Francis Ford Coppola's twin masterpieces The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have almost innumerable qualities to recommend them and stand up to repeat viewing like few other movies. But nobody would watch them for story alone. The scripts, co-written by Coppola and Godfather novelist Mario Puzo (with some pinch-hitting by Robert Towne), feature clever-to-Byzantine plotting as they work through the secret history of the American underworld, from its turn-of-the-century origins through the films' equivalent of the Kefauver hearings. But it's the doomed inhabitants of that world that bring us back. Whether it's Barzini or Tattaglia who orders the hit on Marlon Brando's Don Corleone matters much less than the role that moment plays in the slow disintegration of the Don's tight-knit family.
There's a story working above mere plot here, one that creates a seductive, fatalistic vision of how the reckless pursuit of the American Dream erodes innocence and frays family ties. Consider one scene from Part II: Young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) has just tiptoed into a life of crime at the urging of new friend and future capo Clemenza (played as a young man by Bruno Kirby). His first spoil is an expensive red rug stolen from the house of a wealthy family. After carrying it home with Kirby, De Niro gingerly places his toddler son Santino—whom, played by James Caan, we've already seen die violently in the first movie—at its center. "Look how pretty it is," his mother insists, but the boy won't stop crying. It's as if he senses what we already know: This is the moment that seals his fate.
In The Godfather films, family sustains until it starts to kill. The first film traces the decline of Don Vito Corleone and the ascent of his son Michael (Al Pacino), a war hero whose stated intention to stay out of the family business matches his father's ambitions to keep him clean. But in the world the Don's helped create, it's a foolish wish. Coppola uses the peerless dark lens of cinematographer Gordon Willis to capture the eclipse of Pacino's soul as he casts his commitment to a law-abiding life aside in order to protect his family. What starts as a familial obligation slowly turns Michael into a colder version of the father he set out to protect. His mounting sins give the famous christening finale the tone of a satanic rite.
By Part II, the rise and fall structure has given way to a story of sustained tragedy. Having abandoned New York for Nevada, Pacino's gift for exploiting weakness and corruption has granted him wealth and access beyond his father's dreams, but happiness and security haven't followed. Here Coppola alternates between De Niro's Vito as he comes into his own in a bustling, immigrant-filled New York—the finest moments Coppola has ever put to film, and among the finest anyone has—and Pacino's slow slide to a final scene that leaves him in cursed isolation. Coppola makes that destiny look both inevitable and devastating.
Fortunately, another kind of degradation has been reversed with The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration, the product of years of effort by restoration expert Robert Harris. Given sometimes tattered negatives, Harris worked with Willis to restore the films to the way they looked upon original release—heavy shadows, overblown sunlight, film grain, and all. The restoration looks great on DVD and stunning on Blu-Ray, where the high def picture lets viewers savor the almost subliminal twitches on which Pacino and Brando build their performances.
Key features: The new set imports all the documentaries, commentary tracks, and deleted scenes that accompanied the so-so-looking 2001 DVDs alongside some new docs on the restoration and fannish appreciations from the likes of Richard Belzer, Sarah Vowell, and others. Also included: something called The Godfather Part III, which at this point is probably best treated as a long bonus feature.