The first two films in the Godfather series are generally considered two of the greatest films of all time. They are constantly praised as brilliant filmmaking and are considered by some to be the peak of cinema. It’s well deserved. These films are brilliant. I love them both and consider them must-see films for anyone serious about film. Fogs recently started a new series called The Great Debates, and in his first installment compared the first two Godfather films, and asked others to chime in their thoughts. It was a hard choice. Both films are brilliant, but at the end of the day, The Godfather Part II is my favourite of the two.
Release date: December 20th, 1974
Running time: 200 minutes
Written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Based on: The novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazala, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, and Robert Duvall
The film tells two parallel stories. The main story takes place three years after the first Godfather film, and follows Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as he continues to lead the Corleone crime family. Early on in the film, there is an assassination attempt made on Michael’s life. So Michael needs to discover who put the hit out, do business with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), gain leverage over Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), control gangster Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), endure a senate hearing, and manage relationships from the past with people like his wife Kay (Diane Keaton), step-brother and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), and brother Fredo (John Cazale).
At the same time, the film tells the story of the rise of Michael’s father Vito Corleone. Starting out as a young boy, the film reveals Vito was born in Sicily. When he was a young boy, his mother, father, and brother were killed by mob boss Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato). Vito flees to America. The next we see him, he is a young man (played by Robert De Niro) and we begin to see his rise in the crime world, and the story of how he met Peter Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and Salvatore Tessio (John Aprea).
Like its predecessor, one of The Godfather Part II’s biggest strengths is the immersive atmosphere. The pace of the film is slow, but in the best way. The film slowly pulls you into the world. Before you know it, you’ll be completely sucked into the story. There’s a cold and blunt nature to the way the story is told. There’s a romantic feel to the film, but it isn’t very in-your-face. Everything is presented in an objective light. I also feel that Part II is the darker of the two films. Not that the first was an upbeat and happy adventure, but it generally showed more glamorous aspects of the life. Part II features a lot of seedy deaths, destroyed relationships, and is even lit more darkly than the first. Francis Ford Coppola did a marvellous job creating a film heavy in atmosphere, mood, and tone, while still managing a level of restraint. Sometimes while watching, you’ll forget you’re watching a movie. That’s how immersive this film is.
Another great thing about Part II is the way the Michael Corleone character truly takes center stage. Michael was definitely the main character in the first film, but Marlon Brando tends to be the one who steals the show in Part I. Don’t get me wrong, I think Pacino is just as good as Brando in Part I, but he tends to be mistaken for a supporting character in favour of Brando. No one makes this mistake here. This is clearly Michael’s story. The heart of Part II is the downfall of Michael Corleone, and seeing just how far he’s fallen. Michael does some despicable things in this film, and yet you always understand where he’s coming from. What’s particularly unsettling is the fact that throughout it all, Michael genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing. It’s not until the end where you realize the full magnitude of Michael’s evil. Pacino is brilliant through all of this. What’s amazing is that it’s a very subtle and quiet performance. He very rarely gets loud. And yet you can feel emotions just radiating off him. At the end, the audience is left to ponder just what he’s been thinking the whole time. I don’t say this lightly; Al Pacino delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
A lot of old favourites from Part One return. Robert Duvall is back as Michael’s stepbrother Tom Hagen. While he isn’t given nearly as much to do here in the first film, Tom is still a great character and I enjoy watching Duvall in the role. Speaking of Michael’s brothers, John Cazale also returns as Fredo. Now, Fredo is a very important character in this film. In Part I, Fredo was often in the background and forgotten. Michael, Tom, and Sonny (James Caan) were the main brothers, and you almost forgot about Fredo. This is why Fredo’s story works so well here in Part II. I don’t want to say too much about his character, but I love the role he plays here. You really sympathize with this character. A lot of actors received Oscar nominations for their roles in Part II, and yet for some reason Cazale wasn’t one of them. It’s a shame. The final major familiar face is Diane Keaton as Michael’s wife Kay. You feel so sorry for Kay in Part II. You get the impression that this is a woman desperately trying to hold on to the love she once had with Michael. It’s really tragic to watch her. She also has some amazing scenes with Michael, including one near the end which is one of my favourite scenes in the series (I think fans will know the one I’m referring too).
I’ve deliberately saved the most talked about supporting performance for last. That performance being Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone. The greatest feat De Niro accomplishes is being able to emulate Marlon Brando while avoiding imitating him. You truly believe that De Niro’s Vito will grow into Brando’s Vito. De Niro perfectly captures the mannerisms that Brando used. Just the way De Niro looks at something is evocative of Marlon Brando. But don’t be fooled, De Niro isn’t simply doing a Marlon Brando impression. He makes Vito Corleone his own. We see a younger, more ambitious Vito Corleone and we watch his rise in the criminal world. These scenes are some of the best in the series. They also bring out one of the film’s important themes. The difference between Vito Corleone and his son Michael. Vito gained power through respect and influence, and only used fear when necessary. Michael on the other hand almost solely relies on fear, and isn’t respected nearly as much as his father. In many ways, the film can be looked at as Vito’s rise and Michael’s fall, even though both stories involve the two immersing themselves in crime. The difference is Vito held on to his soul through the immersion and Michael didn’t. Of all the actors nominated for Oscars for Part II, De Niro is the only actor who walked away a winner. He wasn’t the only one who deserved an Oscar, he doesn’t even have the best performance in the film (Pacino), but I am extremely happy he won.
Francis Ford Coppola’s and Mario Puzo’s script for Part II is nothing short of excellence. The dual stories of Vito and Michael play off each other brilliantly. The film is slow, but in the best way. It takes its time to set up the various story elements, and delivers on everything it promises. The way all these characters are related and interact is almost Shakespearean. It’s also interesting that half of the script is completely original. The story of Vito is taken from Puzo’s original novel, while Michael’s story was created specifically for the film. In theory, creating half new material and half adaptation sounds awful, but it works brilliantly here. Part II also has some amazing lines. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” “I know it was you Fredo,” and my personal favourite, “If anything in life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
The Godfather Part II is one of those films where everything came together perfectly. Director Francis Ford Coppola did a masterful job stringing all these elements together. The film does so much right I couldn’t even talk about everything I wanted to. I haven’t mentioned the great supporting roles from Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg, the incredible music by Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola, or the dark cinematography from Gordon Willis. The Godfather Part II is a true masterpiece. A must-see for film fans.
PG’s Great Movies:
Aliens (added January 27th, 2012)
A Clockwork Orange (added December 19th, 2011)
Collateral (added September 29th, 2011)
The Godfather Part II (added March 29th, 2012)
In The Loop (added November 26th, 2011)
Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (added February 27th, 2012)