Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” (1974)

Academy Award Wins: Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Director, Best Score, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay
Inducted into the National Film Registry: 1993

As a general rule, sequels are pale imitations of the original films whose stories they continue.  In the modern Hollywood climate where franchised properties rule supreme (and nine out of ten films are a sequel, prequel or remake), it’s almost unfathomable to think of a time when sequels were looked down upon with disdain.  It would take nothing less than the man who single-handedly re-energized American cinema to make a sequel that stood on equal footing with its predecessor and usher in the age of the serial film franchise.  Released in 1974, director Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II undoubtedly (and ironically) became the genesis for today’s serialized cinematic landscape.

There is considerable discussion as to which is the superior film, with a substantial camp proclaiming THE GODFATHER PART II as not only superior to the 1972 original, but one of the greatest films of all time.  Personally, I fall into this mode of thought as I find THE GODFATHER PART II to be a richer exploration of the themes of loyalty and succession that so brazenly defined THE GODFATHER.  The film marks a substantial expansion in scope and vision for Coppola, who enjoyed abundant resources and  minimal studio intrusion during the shoot due to the runaway success of the original film.  As such, THE GODFATHER PART II is arguably Coppola’s biggest, most-fully-realized film– and undoubtedly his best.

Picking up right where the first film left off, THE GODFATHER PART II finds the Corleone family thriving in their adopted home of Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  On the occasion of Michael’s eldest child receiving his first communion, interfamilial conflict is brewing anew.  The new leader of Clemenza’s spinoff caporegime, Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo), comes to Michael (Al Pacino) requesting his help in resolving a dispute with the NY-based Rosato brothers.  Michael refuses, citing a conflict of interests with the Rosato brothers’ employer, a Florida-based Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg.  That night, an unsuccessful assassination attempt is made on Michael’s life, throwing the Corleone compound into chaos.  Michael travels to see Roth in Havana on the eve of the Cuban revolution, whilst trying to figure out who betrayed his family.  As the truth becomes evident that the betrayal rests inside his innermost circle of trusted advisors, Michael must sink to an unprecedented level of darkness to consolidate his power, even if it comes at the cost of his own family.

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative runs side by side Michael’s 1958 storyline.  This alternate story takes place in New York City’s Little Italy during the early twentieth century, as a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) rises to become the all-powerful Don Corleone introduced to us in THE GODFATHER.  Arriving in Ellis Island as a child refugee from his hometown of Corleone, Sicily, Vito adapts well to his community’s particular brand of American capitalism.  The major milestones of Vito’s life are presented in comparison with Michael’s own tyrannical reign, which creates nothing less than the grand American Epic in its chronicle of power and destiny.

Chances are if you ask any professional actor about their reaction to THE GODFATHER series, they will gush at length about their love of the performances.  The series boasts one of the most unexpectedly impeccable casts of all time, and THE GODFATHER II resulted in no less than five acting nominations at that year’s Academy Awards.  Of those five (Pacino, DeNiro, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael Gazzo), only DeNiro walked away with a golden statue, but that doesn’t mean any of the other performances are less distinguished.  THE GODFATHER PART II is Pacino’s show, showcasing his total embrace of moral bankruptcy and fundamental distaste for the necessity of his sins.  It’s a tour de force performance, embodied by a quiet, haunting intensity that lingers on a fundamental level.

DeNiro, an unknown whom Coppola cast after remembering his strong audition for the original film, is impeccable as the young Vito, channeling all of the physicality that Marlon Brando made famous while giving it the vigor and virility of a young man.  DeNiro’s Vito is the strong, silent type– a family man with vision and honor that could easily become a feared criminal leader.  The role was DeNiro’s breakout performance among mainstream American audiences (he had previously made a splash as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS a year prior), and was a stunning first act to one of the most acclaimed careers in cinema.  The presence of young Vito makes the entire GODFATHER saga richer and is the best manifestation of Coppola’s exploration of what it means, to quote those infamous opening lines to the original,  to “believe in America”.

The supporting cast is just as compelling as the marquee talent, helped largely by the considerable investment audiences made in their emotional arcs during the first film.  Diane Keaton reprises her role as Michael’s wife, Kay, continuing her trajectory as a disenfranchised wife who finds she must do the unthinkable in order to truly hurt him as much as he’s hurt her.  Regular Coppola collaborator Robert Duvall’s reprisal of consigliere Tom Hagen is also given added responsibility this time around as a reluctant accomplice to Michael’s nefarious aims.

