Overview: The sequel to the original classic chronicles the descent of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the ascent of his father, Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro). Paramount Pictures; 1974; Rated R; 200 Minutes.
Calling The Godfather Part II one of the Greats is a bit of a moot point at this stage. I have yet to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that it’s brilliant, and if I did find someone who hated it, I would throw hot tea in his eyes.
Why Is It So Good? Hard to say. Watching The Godfather Part II is like eating a sumptuous 12 course meal. Afterwards you are both exhausted and satisfied and if someone asks you your favourite part you find it hard to pin it down. Is it the acting, the directing, the script, the scenery, the music, the cinematography, the setting? Yes.
So in the end, I’ve decided to forgo structure and just highlight parts and elements of the film that I love so much.
I Know It Was You: John Cazale absolutely kills it in this movie. My love for this actor knows no bounds, but I do believe that outside of Dog Day Afternoon this movie is his crowning achievement. Now, admittedly he only starred in five movies before his short, brilliant career was cut short by cancer, but those five movies were the first two Godfathers, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter, so it’s a hell of run. I think that deep down, we all know that we’re Fredo. We all want to be the cold, calculating Michael or the hot-headed, big-dicked Sonny, but when it comes to the crunch, we’re all Fredo.
My favourite Fredo scene, and one of my favourite scenes in the movie, is when he is telling Michael why he betrayed him. He is shaking with anger and fear and yelling that he was looked over because everyone thinks he’s dumb. And all the time he’s sat in this stupid lounging chair that won’t stop rocking, making a mockery of his righteous anger. A perfect microcosm of the broken man’s life as he finally stands up to his brother but is actually sitting in a chair that’s making a fool of him. Cazale sells the pathetic character who has betrayed our ‘hero’ so well that you can’t help but feel for him, and Coppola places him in such a setting that even though he is baring his soul, he is still a laughable excuse for a man.
Father and Son: De Niro and Pacino are working at full speed here. De Niro especially manages to convey so much in a role that is mostly silent or in a foreign language. There is a scene in which baby Fredo is sick and De Niro, the doting father, looks on, and, without tears or expression, manages to convey with just his eyes, pure heartbreak. This is the look of a father worried that his son will die and it’s all achieved without hysterics of any kind. Later we have the scene in which Michael is informed of his wife’s abortion and the camera holds on his face for an age as you see rage, pure animal rage build and build behind his eyes until it explodes in an act of violence. Both actors do so much by doing so little. Pacino veers closest to losing it with his occasional outbursts but when ninety percent of his performance is quiet, calm, reptilian coldness, these outbursts are jarring (as oppose to modern Pacino where the quiet moments amongst the yelling are a shock).
Story: My favourite thing in this movie is that it is a crime story that isn’t about crime. Don’t get me wrong, crime abounds in this story but the main focus of the Vito scenes is a skewed re-telling of the traditional American Dream story of the poor immigrant who comes to America and makes his fortune. He is a criminal but more for survival and to protect his neighbourhood. Vito is respected more than he is feared as he seems to treat those around him fairly, a point countered by the slimy Fanucci who is simply feared until he runs afoul of a gun wrapped in a towel. I love the fact that Vito is, essentially, a good guy. He takes care of his wife and family. He is not a drunk or a drug addict. He is full of love and understanding. He gives and takes favours and helps out those in need. Even when he kills Fanucci there is not a sense of it being a turning point in which the character has broken bad. It actually feels more like a victory, as though Fanucci had it coming and thank God Vito killed him when he did. Michael on the other hand tries to go straight and be the good guy but ultimately is simply a villain, a fact cemented when he sends his brother out on the lake, never to return.
Overall: I don’t think I made my point very well. I could write a million words about my love for this movie. I am at the end of my word count and haven’t mentioned the wonderful score or Conrad Hall’s darkly sinister cinematography or the outstanding performances of Lee Strasberg and Michael Gazzo. I haven’t touched upon the fact that the movie manages to tell two very different, equally compelling stories that complement each other and also stand alone, each one a fantastic movie in and of itself. I haven’t said a lot of things, but I did say up the top that I love this movie. And that’s the important thing.