By Marc S. Sanders
The first film to use the number 2 (or Roman numeral II, in this case), in its title and the first sequel to win Best Picture is Francis Ford Coppola’s continuous adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Corleone family legacy in The Godfather Part II. It is worthy of all of the accolades it collected as an individual film. Yet, it does not best the first film.
Unlike the 1972 classic, Part II does not provide much character arc for anyone. We’ve already seen Michael (Al Pacino, silently ferocious here) change from good college boy and war hero to the evil puppet master Mafioso he eventually became. This film shows him exercising his threateningly murderous deeds as he works in conjunction with a sly Nevada Senator, a Jewish Miami mob boss (an excellent performance from Lee Strasberg) from the time of his father’s reign, and another mob guy from New York (Michael V Gazzo). We get a whiff of all these guys early on during a commencement celebration for Michael’s son. Coppola keeps this a running theme of grand openings in all three films. It’s a great method of introductions each time.
Following the party, an assassination attempt is brought against Michael. But who did it? Problem is this is where the foundation of the film is not so strong. It’s never really made clear who betrayed Michael. That’s a little bothersome.
Coppola depicts another storyline altogether with the early 20th century origin of Vito Corleone flawlessly played by Robert DeNiro who hardly speaks any English while communicating in a Sicilian variant of Italian. Young Vito immigrates to America following an escape from the Sicilian Don that murdered his family. In New York we witness his rise to power. Famed Cinematographer Gordon Willis washes out these flashback images to enhance a pictorial history accompanied by Angelo P. Graham’s art direction of early brick and mortar architecture and the muddy streets of early Little Italy, New York. It’s a time travel back to a historical age. It’s magnificent.
Back in the 1950s, Puzo and Coppola bring authentic fiction to real life history as Michael considers a go at a business enterprise in Cuba. However, will the rebellion uprising interfere with his plans, and what will it cost him? As well, there’s a great sequence where he has to testify before a congressional hearing in response to suspicion of criminal activities. Coppola used the infamous McCarthy hearing footage as inspiration for this predecessor to what C-Span would eventually look like.
Yet, there’s another story to become involved with as Michael must contend with his dim witted older brother Fredo. John Cazale is superb as the guy who wanted more but was limited by the influence of competing factions and his loyalty to his brother. Pacino and Cazale always had great chemistry together. A great conversation moment occurs in the third act following a terribly surprising twist. One of the best scenes in the film occurs on the porch of the Corleone compound.
More story elements come into play as Michael attempts to balance his married life with Kay (Diane Keaton). She’s pregnant again. Yet, what will that mean for the future of the family?
The sequel to The Godfather assembles another stellar cast. So good, that the film garnered three Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actor category alone (DeNiro, Gazzo, Strasberg) as well as a nomination for Pacino as Best Actor and Talia Shire (Supporting Actress) as Connie, Michael’s sister. That nom left me a little dubious only because there’s not much material for Shire to play with here.
Coppola’s detail is at the top of his game again. The film, like the first, feels like a true life biography.
Puzo offers heartbreaking moments, most especially in the film’s shocking end which leads to a flashback assembly of characters from the first film. That scene alone plays as a great reminder of what Michael once was before becoming the hideous monster that closes the story. Puzo’s whole Godfather franchise hinges on well defined, crushing tragedy.
The Godfather Part II is nothing short of mesmerizing and wholly engaging. You can watch it over and over again. It’s layered in rich storytelling and narratives that provide endless amounts of material for a family meant to be mired in secrets, deliberately hidden in the dimly lit rooms that Willis photographed.
It’s a treat to be the fly on the wall wherever Michael and his family move to next.