By John H. Foote
It was the seventies and sequels were becoming the in thing in the film industry. Both a way to continue the story of beloved characters and make more money for the studios, sequels were a true oddity. Odd because they had existed since the beginnings of the sound era, the Universal monster series, the Tarzan franchise, Flash Gordon serial films, sequels had always been with us. In the seventies, 20th Century Fox had beaten to death their Planet of the Apes series, each progressively weaker. So as much as sequels might be popular with audiences they could terrify directors, who often refused to be involved, leaving the studios to give the job to up and comers rather than established directors.
Paramount did not make that mistake with The Godfather (1972). Not only had the film earned raves from critics around the globe, many declaring it the finest film ever made, but it won three Academy Awards including Best Picture and became the highest grossing film of all time in less than a year of release. The studio did not want to make a sequel that audiences disparaged, that critics erased, that was a shadow of the first film.
When Paramount approached Francis Ford Coppola about a sequel to his Oscar winning crime masterpiece, he initially balked, not believing he had anything more to say about the characters. But when they offered him complete artistic freedom to make the film he wanted, control of casting, story and he could produce as well as direct, a boatload of money, he returned to the book and with Mario Puzo, found a story he wanted to tell.
Sequestered with Puzo for months, author of the book, co-writer of the first script, they pounded out Part II and began casting. Brando initially agreed to do a cameo in the film, then backed out, and Richard Castellano, Clemenza of the first film, his ego growing, wanted far too much money to repeat his role, so Coppola wrote him out, replacing him with a similar character, Frankie Pentangeli, who would become more popular than Clemenza. Pacino, Canaletto, Duvall, Keaton, Shire and Morgan’s King all returned, but the key bit of casting was finding an actor who could portray a young version of Don Corleone, the character Brando had made iconic. Returning to the original audition tapes, Coppola honed in On Robert De Niro, about to break out in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). He met with De Niro and was struck with the manner he radiated danger and they agreed he would portray the young Vito.
Coppola told two stories with this film, the continuation of Michael ten years later in Vegas, having consolidated his power in North America, and through flashback, telling us how his father, Vito came to power in New York’s’ Little Italy after fleeing Sicily.
The breathtaking broken narrative worked like a dream, the performances were exquisite, the intimacy and scope of the film was astounding, it was and remains flawless. Brilliantly juxtaposing the rise of Vito in the teens and twenties with the moral corruption and decay of his son Michael, Coppola created a brilliant story of how power, absolute power, corrupts from within with shocking absolution. The final shot of Michael, sitting along as the autumn leaves blow by him is shattering because we have just seen a flashback to the day he joined the army, filled with hope and possibility.
The Godfather Part II (1974) is a work of art and ennobled cinema, showed us that film could be both art and entertainment, completing the Corleone saga with its dark brilliance. In so many ways it is simply breathtaking in its complexity and depth, in its astonishing study of how absolute power corrupts with absolution. Utter genius.
In my world, that is the world that is John H. Foote, The Godfather Part III (1990) does not exist, it was never made, I have erased it from my memory. The film is but a pale shadow of the first two, yet did not have to be, but that is another article. For me the Corleone saga ends with Michael closing the door on Kay, remembering the warmth of his family, surrounded by his brothers, and then, by his own hand, sitting alone in the growing cold.
Here are the ELEVEN (ten wasn’t enough) reasons why The Godfather Part II (1974) is the greatest American film ever made.
11. THE WOMEN
Connie comes home to Michael demanding money, engaged yet again. The man is convinced to leave and she stays to be with her brother, to care for her mother, to help Kay. She is perhaps more aware of the family business than Kay, though Kay knows enough to terrify her. Talia Shire is superb as Connie, understanding more than she knows. Diane Keaton is heartbreaking as Kay, living a life she does not want, knowing her husband is a killer, knowing his promises to go straight are an ongoing lie. Her betrayal of him
10. LEE STRASBERG AND MICHAEL V. GAZZO
Strasberg, best known as the guru of method acting, revered by some of his students, was cast as Hyman Roth a character based on Meyer Lansky. A Jew in the world of Italians he is cunning and hides behind the fascade of being a sick old man dying, but in fact he is as deadly as Michael. It is Roth who puts the hit on Michael, using Fredo to so, it is Roth who brings Michael to Cuba. The old acting teacher was superb in the film, earning an Oscar nomination for supporting actor, richly deserved. When Richard Castellano wanted a ridiculous amount of money to return as Clemenza, Coppola simply killed him off, created another character Frankie Pentangeli, who worked for Clemenza and has taken his place. He hates Roth, wants him dead, because he believes that Roth killed Clemenza, and is angry Michael will not move on Roth. He makes a huge mistake turning on Michael, but is permitted to fix that wrong and ensure his family will be taken care of. A playwright, Gazzo has a likeable screen presence with his raspy, gravelly voice and he too was nominated for supporting actor. Each enriched the film enormously.
9. THE SCORE
Combining intimacy with a bold, sweeping theme, Carmine Coppola richly deserved his Oscar for scoring his son’s greatest film. Using elements of the score from the first film, Coppola created a lush romantic score, but one that suggests danger, menace. One of the great film scores of all time, and an Oscar winner.
8. THE THEME
7. GLOBAL SCALE AND COMPLEXITY
With barely contained arrogance and glee Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) tells Michael in Cuba “Mike, we’re bigger than US Steel.” The line brings a shocking perspective to the vast reach of the crime organization, their worth, and their own recognition of what they are. From humble beginnings in Little Italy before the 1920’s, through a consolidation of power in New York in the fifties, to global power in the late fifties, the story is a fascinating look at the growth of the mafia in America. And yet at its core it is the story of a father and son, locked in step through crime, one able to balance his power with his love for his family, the other, not, becoming dangerous and ruthless.
