By John H. Foote
THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
And here we are, at number one.
After going through the seventies, listing and writing about the 29 best films of the decade, we arrive at number one, Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest work, The Godfather Part II. Not only do I believe this is the finest film of the seventies, I believe The Godfather Part II to be the greatest American film ever made, the finest work of this visionary master’s career, and for me, the finest film I have ever seen.
Besieged with offers after the film won three Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor, Coppola was approached by Paramount to write and direct a sequel to the Oscar winning Best Picture, The Godfather (1972). Not interested, he recommended they hire Martin Scorsese to direct the film, but the studio persisted. Finally the studio offered vast amounts of money and absolute, total control, meaning the studio would stay completely out of his way to make the film he wanted to make. Returning to the novel, Coppola and Mario Puzo, the book’s author, gleaned what they could and sat down to write the film. Having explored the perversity of the American Dream, where could they go with a sequel to keep things fresh? When they were finished writing they had created a screenplay darker, more complex than the first, a script that explored how absolute power corrupts with absolution, and the international reach of organized crime.
Most effectively the film studied the darkness within Michael Corleone, a journey into his own heart of darkness. In a stroke of genius, the writers decided to explore how Michael’s father, Vito, portrayed as a 70-year old man by Marlon Brando in the first film, rose to power after coming to America in 1901. Juxtaposed, the journey of the two men is radically different, and each handle it very differently, Vito balancing the love for his family with his crime empire. Michael is all powerful, beyond powerful in the late fifties and early sixties, but never truly happy as his father was, and his actions, though consolidating his power, lose him those closest to him – his wife and family.
Casting the film was relatively simple, as all but one of the actors from the first film signed on. Richard Castellano, an audience favourite as Clemenza, felt he deserved a bigger payday and asked for an obscene amount of money. Their solution? Write him out, kill him off, which is discussed in an exchange between characters and replaced his character with one just like him, the easily offended Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo). Portrayed by Gazzo, a famous playwright, he quickly became one of the more memorable characters from the film. Al Pacino suggested Method acting guru Lee Strasberg for the role of Hyman Roth, based on Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky, who ran with Bugsy Siegel until the killing of the hot-headed Siegel. Coppola was fine with casting Strasberg, but he made clear he wanted no second guessing from the or interfering Strasberg. Those in major roles from The Godfather all returned to reprise their roles, but the huge question remained, who would play the young Vito? Initially Coppola offered the role to Marlon Brando, but he quickly realized it would not work, Brando was now 47 and could not get away with playing a man in his twenties. Brando did agree to a cameo at the end of the film, but then declined. Remembering a young actor’s performance in Mean Streets (1973) and his audition for Sonny in The Godfather, Coppola offered the role to Robert De Niro, who accepted. De Niro then armed himself with tapes of the first film, a handful of Brando films and headed to Sicily to learn the language.
The most anticipated film of 1974, The Godfather Part II premiered in December and critics were in awe. Almost at once the rave reviews began pouring in, hailing the film greater than the first, the kind of reviews and reactions Coppola had hoped for. The film was very different from the first in that the narrative was broken, moving easily between the past and the present of the story, but the characters were familiar, consistent and beautifully portrayed by an exceptional cast.
The film opens in Sicily where Vito, nine, has watched the murders of his brother and father, making the boy a marked man. His mother goes to the local Don, responsible for the murders and begs for Vito’s life, but the man refuses. She pulls a knife and holds the man with the blade at his throat telling her son to run, as a shotgun knocks her 10 feet backwards, dead. Hidden by friends, Vito is smuggled out of Sicily to America, where the Italian immigrants gather to see the Statue of Liberty as they pass to Ellis Island. Diagnosed with smallpox, the little boy is confined to Ellis Island for a period of time and re-named Corleone, taking the name of his town.
Moving ahead in time, Michael has moved his family to Las Vegas where he has thrived in the casino world. He lives on a beautiful estate on Lake Tahoe, operating business, Tom Hagen (Duvall) his ever present lawyer. When an assassination attempt is made on Michael’s life, he has an idea who was behind it, but decides to find out for himself. He entrusts Tom with the family and the family business as he leaves to figure out who wanted him dead. He visits an old friend living in his father’s house in New York and begins to put the pieces together, leading him to Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (Strasberg) in retirement (he says) in Florida. Though it seems Roth is Michael’s mentor, taking the younger man under his wing, Michael never buys it. He heads to Cuba for a meeting of the government and the mafia to discuss business. Fredo (John Cazale) is with him, acting as a social director for the men in Cuba for the meetings. Among them we notice a Senator who had previously insulted Michael, but after a young hooker was found dead in his bed, he is very much with Michael now. It is while in Cuba that Michael finds out who wanted him dead – as he thought, Roth. But who in his family betrayed him? Who allowed them to get so close to Michael? His brother Fredo is the answer. Not knowing it was going to be a hit, Roth played Fredo as a patsy and set him up. When Michael discovers this he is devastated. At New Year’s Eve at a party, he grabs Fredo and kisses him full, very hard on the mouth telling him “I know it was you Fredo, you broke my heart”. Fredo breaks free and runs, realizing he is a marked man.
