The Godfather Part II
The popular consensus is that The Godfather Part II is the only sequel to eclipse the original in quality. Indeed, a sequel that didn’t, Scream 2, laid this out amongst its various pithy rules. Albeit, it played fast and loose with its definitions. While I’d agree that several of those proposed (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day) couldn’t equal the first instalment, disqualifying The Empire Strikes Back – “Not a sequel, part of a trilogy, completely planned” – is nonsense, and there are a number of others besides that immediately spring to mind (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, The Bride of Frankenstein, Superman II). Which is preamble to say that, while it’s very, very good, and undoubtedly expands on The Godfather’s themes richly and rewardingly, I still prefer Coppola’s original.
It seems many critics did too, initially, although their overall verdict tended to the take that the second instalment was an unsuccessful and confused attempt to juggle two timeframes and a dense plot (this after Coppola had returned to cutting room to rein in the cross-cutting, deemed too frequent by preview audiences). However true that maybe, it could only have represented a matter of months, as between its release in December 1974 and the Oscars in April 1975 its status was guaranteed: the best sequel ever and one of the best films ever bar none.
It was not, however, the landmark hit of its predecessor, perhaps because it wasn’t as punchy, required more work and was less immediately accessible. Or maybe it just didn’t have Brando. That tends to get forgotten, given it is such an illustrious picture. It did well, without a doubt, hitting the US Top 10 of the year and proving Paramount’s biggest 1974 earner, but balance the original’s first run $134m against The Godfather Part II’s $48m gross, and the drop isn’t far off a third! That’s in the ballpark of the ignominious take of Exorcist II: The Heretic (original $193m, sequel $31m; okay, closer to a sixth) and also comparable to the hit but nothing like the first one Jaws 2 ($260m to $81m).
Obviously, you offset that against an original’s gross far exceeding the norms of the time, and that sequels weren’t generally seen as prestige affairs at that point but rather cheap cash grabs, but nevertheless: the sequel to Planet of the Apes ($33m/$18m) fell about half, while Magnum Force actually grossed more than Dirty Harry. Paramount clearly still saw The Godfather as a viable franchise – the first proposed second sequel script was written in 1979 – but the combination of accolades to live up to and the knowledge it wasn’t sure-fire blockbuster left it lingering until Coppola’s own financial traumas ensured it a belated existence.
Coppola initially resisted Part II – “If I took my career to an insurance actuary, he’d tell me to lay off the sequels if I wanted to stay healthy” – feeling no good could come of it, then yielded to producing only; when they said no to Scorsese as his director pick, he finally agreed in return for $1m to write and direct (in addition to gross participation). This compared to $60,000 for the original.
The “in” he found to justify returning to the well was the compare and contrast of Michael’s dwindling humanity and young Vito’s expanding status (and waistline). And it’s true: the counterpoints are sharp and textured, added to which, the evocation of early twentieth century Sicily and America manage to be even more sepia-tinged in Gordon Willis’ photography than the original, if that were possible. In general, the picture is informed by Nino Rota’s mournful, elegiac score form the off, one that smacks of tragedy of the ages; while the Vito scenes add sweep, expanse and generational texture, this is still most definitely Michael’s fall, with Vito featuring in less than a quarter of the proceedings.
Again, Coppola exerts a seductive, hypnotic, stately pace; the film is engrossing in the manner of a good novel; the skill here is most evident in the way he draws us in to each time zone alternatingly, such that we aren’t desperate to get back to either Corleone while in the company of the other. Pacino’s performance, requiring him to exude even less humanity and outward emotion, is easily one of his best, a man not so much retreating from decency and feeling as wilfully interring it in order to be the most inexpressively effective wielder of power.
There’s crucially one scene here in which he loses control, and that’s personal – learning of Kay’s abortion – rather than business (it’s a great scene because you genuinely don’t quite know what he’ll do). Compare this to the actor’s hammery in Part III (where the first line that comes to mind is the explosive “It was not what I wanted!” and you have to conclude that however pissy and vexed he was during the lengthy shoot – demanding rewrites and shouting “Serpico only took nineteen days!” – it was worth it.
