Thursday, February 9, 2012

Film #73: The Godfather, Part II (1974)


*This is, of course, the second of the Godfather series, which are considered one “film” by the fellows who put together the TIME magazine list of “100 great movies”. Here’s my review of the first movie, done a few months ago.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: three (last time about 6 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No Spoilers)

Long before dying in an orange orchard in the 1940s, Vito Corleone immigrated to the U.S. and became a respected and feared crime lord. Four decades later, his son Michael struggles to maintain and expand the family’s criminal empire.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair Warning.)

This is a relatively short (used loosely – the movie’s 3 and ½ hours long!) summary. For a much more thorough synopsis, check out this one at the Internet Movie Database website.

Roughly 45 years before the events chronicled in The Godfather, a nine-year old Vito Andolini lives in the town of Corleone, Sicily in 1901. He must flee the country to escape murder at the hands of the local mafia head, Don Ciccio, who has already killed his father, older brother, and mother. A few sympathetic clergy members stash him on a freight ship, and he arrives in America a few months later. At Ellis Island, his named is inadvertently altered to “Vito Corleone”, which is the name he will use for the rest of his life.

A nine-year old Vito arrives at Ellis Island, quietly dealing with all of the chaos and change.

Nearly 20 years pass, and Vito (Robert De Niro) is living in a poor Italian district in New York City. He has a decent job at a grocery store, a loving family, and a small, barely adequate apartment. One day, however, his job is taken from him at the behest of Don Fanucci, the obnoxious, vain, and greedy mafia underboss who has the neighborhood in his grip. The quiet, meditative, and thoughtful Vito gently gives up his job, assuring his employer that there are no hard feelings.

Through a series of events and in order to support his family, Vito takes to crime with his friends, Clemenza and Tessio. The three lead a successful, if relatively small, thievery ring. When Don Fanucci finds out, though, he demands a cut of their action. While Tessio and Clemenza would like to bow to Fanucci’s wishes, Vito convinces them to let him handle it. They agree, and Vito “handles it” by assassinating the despicable Fanucci.

The three friends then continue to slowly build their criminal empire, with Vito as their head. Vito, not only interested in criminal profits, also develops a reputation as a man who will help any friends in need. Thus, he becomes not only feared, but also a highly beloved and respected figure in Italian New York.

Vito Corleone, ascended to successful, deadly, and highly respected crime boss.

Around 25 years later, the events depicted in The Godfather take place, with the mantle of “Don Corleone” passing from Vito to his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino). The Godfather ends with Michael having his 5 main rivals assassinated and beginning to move the Corleone family to Las Vegas.

Seven years after these events, in 1958, the Corleone family is in Lake Tahoe, celebrating Michael’s son’s first communion with a massive party. As with his sister, Connie’s, wedding to Carlo ten years prior, this grand celebration serves as a front for Michael to conduct family business with other powerful people, including corrupt Senators and mafia bosses who work for him. Michael’s grand scheme is to partner with Hymen Roth, a very wealthy, long-time associate and financial supporter of his father in various illegal activities. They plan to bribe the president of Cuba into letting them open and run their own businesses in the Caribbean country. A monkey wrench exists, however, in the form of Michael’s underling Frank Pantangeli wanting to eliminate a rival New York crime family who is backed by Roth.

That evening, after the party guests have all left, an attempt is made on Michael’s life. In his very bedroom, where his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) is sleeping, a pair of assassins opens fire and riddles the room with bullets. Both Michael and Kay escape, unharmed, but Michael now must guess who sent the would-be murderers.

Over the coming months, Michael travels from Lake Tahoe to Miami and Cuba, speaking with Roth, Pantangeli, and his older brother Fredo, in order to determine who tried to kill him and exactly how they were able to get so close to him and his wife. In the middle of it all, Michael must face Senate questions about his alleged crimes. Pantangeli and his bodyguard, Cicci, have become witnesses to the prosecution, after the former survived an attempt on his life, seemingly ordered by Michael.

Through his own cunning and willpower, Michael learns that it was, in fact, Hymen Roth who ordered both his and Pantangeli’s murders. Not only this, but Roth obtained access to the Tahoe compound from Michael’s own brother, the weak-willed and petty Fredo. Added to this, any designs of the Corleone family in Cuba are crushed when Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries take over the government and oust the president. A final, more devastating and personal blow is given Michael by Kay. Michael had believed that Kay’s recent pregnancy had ended in miscarriage, when in fact it was an abortion. Kay explains to her husband that she has become disgusted at their lives and refuses to bring any more of Michael’s children into the world.

