Friday, April 01, 2011

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

USA, 200 minutes
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Nino Rota
Editors: Barry Malkin, Richard Marks, Peter Zinner
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gastone Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Francesca De Sapio, Morgana King, Marianna Hill, Leopoldo Trieste, Dominic Chianese, Amerigo Tot, Troy Donahue, John Aprea, Joe Spinell, James Caan, Abe Vigoda, Tere Livrano, Gianni Russo, Maria Carta, Oreste Baldini, Giuseppe Sillato, Mario Cotone, James Gounaris, Fay Spain, Harry Dean Stanton, David Baker, Carmine Caridi, Danny Aiello, Joseph Medeglia, William Bowers, Roger Corman

As someone who has struggled most of my adult life to maintain a healthy weight, I'm well aware of one of the knottiest problems of all involving some of the best things available in life: the desire for seconds. And thirds. The irresistible idea that more automatically equates to better. If one is good, two is better, and three even better than that.

The Godfather: Part II, Francis Ford Coppola's large-scale sequel to The Godfather, followed the original by a couple of years and comes with more of everything: more minutes, more cast members, more locations, more budget for more production values. It's bigger in just about every way imaginable. "More, more, more," as Andrea True sang. "How do you like it? How do you like it?"

The result has produced a spectrum of strange response. Many flat-out call Part II the better movie. Others make an argument that seems at first reasonable on its face that it is all a single film. This is likely because Coppola has on more than one occasion obligingly edited them together with footage not in either movie (and thrown The Godfather: Part III into the mix too, after that came along) to create giant amalgams whose last incarnation approached 10 hours. (I have seen none of these.) "Sight & Sound," for one, takes the latter position for the poll of film critics that it conducts every 10 years.

I'm skeptical about most of this. And I want to be clear here. I have little quarrel with the critical consensus uncovered at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—which treats The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II as I do, as two separate movies—that Part II is the greatest sequel ever made. (Certainly with Roman numerals at any rate; I think I may be a bit more partial overall to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is actually the third of a series.) I just don't think Part II ever manages escape velocity from the almost perfect gravity of the first; it seems to me more content rather to wallow in that picture's various hard-won accomplishments and repeatedly take smart advantage of its greater resources in reworking them.

There's no question, in general terms, that Coppola has rarely been in better form; and with a much bigger budget and more cooperation from the studio than he had with the first, he's bracingly given his head here to just simply go forth and work out very fine sequences. The period detail is far more convincing than with the first. The screenplay is nearly as full of lines that have become coin of the realm: "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." "I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom—just my enemies, that's all."

Numerous fine performances, large and small, appear all through (just look at that cast listing!), and scenes—such as the epic last battle between Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) and his wife Kay (played by Diane Keaton)—are expertly staged and executed, with players absolutely at the top of their games. Gordon Willis's photography is every bit as good—better, even, elaborating a trick I didn't notice done nearly as well in the first, which is to shoot his figures in interiors against the outdoor light from windows, rendering them as black shapes yet with identifiable profiles, the very epitome of dark actors.

But in the end Part II is such a shaggy, misshapen mess, a wild-eyed finger-pointing exercise in moral putrescence that's altogether just too easy. Sure, it's convincing on the substance. But it's not hard going in to guess that the Mafia won't turn out to be the good guys. In the end, no matter how well done it is, I don't think it's ever able to transcend its status as a sequel. It remains an echo and lumpy extension of the original, returning to the same ground and treading the old footprints.

In fact, Part II often rehashes in painfully obvious ways many of the most memorable moments from the first. Kick off the picture with a lavish and grotesquely overdone party even as "the Godfather" conducts business behind closed doors; check (in the first it's a wedding, in II it's a birthday confirmation party). Cow public figures with gruesomely elaborate extortion tactics; check (in the first it's a bloody horse's head in the bed of a powerful Hollywood movie producer, in II it's a dead, and bloody, call girl in the rented bed of a U.S. senator). Juxtapose a religious event with cold, efficient violence; check (in the first it's a baptism ceremony cross-cut with a series of assassinations, in II it's an Easter parade cross-cut with Vito Corleone's first assassination).

