I thought about writing this review in just seven words.
“This is the greatest film ever made.”
But how could I possibly pass up a chance to talk about The Godfather, Part II?
I’ve done this before. Three years ago I wrote an article about why I believe the sequel is superior to the original (read the article here). I didn’t want to go into that with this article. There’s enough to say about Part II all on its own.
So, as Julie Andrews once said, let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
“The idea of a sequel seemed horrible to me.” – Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola didn’t even want to make The Godfather, Part II. After some convincing he thought maybe he could just produce it and have Martin Scorsese direct it. He and Mario Puzo (the author of The Godfather novel) had completely different ideas about where the story would go next.
“Then after I started thinking about the idea, when I considered we’d have most of the same actors, the scenes we might be able to develop in depth, I started feeling it really might be something innovative.” – Francis Ford Coppola
I’d like to present the award for “Understatement of the Year” to Francis Ford Coppola. Yeah, Francis, it was innovative.The story runs along two parallel lines. One picks up three years after the end of the first film with Michael becoming the new Don. He has moved the family’s base of operations to Lake Tahoe, Nevada. He has begun working on a deal with gangster Hyman Roth to expand their operations into Cuba. Meanwhile he’s investigating an assassination attempt, facing a senate committee on organized crime and doing everything he can to hold together a family coming apart at the seams.
The other flashes back to 1901 where we meet a 9-year old Vito Corleone and learn how he immigrated to America and became the powerful mob boss we saw at the beginning of The Godfather.
The film is full of parallels.
For instance, once the story flashes forward to 1958 we once again find ourselves at a party. Instead of Connie’s wedding, the Corleone family and several hundred of their closest friends are gathered to celebrate Michael and Kay’s son Anthony’s first communion.
Michael conducts meetings in his office, but unlike his father, he isn’t generously granting requests to friends.
Senator Pat Geary tries to shakedown Michael over gaming rights for a casino. Michael refuses. The exchange is vulgar and menacing.
Corleone caporegime Frank Pentangeli has taken over after Clemenza died and comes for help from Michael to deal with the Rosato brothers back in New York. Michael refuses as it will disrupt his business dealings with Roth. Frank is disgusted by Michael’s betrayal.
Connie has brought her new boyfriend Merle with a request for money so they can book passage on the Queen Elizabeth where she and Merle will be married. Michael refuses and tells Connie to break it off with Merle.
And this is just the beginning. The contrasting elements are so richly layered throughout and demonstrate how far Michael has strayed from the kind of man his father was.
Vito rose to power to protect his family, his friends and his neighbors.
Vito: My name is Vito Corleone. Signora Colombo is a friend of my wife. She says she’s been evicted for no good reason. She’s a poor widow, she has nobody to take care of her. She has no relatives, no money. All she has is this neighborhood.
Signor Roberto: I already rented the place to another family.
Vito: I told her that I’d talk to you. That you’re a reasonable man.
Michael has expanded his empire to control everyone and everything around him. He has become paranoid and unrelenting.
Tom: Now Roth and the Rosatos are on the run. Are they worth it? And are we strong? Is it worth it? I mean you’ve won…you want to wipe everybody out?
Michael: I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies, that’s all.
The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II is, above all else, the story of the corruption of a man. Seeing this contrasted side-by-side emphasizes that journey. You see just how far down the dark path Michael Corleone has run.
Coppola’s decision to intercut Vito and Michael’s stories together puzzled some critics at the time. Today the idea of mixing plotlines and even timeframes is more commonplace, but when Coppola was filming Part II some worried that viewers would have trouble keeping up with essentially two films running concurrently.
Even Roger Ebert was perplexed.
“The Godfather, Part II” moves both forward and backward in time from the events in “The Godfather,” in an attempt to resolve our feelings about the Corleones. In doing so, it provides for itself a structural weakness from which the film never recovers…The flashbacks give Coppola the greatest difficulty in maintaining his pace and narrative force. The story of Michael, told chronologically and without the other material, would have had really substantial impact, but Coppola prevents our complete involvement by breaking the tension. The flashbacks to New York in the early 1900s have a different, a nostalgic tone, and the audience has to keep shifting gears. Coppola was reportedly advised by friends to forget the Don Vito material and stick with Michael, and that was good advice… Coppola is unable to draw all this together and make it work on the level of simple, absorbing narrative. – Roger Ebert, January 1974
I disagree wholeheartedly.
