the most insightful of the sisters and the one on whom running the household has devolved. Being the only grown-up looks to be without fun or rewards, but Kazia has a son to shape (she’s teaching him French).

Although I was irritated at Wiktor from early on, I was not bored. The low-keyed penultimate scene is particularly impressive. It involves a visual trip from summer on one side of the river (green and clear-skied) to autumn (overcast with trees having already lost most of their leaves) on a hand-operated ferry. The final scene or epilogue shows a nearly empty train compartment with the author of the poetic novella on which the film is based, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz —and a snowy passing landscape. (Iwaszkiewicz also appeared earlier, walking through the woods with a book and a walking stick, passing Wiktor. Iwaszkiewicz was apparently one of the most revered of 20th-century Polish writers—but the only two whose work I know are Gombrowicz and Milosz, both of whom went into exile.)


The DVD includes multiple talking heads, including two by Wadja, one by Iwaszkiewicz’s daughter, a particularly illuminating one by cinematographer Edward Klosinski, one by screen adapter, Zbigniew Kaminski, and others by actors. I found all of them interesting. There are some other Wadja materials (a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from Steven Spielberg, the 2000 Oscarcast fanfare for him, and clickable boxes of two dozen Wadja movie DVDs.


The music is mostly work of Karol Syzmanowski,particularly the second violin concerto. Iwaszkiewicz knew Syzmanowski between the world wars and was pleased with the music used in the film, and, indeed, with the film.


©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


A “hero of labor” unraveling

The 1977 “Czlowiek z marmuru” (Man of Marble), directed by Andrzej Wajda’s (1926-2016) concerns the vagaries of adulation and debasement of a socialist hero, a “lead worker,” Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who was eager to build a modern, industrial Poland and World War II. Being very photogenic, he was filmed smashing the record for bricklaying (the team he led laid more than 30,000 in a shift) and then went around the country showing others (many of them not at all keen to learn) how to increase productivity.


In addition to being filmed in many newsreels, Birkut also posed for a heroic statue in the socialist realist style—hence the “man of marble.” After being used by the party, he was discarded and disgraced. Those who had besmirched his teammate, Wincenty Witek (Michal Tarkowski) fell from power and were themselves condemned, so that Birkut and Witek were rehabilitated. Witek was prepared to play the games of gaining power in the shifting currents of party dogma. Birkut was fed up and disappeared from public view, taking a new name.

His story is pierced together, “Citizen Kane” style, by a lanky blonde young film-maker, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda). Her project makes everyone uneasy—not only those who knew Birkut but those running the government-owned and -controlled film industry. At first, she seems an intrepid Searcher After Truth. I guess that she remains that, but her ruthlessness in stalking people, using hidden cameras and microphones, persisting in interrogating Hanka (Krystyna Zachwatowicz), a sports star who left Birkut after he was arrested, etc. make me come to regard her as more than a little of a monster. She is ready to use her beauty to get an interview with a film director and to counterfeit female solidarity and sympathy to cajole Hanka into talking to her (while covertly recording the conversation).

There is no “Rosebud” moment, and the ending is IMHO unnecessarily equivocal for viewers who have invested 160 minutes in watching Agnieszka’s hunt for Birkut. That cost the film a star in my rating. The deconstruction of how the regime built up and tore down proletarian heroes is, nonetheless, brilliant. Since the regime the cynicism of which was shown in Wadja’s film (and in Agnieska’s) was still very much in power, I am astonished that it was made and released.


Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwilowicz delivered genuinely great performances of considerable complexity. Zdzislaw Kozien is delightful as Agnieszka’s father, getting her off the couch when she has despaired, and Michal Tarkowski provides able support (in a character whose actions and motivations remain obscure).

The mixture of pseudo-archival black-and-white propaganda films and hard-edged 1970s desaturated color cinematography of Edward Klosinsk (who also shot the moody period piece “Gloomy Sunday”) also deserves special praise. The tracking shots through long corridors fits the American paranoid thriller style of the day quite remarkably.

©2007, 2018, Stephen O. Murray