Most telling for me is that the first actually tells a dramatically dynamic story with a narrative arc that unfolds naturally across its events. Michael Corleone, a World War II hero, has rejected his family's old-world Sicilian values, but he is inexorably drawn back into its orbit out of events that occur in combination with his love for his family, and finally he is corrupted. Part II starts with that corruption already in place and plays a three-hour+ game of "how low do you go?" It essentially starts on the moral level from the first of the baptism scene and takes us ever darker and deeper in.

Eye of the beholder, and all that. It could be as simple as that I have little interest, or maybe the word is "stomach," for machinations of power, which in the end is all that Part II is about. Men with power (and yes, in case you don't know, everything you've heard is true, there are barely any women here at all, certainly beyond those systematically beaten down and otherwise abused) go to extraordinary lengths to hold, maintain, and expand that power. This is news? No, but then, in fairness, neither is "people who love one another often don't treat each other well," which is the kind of story I myself am always ready to watch another version of.

So if Part II seems to me too often to go well off the rails and wrap itself around the thickets of a byzantine plot involving the brutal calculations and gamesmanship and betrayals among three vastly uninteresting men—Michael Corleone, Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg), and Frankie Pentangeli (played by Michael V. Gazzo)—well, that might be just what the doctor ordered for others. And the lengthy 200 minutes well more feature than bug.


  1. Great piece. I think the power of II lies less in its attempts to repeat the first film (to its credit, the lameness of its reprisals is part of the point) than in its ability to expand and deepen the emotional undercurrents of the first film. The isolation of Michael and especially the relationship with Fredo are overpowering to me, the stuff of great tragedy or opera. The scene in which he embraces Fredo at the funeral and then stares coldly into Al Neri's eyes is one of the most powerful moments I've ever seen.

    Partly it's a personal thing - I definitely DO have a stomach for the mechanitions of men with power, though it's the family aspect that most gets to me. Out of curiosity, though, what did you think of the De Niro storyline? It consumes a good portion of the film but you mostly focused on the Pacino stuff.

    Interesting too that the first film is probably superior in terms of its script, tighter, more narratively focused, more refined in its classical unfolding - but the second is markedly superior as a piece of filmmaking, more expansive and open in its sense of directorial authority (in the first film Coppola was essentially an inexperienced kid with the studio breathing down his neck; now a mere 2 years later he's a master). There's a European sense of grandeur and precision which is much less "Hollywood" than the first movie - here Coppola is able to take his time (the opening shot comes to mind).

    Also, a small quibble, but it's a first communion (or is it a confirmation? I had mine when I was 16, but I think they did them earlier in those days) that opens the film, not a birthday.

  2. MovieMan, thanks as always for stopping by and for your great comments (and for setting me straight on the conformation that opens Part II).

    Part II is a movie I have found myself continually struggling with. Somehow, on my second look at it, I saw what everybody else always sees, but since then it has always left me cold. I wish I understood this a little better. I know well how highly people think of it, and I think you do a really great job here articulating its many appeals: from the greater control and resources that Coppola enjoys, which make it just plain better than the first in terms of production values, to Coppola's arguably richer vision and powers to such points as the relationship between Michael and Fredo.

    The DeNiro sections seemed to me overly concerned with getting period detail right -- it was remarkable in that regard, but often distracting too. DeNiro was fine, as he always is, but those elements of the back story mostly seem to me pro forma and predictable. Honestly, I missed Brando all through II and it was hard for me to connect DeNiro's Vito with Brando's.

    I do hope next at some point to get a look at one of those edit jobs that Coppola did -- he's the director, so I don't think there's anything inherently invalidating about them on that basis. I worry that Part III may have the effect of bringing the whole thing down, but I will cross that bridge when I get to it.

  3. have had "The Godfather" on my shelf for about a year now but only just got around to reading it. I must say I was not prepared with the force with which Mario Puzo's storytelling leapt off the page and grabbed me. I have seen the film, of course - everyone should - but the book contains the details, sub-plots and first-person perspectives that no film can match. Puzo's narrative voice is cool but forceful, and full of dry irony. It's compulsively readable, I literally had to force myself to put it down!

  4. So does Connie know that Fredo is about to be shot when she grabs the son from the boat so Michael can "take him to Nevada" last minute?