Michael in his fortress-like compound in Reno, dealing with some enemies while creating many more.

Michael resolves each problem in his own ruthless way. Hymen Roth is assassinated in an airport. Frank Pantangeli is coaxed into recanting his testimony against the Corleones, in exchange for assurances that his family will be taken care of. Michael completely shuns Fredo, cutting him off from the family. After their mother passes away, Michael has Fredo killed for his past treachery. As for Kay, she too is cut off from her own two children. The divide is so severe that, upon finding Kay secretly visiting their children, Michael coldly slams a door in her face.

The tale ends with a final flashback to 1941. All of Michael’s immediate family members are alive and happy, and they prepare to eat a surprise birthday meal for their father, Vito. Michael then reveals that he has enlisted in the Marines, much to the disgust and anger of his eldest brother, Santino (James Caan). When Vito arrives, everyone leaves the table to greet Vito. All except for Michael, who merely sits and contemplates his decision.

In 1959 in Lake Tahoe, Michael Corleone, now seventeen years older, sits in a similar thoughtful pose – completely alone.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any further research on the film.)

Just as with my re-watching of Part I, this one was a treat, yet again. Part II is a seamless continuation of, and deeper exploration into, the epic and tragic tale of the Corleone crime family. This sequel/prequel combo may still be the only “great” movie that matches or surpasses its classic predecessor.

In watching these two films within about two months of each other, I realize that one is best served by watching them in rapid succession. The two really are one long movie, and should be watched as such. As excellent as Part I is on its own, my appreciation for it is so enhanced by watching Part II that I really can’t imagine watching one and not the other any more.

One of the early scenes of Vito Andolini, just before his mother is brutally gunned down. This camera shot is one of countless that could be stilled and hung on a wall.

On a few counts, it’s difficult to separate the merits of the two. Being created by exactly the same film-makers, based on the same source, using all of the same actors, and filmed a mere two years after Part I, Part II has exactly the same amazing aesthetic appeal. Whether it’s early 20th century Sicily, 1920s New York, or 1950s Lake Tahoe, Miami, or Cuba, many of the shots are studies in framing and composition. The panoramic shots give you so much to drink in that you can almost forget about the stories and plots unfolding.

Almost.

I assume that Mario Puzo’s book tells the Corleone story in standard chronological order. By choosing to reshuffle the tale and go simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, Coppola did something that I can’t recall seeing in any earlier film. Or at least, not done so effectively. Watching the quiet boy Vito Andolini steadfastly overcome his hardships through his own conviction and willpower is the more enjoyable and entertaining part of the three-and-a-half behemoth that is The Godfather Part II.

Though it is the more pleasing of the two tales, Vito's story serves the greater purpose of casting Michael’s story into very dark relief. By the end, Michael is having to deal with all of the fallout of his own lack of the very thing that made his father a better man – genuine compassion. Michael gets respect from other powerful people because he has always had money and because he is clearly intelligent and capable. His father, however, did not initially have the luxury of financial might to impose his will; what Vito had was real concern for his family and his countrymen, and he had a sense of justice that weak and strong alike would support. As was developing in the latter half of Part I, the intellectual Michael understands these characteristics of his father, but he does not and cannot genuinely feel them.

The tone of the movie is also very much in keeping with Part I. There are intense moments of emotion, fear, and anger, but also moments of levity provided by taking a look at the “gangster lifestyle”, especially the far less polished under-bosses and henchmen. The drunken and obnoxious Frank Pantangeli and his body guard, Cicci, provide as many chuckles as Sonny or Clemenza do in Part I. The reverse is true of the flashback scenes with Vito – his tale contains more humor (we know he’s going to succeed, having seen Part I), but there are certainly moments of tension and bloodshed. Everything is balanced exceptionally well.

Speaking of the violence. It’s interesting to realize that, while there is certainly graphic violence in Parts I and II, alike, I never feel that it is gratuitous in any way. There is never any slow-motion photography, no stylization of it, or any music to try and intensify anything. A murder, even a fictitious one on screen, is intense enough. When I see a murder occur in these movies, my clenched teeth and cold guts tell me that these are the horrors that are part of this type of criminal life. The fact that the victims are often slain by those they know and trust is an even greater horror, and one that should leave a viewer no doubt as to whether the lifestyle is truly glamorous or noble.

