29b. The Godfather Part II (1974)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo

Don’t ask me to choose a favorite between “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” for that would be a truly impossible task. In the past, I often went back and forth on which one I preferred. It seemed to change with every single viewing, so I finally gave up and decided to love them equally. That is why both occupy the same space on my list of favorite films. But “The Godfather Part II” takes certain chances that “The Godfather” did not, beginning with its narrative structure. Being asked to shift back and forth between two time periods, many critics found the movie had left them horribly confounded. The argument was that the audience was never given enough time to get accustomed to either storyline. I confess that this also happened to me the first time. Upon further study, I came to see it for the stroke of brilliance that it really is.

All that I love about the cinematography of “The Godfather” is once again present in “The Godfather Part II.” For example, in the sequences involving the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), the sepia tones are even more pronounced than they were in “The Godfather.” The proverbial photograph is even more faded. This is because Vito’s scenes span from his immigration to the U.S. as a nine year old in 1901 to his ascension to power as an adult in the 1910’s and 1920’s. I especially like seeing those old Model T’s, the cars that resembled motorized carriages. My favorite visual aspect of the 1950’s scenes is the interior design of the residences. From family photographs I’ve been shown, this movie really captures how living in a house in the 1950’s would have looked.

The one thing that really keeps me coming back, though, is the acting. There are many actors at the top of their game here. The ones who stand out for me are Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, and of course Al Pacino. Each of them plays a character we’re already familiar with, and now it’s as though we know them intimately, like they are people who exist in the real world.

De Niro, who won Best Supporting Actor, is so convincing as the young Vito Corleone that it’s scary. He really has all of Marlon Brando’s mannerisms from the previous film down pat. There is a way that he scratches his chin that informs us this is most certainly the same guy we saw before. Also effective is the way De Niro, as Brando had before, contorts his face and tilts his head to the side to express that Vito has been made weary by a prior conversation. But I think my favorite is when he’s explaining to someone the reward factor of doing him a favor. He touches his index finger to his temple and says, in Italian, “I won’t forget it.” Vito always knew how to return a favor. His scenes are here to show us how Vito and Michael both arrived at the same destination, yet the paths they took to get there and the manner in which they approached them were quite different.

Diane Keaton, returning as Michael’s wife, Kay, portrays a character who is perhaps the strongest person in the entire movie. She is the only person willing to stand up and tell Michael he’s gone off the deep end without any fear of what the consequences of her actions might be. She knows, as well as Michael does, that being the mother of his children gives her an advantage that no mafia boss or Corleone family underling will ever possess. In fact, all of the women in Michael’s life have had a certain power over him, even his sister, Connie. But it is Kay who can be on the outside looking in and still have the greatest affect on him, no matter how hard or how many times he slams that door in her face.

At no other point in the history of the Academy Awards has a bigger mistake been made than when Art Carney was awarded Best Actor instead of Al Pacino. Not to disparage Art Carney, but the tour de force performance which Pacino gives here really has no equal. I suppose it would be easier if everyone who was up for an acting award had given the same performance, but that’s not how the Oscars are set up. Still, to deny Pacino an award for this specific film is downright criminal.

In 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” there was a line that served as that movie’s overall theme. It went as follows: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This is also applicable to the character of Michael Corleone. He was a hero in WWII, but he did not die in that war. Instead, he rose to become the most powerful mafia don of them all, wiping out everyone who stood in his way. Here, he continues his metamorphosis into full-on villain, and he completely alienates himself from those whose lives he has spared. For Michael, the Shakespearean fall is complete. It is as beautiful as it is tragic.

For “The Godfather,” I was able to single out my favorite scene in the movie. For its sequel, that’s not quite so easy. In “The Godfather Part II,” there are five scenes which I enjoy equally. In the order in which they appear in the film:

1) Fredo’s incidental betrayal revealed. In the previous scene, Michael has asked his brother Fredo (John Cazale) if he had ever met either Johnny Ola or Hyman Roth. Already guilt-ridden, Fredo has said he has never met either man. Now, at the New Year’s Eve party, Fredo reveals in casual conversation with the person next to him that he did in fact know both men. Apparently he had either forgotten or was unaware that Michael was sitting within earshot of the whole discussion. Michael doesn’t have to say a word. You can see the realization forming in his face, and you know he’s already thinking about what his next move should be now that he feels his own brother has betrayed him and the family (mostly him).

2) “You’re nothing to me now.” Michael has come to Fredo to find out what he knows about Hyman Roth’s connections within the Senate hearings against the Corleone family. Fredo tells him what he knows, and also pleads with him to understand that he didn’t know when he met with Roth and Johnny Ola that they were planning a hit on Michael. His only intrigue was that they said there would be something in it for him if he helped out on the negotiations between them and Michael. He’s upset that, despite being Michael’s older brother, he was passed over for leadership of the family. Once Fredo has his say, Michael completely disowns him. There is but one sin left for Michael to commit against Fredo that will cause him to sink any lower than this moment of pure cold-heartedness towards his own blood. This was, I think, John Cazale’s best scene in either movie because this was the one scene where we really got into Fredo’s head to know what he’s been thinking all of these years.

3) “It was an abortion, Michael!” When the movie begins, Kay is pregnant with her third child. It is going to be a son, and she knows this. Michael later learns that the child has been lost. After the senate hearings Michael has been facing have been adjourned, Kay informs Michael that she and the kids aren’t going back to Las Vegas with him. Michael is agitated, but tries to calmly convince her that she’ll soon be glad he stopped her and that he knows she’s also upset over losing the baby. That’s when Kay reveals she had the pregnancy terminated. Being raised Catholic, among other reasons, this has Michael incensed. As Kay goes on explaining why she did it, watch Michael’s face. I don’t know from what dark corner Al Pacino pulled this rage, but he looks as though his head is literally going to explode out of anger before Michael finally slaps Kay. Absolutely terrific performances from both Pacino and Keaton in this scene.

4) Birthday party flashback. It’s December 1941, and the family is waiting for Vito to arrive home so they can throw a surprise birthday party for him. As the family members talk of the recent Pearl Harbor bombing and of the many Americans who enlisted in the armed services out of patriotism, Michael informs them that he has enlisted in the Marines. It’s an excellently shot sequence for two reasons. Look at the only member of the family willing to congratulate him: Fredo. Also look at the seating arrangements. Sonny (James Caan) sits at the head of the table while everyone else sits on the left side of the table. Everyone, that is, except for Michael. When it is time to yell “surprise,” Michael is left sitting by himself at the table. This segues directly into…

5) Michael sits alone outside his home. Michael had earlier told his adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), “I don’t feel I have to wipe everyone out, Tom. Just my enemies.” He has succeeded in doing exactly that, but he has also angered many other people. The rest are so frightened of him that they dare not have anything to do with him. At the beginning of “The Godfather,” Michael was the rebel of the family, always on the outside looking in. Now he is the head of the family, but finds himself on the inside looking out. It gets awfully lonely at the top of the mountain.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Absolutely excellent, Chuck. I like the way you decided to expand on the three main characters as well as some of their best scenes. I also like the astute remarks about Fredo and the one scene that allows us to share his feelings at last.Your analysis of Michael, outside looking in and inside looking out, brings your review to the perfect and logical conclusion. Cudos!

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