|Godfather, The - Part II (from the 5-Disc DVD Box Set)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 09 October 2001|
All during the making of "The Godfather," director/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola was worried that he might be yanked off the film at any moment, or that the film would be taken away from him once it was finished, and edited by unfriendly hands. But when "The Godfather" became a historically-significant smash hit, Coppola was immediately wooed by Paramount to make a sequel.
He had his revenge. Not only did he make the film he (and co-writer and original "Godfather" author Mario Puzo) wanted to make, but he was paid better, the movie was much more expensive and lavish -- and some feel that it's even better than the original. Without picking and choosing between them, it is safe to say that taken as one movie, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" is one of the greatest movies ever made by anyone, anywhere. (And since they're also famous, I'm going to presume you've already seen them; there are "spoilers" in the material that follows.)
There's no better depiction of a certain kind of American immigrant experience, of the pressures that forced a young family man into crime, and then his son into an even colder, crueler attitude toward the world around him. Don Vito Corleone became a gangster because it was the easiest, most immediate way to achieve the American Dream. His son Michael (Al Pacino), who took over the leadership of the Corleone crime family at the end of "The Godfather," tried to do what "Pop" would have done, but his own innate outsider attitude led to a kind of corruption of the spirit that never touched his father. At the end of "The Godfather Part II" Michael sits alone in his chilly Lake Tahoe mansion, thinking about the past, aware of his failure but not in a position to do anything about it.
He was redeemable up until the point he had his hapless shmoe of an older brother, Fredo (John Cazale), murdered, shot to death while quietly fishing on Lake Tahoe. That is something Don Vito would never have even considered doing; not even the hot-tempered Sonny, spectacularly killed in "The Godfather," would have gone that far. But Michael has become remote, cold and dictatorial; it's not so much that he is sure of himself that it is that he knows he must act as if he is sure of himself. He makes quick decisions regarding actions that he carries out over a long period of time; even if he identifies an enemy early on, he doesn't necessarily act until just the right time. (One of the very few glitches in "The Godfather Part II" is that we're never quite sure if he's right about Frankie Pentangeli).
By the end of the film, he has sent away consigliore Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), no longer confiding in this man who was raised as his brother. His wife Kay (Diane Keaton) has left him; his mother (Morgana King) is dead. Only loyal hit man Al Neri (Richard Bright) and his sister Connie (Talia Shire) are left -- and Connie is becoming the female equivalent of Michael. Their mother was warm and caring; Connie becomes colder and colder.
But "The Godfather Part II" is more than just the decline of the Corleones. The scenes of Michael, which begin in the early 1950s, alternate with those of his father Vito, first as a child fleeing Sicily after his family has been wiped out by the local Mafia don, and later as a young man (Robert De Niro) trying to put together a life for himself and his growing family. Coppola intercuts very shrewdly between the Vito and Michael sequences; the scenes often comment on one another, sometimes very subtly.
At first, Vito tries to live an honest life, working as a clerk in a local grocery store, but Black Hand big shot Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) keeps intruding into Vito's life. Vito meets Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) when he's tossed a bag of guns to hide; later, Clemenza gets Vito's help in stealing a rug. By this time, thanks to Fanucci, Vito has lost his job, so helping Clemenza (they're later joined by others, including Tessio) in crime does make some money. It turns out that Vito is better at this than the more thug-like Clemenza and Tessio; he can be quietly persuasive, making people offers they can't refuse. And he makes a name for himself in the Little Italy of the early 20th century.
The Michael sequences are launched, as was "The Godfather," by a huge, lavish party; this one, the first communion of Michael's son, is held at Lake Tahoe. An unscrupulous senator (G.D. Spradlin) publicly embraces Michael, but privately shows contempt for him, though he's willing to bend the law to allow the Corleones access to Las Vegas in exchange for a lot of money. Soon thereafter, gunmen get onto the locked Corleone compound and try (but fail) to kill Michael and Kay.
Michael meets with the aging Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who was a partner of Don Vito's in the old days. They intend to pool resources to buy into wide-open Cuba, ripe with night life of all sorts, whose president Batista gladly welcomes American criminals. Trouble is, this is just as Castro is launching his last attack....
Michael is betrayed again and again. In the past, in the contrasting scenes, Vito increases his alliances. (In one of the additional scenes on the special disc, he even meets with Coppola's own gun-maker grandfather, and his flute-playing father, as a child.)
Every scene in the film is convincing; it doesn't strike a false note anywhere. Coppola had a much larger budget for this sequel, and was able to do a stunning recreation of Little Italy of around 1918 on a lavish scale. This was before computer graphics; these sets had to be built for real. And real is just how they look. There's one bravura shot which begins simply as Vito heads out to deliver some groceries, and the camera pans across an intersection -- as far as we can see, it is 1918 New York.
The movie is full of great set pieces like this, which are always in service to the plot and characters. And what characters. Pacino's very controlled performance is magnificent, for even though he goes long periods with very little change in position, his hooded eyes, his contained gestures, tell us what's going through Michael's mind. At no point in this film is Michael remotely happy; he's rarely even content. He is in the process throughout the movie of becoming a bigger monster than his father ever was, and yet we can still see within him the idealistic war hero we met at the first of "The Godfather."
The entire cast is excellent; Robert Duvall, of course, always is, and Diane Keaton is most of the time; she definitely is here. (Oddly though, when people talk about her career, they almost always overlook the "Godfather" movies). This was one of Robert De Niro's earliest starring roles; he's required to do at least something of an impression of Marlon Brando, but he goes beyond that as well. We recognize him as the same character Brando played in the first film, but we're also seeing him becoming that character.
Lee Strasberg was one of the most famous acting teachers who ever lived, but he himself hadn't done much acting. In fact, "The Godfather Part II" was his first movie. As Hyman Roth -- based on the real-life Meyer Lansky -- he's completely convincing. When Richard Castellano blundered by making unacceptable demands, the role of Clemenza was quickly turned into Frankie Pentangeli, played beautifully by Michael V Gazzo. Talia Shire and John Cazale are also good; in fact, the best acting Shire -- Coppola's sister -- has ever done has been in the three "Godfather" movies. Watch also for Troy Donahue, Roger Corman, Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Donat.
Technically, the film is faultless, as usual with the meticulous (if ambitious) Coppola. The photography by Gordon Willis is, if anything, better than his work in "The Godfather," for there's more variety to it. The scenes in Vegas, Miami and Cuba put the lie to the somewhat contemptuous label some have placed on Willis, "The Prince of Darkness." He knows how to shoot in bright sunlight, in gaudy nightclubs, just as well as he does in rooms so dark that only the highlights are visible.
The commentary track by Coppola is exceptionally good, full of excellent advice for directors. He explains how he directed big crowd scenes, leading you to an understanding of just how hard that must be. A real band is used at one point; many directors would just have dubbed in the music later, but Coppola explains why he felt a real band was necessary. And there are some surprising comments, such as that George Lucas shot some insert scenes. Coppola sounds like a great guy you wish you could have for a friend.
The extras disc is loaded with cut scenes (some of which were included in the television "The Godfather Saga"); these scenes have explanations, but no commentary, and they cannot be played straight through. You can usually understand why these scenes were cut, but if you like the films, this stuff is pure gold.
Like "The Godfather," "The Godfather Part II" is so magnetically compelling, the characters and incidents -- many of which are based on real criminals and their activities -- are so involving that it's very easy (for some of us, almost unavoidable) to watch these films again every couple of years. Paramount's excellent "The Godfather Collection" on DVD makes this easy.