But then, in an act of remarkable artistic aplomb, Coppola (and co-writer Mario Puzo, and his flawless cast and crew) matched their masterpiece—and didn’t do it in anything resembling an easy way. Coppola didn’t merely replicate the formula of the original film and give audiences more of the same; he crafted a complex combination of prequel and sequel, jamming its three-and-one-half hours with a dizzying complicated plot and a character arc that pushed its protagonist from the criminal mastermind of the first film to a soulless monster. It was a brave, bold act of anti-commercial filmmaking, eschewing the clean, classical narrative of the first film for a potentially alienating experimental story structure and daring us to root for a main character stripped of his every last redeeming quality.
In the construction of the screenplay, Puzo and Coppola cleverly mirror specific sequences of the original film, but with noticeably different overtones. We first glimpse Michael and his family, now relocated to 1958 Lake Tahoe, at a communion party for his eldest son that is clearly meant to mirror the extended sequence of Connie’s wedding in the first film. But the contrasts are jarring; it’s a joyless affair, the band doesn’t know any Italian songs, and this time, a Senator will show his face at a Corleone family event. The meeting between Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) and Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is not a smiling request for a favor—it’s an old-fashioned shakedown by the lawmaker, and Michael is not receptive. “Senator,” he tells him, “you can have my answer now if you’d like. My offer is this: nothing.”
There’s a lot of information in these early scenes, and a lot of new characters to meet (“One by one, our old friends are gone,” notes Johnny Ola, played by Dominic Chianese, who serves as our connecting agent between the worlds of the Coreleones and the Sopranos). But there are also old family members to reacquaint ourselves with: here’s Fredo (John Cazale), still yearning for relevancy and importance, and then there’s Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), as efficient as ever, and there’s Connie (Talia Shire), a shell of her former self, her relationship with her brother even more brittle and strained. Michael still makes promises to his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) that the family will go legitimate, but it is a goal that seems perpetually out of reach—particularly when an attempt is made on his life, a brutal shooting through the windows of his bedroom, which sets off a chain reaction of suspicion, paranoia, double-crosses, and revenge.
Michael’s plotline seems almost deliberately labyrinthine, a complex juggling of his obligations to the New York wing of the family, as represented by Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), and his new business interests in Cuba, a potentially lucrative partnership with the deceptively warm Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). Compelling as these machinations are, the most fascinating element of the story is the resulting conflict between Michael and Fredo, a family betrayal that adds a brilliant additional layer to the narrative. “You’re nothing to me now,” Michael tells his older brother. “You’re not a brother, not a friend. I don’t want to know you, or what you do.” That turn of the tale, and its stunning culmination, is personal tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude.
But The Godfather Part II is not only the continuing story of Michael Corleone. In a risky but fruitful move, Coppola intercuts his story with that of the early years of his father Don Vito Corleone, the head of the family played so memorably by Marlon Brando in the first film. We see Vito as a young boy, fleeing his Sicilian village of Corleone for the shores of America; we see him as a young man (exquisitely played by Robert DeNiro), making a way for himself and his family. The design and execution of those scenes is impeccable—these have become the definitive images of early 20th century New York. But they also function as a reprieve from the coldness of Michael and the current incarnation of his family. The petty crimes and just murders of young Vito and Clemenza (played here by Bruno Kirby) are portrayed as the crimes of gentlemen, as opposed to the institutional corruption and faceless money-grabbing of Michael and his ilk. The cinematography is warm, the images (like baby Sonny on that freshly-stolen rug) homey. Hell, even the music is jauntier.
As young Vito, DeNiro manages to capture the spirit of Brando’s iconic performance without ever resorting to anything as craven as mere imitation. He gets at the soul of the man and the journey he takes, seemingly realizing that Don Vito’s character development in Godfather II matches his son’s in the previous film—a good, honest man who is drawn by circumstance to a life of crime, and finds that he has a gift for it. That turn is helped along by the slimy Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), perhaps the most truly hateable villain in the entire series; we’ve got a rooting interest in Vito taking him out. The sequence where he does so is truly phenomenal—another of Coppola’s brilliant interminglings of faith and violence (and family, as we go immediately from Vito’s first murder to a tender front stoop scene with his wife and children). And the payoff of the entire young Vito story—his encounter with Don Ciccio—makes for one hell of a satisfying dénouement.
DeNiro deserved the Oscar he won for the film, but again, Pacino’s turn as Michael is the picture’s most riveting. In Cuba, he has one of the great moments of sudden realization this side of Pesci’s last scene in Goodfellas; the quiet, deliberate manner in which he deals with both his brother and his wife turn one’s blood cold. His bursts of anger are frightening—a bottled, distant man losing control—and while he only personally commits one act of violence in the film, it is truly horrifying. We follow him down the well of his own paranoia and ruthlessness, cutting ties with most anyone who cares about him; when Tom Hagen sadly notes, “You’ve won. You wanna wipe everybody out?”, the only reply he can muster is “Just my enemies.”
Cazale is absolutely heartbreaking as poor misguided Fredo, his late scene of frustration and anger at his little brother a mere hint of what we lost when the actor died so long before his time. Duvall remains the unrecognized MVP of these two films; his visit to Frankie Pentangeli is a true testament to the power of underplaying (both his and Gazzo’s). As in the first installment, Shire is somewhat underused, but her two key scenes are tremendous—one brittle and bitter, one longing and forgiving.
The first Godfather picture is, in many ways, a perfect film. There are tiny issues, here and there, with its follow-up. The parallel storytelling, while effective and true, is somewhat problematic in terms of dividing the audience’s attention and slowing down the film’s momentum; for example, after the long Cuba section, we’ve all but forgotten about young Vito. The writing is a bit too on-the-nose in a couple of scenes, particularly when Hyman Roth slices up the cake in Cuba. And as good as Gazzo is as Pentangeli (and he is very, very good), his character is such an obvious quickie substitution for Clemenza (replaced reportedly due to outrageous salary and collaborative demands) that we can’t help but wonder how much better the film would have been had that switch not been necessary (particularly in light of the presence of young, loyal Clemenza in the DeNiro scenes).
But those issues are quickly forgotten in the burn of the film’s remarkable closing sections. The assemblage of violence purposely lacks the charge and thrill of the climax to Godfather I; there is a sadness and inevitability to it, a heavy-heartedness, particularly in that image of Michael standing in the boathouse window, perhaps the most tragic single moment of the series. There is something to be said for Roger Ebert’s argument that The Godfather Part II’s structure gives it an air of “prologues, epilogues, footnotes, and good intentions,” and perhaps that is why it doesn’t have the same sleek classicism of its predecessor. But in the film’s final flashback, Coppola does manage to bring it all together; that callback to happier days isn’t a gimmick (nor an excuse to bring back familiar faces), but a reminder of who these people once were—a reminder that makes that final shot of Michael, all alone, all the more shattering.
"The Godfather Part II," previously available on Blu-ray as part of a box set of the entire trilogy, makes its debut as a stand-alone Blu-ray release on Tuesday, February 2nd.