THE GODFATHER PART 2, 1974
A sprawling saga that is two films in one: we follow young Vito Corleone’s rise in New York from clerk to crime boss in the late teens. This is spliced with son Michael Corleone’s spiritual decay in the late nineteen-fifties as head of the countries most powerful crime family.
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Oscar Wins: Best Picture; Best Director; Art direction, set decor; Best Supporting Actor; Best Music; Best Writing.
‘The Godfather’ is the gold standard for Mafia movies, for Crime movies, for movies – it routinely cracks most everyone’s top ten. ‘The Godfather Part II’ is widely regarded as one of the greatest sequels ever made. Some consider it superior to the original. It may seem criminal to suggest otherwise, but despite its polish and considerable strengths there are flaws. Its marvelous pieces don’t always hold together -- there is something missing.
The story starts in Sicily on a rocky riverbed in 1901. A funeral procession picks its way across the desolate scene – we read that Vito Corleone’ father has been murdered by the local Mafia Don. By the time we’re finished reading shots and cries ring out -- his brother has been murdered; a page later his Mother is shot down – another day in Sicily. Vito escapes to America.
This obvious attempt to establish sympathy for the boy works on a level; but after several scenes we know little about him. Did he love his parents? The writing and the directing let the score inform us. Otherwise he is a blank slate gazing at the Statue of Liberty – it might be an ice cream cone. And then all alone in his room on Ellis Island he sings. It’s a touching moment but it took pages to get here – throughout the movie the writing swings from eloquent to ‘on the nose’.
From Sicily we spring forward to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, 1958. Michael Corleone (Pacino) is hosting a party for his son. All the dignitaries are present – Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin) makes a grand speech. In private he tries to shake Michael down for a gaming license. He’s a bigoted mean, spirited man beneath his public face. He knows Michael is intent on buying another casino – he has 3 already. He’s an ideal antagonist because it’s all about money and power now – Michael’s ambition is the driving force in the film. It prompts reaction – from Geary; from Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) who is visiting from New York. Frank wants to lash out at his enemies for transgressions. Michael, as head of the family, refuses: this will spoil his deal with Hyman Roth in Miami.
Rich guys fighting for money – the stakes are so much lower than the original ‘Godfather’: where our war hero turned to crime to save his father and family. Late that night there is a ‘hit’. Two machine guns blast away into Michael’s living quarters. Michael and family survive and then he does an inexplicable thing – he leaves them, his wife and children. He leaves them in the very compound the attempted hit took place, under the leadership of his brother Tom Hagen (Duvall), with a traitor in their midst. Men will use any excuse to get out of the house but this is ridiculous.
He flies under the radar to visit Roth (Strasberg) in Miami. He tells him that Frankie Pentangeli was behind the hit, and he wants nothing to interfere with their business plans. He travels to New York to visit Pentangeli and tells him Roth was behind it. This part of the story piles intrigue on top of intrigue and it works.
Michael’s story is spliced with the tale of Vito (DeNiro) as he makes his start as a gangster in the late teens. The stories never intersect. In the films most satisfying sequence Vito stalks the local crime boss (played with bravura by Gastone Moschin). The man has cost him a job and now wants a cut from Vito’s petty crimes. As he saunters confidently though a street festival, Vito follows him from the roof tops. All the early New York scenes are brimming with life and character.
Michael’s story runs aground in Cuba. Why Cuba? The original deal with Roth was for a casino in Vegas. Suddenly Michael is in Havana buying into Roth’s Cuban holdings. He has Fredo fly in 2 million cash for the investment. But why buy in with a guy you’re planning to knock off? Before you can say blackjack the plot twists and we never see the money again – loose strings in the wind.
The final Cuba sequence divides its energies into three parts: Michael discovers his brother’s betrayal; his own plot to kill Roth and Johnny Ola; and the fall of Batista’s government – one too many balls in the air. Not even Pacino can bring much life to it. Between his heartbreaking discovery that Fredo’s in league with Roth and Ola and his withering indictment at the stroke of midnight we have two lame, energy stealing scenes that should have hit the cutting room floor. Then he wastes all credibility by following Fredo around town calling out to him as the crowds tear the streets apart. If Fredo has broken his heart as he claims he won’t want to talk to him or see him. For Oscar winners this is not good writing.
In truth Fredo has not betrayed his brother – he was simply trying to finesse a deal between Roth and Ola and Mike – a deal that Mike wanted by all accounts. Fredo was not in on the ‘hit’. But Michael wants betrayal and he will have it. Watching a soul turn away from the light and into itself is not dynamic stuff – to compensate the writers raise the specter of a Senate Hearing. Michael returns to America to find himself embroiled in a government witch hunt: Big Bad government chasing Big Bad Crime – rich guys fighting for money. He wins this battle but he loses his marriage to Kay (Keaton). She delivers the blow from which he never really recovers. He retreats into his power and violence – settles scores with Roth and Pentangeli and Fredo.
With the murder of Fredo ‘the Godfather’ achieves his ultimate goal – there is nothing personal, it’s all strictly business: and what could be more soul-destroying than that? He sits a hollow wreck of a man, alone with his demons. In the final minutes of the film I feel something akin to sensory deprivation – I long for a Sonny or a Clemenza to burst in the room with a laugh and a bowl of spaghetti sauce. As if on cue we flash back to the family, 1942; young Michael has just joined the army, the family is gathered around the table – the mood is light and joyful. The full measure of what this man has thrown away is staggering; tragic; stupid.
On acting: I love the work of Talia Shire as Connie; and John Cazale as Fredo. (This talented actor died 4 short years later.) These are weak characters; but they are fully human for their frailty. Pacino’s Michael is a powder keg – controlled, precise and threatening to explode at any moment. Still the character is so wrapped up in himself he feels dry and a bit lifeless. This is in the writing: in one telling scene in Cuba Michael looks at children gathering around his luxury sedan. They have the same dirty faces that young Vito might have had some 60 years earlier. Michael’s hawk nosed henchman leans back and raises the window between Michael and the children. This is power looking after its own. I only wish Michael would put up a fight occasionally – he seems in powers hip pocket from beginning to end: he loses dimension as a result, and my interest.
Robert DeNiro as young Vito is completely captivating – you can’t take your eyes off him. This was the role that broke it for DeNiro – he became a star overnight. And Lee Strasberg, the famed acting teacher, gives a master class as Hyman Roth.
On set decor, and cinematography: The set work combined with Gordon Willis’ lighting is genius – no other word for it. I don’t know where they found these pieces; to build them would require fabric and where on earth would you find it? Vintage fabric or furniture of this quality does not sit on a shelf for fifty years waiting for a filmmaker. A museum perhaps; in any case it is chosen with extraordinary care. The colours in the early New York scenes have an earthier pallet: the family is young and vigorous. In the Lake Tahoe scenes when the family is in decline there is more blue and gray and stone – the hues of the grave yard.
For the settings and cinematography alone this film is a classic, for DeNiro’s performance. In scope and scale it is ambitious. But it’s not on a par with ‘The Godfather’. It lacks its economy, its effortless rhythm, its life and vitality; it lacks, for want of a better word, Brando.