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Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974, 200 minutes
The Godfather Part II is both a sequel and more than an equal to one of the greatest films of all time, The Godfather. So, it is good. Very, very good.
The complex story shifts between the turn of the century and the 1950s present, bookending The Godfather. At the end of that film Don Vito Corleone dies, his son Michael becomes the Godfather and successfully concludes a war with the other crime families. Part II shows us how it was that young Vito Corleone came to New York from Sicily and became the Godfather. We also learn how Michael is doing as the new Godfather, with his bold plan to relocate the family business from New York to Las Vegas.
All the main characters from The Godfather are there. Al Pacino plays Michael, Diane Keaton his increasingly estranged wife Kay, Robert Duvall his righthand man Tom Hagen, and the late great John Cazale as his sickly brother Fredo. And, if all these names weren't enough, you've also got method acting guru Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth. Last but definitely not least, Robert De Niro stars as the young Vito Corleone. With this lot, you hardly notice the absence of The Godfather's hamster-cheeked Marlon Brando.
The overall tone of The Godfather Part II is darker than its predecessor. Director Coppola, frustrated that many critics claimed he was glorifying the Mafia in The Godfather, argued that they had missed the moral points he had tried to put across. `Once bitten twice shy', so in Part II Coppola went all out to portray the mafiosi unsympathetically. Michael's damnation (symbolically underway at the end of The Godfather as he renounced Satan at his son's christening whilst his hit men rubbed out his enemies) accelerates into overdrive. Kay meanwhile, finds a way to extract a terrible revenge on Michael.
If only Coppola had quit while he was ahead and not made the inferior The Godfather, Part III... or the dire Jack... or ...
Review by Keith H Brown
Taken from EUFS Programme 1997-98
The Godfather was one of the most successful films of the 1970s. Not only was it an artistic and commercial triumph, it also entered into our common cultural currency - near everyone knows of the horses head scene or phrases like "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" and "he sleeps with the fishes."
One aspect of the film which was criticised, however, was its romanticising of the Mafia. The Corleone family is idealised. Its members can rely on each others loyalty and commitment to the family (crime) business. They will rise or fall together. And the family still had its standards of acceptable business - Don Vito Corleone's stubborn refusal to deal in narcotics, despite their profitability, is what precipitates the war between the New York families that the film details.
Coppola was unhappy with this, feeling that the critics had failed to perceive his intentions: "I felt I was making a harsh statement about the Mafia and power at the end of Godfather I when Michael murders all those people, then lies to his wife and closes the door. But... many people didn't get the point... I felt Godfather II was the chance to rectify that point." (quoted in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers - Films).
And rectify it Coppola does. The Godfather, Part II is undoubtedly a harsher film that its predecessor, which it bookends as both sequel and prequel. As a boy at the turn of the century Vito arrived in the USA from Sicily, fleeing the island after his family were slain by the local Mafia boss for opposing him. But the USA offers Vito no escape from the seemingly omnipresent gangsters. As a young man he loses his job in a grocery store to the local Mafioso's son and decides 'if you can't beat them, join them'. American society to Coppola, it seems, presents people with the choice of being a victimiser or a victim. In the 1950s new Godfather Michael proves unable to look after both the family and the business. Ironically, by seeking to legitimise the business and thus the family, by moving the Corleone's centre of operations from New York to Las Vegas, he embroils the family in new conflicts which hasten its disintegration. Family loyalties prove to count for nothing as Fredo, fed up of being dismissed by both his late father and his brother as the stupid, sickly, member of the family, seeks a way to prove himself - albeit at Michael's expense - while Kay Corleone, frustrated at the off-handed way Michael treats her, decides that "all this has to stop" and extracts her own revenge.
Overall, then, The Godfather, Part II does successfully present as an overt critique of both the Mafia and American society generally. If I had a criticism, and it is a minor one, it is that the movies epic sweep means that we sometimes do not see the finer details: An anti-corruption senator wakes up to find the mutilated body of a prostitute in his bed, or a rival mobster is eliminated by an assassin who must know that he is on a suicide mission. In cases like these we just see the end products, not the processes by which they came about. Just how is a hit man for a suicide mission recruited? Just what do ordinary mob soldiers feel (if anything) when they are told to go and kill a woman unconnected to organised crime? Perhaps this is simply Coppola's way of showing the power of the Godfather - 'Thy will be done' as it were. But Michael's position is shown, in other ways, to be far less secure than that of his father, and the rules of the game are certainly not as clear as they were in his fathers day. Perhaps showing these processes would have made the film greater, further broadening its scope. Doing so could also have aided Coppola's critical mission. We might have seen the 'only obeying orders' mentality of thugs who will kill whoever they are told to. Or maybe that hit man was 'made an offer he couldn't refuse' to accept the suicide mission.
Otherwise, though, the film is hard to fault. The cast - De Niro, Pacino, Keaton, Duvall, Cazale, Strasberg - are uniformly excellent. If anyone had to be singled out for extra praise, though, it would have to be De Niro, for the sheer complexity of what he is doing. As the young Vito Corleone he not only makes the character thoroughly believable but also provides a consistency of portrayal with Marlon Brando's previous interpretation of the character in The Godfather. (Later, in Raging Bull, De Niro would take this process one stage further by playing Jake La Motta playing Brando playing On the Waterfront's Terry Molloy.) The Godfather, Part II also looks great. Cinematographer Gordon Willis contrasts the sepia-tone, soft-focus world of Vito Corleone with the sharper, harsher world of Michael Corleone. While this functions as another element in the demythologising of the Michael era Mafioso, we might also wonder if it implies a certain nostalgia for the old Vito Corleone days. Whatever the case, it certainly looks nice.
Programme note by Keith H Brown