THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
A richly-rewarded follow-on and justly so, THE GODFATHER PART II is often deservedly sited as one of a very rare breed of sequels that surpasses the original. This second part of the trilogy spectacularly gives audiences more of what they love in the continuing story of the Corleone’s - whilst adding a parallel plotline detailing the rise to power of the immigrant Vito, the family founder. There was no sitting on laurels here. Coppola and Puzo worked to give us essentially two consummately staged films in one.
In the ongoing saga of Michael’s rule, Part Two is about the maintenance of power now that he is established in the 1950s. Once business dominance is achieved, paranoia sets in; there will always be competition ready to take his place, and expansion (into gambling in this case) must be considered as part of survival. Michael finds pressure from all sides. He receives ethnic slurs and resistance from Nevada senator Pat Geary regarding his gaming license; his wife Kay (the always terrific Diane Keaton) gradually understands that she must free herself from his corrupt tyranny, his sister Connie (Talia Shire) defies him with a continual stream of unsuitable parasitic beaus and an assassination attempt is made on him while at home.
Meanwhile, expertly intercut with these scenes we see the growth of Michael’s father, the young Vito Andolini (Robert De Niro). From his mafia-fleeing childhood in Sicily through his arrival as a penniless non-English speaking boy processed at Ellis Island immigration office like a parcel, this second narrative is a compelling portrait in how talent finds its own level in the American Dream. Vito leaves behind a mother and brother killed by a mafia chieftain and his surname is dismissively changed at immigration to the town he came from. This young man though is a natural businessman and student of human nature, who develops the dual approaches both of expert diplomacy and ruthlessness in service of his aims that will serve him successfully as a life-long code. As he grows to maturity, he negotiates on behalf of an almost-evicted tenant and manages to equally bring the greedy landlord on side as well by appealing to future benefits for both, establishing himself as a man of integrity and friend to the underdog. At the same time, he erases the rapacious Don Fanucci, an evil local mafia hood, without any moral qualms after a brilliantly-staged single-take pursuit of his prey across the rooftops. It is just business - but business with a heart as it protects his interests and the powerless people of the neighbourhood.
As Vito, De Niro rightly won an Academy Award for his chameleon-like absorption into the role. He spent time in Sicily learning the dialect, very different to mainstream Italian as I know from experience, and also studied videotapes of Brando’s performance as the older man to capture his more noticeable physical traits (Watch his facial expressions as he dotes over his ill baby Santino/Sonny’s cot).
Eventually, the man must restore the blood debt owed as a child. Vito Corleone returns to Sicily where once more he comes face-to-face with the now decrepit mafia chieftain who killed his mother. He cunningly inveigles his way into the chief’s compound with a gift of his name-brand olive oil and murders his life-long enemy in cold blood but with mitigation. His mother’s honour is at least restored in Sicilian eye-for-an-eye fashion.
Back in the 50s, Michael’s mendacity toward his wife is matched by his perjury in court on organised-crime charges. Unlike his father, there is nothing he will not do to protect his own interests. He arranges the subtle threatening of a key witness, his old friend Frank Pentangeli by the meaningful appearance of his brother, shipped in to warn Pentangeli of familial consequences for betrayal. Michael also crosses another line his father would never have allowed when he has his weak liability brother Fredo killed, but only after their mother has passed away. This is chillingly foreshadowed at a New Year’s Eve party where he almost literally plants the kiss of death on his treacherous sibling: ‘I knew it was you, Fredo’.
As in the first film, the field is ultimately wiped clean as the modern-day Don has all his enemies assassinated, including a quietly powerful Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth, the Miami mafia boss who ‘Always makes money for his partners’. Pacino persuaded his old acting mentor Strasberg out of retirement to play the part which gained him an Oscar nomination for a memorable cameo.
In the end Michael is alone on a park bench, as all men must be whose ruthlessness and paranoia allows them to trust no-one and alienate all whose love could humanise them. One of the tragedies in the course of events of the GODFATHER films is the more innocent life path never taken by this Ivy-League graduate if only he had not been forced to take over the family business and turn to the dark side (arguably his own doing) to hold on to it. In an epilogue flashback, we see him displaying even as a young man that he walks his own path. At his father’s birthday party, while the family await the elder Don, he reveals to their disappointment that he has joined the army. (Incidentally, that scene was hastily improvised due to a no-show from Brando causing Coppola to rethink what to do instead)
Coppola shared Michael’s pinnacle of influence as the film opened. He would never again reach the dizzying height of combined box-office and critical acclaim that defined the years 1972-1974 for him. despite the undeniable though long-gestated brilliance of APOCALYPSE NOW. Listening to the audio commentaries on the trilogy box set recorded many years after, he clearly recognised this rise and fall in his career. He went from a climb to power in the first film’s creation, through a confident creative use of it in the sequel once success was established, to poignantly having to prove himself all over again sixteen years later when returning for the unfairly-maligned GODFATHER PART III. This epic sweep mirrors the Shakespearian history play feel that the trilogy has, and their longevity is a timeless triumph nonetheless.