It’s hard to imagine, but not everyone liked this movie when it was first released in 1974. In fact, two major critics, Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, offered less than glowing reviews.
The film’s 11 Academy Award nominations (and six Oscars) demonstrated that both the viewing public and the Hollywood cinephile thought differently.
So do we.
This is rightly considered one of the all-time best gangster films. And it is, without question, the best movie sequel ever made. Categorizing it as a sequel may not be exactly correct, however, since about a quarter of the movie is devoted to the early life of Don Vito Corleone, which would make it, technically speaking, a semi-prequel.
We’re not here to quibble over semantics.
What The Godfather: Part II did was address the two major questions viewers were left asking after the stunning success of The Godfather:
Where did Don Corleone come from, both literally and philosophically?
And where was Michael Corleone going?
The answers come in dramatic fashion.
Al Pacino reprises his role as Michael and offers us an Ivy League Machiavelli. He has his father’s cunning and guile, but somewhere along the way lost his compassion. How else do you explain his decision to have his own brother, Fredo (John Cazale), killed long after any damage Fredo has done to the family has been repaired?
Both his sister Connie (Talia Shire) and his consigliere and adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) try to negotiate a pass for the hapless and tragic Fredo (played again to perfection by Cazale).
Michael won’t budge.
It was one thing not to give Tessio a pass. Michael’s actions there, while cold and ruthless, were understandable. But there is nothing to gain by killing Fredo, no lesson to impart, no point to be made.
Still, Michael wants Fredo dead—although he kindly orders that the hit not be carried out until their mother has died. Talk about a family man!
When Tom, in frustration, tells him he’s won and asks why he wants to wipe everyone out, Michael replies with ice, “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom, just my enemies.”
But by this point, enemies are all that Michael has.
He has isolated himself from nearly everyone he ever loved or who ever loved him. He has taken his children away from his estranged wife Kay (Diane Keaton), he has banished Fredo from the family and he has denigrated and belittled Tom Hagen.
Only his bodyguards and enforcers remain by his side, and they’re obviously paid to do so.
Michael is clearly a victim of what Kay calls “the Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years.” It destroyed their marriage and it destroyed his humanity.
Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II is a 20th-century prince corrupted by the machinations described in Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th-century political treatise. Does the end justify the means? If power corrupts, does absolute power corrupt absolutely?
Coppola and his script coauthor Mario Puzo explore those questions in both Godfather I and II, but it is the portion of Michael’s story recounted here that drives home their answers. His father wanted things to be different for Michael. We know that from the first movie.
But the quiet and self-assured young Michael Corleone who says, “We’ll get there, Pop” has disappeared by the time middle-aged Michael is sitting alone at his Lake Tahoe estate as The Godfather: Part II ends.
A flashback scene of the four brothers (including James Caan as Sonny) offers a glimpse of the way things used to be and shows us a young Michael full of hope and promise. But those days are gone, lost in the grab for power that included taking over another casino in Las Vegas, dealing with and battling against the sinister Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in Cuba and matching wits and influence with a Senate subcommittee investigating the American Mafia.
Hope and promise, along with revenge (another Sicilian thing), are also what we get from the fascinating story of the early days of Vito Corleone, the young boy who came to America in 1901, fleeing the Mafia don in the town of Corleone who murdered his father, mother and brother. The boy loses his surname as he is processed through Ellis Island. It is a small, but touching moment in the film and one that surely resonated with many viewers. Like scores of other immigrants whose names were changed or bastardized, Vito Andolini became Vito Corleone when a clerk mistook his hometown for his surname.
Robert De Niro is masterful as he takes up the role of Vito Corleone as a young man with the wit and instinct of a Mafioso in the most favorable sense of that word. Despite being poor and struggling to make ends meet for his family in New York’s Little Italy, he is a man of honor. He embodies omerta, the term that is most frequently associated with the Mafia’s code of silence, but that in actuality means “to be a man.” A man, in that world view, takes care of his own problems. He doesn’t look to the authorities for assistance; doesn’t complain.
The nobility that Puzo has transcribed in both his book and his screenplays—nobility that some sociologists and law enforcement officials contend never really existed—is captured in the Vito Corleone character that both De Niro and Marlon Brando portrayed.
One of the few lines that De Niro utters in English in The Godfather: Part II echoes a classic line from the original movie. When an incredulous young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) asks how he intends to convince Don Fanucci to take less money than he has asked for, young Vito shakes his head knowingly and says, “I make him an offer he don’ refuse. Don’ worry.”
Don Corleone has become an iconic figure in both the American underworld and in pop culture. “An offer he can’t refuse” is now part of our lexicon.