In the past Vito loses his job at the grocery store to the local Don’s nephew. Paying attention to the Don, he realizes he is a selfish man, taking care of no one but himself, stealing from the entire neighborhood. Falling in with two friends, Clemenza and Tessio, Vito kills the Don and assumes his position, quickly making friends and becoming a man of respect, helping whoever he can. He finds they become loyal to him for his help, and he expands his operations into an olive oil business, a front for their crime operation.
Michael returns home to find that he is being investigated by a Senate Committee looking into organized crime. Frankie Pentangeli, once his friend, believing Michael ordered him killed (he did not) is talking to the FBI and turning evidence on Michael. Incredibly he gets off, simply by bringing Pentaggeli’s brother to the court, to let Frankie know he should not talk. After the hearing Kay (Diane Keaton) reveals to Michael she aborted their child because she does not want another child with him. The normally calm Michael slaps her in a rage, and essentially their marriage ends. As for Fredo, Michael banishes him from the family, though he may come and see their mother so long as he lets Michael know in advance. When their mother dies, it becomes clear, Fredo’s days are numbered.
Vito and his family travel to Sicily to see old family friends and share in their wealth. He is also there to avenge his mother. Taken to the estate of the old Don, now ancient, barely able to see, Vito leans in close to ask for his blessing and plunges a blade into his stomach, tearing up his gut, opening the old man up, killing him. His business complete, Vito returns home to become the godfather of the first film.
The final scenes see the executions of Roth, killed at an airport, while Fredo is shot in the back of the head while fishing. Now alone, Michael sits in the autumn weather, all powerful, all alone.
My first question in discussing The Godfather Part II is how did Al Pacino lose the Academy Award for Best Actor to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto? The most logical answer is that he and Jack Nicholson split the vote and Carney picked up the rest. Pacino gave the greatest performance of his career here as Michael, a ferociously internal performance, but one that suggested a wary, untrusting man, a very dangerous man. The performance exhausted Pacino, leaving him in bed for weeks, unable to recover. He has never surpassed what he did in this film, and never will.
The film was an extraordinary study of the moral corruption of a man’s soul. Two men actually. The first Vito is a hard working young man, married and realizing he must make a living for his wife and growing family and turns to crime because it seems the best way to make a living, a very good living. He commits murder to rid the Italian people of the cruel old Don and takes his place, quietly, without say a word. His force of character says it all. The one thing Vito can balance better than Michael is his home life. Michael, corrupt at the beginning of the film, falls farther into that pit, never intending to go legitimate as he tells Kay. Michael enjoys the power, and while it has made him beyond wealthy, the power has become like a drug. Though Fredo poses no further threat to him and is a good companion for his son, he still orders his execution because Fredo was disloyal, sending a statement to every single person in his family of crime. Pacino captures this beautifully in his layered performance.
Coppola’s sublime direction balanced the film as an intimate character study, beautiful study of a family breaking down due to moral corruption, and yet in many ways it has the feel of an epic film. You will never forget that scene in the beginning of the immigrants, faces filled with hope, gliding past the Statue of Liberty in awe, their first visual image of America and their new life. Never before had Coppola been so confident as a filmmaker, and he had made The Godfather, one of the most sublime examples of film direction put on the screen! He was in absolute control of this film, every nuance, every scene, gently guiding the performances to perfection. His eye for detail was remarkable, and rightly so, this stands as one of the greatest directed films ever made.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, The Godfather Part II would win six on Oscar night. Among the nominations were Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Pacino), Best Supporting Actor three times (De Niro, Strasberg, and Gazzo) though both Duvall and Cazale were snubbed, Talia Shire was nominated Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Art Direction. On Oscar night the film took six including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Robert De Niro, Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Art Direction. In addition Coppola won the Best Director from the Directors Guild of America, his second as well as the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director.
The performances in the film are flawless, beyond Pacino, though his Michael is the dark heart and soul of this film. Robert De Niro superbly suggests a young Brando in every movement on screen, and that voice, that rasping voice he speaks with. He has the wariness Brando brought to the part, and the confidence. He deserved that Oscar he won; it is a performance for the ages. We can feel his choice to move to murder in order to provide his family a better life, and we understand it is the right choice for him at this time. A quiet, ever watchful man, De Niro suggests without a shadow of a doubt that this man will grow into the Vito of the first film. Inhabiting the role in every way, he moves like a young Brando, his stare is the same as Brando’s and he holds his body the same when speaking, when listening. It is remarkable.
Equally fine are Robert Duvall and John Cazale as Michael’s brothers, Tom and Fredo, and Lee Strasberg as the vicious Jew Hyman Roth, quietly trying to kill Michael and take over his empire. Michael V. Gazzo is a delight as Frankie, especially in his scene with Tom where he speaks of what the Romans used to do when accused of a crime, open their veins in a bath. Both Diane Keaton and Talia Shire give superb performances in a sea of men, each carving out a place for their characters in this masterpiece.
In addition to exploring the moral corruption of men, Coppola brings to the film the immigrant experience. Gliding past Lady Liberty, their eyes filled with awe and majesty, as well as hope, they have come to this country seeking a better way of life. Some make an honest living for the rest of their days, some do not, while Vito selected a different path and made millions for his son, who in turn would make hundreds of millions. You can almost echo Bonasera from the opening of the first film, spoken in Vito’s voice, “I believe in America.” As much about family, as much about organized crime, as much about a crime family, The Godfather Part II is about America.
This might be the greatest film ever made.
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.