Matchup of the Day: The Bad Sleep Well vs. The Godfather
We open with a wedding. Members of the press lurk at the entrance taking pictures of the high-profile guests. Some are in business, some are in government, and many have had trouble with the law. The head honcho’s daughter is getting married to a young man of dubious background who’s recently insinuated himself into the family, but the event is mostly an opportunity for the boss’s lieutenants to drink and powwow.
That more or less describes the opening of both Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), though it doesn’t do either justice. The Bad Sleep Well’s wedding scene culminates with the unveiling of a cake in the shape of a government building — the same building, we hear, that one of the boss’s underlings jumped to his death from five years previously. On the wedding cake, the window he fell from is decorated with a red rose. In The Godfather, Connie Corleone’s wedding is a carefully-woven introduction to the personalities of the principles: Vito the family man, Michael the young war hero, Sonny the scoundrel, Luca Brasi the brawn, Tom Hagen the brain. The Bad Sleep Well’s wedding leaves personalities and relationships largely mysterious but provides ample information about the plot, while The Godfather’s creates biographies in preparation for a story that doesn’t begin in earnest for another several scenes.
There are other moments where these movies seem to reflect each other: a newspaper montage, a lingering shot of a man closing a door on a woman, a crowded graveyard scene in which suit-wearing goons confer darkly with each other. Coppola was a great fan of Kurosawa, as the movie world learned later when Coppola and his friend George Lucas helped finance Kurosawa’s late-career renaissance. Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) is widely thought to have influenced Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), but which Kurosawa movies Coppola took inspiration from is less frequently discussed. My money’s on The Bad Sleep Well.
The bribery and violence that got The Bad Sleep Well’s patriarch his millions also made him enemies, but external threats he can handle. What he fails to understand is that the real danger to his crooked empire comes from within. He has a hothead son and a troubled daughter whose new husband seems to be using her for his own ends. Those elements should be instantly familiar to fans of The Godfather, and of course Coppola adapted them from Mario Puzo’s novel, but perhaps the example of Kurosawa’s film helped shape the way he did it, helped him narrow in on ideas about family and the corruption thereof.
The story of The Bad Sleep Well has been compared to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Kurosawa drew from Shakespeare’s well more than once.) Around the midway point we learn that Toshiro Mifune’s character is seeking revenge for the death of a father figure. So too does Michael Corleone seek revenge for the people who hurt his father, and in both cases the protagonists do as much harm to themselves and the people closest to them as to the targets of their hate. The futility of revenge and the loss of direction through hatred’s warped compass are concerns of both movies.
The movies belong to different parts of the universe of cinema. The Bad Sleep Well is a deep cut from Kurosawa’s filmography, a film for buffs. He made better, tighter, more stylish movies about crime and contemporary society in Stray Dog and High and Low. The Godfather, for its part, is an oft-quoted, oft-imitated cultural artifact, a canonical “must see” even for casual movie watchers. Flickchart stats illustrate the point:
- Global ranking: 3
- 68431 users have ranked it
- Wins 74% of matchups
- 2515 users have it at #1
- 19757 users have it in their top 20
The Bad Sleep Well
- Global ranking: 1049
- 336 users have ranked it
- Wins 55% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 5 users have it in their top 20
Flickchart users are right: not much beats The Godfather, not even a Kurosawa movie. Yet there’s reason to think that the former might owe a little something to the latter. At the very least, fans of one should find a lot to love about the other.