In The Godfather: Part II, Young Vito’s murder of Don Fanucci is one that we can appreciate, if not condone. While he and his associates will clearly benefit, he is ridding the neighborhood of the parasitic agent of the Black Hand. It is a victory over evil.
And later, his brutal slaying of Don Ciccio in Sicily to avenge the murders of his family members is one we can understand, if not celebrate.
Contrast those killings with Michael’s decision, for example, to have a hooker brutally murdered in order to frame a senator and force him to do the family’s bidding.
One generation removed from the hills of Sicily and from the teeming streets of Little Italy, Michael has lost his way.
He has, both Puzo and Coppola seem to be saying, become an American.
HIT: De Niro’s performance as the young Vito Corleone on the streets of Little Italy is one of the high points of the movie. Nearly every scene foreshadows the development of the character we already know from Brando’s performance in the original. We see the cunning and the ruthlessness in the plotting and the assassination of Don Fanucci. But there is humanity and genuine compassion as well. Young Vito’s dealings with the landlord, for example, are both humorous and indicative of the way the don would operate throughout his life. The same can be said for the way he developed a friendship and business relationship with Clemenza (Bruno Kirby).
MISS: What’s not to like? But if you want to pick nits, there’s one issue that doesn’t ring true. It hardly seems likely that Tom Hagen would be permitted to visit Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo) in jail, let alone get permission to smoke a cigar with him on an Army base where the wiseguy-turned-government informant was being housed. And while we’re on the subject, after Pentangeli reneges on his deal with the government and recants his testimony before the Senate subcommittee, why is he still being given special treatment by the Feds? In real life, he would have been moved to a high security wing of a federal prison for his own protection, but the cushy quarters at the Army base would have disappeared shortly after he failed to deliver what he had promised the subcommittee.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: (File these under critics don’t always know best): “It’s a second movie made largely out of the bits and pieces of Mr. Puzo’s novel that didn’t fit into the first. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from leftover parts. It talks. It moves in fits and starts but it has no mind of its own. Occasionally it repeats a point made in The Godfather (organized crime is just another kind of American business, say) but its insights are fairly lame at this point.”—Vincent Canby, New York Times
“What we’re left with, then, are a lot of good scenes and good performances set in the midst of a mass of undisciplined material and handicapped by plot construction that prevents the story from ever really building.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
REALITY CHECK: While the flashback scenes of Don Corleone’s early life are based almost entirely on Puzo’s original novel, the continuation of the Michael Corleone story is built around actual events. His appearance before a Senate subcommittee, for example, is reminiscent of the famous Kefauver Committee hearings that brought organized crime into America’s living rooms via television news reports in the 1950s. One of the biggest gangsters called before the committee was Frank Costello, a New York City don not unlike Michael Corleone. The fall of Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista and the financial hit the mob took when it lost its casinos there is also based on actual events. And the character Hyman Roth is clearly built around legendary mob financial wizard Meyer Lansky. The “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel” line uttered by Roth has often been attributed in real life to Lansky, who is credited with turning the American Mafia into an economic force in the 1950s and 1960s.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: De Niro got an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which is noteworthy on several levels. Coupled with Brando’s Best Actor Academy Award in The Godfather, it was the first time two actors won Oscars for portraying the same character.
Even more interesting—and often overlooked—is the fact that De Niro hardly spoke any English in the film. Almost every one of his lines is uttered in the Sicilian dialect, which he studied while living in Sicily in preparation for the role. And the lines he does deliver in English come with an Italian accent.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Almost any scene, and especially those from the early days, is a set piece worth watching again and again. This is a movie that any fan of cinema can revisit repeatedly and come away impressed.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: He’s a lot younger and appears taller, but the voice is unmistakable. Johnny Ola, Hyman Roth’s go-fer and the guy who turns Fredo against Michael, is played by Dominic Chianese who has done a lot of character acting but who is best known to younger viewers as Uncle Junior from the HBO series The Sopranos.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The Godfather: Part II was the first sequel in Academy Awards history to win a Best Picture Oscar. The film also garnered awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), Best Adapted Screenplay (coauthored by Puzo and Coppola), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration and Best Original Dramatic Score (Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola). Other nominations included Best Actor (Pacino), two for Best Supporting Actor, (Michael Gazzo and Lee Strasberg), and one for Best Supporting Actress (Shire).
BEST LINE: “My father always told me, ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,’ ” Michael tells Tom, while explaining why he is dealing with Hyman Roth even though he knows Roth tried to have him killed. The American Film Institute rated the line number 58 on its list of the 100 most quoted movie lines.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Controlled but constant. This was an underworld where murder was a negotiating tool employed both to settle disputes and send messages.
BODY COUNT: Sixteen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]