Every frame is a masterpiece. The visual grandeur is so impressive. Huge sweeping sequences like 9-year old Vito’s trip to Ellis Island, the Festa in the streets of 1920’s New York and New Year’s Eve in Havana tell the story on a grand stage.
The film is airtight. No seams. Even after 40+ years there are no frayed edges. It holds up. I once watched it at the local theater twice in the span of four days. Not a single lag in the storyline. I never once found myself feeling like I was waiting through scenes just to get to the “good parts.” It’s flawless.
There aren’t enough accolades for the acting in The Godfather, Part II. The film received five acting nominations. Best actor for Pacino, three supporting actors and even Talia Shire who I nitpicked in the first one is much, much better here. Even the bit players and extras are superb.
One of those three supporting actor nominations went to Michael Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli. He is absolute dynamite. Originally this part was meant to be Clemenza but Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza in the first film, wanted too much creative control. He wanted to write all of Clemenza’s dialogue. Coppola said no and instead created the new character of Frank Pentangeli.
As much as I love the character of Pete Clemenza, Frankie “Five Angels” is far more explosive. It wouldn’t have worked with Clemenza.
Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth) and Robert DeNiro (Vito) round out the supporting actor nominations with DeNiro taking home the Oscar. He is the most understated of the three but he gets the most screen time, about 48 minutes’ worth.
The lost man in the mix is John Cazale as Fredo Corleone. He’s a champ. He didn’t do much in The Godfather but Coppola expanded his role and it’s sensational. His performance gives the modern-day story its heart.
Fredo is the middle child who didn’t have the fire in his belly like his older brother or the cool cunning of his younger brother. When he gets duped into helping Michael’s enemies stage an assassination attempt it breaks Michael’s heart. And we all ache for Fredo.
Michael: I’ve always taken care of you, Fredo.
Fredo: Taken care of me?! You’re my kid brother and you take care of me? Did you ever think about that? Did you ever once think about that? Send Fredo off to do this, send Fredo off to do that! Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere. Send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport! I’m your older brother Mike and I was stepped over!
Michael: It’s the way Pop wanted it.
Fredo: It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things, I’m smart! Not like everybody says. Like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!
After their mother dies there’s a moment at the wake when Michael reconciles with Fredo and the two embrace. As Fredo grips Michael tighter and tighter Michael looks over Fredo to Al Neri, his second in command. They two make eye contact and you know that Fredo’s fate is sealed.
It’s about as Greek tragedy as it gets.
What might be even more tragic is that Pacino didn’t win the Oscar. It might be one of the best performances by an actor in film history and although he was nominated he lost to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto. That might be the biggest WTF moment since Joel Grey (Cabaret) beat out Pacino for the first film. At least there are more than 10 people on the planet today who have heard of Cabaret. The same can’t be said about Harry and Tonto.
But besides that grievous disaster in Academy judgement there was plenty of Oscar love for Part II. In fact, it was much for than for part 1.
Once again the Corleone saga had the most nominations. It tallied 11 (tied with Chinatown). But this time it was the big winner of the night taking home six Oscars.
Coppola won another screenwriting Oscar and wasn’t snubbed this time for best director. And think about this. The Godfather, Part II wasn’t the only film he made in 1974. He also produced, wrote and directed The Conversation* starring Gene Hackman.
AND IT WAS UP FOR BEST PICTURE TOO!!!
What a superstar he was at the time. Between 1970-1974 Francis Ford Coppola had done the following…
- Wrote 3 best pictures – Patton (1970), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather, Part II (1974)
- Produced and directed two best pictures – The Godfather (1972), The Godfather, Part II (1974)
- Produced, wrote and directed another best picture nominee – The Conversation (1974)
- Produced another best picture nominee – American Graffiti (1973)
In five years he had 9 Oscar nominations and five wins. More would come over his stellar career but in the first half of the 1970s there was nobody hotter than Francis Ford Coppola.
History has smiled favorably on the second installment of the Corleone saga.
Years later Roger Ebert went back and reevaluated the film. I’ll just leave this one right here…
Coppola is at the top of his form in both films… grippingly written, directed with confidence and artistry…why is it a great movie? Because it must be seen as a piece with the unqualified greatness of “The Godfather.” The two can hardly be considered apart. “The Godfather: Part II” [is] a film that everyone who values movies at all should see. – Roger Ebert, October 2008
The film was and still is an epic. The greatest of all time.
*The Conversation was up for three Oscars: picture, screenplay and sound.