I can’t even begin to imagine how much has already been written about the Godfather films. Accolades abound to the highest level. Many, including myself believe The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are the greatest films ever made. For me, I generally consider them one movie. It’s hard for me to separate them because together they complete the most brilliant portrayal of the corruption of a man. That man is of course Michael Corleone.
My son and I were thrilled when we heard that both of these would be in our local megaplex’s classic film series. We were ecstatic to discover that they would be shown as a double feature. Jaw. Dropped. So this past Sunday he and I got to spend the better part of the day watching nearly flawless cinema on the big screen, the way director Francis Ford Coppola first envisioned it.
There are certain films that I believe people should see at some point in a theater. Movies like Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey suffer a little away from the big screen. I never considered The Godfather to be one of those movies. It came out the year I was born so I didn’t discover it for myself until I was about 25 years old. I loved it instantly but never considered I was getting a diminished version on video. I was wrong.
Watching these films back to back larger than life was a whole new viewing experience for me. During The Godfather I noticed things I had never seen before. But in part 2 I kept feeling like I was watching a director’s cut with extra footage. And what I saw was overpowering. Scenes like the baptism and Kay’s confession to Michael have a near physical impact. I was literally on the edge of my seat. I was drawn into the films in a new way even though I know these movies inside and out having seen them both countless times.
This big screen experience might be why I can now articulate why I believe that Part 2 is even better than part 1. For many this isn’t blasphemous but it is a little controversial. But I think I can explain why.
- Part 2 is an epic. The Godfather is intimate, personal and beautifully confined. Part 2 is so much more. It is truly an epic in every sense of the word. There are huge sweeping sequences that fill the screen much more in 2 than in 1. From 9-year old Vito’s trip to Ellis Island to Anthony’s first communion celebration to the Festa in the streets of 1920’s New York to New Year’s Eve in Havana, Part 2 tells its story on a grand stage. Which brings me to my next point…
- Part 2 is a more ambitious film. Major kudos to Coppola for the cojones to do Part 2 the way he did. After The Godfather’s success the stakes were pretty high for a sequel. He could have played it safe and still turned in a solid movie. But he swung for the fences and hit the home run of all home runs. While Vito Corleone’s origin story is in Mario Puzo’s original book, Michael’s continuation to a far darker Don than his father was written for the film. Not only does it ring true but it is juxtaposed so perfectly against the Vito flashbacks that they feel organically intertwined.
- There are more “interesting” characters in Part 2. Now, this isn’t to say that the characters in The Godfather aren’t interesting. But there are several very “interesting” characters in Part 2 unlike anything in part 1. Frank Pentangeli, Fanucci (The Black Hand), Hyman Roth and Fredo are such remarkable characters. Of course Fredo is in The Godfather but we don’t really get to know him until Part 2 and John Cazale really gives a layered performance. Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo got well-deserved Oscar nominations for their supporting roles but it was Robert DeNiro who won the award for his portrayal of Vito. Sometimes subtle and nuanced actually does get noticed but the other guys were more fascinating.
- Part 2 is action packed. OK, maybe it isn’t actually packed with action, but there is a lot more going on in 2 than in 1. There are more shootouts, explosions, riots, Cuban nightclub routines and Italian Vaudeville than The Godfather. Plus, the hustle and bustle of the streets of 1917 New York and 1958 Cuba keeps the screen filled with buzzing activity. The pace of The Godfather is methodical and it works perfectly but Part 2 brings some bursts of action throughout that takes this incredible story to the next level of film making.
This film deserves more credit than it gets. The American Film Institute ranks The Godfather as the #2 film of all time. It ranks The Godfather, Part II as #32 after movies like Bonnie and Clyde (#27), The African Queen (#17) and The Graduate (#7). These aren’t bad movies but maybe ranked a little high in comparison.
Not that Oscars mean everything but it was Part 2 that won twice as many. Some would of course argue that some of that was “make up” for The Godfather not getting more and that is certainly a legitimate point.
But what really astounds me is that Part 2 has only a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I know… “Only” 99%. But it did get me wondering who gave this movie a actual bad review? His name… Vincent Canby and he was the chief film critic for the New York Times for 25 years. I recommend reading the review. It is well written and thoroughly entertaining 40 years later. Canby has a lot of specific points as to why he greatly dislikes The Godfather, Part II, but maybe my favorite quote is this one.
“The Godfather, Part II,” which opened yesterday at five theaters, is not very far along before one realizes that it hasn’t anything more to say. Everything of any interest was thoroughly covered in the original film, but like many people who have nothing to say, “Part II” won’t shut up.
I guess you can’t please everyone.
So… What’s your take? Where do the Godfather films rank for you? Does Part 2 hold up? Or are you with Mr. Canby? Or somewhere in between? Comment below or tweet at me.
UPDATE: Since writing this after going to see both films on Sunday we returned on Wednesday, this time with my father who had never seen them, to watch them both again. One might think that watching 2 movies back to back twice in four days might expose any lags in the storytelling or the pace of the films. Any slow parts would be glaring since everything was so fresh. Not with these films. It speaks again to their greatness.
P.S. The Godfather, Part III is not a very good movie. That is all.