6. GORDON WILLIS’ CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Prince of Darkness shot some of the finest films of the seventies including The Godfather (1972) and Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) but his greatest achievement was this film, beautifully capturing the sun kissed open spaces of Italy and Lake Tahoe as well as the dark rooms in which terrible business takes place, plans are made to murder. His lighting of the scenes with De Niro in Part II are burnished, have an almost sepia tone to them, like old photographs of the time, while his Tahoe sequences brim with sunlight, and night sequences by fire and candle. How he was not even nominated for the two films remains a grave injustice as they are two of the greatest achievements in Cinematography art.
5. ROBERT DUVALL
You gain insight into how much Duvall meant to the films by his absence in the third, The Godfather Part III (1990), which does not exist in my world. Squeezed out when Michael made his move to come to Vegas, Tom is not as involved in the business as he once was. However, with the attempt on Michael’s life, he finds Tom the only person he can really trust, and even though Tom displays complete loyalty to him, there are still lingering doubts. By the end of the film, Michael realizes his adopted brother is the most loyal to him after all. Duvall was superb in the role and his presence in that third, never to be spoken about third film, is noticeable.
4. JOHN CAZALE
Broken, sad eyed Fredo had finally found his place in the family but forever felt passed over and has been simmering with rage despite his love and loyalty to his younger brother Michael. When Roth came to him with a deal through Johnny Ola, never did Fredo think it would be an assassination on his brother. Fiercely loyal to his brother, but offered something for himself he grabs at it. It was a mistake, he knows it, Michael knows it, but Michael cannot let it go. Indiscreet, Fredo blabs about Johnny Ola bringing to the sex club in Cuba, after denying ever knowing or meeting Ola. Michael hears it. The moment Michael kissed him in Cuba, Fredo was doomed and sadly Fredo knew it.
3. ROBERT DE NIRO
Imagine being young De Niro. You have just started to get roles in good films working with up and coming directors when you get a call from Coppola. He wants you to portray the younger version of one of the most identifiable characters in film history, a role that won arguably the greatest actor of his time, Brando, the Academy Award for Best Actor. And he wants you to play the part, spoken in Sicilian, a language De Niro did not speak. Armed with copies of the first film, he accepted the role and headed to Sicily to absorb the culture and learn the language. He explored every move, each nuance of the Brando performance, mastering that raspy voice, but more the manner of commanding authority just by presence. It is a perfect performance, in every way suggesting the man Corleone will grow to become. De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, richly deserved, which also served as an announcement that De Niro had arrived.
2. AL PACINO
lacing this massive film on the shoulders of Pacino, still relatively new to movies was daring to say the least, but that he responded with the finest internal performance ever given is even more remarkable. Coiled tight like a deadly rattlesnake, Michael watches and misses little, his eyes black and dead, like those of a shark. Portraying the character made the actor ill, so challenging was it to give such an internal, complex performance. The actor says little, moves only when necessary yet projects and more so radiates complete menace. With a look he withers those around him, and to gain insight into his extraordinary range pay attention to the flashback scene at the end at his father’s birthday party. Smiling, friendly, still lidealistic, his entire future ahead of him, he bears no resemblance to the lonely, isolated but all powerful sitting alone in a chair on his estate. Stunning. Pacino deserved the Academy Award for this one of the screens greatest performances.
1. FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
The extraordinary vision of Coppla was evident in the first film when he took a pulp novel and turned it into a stunning statement about America. He took the American Dream and turned into a perversity, an immigrant arrives in America, penniless, and in order to feed his wife and children murders the local Mafia chief and takes his position, amassing a fortune through crime. We do not see that in the first film, but we understand it, but in the second film, Coppola opens it with Vito, nine having to flee Sicily. Over the course of the two films we see the American Dream achieved through crime, including cold blooded murder, and anything that needs to be done. He fought for and got the cast he wanted including Brando who was career dead at that point and Pacino who was a virtual unknown. For the second film he returned to the book, and in a broken narrative explored the rise of Vito Corleone, and consolidation of Michaels’ overwhelming power at the cost of his marriage and older brother Fredo, murdered on his order. Coppola saw the chance to explore that absolute power corrupts with absolution, it can never be righted. We watch the young Vito rise in order to feed his family, he enters crime out of necessity. Michael has achieved enormous power and wealth but with a terrible price, that of his mortal soul. Each man, each a father and husband, took risks and ever single one of them worked. From the deeply moving grandeur of the scenes at Ellis Island, the immigrants staring in awe at the Statue of Liberty, through to the sequences in Cuba where Michael discovers his betrayer, to the brilliant juxtaposition of father and son decades apart, he creates a profoundly powerful work of art.
There are so many iconic moments in the film; the ship arriving at Ellis Island, the immigrants staring at Lady Liberty with such hope, Vito, now grown, shooting Don Fanucci, assuming control of Little Italy; Vito returning to Sicily and butchering the man who slaughtered his family; the party in Vegas, the sudden swift attempt on Michael’s life, machine guns exploding in the night; Michael taking guidance from the treacherous Hyman Roth; Cuba, where Roth announces to him that they are bigger than US Steel; where Michael is devastated to know that the traitor within his family is his brother Fredo; kissing him full on the mouth, he lets Fredo know that he knows; the senate crime hearings; the last scene between Fredo and Michael; Kay telling Michael about the abortion leading him to explode in rage, striking her, their marriage over at that precise moment; Michael wiping out his enemies, Roth shot in the airport, Pentangeli knowing his family will be taken of opens his wrists in the bathtub and Fredo, shot while fishing. Is there another film so filled with great moments?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.