My history with the Godfather trilogy isn’t that of your typical movie buff…and by that I mean I’m not a ginormous fan of The Godfather. The first time I saw it several years ago I really wasn’t a fan – I disliked Marlon Brando’s mumbling, I thought it was overlong with not much interesting happening, I didn’t like how it ended, I just…didn’t get it. I rewatched it a few months ago and appreciated it a lot more – I like the ending now, for example, and I can handle the pacing better, though I’m still not really a big fan of Brando (not just in this film, I’m not a Brando fan in general), and I still don’t particularly care for the way the Italy-set section plays out. But I can definitely understand now why people do like it, and I’m prepared to give it props for the many, many things it does beautifully. Anyway, from what I’d heard I was hoping to like The Godfather Part II a bit better. And I did, quite a bit better.
While The Godfather focuses on the changing of the guard from Vito Corleone to his son Michael and how Michael deals with becoming the leader of a family business he’d once hoped to escape, The Godfather Part II has a two-pronged story – alternating segments tell the story of Vito Corleone’s emigration to America as a boy and how he became a Mafia boss, and the continuing story of Michael as he tries to manage the family in the years after his father’s death. Perhaps predictably, given my ambivalent feelings towards the first film, I still found myself a little uninterested in Michael’s problems, but every single scene in the Vito story had me totally rapt.
There’s a lot of visceral substance in the Vito sections – him losing his father in Italy (setting up a great revenge payoff scene later), being tiny and alone upon his arrival in New York City, seeing opportunities as a young man to “protect” local Italian businesses from outside mobs, becoming the Don right before our eyes, etc. Once Robert De Niro hits the screen, he’s magnetic, especially in the scene where he convinces a woman’s landlord to let her stay in her apartment (and reduce her rate!) almost by his mere presence. The strength of Don Vito is his ability to make people think he’s doing them a favor, even as they’re doing exactly what he wants. That charisma came across a lot more strongly to me from De Niro than it did from Brando in the first film, though going back to the first film now with De Niro in my head as the young Vito may actually help me see the vestiges of that in him.
Meanwhile, the Michael story has its moments, especially the initial setup that has him attempting to rule the family just as his father had (the same general sequence of him meeting people in his darkened office as the family has a party outside), and the very end which parallels and contrasts the Vito story heartbreakingly well – the final scene between Michael and Kay is terrific stuff. But the whole middle of the Michael story, where he’s trying to do deals with various people, check out new business opportunities, avoid getting assassinated, defend himself in a federal trial against the mob…all that stuff got really tedious for me and I mostly tuned out until Vito’s story came back to the fore. I think some of that would’ve been helped if I remembered the supporting characters better from the first film, but as it was, I couldn’t keep track of who was who, and what existing relationship they had to Michael and the Corleones in general.
The whole thing is absolutely gorgeous to look at, though; Coppola’s sense of composition and space is amazing in both the modern-day and period sections. The three-shot of Michael and his sister discussing the man he doesn’t want her to marry, with the man “between” them but behind them – symbolically a potential wedge in the family, yet kept out of any family discussions – is brilliant. Multi-plane composition like that makes me a very happy filmwatcher. The period section with Vito’s childhood and young adulthood is full of long takes and pans – the movie had me 100% loving it during the Ellis Island segment. Later on, the period New York is really rich and detailed; it manages to both feel lived-in and look very pretty. I would’ve stayed in that world for several hours.
Like I said, the last few scenes in the Michael story – really from Kay’s confrontation of Michael until the end, is all great, but I could’ve done with about half an hour less of Michael and half an hour more of Vito. I just didn’t care very much about the family politics that Michael was dealing with and didn’t find it compelling. But I do think that The Godfather Part II is overall a stronger film than The Godfather, and will also make me even a little more receptive to The Godfather when I inevitably return to it in the future. I am as yet undecided on whether to go ahead and watch The Godfather III. As a completionist, I guess I should, but from everything I’ve heard, it’s a huge step down from both of the first two, and I’m not sure I could put up with that.
On a purely historical note, I found it incredibly fascinating to learn that Francis Ford Coppola was not even really interested in doing the Godfather films, because they were based on a bestselling book instead of on his own ideas, etc. In fact, he resisted directing Part 2 until the studio offered him $1 million upfront, the first time any director had a $1 million upfront deal. I had it in my head that directors in the ’70s enjoyed autonomy to the point that they chose and carried their films through start to finish, but a surprising number of the iconic films from the ’70s were studio projects in development when they hired someone like Coppola or Rafelson to come in and direct. The interplay between the studio system and an increasingly powerful body of filmmakers is really interesting, especially since at that time it actually came up with a lot of really great films. The other thing that’s surprised me is what big mainstream hits a lot of these were – lines for The Godfather stretched around the block and it played for months. I can’t imagine that today; if released today, these films would still garner high critical praise and award recognition, I’m sure, but would they be box office blockbusters? I wouldn’t think so. But perhaps I underestimate current filmgoers.