An offer he couldn’t refuse

When Oregon State University film professor Jon Lewis was asked by the British Film Institute to write about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic, “The Godfather,” it put him among the ranks of authors like Salman Rushdie and Camille Paglia, as well as other respected film critics and historians. It was an exciting proposition. But it gave Lewis the challenge of looking for a new angle with which to write about the film. Already countless books have explored the historical framework surrounding the film, the status of the movie industry in the early 1970s, and how the movie changed history.

But surprisingly, the way Lewis found to write about “The Godfather” was the simplest – he realized that few scholars had simply looked at the film for itself – few had bothered to analyze “The Godfather” as a work of art.

Lewis’ book on “The Godfather” was published Oct. 26. He will give an interactive and informative talk on “The Godfather” trilogy, including little-known insights into the films’ connections with real-life mafia figures, at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15, in the MU Journey Room.

We recently had the chance to ask Lewis to pick some other films in the “gangster” genre that are his favorites. Here Lewis talks about five of them, in his own words:

“The Funeral” (1996): Part of the reason it made this list is that nobody has seen it. It’s this really unusual, eccentric film by this New York independent filmmaker Abel Ferrera, who is known solely for his sensational and terrifying movie “Bad Lieutenant.”

“The Funeral” is in your face. It was produced by the actress Annabella Sciorra, and it’s sort of rare for a gangster film to have a woman’s touch. But you can really see what she was after in this movie. It’s yet again about a family, but this one is really dysfunctional in interesting ways. It has all these actors who were about to become famous, but in 1996 nobody had heard of them. Benicio del Toro is in it, before anyone had seen him mumbling incoherently in a movie, and Christopher Penn, the brother of Sean Penn, is just fantastic in it. Vincent Gallo is really terrific. And the patriarch is Christopher Walken, who is in his ultra-Christopher Walken mode. He kills this guy, and he has this wonderful monologue where he explains for like five minutes how he doesn’t want to kill him, but he has to do it and it’s a Catholic thing, and he goes on and on. It’s unpredictable at every turn.

“The Big Combo” (1955): This is a noir gangster film. It’s by Joseph Lewis, a director nobody’s heard of, though he also did the original “Gun Crazy,” which is also a great film. Richard Conte, who plays Barzini in the first “Godfather,” plays Mr. Brown. The film is very much about assimilation, which is what a lot of gangster films are about. Brown has changed his name to something very bland. And the cop named Diamond, whenever he says his name, almost spits it out, like, “Mr. Brown,” derisively, to let us know he knows it’s not the Italian gangster’s real name. The last scene is taken right out of “Casablanca.” It’s set in an airplane hangar and the cop and gangster’s moll walk off into the fog.

It’s a B-gangster film but it’s so much better than I bet anyone imagined. I am guessing that Coppola in fact hired Conte because like me, he saw “The Big Combo” and said, ‘Wow, this is not just a B-movie. This is really quite fantastic.’

“Out of the Past” (1947): I’m hardly alone in thinking this is one of the greatest films ever made. It’s more of a detective film I suppose. A really young Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, and again the name is important here. It’s a name that has no apparent ethnicity. And he’s a gambler. And he lives in Tahoe – sort of like Michael (referring to Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” movies). He runs his empire over the telephone. Whit never really does anything, and kind of never really threatens anybody. Even though his girlfriend has shot him and has taken $60,000 from him, he doesn’t want the money back he just wants her. Other people kill for him, but he doesn’t do anything. And the only thing he’s afraid of is the IRS. It’s a very smooth portrayal of gangster as corporate thief, which for 1947 is quite sophisticated.

“Mean Streets” (1973): Well, you can’t take movies to a desert island, but I’d take Mean Streets to a desert island. It’s one of the truly great films and it is Scorsese’s first gesture at a movie that’s truly his. I love the Johnny Boy character – Scorsese gets something out of Robert De Niro in that role that you don’t see again. It’s got this soundtrack that’s really unusual for a gangster film, and this eeriness, this sense of abandon.

“Animal Kingdom” (2010): It probably shouldn’t be on this list but I just saw it this week and I really liked it. It’s an Australian film about this kid who’s 18 or 19 years old and his mother dies of a heroin overdose. He gets adopted by his grandma, and she is the matriarch of this completely lunatic gangster family. And her sons are just crazy. I mean, in “The Godfather” films, Michael is this smart, calculating guy. There’s that scene in “The Godfather 2,” where after he testifies at the Senate, his wife says ‘Michael, I should have known you were too smart for them.’ Well, these guys aren’t too smart for anything. They are really stupid. And I found that to be an interesting twist, watching this young kid navigate that world.

*Home page photo courtesy of Theresa Hogue

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