By John H. Foote
If there is a greater American film, I have not seen it. If there is a greater film made in the history of the cinema, I am not aware of it.
Francis Ford Coppola’s expansive, brilliant sequel to his Oscar-winning The Godfather (1972) actually bookends the first film, moving into the fifties with Michael now operating out of Las Vegas, and into the past to explore how his father Vito came to power in pre-twenties America. Like the first film, the sequel is again about family but is also about America. The central theme of this film is that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we watch with grim fascination as it happens before our eyes.
The Godfather (1972) explored the perversity of the American Dream, as we see the fruits of labour of the Corleone family, great power and wealth gained by crime and murder. These were warm, loving family members who happened to be in the business of crime. No apologies were ever made for what they did, and murder was never personal, but rather just business.
In the second film, Coppola explores the Corleone family deeper, as well as the worldwide reach of the Mafia. The absolute power wielded by Don Michael (Al Pacino) has begun to rot him from the inside, the staggering weight of his actions bearing down on him. From the opening images, as immigrants arriving at Ellis Island stare in awe, hope and longing at the Statue of Liberty, welcoming them to their new life, to a birthday party for Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), where Michael is told, “We’re bigger than US Steel” the film traces the rise of the Corleone. More specifically, the film traces, brilliantly the evolution of crime in this country, the arrival of the Mafia as citizens from Sicily arrived and settled in New York’s Little Italy.
In the opening scenes, set at the turn of the century in Italy, we see the funeral of little Vito Corleone’s father interrupted by gunfire as his brother is murdered by the local Don. Taking the boy with her to beg for his life, Vito’s mother is blown away by a shotgun blast after holding a knife to the throat of the Don, who refuses to spare the boy. Helped by friends, Vito escapes to New York, where he settles and grows into a fine young man working as a grocery clerk until the Black Hand of the Mafia reaches out to snatch his job from him. Married, soon to have children, Vito makes a decision, involves his friends Clemenza and Tessio and murders the man who took his job, the local Mafia Don, assuming his role. But Vito becomes a protector to those who respect him, who display loyalty, who come to him in times of need, taking but giving. His olive oil business, a front for criminal activities flourishes and within a few short years Vito is very wealthy and gaining greater power every day. He returns to his homeland with his wife and children, now a powerful, respected businessman, beloved by those who once helped him escape, feared by those who once tried to have him killed. And yes, he pays a visit to the Zion who killed his parents and brother, now a feeble old man with terrible eyesight. Moving in close Vito stabs the old man, tearing his stomach from bottom to top, killing his bodyguards, finding vengeance after so many years.
At the end of the first film, Michael had promised his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) his business would be completely legitimate in five years, once they moved to Vegas. Now living in a spectacular Lake Tahoe compound she sees he is never going to keep that promise. Michael assumed his father’s position as Don Corleone and with his cunning and ruthlessness has become one of the most powerful crime chieftains in the United States. He has enemies, many in fact, the most devious being Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) an old friend of his father’s, a Jewish mobster hated by many within the Corleone organization, but an old man, seemingly harmless who says he considers Michael a son. When a hit comes at Michael, he decides to disappear, to go to Havana to meet with the other crime lords to sort out business. He leaves his adopted brother and lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in charge of the family business and takes his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) with him.
Cuba opens Michaels’ eyes about so much in the world, and his world. There when the revolutionaries overthrow the government, bringing Castro to power, he realizes Hyman Roth ordered the hit on him, but more he used his brother Fredo to do it, promising him something of his own. As the New Years celebrations begin at the stroke of midnight, Michael warmly embraces his brother, knowing he has betrayed him, then suddenly, takes his face in his hands, fiercely kisses him full on the mouth whispering to him, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
Fredo, terrified for his life runs, finding his way back to America where he goes into hiding. Michael also goes home, an attempt on Roth’s life failing, his brother in hiding, his wife has had a miscarriage and he finds himself the target of a Congressional investigation into organized crime. Michael proves to ruthless for the committee to get anything on him, he makes clear to his brother that he will not see him again, and then is smacked in the face with yet another betrayal when his wife tells him she did not miscarry their child, she had the pregnancy aborted. Enraged Michael strikes her but knows at that moment the marriage is over.
He watches as his blood family crumbles around him, the moral rot gutting everything and everyone he ever loved. Kay leaves him, he orders of execution of Fredo, but only after the death of their mother, and exterminates his enemies including the treacherous Roth, gunned down in an airport.
The final shot has Michael utterly alone in an autumn setting, with no one to love or love him. Unlike his father, he could not separate business from family.
