The Godfather Part II: American Horizon
While it was Francis Ford Coppola’s cultural touch that made the first Godfather much more than a gangster film (or directorial assignment), the second and third Godfather films feel much more personal, sired from the director’s gut. The Godfather Part II is one of the 1970s crowning achievements registering Nixonian malaise, while The Godfather Part III is authored by the anxieties of a middle-aged man struggling to construct his own business and legacy, using his ingenuity to propitiously catapult over a financial market dominated by reactionary fossils – while nevertheless being “pulled back in” the same old process that the established paradigm has demands from him (and, so the story goes, failing). Just when Coppola was out and could go ahead with his long-delayed project Megalopolis and dreams for his studio, American Zoetrope, “they” pull him back in. So in a way, Michael Corleone is Francis Ford Coppola. Both men were trying to distinguish themselves in youth, separate from the shadows of a domineering tradition and family or long-held Hollywood methods of moviemaking; they decisively gave themselves to what they were rebelling against, believing they could use the bargain as a means of achieving their dreams quicker. Both became trapped.
This shows how Coppola was very good at making the best of a bad situation. His ambition in going forth with The Godfather Part II was to construct it in such a way that it would seem like the second half of a meticulously crafted novel; it would have to seem that the writer of this novel never had any intention of not writing a second part. For example, the way Michael tells Fredo, “Never take sides with anyone against the family again,” becomes so much more haunting when we look at how the story of the brothers develops in Part II, concluding in fratricide. The way Michael so deliberately says “again” here, given our knowledge post-1974 that there are two Godfather movies, makes it feel ridiculous that we could imagine the events of Part II not happening.
At that time, sequels carried their own independent titles, like in the franchises of James Bond and the Pink Panther, or Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy. According to Coppola, “Part II” is the “literary” method, taking cue from Don Quixote, Faust, or Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry VI. After the success of The Godfather Part II, other sequels followed suit: The French Connection II in 1975, Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1978, and the franchises of Jaws and Rocky. (The older method still endured with the “Dirty Harry” films, and George Lucas’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones series). By 1989, when Coppola was preparing a second Godfather sequel, he was conscious of how whatever he was making could not be as rich or complete as the first two films; it was a novella and epilogue, more inwardly focused on its main character. He wanted to title the new film The Death of Michael Corleone. The fact that Paramount was unwilling to go along with him and insisted that the title be The Godfather Part III, is evidence, for Coppola, of his comparative lack of influence in 1990, and also another reason for the audience’s collective rejection of the final film. Had they been expecting an epilogue for this aging and ailing character, their expectations may have been tempered and even, given the operatic grandiosity of the final half-hour, pleasantly surprised. The title would also pinpoint a great irony of the final story, given how the main character’s eponymous death is completely separated from the context of the previous 160 minutes.
The Godfather Part II is not simply about the next godfather, but is about how both godfathers reflect against each other in the horizon of time. Coppola took a great risk, and didn’t rest his faith in the popular film actor Marlon Brando, but in the character of Vito Corleone, trusting that the ghostly presence of the character would carry over during the scenes involving Michael in the new film: whatever Michael Corleone does, his father is always in the background. Complementing Michael’s story is the “Corleone Genesis,” beginning in 1901 and ending about 25 years later. We follow the development of this enigmatic Vito (Robert De Niro), from seemingly dumb or dim-witted youth to struggling family man to street thug, and at last to paternal crime lord.
Because of problematic negotiations, Coppola replaced Pete Clemenza (Richard Castellano) with another caporegime from the old days, Frank Pentangeli, “Frankie Five-Angels,” who would, along with returning soldier Willi Cicci, be wearing a black arm-band in mourning for Clemenza during the opening scenes; Clemenza was felled by a recent heart-attack (though according to Cicci, Clemenza may have been murdered by the rival Rossotto brothers, who have backing from the elderly Jewish gangster Hyman Roth). As Pentangeli, Michael V. Gazzo makes an even greater impression than Castellano did in the first film, though it’s curious imagining Clemenza in the same role, given how in the flashbacks we see Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) as Vito’s Mephistopheles, luring him into a life of crime. A similar last-minute replacement on Part III, where Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen is replaced by George Hamilton’s B.J. Harrison, would not be as successful, and prove to be one of the last installment’s great deficiencies.
The Godfather Part II is an epic of immigration, westward expansion and prosperity, where people from the Old Country come to the ghettos, then aspire to the suburbs of New York, and finally move out to Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas where their ties to the Old World are ostensibly severed. There are scenes in Miami and Havana, with great ethnic parades and rituals and intimate conflicts set against the backdrop of world-changing political revolution. The Godfather Part II draws from Opera and Romance, but also, with its senate hearings on the mafia and Cuban revolution, has an aspect of journalistic realism. Those evenly lit scenes drawn from headlines contrast to the Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro of intimate scenes from the past and present, as cinematographer Gordon Willis makes the contrast of light and pure darkness even more pronounced than he did in the first film: the dark is eating up the Corleone family as the future approaches.
Nine-year-old Vito’s experiences at Ellis Island are plugged into a collective memory of forced assimilation as an official erases the boy of his father’s name – Vito Andolini – and is handed the name “Vito Corleone,” based on the town of his origin. When we see the newly “baptized” Vito Corleone singing to the Statue of Liberty from his Ellis Island window – which will soon be doubled with his grandson Anthony at a first communion 60 years later – we’re hurried into thinking of our own ancestral voices that sing to us. In his recent memoir The Godfather Effect, Tom Santopietro eloquently speaks of the impact this image first had on him as a young moviegoer: “Gently swinging his feet to and fro, he softly sings a song in his native dialect. It’s a sequence short in duration, but so powerful to me, so shocking in its unexpected intensity, that I choked up. I didn’t sob and didn’t even cry, but I was over overcome with a personalized emotion I had never before experienced in a movie theater, because to my twenty-year-old self, there on the screen, in the person of young Vito, was my grandfather, Orazio Santopietro, as a young man. My grandfather had come back to life. Time stopping – the hoariest of clichés. But that’s how it felt, as if I had been forcibly hurled back seventy years in time.”
The Godfather trilogy puts time in perspective, along with family and morality, and how these elements come together to impact our identity over the years. Good men become bad men, and vice versa. There are myriad paradoxes and mirrors: fathers and sons, the sacred and profane, the Old World and the New World, the past and present/future, crime and politics, the official and private, art and life, speech and deed, wealth and poverty, life and death, business and personal. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II came out in a period of national crisis, when America’s sins had become transparent, the dignity and legacy of our forefathers put into question by the atomic bomb, McCarthyism, the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate. The Godfather Part III was released shortly after the end of the Cold War and Greed is Good 1980s, set in 1979 when the Golden Era of Hollywood (and Francis Ford Coppola) ended, and Jimmy Carter’s introspective questions of national identity were replaced by the jingoistic mythos of Ronald Reagan. The theme was victory at the price of emptiness; America, like Michael Corleone according to Cardinal Lamberto, had terrible sins and “could be redeemed; but I know you don’t believe that. You will not change.” The settings, no less than the release dates, don't circumscribe the way all three films continue to resonate, especially at a time when history is so mercilessly catalogued with such celerity that it doesn't seem to exist.
Originally written in the summer of 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.
The Godfather Project: