Sunday, November 20, 2011

Classic Movie Review: The Godfather Part II

At the time it was made, could anyone have imagined that a sequel to The Godfather would possibly be anything near to the quality and sophistication of the first film? And yet Francis Ford Coppola surpassed his own film in many ways with The Godfather Part II. It is wider and more epic in scope, covering both the rise of a young Vito Corleone in 1920s Little Italy and the decline of his youngest son Michael 30-odd years later. It covers the ground both before and after the time period in which the first film is set.

Part of what aided in making the sequel so great was the return of the majority of the cast and crew involved in the original production. Gordon Willis returned as cinematographer to match the dark hellish interiors. Dean Tavoularis’s production design maintains a drab palette of brown and amber making the Little Italy scenes appear almost like an old sepia-toned photo. Also, that half the film’s story is taken directly from Mario Puzo’s novel provides the necessary parity for the two films to feel almost inseparable. The entire 1950s storyline is original material dreamed up by Coppola in collaboration with Puzo so as not to betray the nature of the characters.

The weight of the tragedy in The Godfather Part II is multiplied exponentially compared to the first. We don’t necessarily see the first film as a tragedy because in the end Michael has consolidated his power, gotten rid of his enemies and is about to make a lucrative move to Nevada. But the final scene as the door closes on his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) suggests the real tragic force of Michael’s business.

Now, several years after the events of that film, Michael still has not succeeded in legitimizing his business, a fact his increasingly disappointed wife points out and for which Michael seems genuinely concerned. With powerful forces moving against him including a Shakespearean betrayal within his own family he finds his grasp on keeping his family strong and together becomes more tenuous the harder he tries. That his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) life has fallen to a shambles as she ignores her children and marries and divorces all too easily suggests the sad end result of Michael’s actions at the end of The Godfather, actions the audience viewed at the time as just. The tragic elements of Michael’s life are only deepened by the story of Vito’s rise which runs parallel to the present day timeline.

In Robert De Niro’s excellent turn as the young Vito we see a man primarily concerned with supporting his growing family –it’s also good fun to see Santino play fighting as a boy, Fredo with pneumonia as an infant, and an infant Michael adored by his father. De Niro’s Vito is contemplative and deliberate. We see the developing genius he used to elevate his family to such prominence. In his actions we see a modest man who looks out for those who can’t help themselves. These sequences induce a tremendous sadness when we think about how Michael has been unable to maintain the legacy his father built, even failing to do something as basic as keep his family together. And here I am going on mostly about narrative form which is a large part of what makes the film great, but hardly the only thing.

What about the acting? Oh my, the acting! De Niro of course won an Oscar for his part, spoken entirely in Italian. He competed in the Supporting Actor category with Michael V. Gazzo, who plays a new character, Frank Pentangeli, replacing the hole left by Clemenza’s absence due to Richard Castellano’s refusal to participate. Also nominated was famed acting coach Lee Strasberg in his film debut playing Hyman Roth, a kind of Meyer Lansky old rum runner in business with Michael to divide up the gambling profits from Cuba. Then there’s the masterful Al Pacino reprising his role as Michael Corleone. He takes the stern and stoic Michael from the final third of The Godfather and extends it for the full duration of this film. But tough as Michael is, Pacino still lets the occasional softer, vulnerable side through, moments without which Michael would lose our sympathies. There’s genuine care and affection in his voice when he tries to reassure Kay that he’s trying to make the family legitimate and again when she tells him she’s leaving, and especially when he has a heartfelt conversation with his mother (the most significant scene Mama Corleone gets in either of the two films) about whether Vito ever worried about losing his family. Her answer is so matter-of-fact and without reflection when she tells him you can never lose your family that we sense Michael knows he’s already lost it all.

Then there’s Robert Duvall returning as Tom Hagen. He was nominated for the first film, but not here – a mistake in my opinion. In Part II more than ever we see how Hagen is the moral glue that holds the family together. Michael has the power and the brains, but Tom is reasonable and loyal. We remember from the first film how he wanted Sonny to end the war with the other families. Then at the end when Tessio is being sent off to his end, we see in Tom’s face that he wants to grant a reprieve if only Michael would allow it. Now his role in the family has been diminished to family lawyer rather than consigliere. He doesn’t understand why, but he stays around. In a moving scene between the two men, Michael explains why Tom has been kept out of the loop for so long. Here Duvall reveals everything we need to know about Tom’s behavior throughout the series.

I mentioned the infant Fredo earlier. If Tom is the conscience that holds the story together, then Fredo is the heart. In John Cazale, Coppola found the perfect sad-sack actor to play the part of the dim-witted and toothless Fredo Corleone, the middle brother who was passed over. He may have no sense for business or negotiations, but he loves his family, perhaps even more than Michael. After all, it’s Fredo who Coppola and Puzo allow us to see bonding with Michael’s son before the tragic outing on Lake Tahoe.

There are hardly enough superlatives to describe the majesty of The Godfather Part II. It’s even more of a story of the American dream than The Godfather. It demonstrates more clearly the ingenuity required of a first generation immigrant to make something big of himself and his family and then the necessary sagacity to maintain such high standards. In some ways it even bursts the mythological bubble of American Exceptionalism by chronicling side-by-side the rapid rise to power and then the fall of the son by essentially selling his soul.

Tragically in 1977 a TV version known as “The Godfather: A Novel for Televsion” was produced (mind-bogglingly under Coppola’s direction) which edited the first two films together in chronological order. This unfortunate act of butchery elides part of what makes Part II so fantastic because it’s the two stories told together that make the film so powerful. Watching it as originally released is the only true way to understand that.

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