If there’s a consequent problem, it’s that many of the supporting cast are side-lined by Michael dealing with business; the main players here are Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Frank Pentangeli (Michael V Gazzo). Diane Keaton is superb when she’s allowed an audience (the scene where Michael shuts a door in her face is more brutal than any shooting, stabbing or strangulation). Talia Shire is rather bookended. Robert Duvall is as dependable as ever, but Tom has been straight-jacketed at this point, hanging on loyally even though Michael has no confidence in him and he has enormous misgivings; in a way, you wonder what place there would have been for the character, had the actor not baulked at appearing in III over his pay cheque, as there’s little here that isn’t merely underlining what we already knew. John Cazale fares best in the Fredo role, the idiot brother who flails and shouts and fatally screws up.
De Niro is the nuts here, of course. It’s easy to forget, thanks to over-familiarity and lack of discernment of roles – he’s become night-on unwatchable over the last decade, and was already pushing it in the one before that – that he was once a firebrand, able to suggest an intelligence in his roles greater than his own (certainly, that’s the impression one cumulatively gets). Brando said of him “He is the most talented actor working today. I doubt if he knows how good he is”.
GD Spradlin is especially strong as the senator who needs bending to mob will (while the engineered situation of a body in a bed is specific to his relationship with the Corleones, it’s also illustrative of the basic caveat of no one being in power who isn’t in someone’s pocket, for which one needs leverage, customarily of a sexual nature). Lee Strasberg shows us why he’s regarded as legendary (his next movie would be The Cassandra Crossing…) Michael V Gazzo has the kind of naturalness one associates with an “authentic” Scorsese mob picture. One can see Bruno Kirby, Harry Dean Stanton and Danny Aiello at various points.
Brando was a no-show for the flashback, despite intimating he’d appear (I don’t know that’s such a loss, as the scene generally seems like the wrong side of indulgence, getting everyone nostalgically back. The best part of it is Fredo’s typically oblivious response to Michael joining up: “That’s swell, Mike. Congratulations”). More damagingly, the older Clemenza, Richard S Castellano (Kirby played the younger), fell out of the film (so mirroring the fate of Duval in Part II); this became Frank Pentangeli. It isn’t something you really notice unless you go looking for it; with all these call backs to the past, why is Frank a “new” face?
There are other areas one notices too, simply in terms of stressing why the film isn’t necessarily quite unassailable. The Senate Committee is dropped in with no prior warning following the Intermission, and one wonders if one hasn’t missed something (they were based on the Joseph Valachi hearings; Roth, meanwhile, was inspired by Meyer Lansky). Michael takes his time working out who on the inside betrayed him, but one might have expected past experience to point to the culprit immediately.
I also began to feel the slightly nauseous strains of the prequel trilogy here – perhaps George was taking notes – in the way the young Vito scenes unsubtly present links of dialogue and character. So Vito says “I’ll make an offer he don’t refuse” – these movies’ “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, or “May the Force be with you”. The various children show up, their tics duly identified (sickly Fredo, favourite Michael – “Michael, your father loves you very much” – pugilist Sonny picking a play fight in Sicily ; the kind of thing “fans” love but should probably have been resisted, along with the use of oranges as a harbinger of death).
Geoff Andrew fell in line and called The Godfather Part II a “superior sequel”, while Pauline Kael heralded it from the off as something else, suggesting “it may be the most passionately felt epic ever made in this country” and “an epic vision of the corruption of America” (tempering this to suggest it came from without, “the seeds of destruction that the immigrants brought to the new land”). It was, of course, the only sequel to capture Best Picture… until The Return of the King. It also made up for the original’s cautious victory by winning six of eleven nominations (somehow Rota was okay’d this time; Pacino would have to wait until he’d descended into full ham to get his belated statuette, however). The loser in all this was Chinatown, equal in nominations but taking a solitary Screenplay prize. I’m sure the consensus believes this was a rare night when Oscar got it right, but of the two classics, I’ve always tipped towards the detective noir.