A rare case of the sequel actually being superior to the first film, The Godfather Part II (1974) is, in my opinion, quite simply the most astonishing film ever made. Complex, darker and tragic, the film is actually two films as we see the rise of Vito Corleone in the early part of the 20th century, and the consolidation of power by his son Michael in the late fifties. Bear in mind that Vito Corleone was portrayed by Marlon Brando in the first film, thus here we are seeing his origins and how he came to be the godfather. |
Director-co-writer Francis Ford Coppola agreed to the sequel on the condition he have full artistic control of the work, which Paramount Pictures agreed to give him. The result is a massive picture, longer than the first, and showing the global reach of the Corleone empire.
Robert de Niro was tapped to portray the young Vito, a daunting task considering Brando had won the Academy Award for his performance and became a pop cultural icon in the role. De Niro is rumoured to have hopped on a plane with copies of the film, heading to Italy to study the accents and create his character. The result was a performance that earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. The young actor superbly captures the essence of Brando’s character as a younger man, nailing the raspy voice, the mannerisms, the body language; one would swear they are watching a young Brando. De Niro allows Vito to be lethal yet warm. After murdering the local Don, a greedy buffoon, Vito disposes of the gun on the rooftops of the homes and sits on the steps with his fast growing family. He bounces Michael, a baby on his knee and tells him how much he loves him, and the sequence is perfectly warm. He gives us a man who murders as part of his business, nothing personal, just part of the job.
As Michael Corleone, Al Pacino is nothing short of a revelation. As the war hero turned crime lord in the first film, Pacino gave a remarkable performance, dominating the film throughout. Here he gives a quieter, more introspective performance as the all powerful mafia don, who realizes that while he is solidifying the power of his crime organization, he is becoming morally corrupt, and is losing his family. His wife leaves him after having an abortion, his children are odd, and he is forced to come to terms with the fact his beloved brother Fredo (John Cazale) unwittingly betrayed him, nearly resulting in Michael’s assassination. Pacino’s performance is one of enormous economy and focus; he reminds me of a king cobra ready to strike, and his gaze is the warning that death is near. The hateful look on his face as Fredo sobs against his chest after their mothers death is so clearly a death toll for Fredo, who foolishly trusts his younger brother.
As mentioned the film traces the roots of Vito Corleone, from his humble beginnings as a hunted child in Sicily, through his trip over on the boat to New York where he is re-named Corleone, to his work as grocery store clerk, to his decision to commit murder to help his family. He quickly takes control of the neighbourhood after killing the local Don, pledging to help his people as much as possible, but also dedicated to making money through illegal means.
Michael is undergoing a different kind of growth. The United States government is investigating his criminal activities in Las Vegas, and while he can hide behind legal red tape, those closest to him lknow he is the ringleader. After an attempt on his life he journeys to Havana to pay tribute to Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) where he discovers that Roth is the man who ordered the attempt on his life through his brother Fredo (Cazale). In a stunning scene of extraordinary power he kisses Fredo full on the lips, holding his face and tells him, ‘I know it was you Fredo, you broke my heart.” Fredo is forever shut out of Michael’s life, marked for murder upon the death of his mother.
We watch as Michael wipes out his enemies, but at the cost of his soul. He is morally corrupt, because absolute power corrupts absolutely.
As in the first film, the second ends with a series of killings which allow Michael to further his power, wiping out anyone he considers an enemy. At the film’s end he sits alone and tragic in a chair as autumn leaves brush past him as the gentle wind blows. He is all powerful, but forever alone, isolated by the very power he once scorned.
Michael has lost his soul.
The film is dominated with superb acting starting with Pacino who should have won the Academy Award for best actor for this superb performance. He radiates danger whenever he walks on screen, and seems to do so little but is conveying so much. De Niro is equally astonishing as Vito Corleone, and there are marvelous performances from acting guru Lee Strasberg as Roth, playwright Michael V. Gazzo as Frankie, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Cazale as the weak Fredo, Talia Shire as Connie, and Diane Keaton as Michael’s wife Kay.
The scenes that crackle are those in Havana and Little Italy, and the actors that shine brightest are Pacino, De Niro and Duvall. There is a powerful exchange close to the end of the film where Michael challenges Hagen on an issue and Tom makes clear his hurt by stating to Michael, ‘I have always been loyal to you.”
Francis Ford Coppola directs the film as an epic, giving the picture a majesty and sweep that is stunning to behold, yet never loses sight of the fact he is telling an intimate family story. The parallel between the two Corleone godfathers, Vito and Michael is brilliantly juxtaposed throughout the picture, as we see how Vito brilliantly balanced family and family business, and Michael clearly could not.
The Godfather Part II (1974) won six Academy Awards in 1974 including best picture, best director, best supporting actor, best screenplay, best art direction, and best musical score. Coppola himself took home three awards for the film, while his father, composer Carmine won for his superb score. The film had been nominated for eleven, including three for best supporting actor.
The film is currently available on DVD as part of the The Godfather Collection, though I suspect there are plans to release it as a stand alone in the near future.
Without question the greatest American film ever made.