Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Godfather: Part II is the rare sequel that betters its original for emotional depth
and meaning. Francis Coppola was reluctant to do the first movie but he takes control of the
second and creates an epic. The daringly structured film spans two generations and ties together
a number of historical events - including the Kefauver crime investigations and the Cuban revolution.
Even more impressively, Coppola and Mario Puzo's script doesn't rely on the first films' glamorizing
of the activities of the criminal Corleones. Michael Corleone is destroying his family even as he
secures their position. The Godfather: Part II goes for a higher theme, by arguing that the
Machiavellian maneuvering, corruption and violence of his dynasty is just a microcosm of political
strife between nations: "We're all part of the same hypocrisy." Michael says these words to a
Senator that he will soon control through murder and intimidation.
Sicily, the early part of the 20th Century: With the rest of his kin wiped out by
the Mafia chieftain, young Vito Andolini comes to America. As an adult in the late teens (as
Robert De Niro), he deposes the local protection racketeer in Little Italy and starts his own
organized crime family.
Lake Tahoe, 1958: Vito's son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) survives an assassination attempt and
sets out to determine who inside his own organization has betrayed him. It could be
Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a family head who chafes at Michael's
orders, or someone aligned with his father's old partner Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a feeble
retiree in Miami who nevertheless is managing to put together a million-dollar 'investment' deal in
Batista's Cuba. Along the way, his chief counsel Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) manages to suborn
U.S. Senator Pat Geary, who becomes the family's lapdog. Michael's wife Kay (Diane Keaton) seeks to
leave him, disenchanted by Michael's failure to steer the family away from criminal activity, as
he had promised her.
The original The Godfather was about the lies that are told to keep families together. At
that film's conclusion Michael Corleone is able to look at his wife Kay with a perfectly straight
face and claim that he had nothing to do with a carload of murders he's just orchestrated - at
the baptism of his sister's baby.
The modern section of The Godfather: Part II takes place only a few years later, yet all of
the ground rules of organized crime have changed. Michael's father relied on a team of underlings
but in the New Mob Michael knows that nobody can be trusted, and all the players in the game are
involved in conspiracies to enhance their power. Michael knows
someone has helped outsiders (probably Hyman Roth) to try and kill him; he undertakes a mission
to find out who. The personal ties that were the mainstay of his father's power are useless.
Michael's method for maintaining an upper hand is to hold everything inside
himself and trust nobody, not even his 'brother' and confidante Tom Hagen. Tom is frustrated when
Michael keeps him in the dark, but Michael has no choice - he can be sure of people only if he can
control what they know, and the only way he can do that is to keep it all a secret.
Like Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II is about the isolation of a powerful man.
He changes slowly from an idealistic soldier-come-home into a monstrous string-puller and
pitiless judge of those around him. The sequel is about Michael cutting himself off, closing doors
on associates and loved ones and pronouncing death sentences. Coppola makes the movie go cold to
match Michael's petrification - the Lake Tahoe winter expresses his character turning to ice. He
has no forgiveness and seems to be turning into a bloodless monster.
But that's only half of the story. The brilliant script takes a step back to tell the prequel
to The Godfather beginning in Sicily at the turn of the century. A parallel Robert De Niro
narrative shows the origin of Vito Corleone's crime dynasty, connecting this saga to Visconti's
The Leopard and Rosi's
Salvatore Giuliano -
both sprawling tales tracing the history of the island. Thus Michael Corleone comes full circle,
to a different kind of isolation than the one felt by Visconti's Count in The Leopard.
Both men feel that they have lost their souls.
For the bustling Little Italy scenes, the film takes on the spirit of D.W. Griffith. Vito
Corleone makes it to New York and learns to become a criminal in scenes staged not unlike
The Musketeers of Pig Alley especially the burglary scenes with young Clemenza (Bruno
Kirby). The immigrant theater, with its painted backdrop balancing Mt. Aetna with the Statue of
Liberty is also shot like a Griffith film - all long lenses and squared-off compositions.
Both of the Godfather movies have a marked stylistic affinity to Visconti, and not just
in their extended party scenes. Coppola and Puzo's canvas expands to envelop all of politics.
This is how real power is created, sustained and consolidated. Michael is invited into a business
deal with Batista's friendly government, it's just a case of American enterprise in all its forms
moving in where its government has already gone. Without ever mentioning Fidel Castro,
it openly shows the collusion between big business, big government, and organized crime, all sitting
down at Fulgencio's bargaining table, and cutting a cake that represents the pieces of Cuba that
are to be divvied up. As Hyman Roth says, a friendly foreign government can remove all the bothersome
legalities that make 'business' in the States so difficult. This, as he witnesses "UTT" delivering a
token of their esteem to the dictator - a solid gold telephone. This is a refreshingly subversive
movie and perhaps the most mature one to come from the Watergate era.
It even has a brief but telling scene about "terrorism," when a rebel with a grenade blows himself and
an officer up rather than be taken prisoner. Michael witnesses this, and probably saw nothing like
it, even in WW2. Other people call the rebels degenerates and lunatics, but Michael can recognize
winners when he sees them.
It must have been fun for Coppola and his editors to reassemble the over six hours of Godfather
I and II into the long network television version, the one that put events into chronological
order and added a number of dropped scenes. But The Godfather: Part II works best just as
it is, alternating between Michael contemplating his predicaments and his father Vito taking the
same steps in his life. There are some beautiful transitions, as when Michael asks about the son
he has lost. He asks "Was it a boy?" and we dissolve across forty years, back to Vito's precarious
little family concerned
that baby Fredo has a touch of pneumonia. Michael keeps remarking that "things" change;
after a particularly infuriating, unthinkable admission by his wife Kay, the transitions to the
past are no longer dissolves but cuts. Only at the end does the scene shift to Vito Corleone's
birthday, December 7, 1941 (the day of infamy!) with Michael and his brothers still all together.
At first it seems just a nostalgic postscript, until Michael is left alone at the table. He's
the sane one of the bunch, but he'll eventually see them all killed, or under his absolute power.
The cast is uniformly inspired, with John Cazale a standout as the "weak and stupid" brother Fredo
and Talia Shire putting in the best scenes of her career when she begs Michael to take her back
family - the faintest shades of Scarface, there. The stellar cast members are joined by
everyone's favorite hoods and crooks - Richard Bright, Dominic Chianese, Amerigo Tot, Joe Spinell,
Harry Dean Stanton, Danny Aiello. Fay Spain and Marianna Hill have small roles, and Coppola
assembles a rogues' gallery of former employers and associates as the investigating Senate
committee: Phil Feldman, Roger Corman, William Bowers. Interestingly, Roger Corman was the first
filmmaker to explicitly compare the internecine warfare of the Chicago mobs to the competition
between nations, in his 1967 The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Paramount's DVD of The Godfather: Part II appears to be the same two-disc transfer as
appeared in their boxed set from several years ago. That collection was criticized for occasional
grainy sections but overall I thought the disc held up beautifully on a large projection monitor.
I remember the grainy opening being very dark on film. Breaking the film up into halves was a wise
There aren't that many extras, just Francis Coppola's long commentary track, which will be a
fascinating listen for those who want to know even more about the film than the reams that have
been printed in the last thirty years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Godfather: Part II rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Director commentary
Packaging: Two discs in normal Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson