Is there a greater American film than The Godfather Part II (1974)? If there is, and I do not believe there is, I have yet to see it. What Coppola achieved in The Godfather (1972) was something quite extraordinary, making a film that explores the American Dream corrupted yet achieved. The Corleone family came to this country dirt poor, yet achieved enormous wealth and power through a life of crime. Yet they are presented to us as hard working, a loving family, a group of people who truly care for each other, yet go to work and perhaps do murder if they
find it necessary to do so. Written as a pulp novel, Coppola worked with writer Mario Puzo to shape the screenplay, deepen the story, and gave it an operatic sense of tragedy that was almost Shakespearean in its execution. Marlon Brando’s superb performance as aging Don Vito Corleone became a part of pop culture, winning Brando his second Academy Award (which he promptly refused), but more importantly reminded a generation of film goers of Brando’s astounding gifts as an actor. Vito dies in the film, in fact he is onscreen perhaps thirty minutes of the film’s three hour running time, yet his presence is always felt. The power in the family shifts to Michael (Al Pacino) who never wanted to be a part of the family business, but in the final scene is addressed as Don Corleone. When Paramount offered the idea of a sequel to Coppola he had no interest at all in making one. The Godfather was the highest grossing film of all time, had won the Academy Award as Best Picture, and Coppola had won the Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director, losing the Oscar to Bob Fosse for Cabaret (1972). When they came back with an offer of complete control over the film and one million dollars to direct, they had taken a line from the first film and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The Godfather Part II bookends the first film, told in a non-linear fashion, with the story of Vito (Robert de Niro) and his rise to power in Little Italy in the early part of the 20th century, and flashing forward to explore Michael’s consolidation of his power in Las Vegas at the expense of his soul. The film is a picture of enormous scope and sweeping beauty, yet never loses sight of the fact Coppola is telling a very intimate story of a family involved in crime. Forced to flee Sicily as a boy when his family is slaughtered, nine year old Vito lands at Ellis Island, staring at the Statue of Liberty unsure of what his future will bring. He will find work, love and marry a pretty young woman who bears him children, while he toils as a grocer’s clerk. Yet he notices everything in the bustling neighborhood, including the local Mafia chieftain, who he decides to murder, taking his place as a man of respect. Indeed, Vito is a man to be respect and feared, and very quickly establishes himself as such with Clemenza and Tessio at his side. He returns to Sicily to avenge his family’s murders, slicing the belly of the now ancient Don wide open before fleeing the scene to return to America to raise his sons and daughter. Michael has left New York as he promised to do at the end of the first film and has established himself in Vegas. Yet the greater power he achieves, the more he seems to want. He is far removed from the war hero we first encountered at Connie’s wedding in the first film, now a ruthless, cold blooded killer. He lacks his father’s warmth and ability to balance his blood family with his crime family; with Michael the two have become one, with Vito the line was very clear. When an attempt is made on Michael’s life he does not realize the betrayer is his dim witted
brother Fredo (John Cazale) whom himself did not know it was going to be a hit. Of course, Fredo was lied too by Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) who pretends to be Michael’s friend, but in fact wants him dead. Lashing out, Michael wipes out all those who oppose him, firmly establishing himself as the most powerful Mafia chief in America.
The central theme of the film is that absolute power corrupts absolutely and we see that in Michael. He knows his older brother Fredo was duped, lied too, but still will not spare his life, ordering him executed. He coldly demand the loyalty of his adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) a man he trusts implicitly but whom he also considers expendable, much to the shock of Hagen. And he loses Kay (Diane Keaton) his wife, who has aborted their child, a son, because she cannot bear to bring another into the world Michael exists in. Enraged Michael shuts her out of his life forever, closing the door on her without a word. While the picture so brilliantly explores the manner in which power corrupts, it is also about the loss of one’s soul, in point Michael’s, who in ordering the murder of Fredo is beyond redemption, and at the end of the film utterly alone, though all powerful.
As much as the film is about a family and a study of two men, the picture is also about the corruption of America. At one point Hyman Roth tells Michael, “Mike we’re bigger than US Steel” giving the audience an idea of the vast power and reach the crime organization actually has. There is so much hope on the faces of the immigrants as they glide past Lady Liberty, arriving in this new land with dreams of a better life, and indeed Vito finds that, in the world of crime, in which he involves his sons. There is much to admire in the film beyond the stunning performances of the actors, beginning with Coppola’s superb direction, which is
sometimes sweeping in its brilliance, always aware he is telling a very intimate story of people. Superbly shot, the great Gordon Willis again gives the film the look of the paintings of Modigliani with those dark blacks, browns and grays. And the score, a masterful creation by Copppola’s father Carmine, who deserved the Oscar he won for his efforts.
The Godfather Part II (1974) was nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Pacino), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor three times (De Niro, Strasberg, and Michael V. Gazzo), Best Supporting Actress (Talia Shire), Best Screenplay, Best Score, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. It is astonishing to me that the brilliant cinematography of Gordon Willis was snubbed as it was by far the years finest, and the performances of Robert Duvall, John Cazale and Diane Keaton deserved nominations as well. On Oscar night, the
film was something of a surprise winner, grabbing six awards in all, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), Best Score, Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction.
Al Pacino’s riveting performance as Michael was the best work of his career and frankly, remains such. Radiating danger whenever he is onscreen, he does more with a glance of those dark eyes than most actors can accomplish with pages of dialogue. It is a performance of astounding power that should have won the Oscar that year.Robert de Niro is brilliant as young Vito, capturing the essence of what Brando had given us as the elderly Vito. The movements are the same, there is that same patience when he speaks, and the hand gestures are exact to what Brando did in the first film. It is as if De Niro was channeling the spirit of Brando into his performance. He captures that rasping voice to perfection, and speaks a single line of English, otherwise the entire performance is in Sicilian. The Oscar win launched his career and brought him to be cast in Taxi Driver (1976) for director Martin Scorsese. Acting guru Lee Strasberg does wonders in his first acting role, as Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, based on Meyer Lansky. His body coiled with
rage, his eyes all knowing, taking in every gesture for a hint of betrayal; he is a master manipulator meeting his match with Michael, who he
betrays and dies for doing so. Robert Duvall is again superb as Tom Hagen, loyal to the Corleones, and the great John Cazale is forever haunting as Fredo, undone by his greed and the feeling of being passed over, forgetting his brother’s ruthlessness, never thinking it would lead to his doom.
Has there ever been a greater directing achievement than The Godfather Part II?
Walking away with three Academy Awards for the film, for his direction, producing and writing he was the toast of Hollywood, the director of the moment, himself the godfather of all the younger directors who looked to him for leadership and the next move.
One final note. For me The Godfather films stop here. In the universe that is John H. Foote, The Godfather Part Three (1990) does not exist, was never made, and remains invisible to me. Paramount betrayed Coppola with this one, lied to him and rushed him after promising to stay out of it. The result was a re-written script that eliminated a crucial character from the first script entitled The Godfather: The Death of Michael Corleone, and having read it I can say with all honesty, if they had been permitted to make that film, it would have been a masterpiece, instead of
the film we got, which does not exist.