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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Godfather Part II

After Robert De Niro made a splash in 1973 with Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, he was still unknown to the general public. Only film critics knew his name. But that changed somewhat in 1974, when he appeared as the young Vito Corleone and won an Oscar for The Godfather Part II, Francis Coppola's sequel to his amazing The Godfather.

Coppola, after making the number one grossing movie of all time (it was eclipsed by Jaws just a few years later) had complete creative control. He used two parallel stories. One of them is in the "present," and picks up where The Godfather left off. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is one of the most powerful Mafia dons in the nation, lives in luxury on Lake Tahoe, and is looking to make a deal with Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg, based on Meyer Lansky) to open hotels in Havana, Cuba.

His plan is interfered with by one of his old capos, Frank Pentageli (Michael V. Gazzo) who is at war with another family in Brooklyn. He wants the go ahead to kill his rivals, but they are close to Roth, so Michael refuses. This all takes place during the party for the first communion of his son, similar to the first movie, which opened at Connie Corleone's wedding.

The other story takes us back to the turn of the century Sicily, where young Vito, nine years old, is orphaned by the local don. He makes it to America, and is quarantined at Ellis Island with smallpox. When we next see him, he's working at a grocery store and has started a family. A neighbor, who turns out to be the young Clemenza, introduces Vito to a life of crime when they burglarize a house and steal a rug. But the local don wants his cut of the money. Vito decides to kill him.

When it was first released, The Godfather Part II had mixed reviews. Some critics thought it was over long, and the back-and-forth story was confusing, which is odd since it's routine now. In something of an upset, it ended up winning the Best Picture Oscar (Chinatown had won the Golden Globe) and De Niro, nominated for Best Supporting Actor along with Strasberg and Gazzo, upset Fred Astaire, who was a sentimental favorite for The Towering Inferno. It's amazing that Astaire and De Niro, at polar opposites of acting style, could have been in the same category.

In the years that have followed, the sequel has been reconsidered. Roger Ebert, who is always honest when he made mistakes, reappraised it. I hadn't seen the film in a while, and when I watched it yersterday I was caught in its power. I think it's every bit the film The Godfather is.

While The Godfather was about the corruption of the American dream, Part II is more about the destruction of the soul of one man. We may think of the quote from Mark: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"as the film ends with Michael, alone, living in a fortress.

I think the parallel stories work great. They make great transitions, and show us how the immigrants--the Italians and Jews of New York--sidestepped the law to make their fortunes. In the other half, they are successful but live in a constant state of being hunted, either by the law (we see a great deal of Kefauver hearings) or by their rivals. "I don't want to wipe out everybody," Michaels tells his brother Tom (Robert Duvall), "just my enemies." But his enemies are just about everyone.

There's so much to love here. Gordon Willis returns as cinematographer (and was again overlooked by the Academy, who thought his films were too dark) and Nino Rota's score, along with Carmine Coppolas, Francis' father, is hauntingly beautiful (it was playing in my head all night). The recreation of 1916's Lower East Side is brilliant. And there are many small but great performances, including Bruno Kirby as young Clemenza, Gastone Maschin as Don Fanucci, and G.D. Spradlin as a corrupt senator.

But it is the principal performers who are remembered. I think this is one of, if not the best, performance by Pacino. This is before he turned into a bombastic ham, and still was able to control himself. He erupts a few time, like when he has the great line about his assassination attempt, when he was shot at in his house: "In my home? In my bedroom? Where my wife sleeps and my children come to play with their toys?" But mostly he does the slow burn. Watch his face as he listens to Spradlin insult his ethnicity, knowing he's plotting his revenge (he will frame Spradlin for the murder of a prostitute). Or the burning anger on his face when his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) tells him she had an abortion. That was one angry face.

Gazzo is also great, and it was serendipity that he was in the film. Because Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza in the first film, could not agree to terms, his character was killed off and replaced with Pentageli, with his smoker's voice and Italian charm. Strasberg, the legendary acting teacher, had only made a few films in the '30s when Coppola tapped him. He shows that he's not just a great teacher, the way he seems like a kindly grandpa but then can agree to a hit by saying, "He's small potatoes." Amusingly, Strasberg, then 73 years old, was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer.

De Niro, for his part, does a superb job of not imitating Marlon Brando but capturing his essence. He has the husky voice, and while almost all of his lines are in Italian, one of his few English lines is "I'm gonna make him an offer he don't refuse." This time while I watched I noticed how well he moved, as he runs along the rooftop during the killing of Don Fanucci scene. That is such a great scene altogether. Fanucci helps himself to an orange from a fruit stand (continuing the orange as death theme) during the San Gennaro festival. De Niro waits for him on the landing of his apartment, unscrewing the light bulb. I loved the way Fanucci taps the bulb to get it to come on before De Niro shoots him. Breathtaking.

And then there's John Cazale as Fredo. His arc in the film is the most moving. Not the equal of his brothers, he's tolerated in the family business, but makes a deal with Roth, not realizing that it would be part of an assassination attempt on Michael. He wanted something for himself, as he was passed over for don. There are four great scenes: when Michael, at New Year's when the Cuban rebels have chased out the government, gives him the kiss of death and says, "Fredo, I know it was you. You broke my heart." Then, when the brothers talk on the porch. Fredo is almost supine in a chair, reflecting his spinelessness. "I'm smart!" he cries, bemoaning the way he has been treated. Michael disowns him.

They will reconcile at their mother's funeral, but it's chilling when Michael hugs him while at the same time giving his gunman, Al Neri, the go-ahead to kill him. Then, in the boat, while saying a Hail Mary, Fredo is murdered.

The Godfather Part II, along with The Godfather, are in my top ten favorite films. I usually just lump them into one film so I can have room for another. I'm glad that it held up. It's moving, horrifying, and expertly made.

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