Taken For Granted – The Godfather, Part II
Last week, I covered The Godfather, and this week I’m covering its sequel. It’s a first for this column, but if you’re going to cover a film and it’s sequel, you can’t do better than these two classics. It won’t be the last time I cover two films in a series, but I figure it’s a good place to start.
Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.
The Godfather, Part II
Wide Release Date: December 20, 1974
Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
Produced By: Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematography By: Gordon Willis
Edited By: Peter Zinner, Barry Malkin and Richard Markis
Music By: Nino Rota
Production Company: The Coppola Company
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone
Diane Keaton as Kay Adams-Corleone
John Cazale as Fredo Corleone
Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen
What Do We All Know?
After The Godfather broke box records in 1972 and received universal acclaim, Francis Ford Coppola got started on a sequel. While this is obviously par for the course when it comes to blockbuster movies today, it was not considered a smart move for an award contender like The Godfather. Part II didn’t receive the immediate unanimous praise of the original (many critics having trouble with the parallel stories at first), it is now considered one of the greatest films ever made. Many consider it to be superior to the original.
What do I think? I always hesitate to say that sequels to true classics can really surpass the original. Sequels always have the inherent advantage of being enhanced by prior knowledge; the first movie has usually taken care of exposition and often completed character arcs and story threads. On the surface, there was no need for The Godfather to have a sequel at all. Which makes it even more impressive that not only is The Godfather, Part II a virtually perfect film, but it even manages to make the original better in the process.
What Went Right?
The Godfather tells the story of Michael Corleone’s rise to power as his father Vito steps down from his empire. Part II continues to Michael’s story and reveal the consequences of his choices, as he tries to legitimize his business even while his family crumbles around him. In juxtaposition, a series of flashbacks tell the story of Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro) and his rise from a humble child immigrant to the powerful mob boss we knew in the original. In a sense, it tells the same general story, but in reverse. Most importantly, we see that Vito’s passion for family and his community ultimately left him in a more fulfilling position in life, even with some tragedy along the way. Conversely, Michael’s obsession with power and vengeance at the expense of his family leaves him alone and unsatisfied in his riches, thinking about the happier times he’s lost.
Much like the original, Part II assembles an outstanding cast. Al Pacino gives one of the all-time great performances as Michael Corleone, building off of his work and showing the audience an even darker side to the character. Robert Duvall is back playing Tom Hagen as well as ever, while Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and John Cazale get weightier roles this time as Michael’s wife and siblings. Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo are welcome additions as two of Michael Corleone’s biggest headaches. And while replacing Marlon Brando is a near impossible task, Robert De Niro’s breakout performance is one of the strongest in the series. He pays tribute to Brando’s iconic performance while making Vito his own; to date, they are the only two men to win Oscars for playing the same character.
Having a good director, good actors and a good story typically means you are going to have a good movie. What I find highly impressive is that Coppola and his crew don’t settle for trying to recapture The Godfather. The tone of the films are very different; the original is dark and shadowy, but frames its story as two men fighting for their family, with only the last half-hour revealing some of the consequences. It feels like a heroic ascension, not a tragic corruption. Part II goes full tilt into revealing the consequences; right from the start, Michael’s family is tearing at the seams and by the end, there’s almost nothing left. It’s a grimy, ugly movie in terms of its plot and themes, yet is ironically a much brighter, less shadowy film visually. It’s as if Michael’s life has been pulled out of the shadows and into the spotlight, and all of the illusions are cracking.
The film also has a more complex look at how Italian immigrants perceive and are perceived by Americans. Vito learns quickly that while America is a land of opportunity, it doesn’t distribute those opportunities fairly and the only way for him to live his American Dream is to take his piece of the pie by force. For all of his father’s hard work to build the criminal empire and his own work to legitimize the Corleone family, Michael is still treated like a second class citizen by a hypocritical senator. Without absolving the Corleones, the film provides a realistic look at what can drive a person to crime.
What Went Wrong?
There is nothing substantially wrong with the film on its own merits. At three and a half hours in length, it still breezes by. One of my few complaints about The Godfather is addressed, as almost all of the Sicilian dialects have subtitles. So this won’t be about what it got wrong, but more about why I consider The Godfather to be a greater film than its sequel. Not better, but more iconic and important. Part II is a richer, more nuanced, intellectually challenging film that is rightly held up as one of the best of all time. But, it is also less memorable and thus has less of an impact. The Godfather elevated gangster movies from B-Movies into legitimate works of art. Part II… is just a nearly perfect movie that enhances the existing story. Feel free to disagree, but that’s my take.
What Went Really Right?
The truly miraculous thing about The Godfather, Part II is that seeing it makes The Godfather a better movie when you see it again. Sequels are always enhanced if you see the original, but how many sequels reflect back on Part I and make the whole franchise stronger? Not very many. The Empire Strikes Back is one, Bride of Frankenstein is another. But even great sequels rarely do this. Aliens doesn’t improve Alien and The Dark Knight doesn’t improve Batman Begins.
But The Godfather, Part II provides essential character information and history that changes how you view everything in the first film. We know more about Vito and how he thinks, and the character is consistent in both films. We know where Michael is going to end up, and it colors his interactions with his wife, his brother Fredo, and even his father. The films are amazing individually, but they support each other and elevate both into the upper echelon of films. Without question, they are the best one-two punch in the history of cinema.
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