The problem with Godfather III is that . . . it’s not Godfather I or Godfather II. It’s a good, not great, gangster movie and certainly deserves to be included in our Top 100.
But it will always be compared with the two movies that preceded it. And in that comparison, it will always come up short.
GF3 has an interesting story and a stellar cast. Coppola and Mario Puzo, who wrote the script together, used real events—the suspicious death of Pope John Paul I and the multimillion-dollar scandal at the Vatican Bank—to bring us an updated Michael Corleone, struggling to go legit in a world that, he quickly learns, is as treacherous and cutthroat as the criminal underworld from which he came.
Those storylines gave the writers a chance to offer social commentary, and they didn’t hesitate. Their targets: the hypocrisy of big institutions—the Church, banking, politics—and the greed and venality of the men who run them.
“The pope’s doing exactly what you said he would,” attorney B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton) tells Michael after John Paul I begins to clean up the Vatican mess.
“He should be careful,” Michael replies. “It’s dangerous to be an honest man.”
After meeting with Vatican bankers, Michael offers this take: “We’re dealing with the Borgias.”
Finally, there is this exchange between Michael and Don Licio Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), the Sicilian politico with ties to the banks, the Church and the Mafia.
“You are a man of finance and politics,” Michael says. “I don’t understand either.”
“Finance is a gun,” says Lucchesi. “Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.”
Pacino brings the right blend of weariness and cynicism to his third turn as Michael. Diane Keaton is back as the long-suffering Kay (although we have always wondered how a volatile Sicilian like Michael ended up with the prim and proper New Englander; God, we miss Apollonia).
Andy Garcia is perfect as Sonny’s illegitimate son, Vincent Mancini. He’s smoldering and short-tempered like his father, violent and always on the prowl. Who else but Sonny’s kid could turn to make gnocchi into a sexual dance?
There are several other memorable moments, but not enough of them to elevate this film to the level of its predecessors. Which is the problem?
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but for our money, Coppola and Puzo went way over the line in trying to mimic—or revisit—some of the great scenes from the first two films.
For openers—literally—there’s the big party after Michael receives the papal award of Commander of the Order of San Sebastian for his philanthropy. Connie (Talia Shire, back and showing more balls than some of the male gangsters) does the Italian folk song right out of the wedding scene from Godfather I.
There’s also the scene where Joey Zasa (what a great name for the Joe Mantegna character) is walking through Little Italy during a festival as hitmen close in on him. This is simply the updated version of the classic scene from Godfather II when young Vito Corleone stalks Don Fanucci. This time it’s Vito’s grandson Vincent stalking the mob kingpin who is about to be murdered.
And the series of murders carried out while Anthony Corleone (Franc D’Ambrosio) makes his operatic debut in Palermo is nothing if not a repeat of the climatic Baptismal scene that puts the stamp of evil on Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather I.
The originals were great cinema.
The replays were . . . replays. We’ve already seen them and there’s no way they can be matched.
So why bother?
That, we guess, is the central question for anyone who watches this movie. Why was it necessary?
Clearly, Paramount wanted to dip its beak one more time, and Puzo, Coppola and Pacino all realized nice paydays. The film grossed over $66 million in the United States alone and garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actor for Garcia. But it was shut out on Oscar night—the only film in the trilogy not to win one of the coveted awards.
Puzo originally wanted to call the movie The Death of Michael Corleone, but Paramount balked. The story is, however, a morality tale with a basic lesson—evil is punished. Michael Corleone’s attempt to repent is too little, too late.
With Godfather III, we know how the final chapter in the Corleone saga ends. The Americanization of the family—the goal that Don Vito sought—is completed. But in giving us an ending, Coppola and Puzo have robbed us of imagining how it might have been.
And imagining how it might have been is sometimes better than seeing how it all turned out.
HIT: Andy Garcia brings a spark to his character that is reminiscent of so many performances in the first two Godfather movies. Unfortunately, not too many other actors bring their A-games this time.
MISS: Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary is a drag on the story. Ms. Coppola has since won praise and built a career for herself as a director, like her father. Her role here was ample evidence that her future lay behind the camera, not in front of it.
She “won” two RAZZIE Awards for her performance: Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star. Her father did her no favor by casting her in this film.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The Godfather Part III isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a failure of heartbreaking proportions. . . . The film completes the story of Vito Corleone and his sons . . . but in supplying the final chapter of the saga, it also sullies what came before. It makes you wish it had never been made.”—Hal Hinson, Washington Post
REALITY CHECK: Several of the characters involved in the Vatican Bank scandal were based, not so loosely, on individuals linked to that financial boondoggle. The Swiss banker in the movie is modeled after Roberto Calvi, chairman of Banco Ambrosiano. Like the character in the film, Calvi was found hanging from a bridge. While authorities first ruled it a suicide, it later was considered a murder. The death of Pope John Paul I from poison in his tea was also based on rumors that swirled around the demise of the Pontiff. And Don Lucchesi, the Sicilian politico with ties to the Mafia was a not-so-subtle reference to former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Only a diehard Godfather fan would want to revisit this and since you have the options of instead re-watching Godfather I or II, why waste your time on this one? But if you must, maybe the best way to take a second look is with the reissued DVD that tells the whole story chronologically.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: An early draft written by Puzo was built around a storyline that had Anthony Corleone working with the CIA to rub out a South American dictator. There were several other versions before Puzo and Coppola put this one together. Robert Duvall was originally going to reprise his role as Tom Hagen and would have had a big role in the financial wheeling and dealing and legitimization of the Corleone family. But Duvall balked at the pay he was offered (which was substantially less than Pacino’s salary). Instead, the script was rewritten with Hagen dead and his son (John Savage) playing a minor role as a priest who gets assigned to the Vatican.
CASTING CALL: Winona Ryder was set to play Mary, but bowed out so that she could appear in Edward Scissorhands (1990). Several others were mentioned, including Julia Roberts, Laura San Giacomo, and Linda Fiorentino before Coppola settled on his daughter and rewrote the script so that the character of Mary was younger.
Just imagine a scene with Fiorentino and Garcia making gnocchi. It could have gotten the film an X-rating.
BEST LINE: Everyone knows and repeats the classic lament Michael utters when he realizes he can’t get away from Cosa Nostra: “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”
But there are several other keepers as well.
We especially liked Michael’s response to his son Anthony during their argument over Anthony’s decision to leave law school and pursue a career as a singer. Anthony tells his father he loves him but doesn’t want to be part of his world.
“I have bad memories,” he says.
To which Michael, with a straight face, replies, “All families have bad memories.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Sporadic, but when it comes, it comes with a rush. Shootings, stabbings, poisoned cannoli.
BODY COUNT: We figure about three dozen. There were so many bodies dropping during the helicopter assault at the Atlantic City casino that it was impossible to get an exact count.
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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.]
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George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”