John Cazale returns as Fredo, playing a much larger role in the Corleone’s Shakespearean drama as the older brother who’s upset over being passed over.  Cazale’s performance in this film is easily his career-best, imbued with a seething resentment stemming from his incompetence.  As I’ve written before, Cazale was only with us as an actor for a very short time.  He only made six films before suffering a premature death, but what impeccable films those six were (the two GODFATHERS, Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974), Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), and Sydney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)).  Cazale is heartbreaking here in that his actions lead to very tragic consequences, even though he’s just trying to earn a little respect.  Cazale will always be synonymous with his depiction of Fredo Corleone, and it’s a shame he was never formally recognized for his subtle, excellent performance.

Talia Shire returns as Connie, who has fallen into bouts of deep depression and ill-advised relationships with men Michael doesn’t approve of, all as a way to get back at him for having her first husband murdered.  No longer the hysterical, tearful woman that she was in the first film, the Connie found in THE GODFATHER PART II is refined and elegant, taking her first steps on the path to becoming the Corleone matriarch after her mother’s passing.

A gathering of new faces breathe fresh blood and dramatically-rich conflict into the series, most notably Lee Strassberg and Michael Gazzo.  As the wizened Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, Strassberg was lured out of retirement to craft an unforgettable character who’s frailty belies a lethal menace.  Initially presented as somewhat of a buffoon, Gazzo’s Frankie Pentangeli is an unexpected, conflicted antagonist to the Corleones whose actions cause key members of the Corleone family to question their own motivations.  Surprisingly, a young Harry Dean Stanton pops up as Frankie’s bodyguard, who I had never noticed in the film during previous viewings.  And last, but not least, James Caan famously received his entire pay from the first GODFATHER for his one day shoot reprising Sonny Corleone for a flashback sequence at the end of the film.  The balls on that guy, but credit is due since he actually pulled it off.

One of the defining traits of THE GODFATHER series is that all the films visually resemble each other.  When taken together, all three films coalesce to form a single, nine hour magnum opus.  This is due in large part to Director of Photography Gordon Willis, who devised THE GODFATHER’s striking visual look and replicated it in subsequent installments.  The 1.85:1 frame, shot on 35mm film, is rich in darkness, continuing the sepia-tinged aesthetic established in the first film.  The increased budget means more resources, which Coppola uses to great effect to expand the scope of his story with sweeping, operatic camera moves and a heavily detailed period recreation by production designer Dean Tavoularis.

One interesting thing that Willis does to help differentiate the two time periods can be found in the 1917 sequences, where sunlight is depicted in interior sequences as an intense glow that gives a distinct halo to characters when they stand in front of windows.  This approach subtly recreates the evolving nature of photography at the turn of the century, where greater degrees of latitude had yet to be developed and there was a much harsher contrast between light and dark.

Composer Nino Rota returns with his mournful, elegiac waltz of a score that has lingered in our collective consciousness for decades.  With THE GODFATHER PART II, he builds upon themes and leitmotifs that  show the progression of Mario Puzo’s beloved characters and to reflect their growing inner turmoil as the stakes stack ever-higher.  Coppola also includes a variety of diagetic source cues that paint a bigger picture of the Italian culture at large.  This is most notable in the Fest of San Gennaro sequence (which I’ll discuss at length later), which uses the fascistic Old World sound of “Marcia Religioso” to astounding effect.

Put simply, THE GODFATHER PART II is a staggering accomplishment of directorial prowess.  That Coppola reached this level of skill so early on in his career is astounding.  While many sequels fail in their rush to rehash the story beats that worked in the original, Coppola’s original vision for THE GODFATHER was so strong and compelling that, when given carte blanche to do as he pleased, the subject matter yielded entirely new, unexpected and shocking ways for the story to continue.

Many casual filmgoers don’t know this, but while the original film was based off of Mario Puzo’s novel, there was never an accompanying sequel novel off which to base a film version.  The entire story of the Corleones in midcentury Lake Tahoe (and their presence during the Cuban revolution) are entirely new fabrications devised by Coppola himself, albeit with some help from co-writer Puzo.  The Little Italy sequences set in 1917 are derived from a single chapter in Puzo’s original novel, yet fleshed out in a way that contrasts Michael’s fall from grace with Vito’s rise to power.