Beyond Coppola’s bold, confident direction of the film, its greatest strength is the extraordinary performances given by this ensemble. This is arguably the greatest acting ensemble in the history of the cinema, from the leads right down to the cameos, the performances are perfection. Coppola brings to the film a grand epic sweep yet with that an intimacy that is startling.
Al Pacino was never greater than he is here as Michael, a performance so internalized the actor had a breakdown of sorts when filming ended. Michael is ever watchful, looking for his enemies to show their weakness, which he then will attack and exploit, and he hears everything around him. His presence suggests Arctic wastelands, ice cold, yet beneath the surface is a barely concealed fury that on occasion erupts. There is a danger to him that his walking into a scene implies with just the confidence of his movements. Of all the great work the actor did in the seventies, this was his peak, his greatest work. He would wait another eighteen years to win the Academy Award, and when he did it was for an inferior performance. So terribly sad.
As the young Vito Corleone, everything Robert De Niro does suggests he will become the Vito portrayed by Marlon Brando in the first film. He carries himself lightly, yet is absolutely aware and confident that he is a very dangerous man. When he decides to kill Fanucci, the grotesque Don terrorizing Little Italy, it is purely business, he has no designs on replacing him, yet that is exactly what happens. De Niro captures that raspy voice Brando brought to the role, and the lower jaw just slightly, like a young bulldog. It is near a miraculous performance from an up and coming actor stepping into the younger version of a character made famous by the greatest living actor at that time. This splendid performance launched De Niro as one of the greatest American actors of the decade.
Robert Duvall was again rock-solid as the ever-loyal Tom Hagen, Diane Keaton perfect as the unhappy Kay, but it was John Cazale who tore hearts apart as the doomed Fredo. Drawn into an assassination attempt on his brother he was not aware of, he understands his days are limited, and accepts it because of the betrayal. The scene between he and Pacino is electrifying as Michael tells him he is no longer a brother to him and Fredo rages about past slights, being passed over and being taken care of by his younger brother.
Acting guru Lee Strasberg was excellent as Hyman Roth, a thinly disguised version of Meyer Lansky, was cast at the urging of Al Pacino. Strasberg, portraying an elderly, often sick old gangster was superb, portraying a dangerous, treacherous old man who believed, it seemed, he would live forever.
Equally outstanding was playwright Michael V. Gazzo as Frankie Pentangeli, a cocky old gangster from Brooklyn, who knows before Michael that Roth is gunning for him. In many ways, this role was created to replace Richard Castellano, who portrayed Clemenza in the first film but priced himself right out of the film. Thinking himself betrayed by Michael, Pentangeli realizes it was Roth and dies the death of the Roman senators, opening his veins in a tub of water after being assured by Hagen his family would be taken care of.
The Godfather Part II was nominated for a whopping eleven Academy Awards, three for Best Supporting Actor but truthfully, it could have been five. De Niro, Gazzo and Strasberg were all nominated but Cazale and Duvall should have been with them. Talia Shire was nominated for her sluttish Connie, brought back into the fold by Michael, who gently warns her to get her life together or be cut off.
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Pacino), Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Score, and Production Design rounded out the nominations. Oddly, the film was ignored for Best Cinematography, another of the great strengths of the picture.
On Oscar night, the film won six Academy Awards, stunning Hollywood being the first sequel to ever win Best Picture and in doing so setting the standard by which all sequels are measured. Coppola, who had also won the DGA and National Society Of Film Critics Awards for Best Director won his Oscar for Best Director, also winning as producer for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. His father, composer Carmine Coppola won the Oscar for his sweeping, emotional score, one of cinema’s greatest.
With three actors nominated for supporting actor, the concern was that they would cancel one another out. Not so. Young Robert De Niro won the award for his superb performance as young Vito, marking the first time two actors had won Oscars for portraying the same character.
The only disappointment, hell, an outright shock of the night came when Al Pacino lost Best Actor. Expected to win his first Academy Award for his forceful, unsettling work as Michael, he was neck and neck with Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974). Incredibly, still, unbelievably, Art Carney won a sentimental award for Harry and Tonto (1974) a fine performance but hardly one for the ages, which Pacino clearly was.
2019 marks the 45th anniversary of The Godfather Part II.
For anyone who knows me, or reads my work, or has sat in my classroom, they will know that I consider this film to be the greatest picture ever made. Period. Breathtaking in its reach, in its study of power corrupting, of the Mafia reaching into America, of the immigrant experience, and of family, in my thirty years of being a film critic I have yet to see a finer film, made before and after.
And finally, for me the Corleone saga ends with that final shot of Michael, sitting alone outdoors in his compound reminiscing about the past, his brothers, his father, better days. There is no The Godfather Part III (1990), it all ends here.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”