The Godfather Part II
US (1974) Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
And so to the much lauded sequel. Or is it a prequel? Actually it’s both although many purists prefer to suggest it is more of a companion piece to its seminal predecessor. Whatever you want to call The Godfather Part II, one thing it can certainly be called is history making as the first sequel (or follow up if you will) ever to win an Oscar for Best film as well as the first – and so far only – film to repeat the success of its parent film.
Unlike the first film there are two storylines in pay here. The first is set in the late 1950’s with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) now in full swing as the Don of the Corleone family. He has two kids with his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and has inherited his late father’s trusted legal eagle Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to help run things, along with his only surviving errant older brother Fredo (John Cazale). Following a similar plot path to the first film, Michael becomes the target of some disgruntled associates and leaves the domestic running of things in Hagen’s hands while he jets off to Cuba to find out who ordered the hit against him while looking to expand the gambling side of the business.
The second storyline takes us back in time to when young orphan Vito Andolini arrives in the US from Sicily in 1901, rechristened Corleone by US immigration officials (after they confuse the mute boy’s home town for his surname), before jumping ahead to the early 1920’s New York where Vito (Robert DeNiro) works his way up from being a married father of two working in a grocery store to becoming a powerful figure after taking out local mafia boss, the venal Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin).
At 190 minutes this film has a good twenty five minutes more to tell its dual tales and for this writer at least, the end result is somewhat bloated. The origins of Vito’s rise makes for a fascinating story, every frame suffused with a sepia tint to indicate we’ve gone further back in time, but is secondary to the current plot involving Michael, which seems to drag on past its usefulness. There are at least two points where the story looked as though the conclusion was in sight but then a look at the clock and there is still plenty of time to go!
The pace of the film, which is noticeably slower than the first, could be attributed to the main story being largely about Michael’s struggles to balance his personal family life – that of his marriage to pregnant Kay and their two children – with that with his mafia family business. With Vito an elderly man and a grandfather in the first film, he was able to have much of the work load delegated between Hagen and Sonny. Michael doesn’t quite have that luxury, although Hagen is always on hand with offers to help out, but is keen to have him stay out of the real messy stuff.
As this takes its toll on his marriage there is another relationship under threat, that with his brother Fredo. Having been sent out to Las Vegas in the first film to control the gambling empire there, it seems that Fredo has never been able to get over being usurped by the younger Michael after Sonny’s death. This all comes out in the open as a result of the main subplot featuring an elderly ex-boss based in Miami, Vito’s old Jewish friend Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), his right hand man Johnnie Ola (Dominic Chianese). It’s a convoluted but well structured game of cat and mouse as each one tries to cover up their involvement in the assassination attempt at the start of the film but Michael is too smart for them. Or is he?
Pacino’s character had grown a lot since the first film and he delivers a measured essaying of a man who outwardly has the confidence and the brains to be a respected but fared mafia boss, but inside deeply hates it. Vito never wanted Michael involved and it was only his death that changed that. Michael always insisted that his father’s way of spilling blood was not his way, but he knew that he had at least show some guts in order to maintain the integrity of the Corleone name. Possibly the most telling and gut wrenching scene for Michael is when his young son Anthony (James Gounaris), who wants to be with his father, offers to help him to which Michael replies, with deep regret etched on his face and in his voice, “You will, one day”.
Fresh off Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets Robert DeNiro steps up to play the young Vito Corleone, a casting that doesn’t appear to make much sense until later on when he sports the famous moustache; only then does it fir into place. His Vito is still softly spoken (less mumbly!) but much more headstrong at first, becoming cockier as his power grows. He is still very much the everyman despite his fearsome reputation (the scene with the capitulating scumbag landlord after asking around about Vito is a gem) and while DeNiro makes this role his own, the seeds for Brando’s characterisation are subtly sown.
The Godfather Part II is a great film, one with amazing scope and ambition to tell two very different but relative stories in one outing. Coppola may only have been 35 when he made this but it’s the work of a studied veteran who can handle epic without getting overwhelmed. That said I personally would have enjoyed a separate film devoted to each story and to that end I preferred the first part more, but as sequels/follow ups go, this is still a powerhouse slice of cinema that superbly compliments its predecessor.