One of the more iconic shots - Vito murdering the corpulent Don Fanucci. The unstylized presentation of this  killing gives a cold sense of just how matter-of-fact Vito can be about assassination, when it comes to providing for his family.

The acting is, as you would expect, perfection. All of the returning cast members continue to nail their roles, and I even see a little more depth added to the relationship between Michael and Kay. The newcomers to the Godfather story only enhance it. De Niro is incredible, as expected, but even the smaller roles of Frank Pantangeli and Hymen Roth are played expertly by Michael Gazzo and Lee Strasburg, respectively. As with Part I, even the tiniest of roles seemed to be cast with someone who could add some kind of memorable accent to the picture.

Probably the thing that I gained a better appreciation for upon this viewing came from the end of the movie. I don’t know that I ever fully grasped the comparison that the two movies were making between Vito and Michael, and just how aware Michael is that he does not have his father’s most valuable gifts of character. Nowhere in the movies is this clearer than at the very end, when we shift from Michael in 1941, sitting alone at the family dinner table, to Michael in 1958, having just had his brother killed for treachery. The divide between father and son is now all too clear, and Michael is left alone.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little research.)

As with Part I, the commentary on The Godfather Part II is almost limitless. The handful that I read was mostly unsurprising. The Godfather Part II was a very solid commercial and critical success, raking in 11 Oscar nominations and 6 wins. The reasons for this are the same reasons for Part I’s acclaim.

A few curious notes popped up in what I read, though. The primary one was that a handful of respected film critics, including Roger Ebert, weren’t completely enthralled with this sequel. In Ebert’s original 1974 review here, it’s clear that he recognizes several clear strengths, but he felt that the telling of the dual tales of Vito and Michael was a bit of patchwork job that weakened the picture. He wasn’t completely alone in his assessment. I myself did feel that the shifts, while not very distracting to me, were a tad abrupt at times. Still, I don’t know that there was a better way to tell the story and still provide the interesting parallels and divergences between Michael and his father.

Apparently, the slightly stilted nature of the narrative was not a figment of a few critics’ imaginations. The studio and advance critics’ protestations were enough that Coppola actually was in the process of reediting and restructuring the film so that the two different stories were more self-contained and impacting. However, he couldn’t get it done by the release date, so we were left with the greater number of flashbacks and forwards.

The other major area of interest is just how much reality provided the source material for The Godfather Part II. Even more than Part I, the sequel drew from very real mafia doings in Las Vegas and Cuba. The Senate hearings were based on actual hearings in the 1950s in pursuit of gangster Frank Costello (not to be confused with the character of the same name in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed). Hymen Roth was based on an actual major financier for the mob named Meyer Lansky. It’s a bit frightening to think that so many of these insidious machinations are not just the stuff of make believe. Just who do you think might own that nice hotel you’re staying in? It might not be some kindly hotelier, eh?

Hymen Roth and Michael in Cuba (actually filmed in the Dominican Republic), trying to outmaneuver each other and drop their dirty stakes into the country at the same time.

The final thing that dawned on me in these reading is something that I didn’t find mentioned, specifically. I was left to think about a rather understated comparison that one can make – it involves Don Ciccio, the Sicilian mafia Don in Corleone who brutally murders young Vito’s entire family. When the grown Vito comes to him and exacts his revenge, Don Ciccio is portly, hard of hearing, and, most importantly, he is completely alone except for his paid body guards. It’s hard not to see Michael Corleone as the very same man at the end of the movie. He has killed anyone who is his enemy, leaving him with no one left, for enemies are all that he has created for himself. The true tragedy is that this is exactly what his own father, who wanted Michael to be a great man, despised and sought to overcome.

*A final thought about The Godfather Part III (1990): In brief – if you’re thinking about watching it, don’t get your hopes up. Amazingly, it’s horribly inferior to Parts I and II. The visuals are great, and the plot is halfway decent, but there are some really bizarre shifts of character and laughably atrocious acting by a few “thespians”. The greatest offense was the notoriously bad performance by Sophia Coppola. Watching this third installment might give a bit closure, but realize that there are very good reasons that this one is never included in discussion of the “great series” that the first two films make up.

That’s a wrap. 73 shows down. 32 to go.

Coming Soon: Barry Lyndon (1975)


I don’t meet too many people who know of this movie, but I love it. It can be filed under “lesser-known Kubrick”. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a nice overcast day to kick back and drink in this meditative, visually lush epic.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.