Indeed, this parallel rendering of a father and son at the same point in their lives during different time periods is one of the most affecting and relatable aspects of the film, and an unprecedented, inspired move on Coppola’s part.  As a young man myself, trying to establish my career and rise up to become whatever person I’m meant to be, I often find myself reflecting on how my own father came to be the person that I now look upon as a leader in his community and a model of manhood and success.  Obviously, he didn’t shoot people or join organized crime to get where he is, but the pursuit of the American Dream is something that everyone can relate and aspire to, regardless of their trade.  So naturally, I respond on a profound level to this kind of portraiture that Coppola has developed.

There’s one scene in particular I’d like to highlight as profoundly effective on me as a filmmaker, while also being a master-grade illustration of what just might be the perfect cinematic sequence.  Succession and ascendance into power are primary themes in the trilogy, with an act of murder usually serving as the initiation into the upper echelons.  In THE GODFATHER, this is shown when Michael murders Salazzo and Captain McCluskey at a quiet Italian restaurant.  In THE GODFATHER PART II, we witness young Vito’s own baptism of blood, which takes place during the famous San Gennaro street festival in Little Italy.  Vito stalks the rooftops above the celebration, following the movements of his target: Don Fanucci, a wealthy gangster who’s been oppressing and intimidating the community.  The soaring brass of “Marcia Religioso” serves as a quasi-fascistic accompaniment to the proceedings and lifts it to the level of opera.

If THE GODFATHER is about rising to power via succession, then THE GODFATHER PART II– with its inclusion of this sequence and the Cuban revolution storyline–  is about taking power by force.  Coppola’s sequel is about the deposition of kings, and how delicate that power is to hold onto once achieved.  The San Genarro sequence itself is perfectly paced, with nary a single shot wasted.  Each detail and moment is precisely calculated to generate suspense: from Vito’s prolonged stalking, to his manipulation of the lightbulb, to the use of a towel to dampen the sound of his gunfire, to Don Fanucci’s stunned reaction to the messy, imperfect red button that’s been punched haphazardly into his cheek and through his brain.  As far as the construction of a sequence goes, it’s perfect.  Coppola earned his first Oscar for directing with THE GODFATHER PART II, arguably in large part to this simple, yet riveting sequence.

Due to the relative freedom he enjoyed making the film, THE GODFATHER PART II is a view into Coppola at his most unfiltered.  As his own family was growing and he bought an estate out in Napa, CA to house them, he channeled the insights learned from these life experiences into his depiction of the Corleone family.  The story is a deeper exploration of the customs and culture of his ancestral heritage, which yields some of the most memorable and dramatically-rich plot developments in cinematic history.  Furthermore, the story requires Coppola to run a production on a personally unprecedented scale, especially in the young Vito Corleone sequences.  For a filmmaker who’s start was in small-budget schlock films (indeed, Coppola’s old boss Roger Corman makes a cameo appearance in the Senate Committee scenes), Coppola rises to the considerable challenge with bold vision and an effortless grace.

Objectively speaking, this is the pinnacle of Coppola’s career as a filmmaker.  It was met with a huge box office take, but ironically had a modest critical reception that only grew as people had a time to reflect on it.  This proved to be beneficial as THE GODFATHER PART II swept that year Academy’s Awards, netting gold statues for Best Art Direction (Tavoularis), Best Score (Rota), Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola & Puzo), Best Supporting Actor (DeNiro), a repeat Director (Coppola), and Best Picture.  All the more astounding for the fact that it was a sequel (and one that started the trend of including numbers in the title to boot), THE GODFATHER PART II became a phenomenon that cemented the series’ place in pop culture and cinematic history.  Furthermore, the Library of Congress deemed it significant and worth preserving in 1993 when it inducted the film into the National Film Registry.  A film can’t get any more successful than that.  Even though his recent output has been somewhat weak, Coppola remains at the top of the heap of respected auteurs precisely because of the lasting fallout from this film.  THE GODFATHER PART II is a cornerstone in the house that cinema built, and it will endure long after its makers are gone.

THE GODFATHER PART II is available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.

Credits:

Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Gray Frederickson, Fred Roos

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo

Director of Photography: Gordon Willis

Edited by: Barry Malkin, Richard Marks, Peter Zinner

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Composer: Nino Rota