2012-03-10

My Favorite Movies: The Godfather Part II


I was listening to the local morning radio show that I typically tune in on my drive to work, and the hosts were having an informal chat about movie sequels. One of the hosts, naturally, said that he thought The Godfather: Part II was the best film sequel of all time. While he was talking, the other one, who can be annoying at times and often tries to make dumb non-points that he thinks are funny but really aren't, kept pointedly saying "in your opinion" in the background as the other guy explained his viewpoint. He must have said it five times.

What's your fucking point? is what I wanted to ask him. Yeah, it's the guy's opinion. What, exactly, are you trying to prove, other than that you can aimlessly belittle others? It also happens to be an extremely well-supported opinion: G2 (as we will call it for the balance of this piece) is the only sequel ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars and currently ranks at third all-time on IMDB's excellent Top 250 list. So maybe shut up with your brainless "opinion" thing?

IN MY OPINION, G2 is indeed one of the finest sequels in cinema, and its predecessor wasn't so bad either. I actually included some thoughts on G2 in my earlier piece on The Godfather, but let's proceed nonetheless.

The film proceeds along two story tracks that parallel one another in career arc but not chronology: one is prior to the events of the first film and the other following them. One traces the life of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) from his early days in Italy through his rise to a powerful New York Mafia chief. The other deals with Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) reign as head of his father's family and his attempts to legitimize the family business in Las Vegas and consolidate power. As I wrote in the earlier article, I think that the TV version they show of the Godfather saga that simply tells the story in chronological order is a completely artless presentation. Part of the brilliance of G2 is the compare-and-contrast between father and son as family boss, and the straight chronological version totally removes that. Why not show a totally linear version of Back to the Future while you're at it?

Admittedly, the time-hopping approach works better on film than on a blog, so I'm going to write my usual haphazard plot summary in two parts WHICH IN NO WAY CONDONES THE WAY USA DOES THAT WITH THE MOVIES. Also, as usual, tons of plot spoilers here.

Vito Andolini (De Niro, at least once the character grows up) starts his life in Sicily, and as a youth his brother and Dad are killed by the local gangster chief Don Ciccio. Thanks to his Mom's selfless heroism, Vito escapes to America, gets renamed thanks to a bureaucratic typo, and starts his life anew in New York City. Mama Andolini's pleas for Ciccio to let Vito live are dismissed on the grounds that Vito will eventually seek revenge, and it's pretty cool when as an adult he does.

As a young man, Vito establishes a decent life, marrying and starting a family, and working in a local grocery store. His neighborhood is antagonized by the awful Don Fanucci, and after Fanucci's network of nepotism gets him fired, Corleone moves slowly but increasingly determinedly into crime, building an alliance with local buddies Clemenza and Tessio and presenting a real threat to Fanucci's hegemony. Corleone eventually becomes the first to stand up to Fanucci's racket, and also the first and last to kill Fanucci and take over his territory. The rest of the Vito saga shows his rise to power in NYC, the respect he earns from his community, and of course him going back with the family to Sicily to fuck up Ciccio.

Things don't go quite so smoothly for Michael when he takes the reins some years later, after Vito's death. The climactic final scene of the first installment showed a surprisingly ruthless side of the quiet new Corleone leader, ordering the simultaneous killings of his chief rivals during a baptism ceremony at which he stands as Godfather.

Michael's general plan is to move the family business to Las Vegas and get in on the casino business. Frankly, it's a pretty solid idea, but it's never as easy as it seems. He's got trouble from crooked Senator Geary (GD Spradlin) ("Here's my counteroffer: nothing") and difficulties from a captain in his own family, Frank Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo) for his refusal to let Pentangeli eliminate associates of powerful Jewish mobster Hyman (ha!) Roth (Lee Strasberg). Also: his brother Fredo (John Cazale) is a douche. More on these topics later.

Michael travels to Miami and New York to maintain his business interests and try to defuse the Pentangeli-Roth situation. Eventually he ends up in Havana over New Year's Eve where he learns of Fredo's (semi-unwitting) involvement in an earlier attempt on Michael's life and gives him the famous "kiss of death" before fleeing back to the US.

Things aren't much easier there - his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) has miscarried (we later learn from an underused Kay that it was an abortion) and he's in Federal trouble thanks to Pentangeli working with the G-Men. Michael appears on the verg of being toppled, but Pentangeli recants his testimony when Michael brings in Pentangeli's brother to the Senate hearing.

After Michael escapes the law, the film ends just as the first did: a montage of brutal vengeance courtesy of Michael's orders. Roth is gunned down, Pentangeli kills himself after gaining assurance that his family will be protected, and in the most chilling scene, Michael's bodyguard Al Neri shoots Fredo in the back of the head while fishing near the family compound.

G2 ends with shots of Michael alone at the compound and Vito with his family in Sicily.


Random thoughts time!

A song by Boogie Down Productions called "Illegal Business" came on while I was writing this.

I like to think that the creative team behind these films, Francis Ford Coppola and his associates, sat down after the dust had settled on the first episode, and thought: where did we go wrong? Why didn't anyone like the first one? And someone in the room, maybe a Key Grip, piped up and said, "maybe it was the lousy cast featuring Al Pacino, James Caan, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall"? And Coppola said, "you know...you're right! Let's add Robert De Niro to our cast!" And then they broke out the Francis Ford Coppola wine.

De Niro is so calmly badass when he does the deed and takes down Ciccio. Vito is revealed as such a multifacted character - benevolent and almost universally respected, but capable of serious violence when called for. Corleone makes a key speech about family in the first film and his actions throughout the second, no matter how aggressive, show a genuine concern for family and community.

De Niro and Brando are the only pair of actors to win Best Actor at the Oscars for portraying the same character. Thought you should know that.

Fredo's has become the gold standard and go-to reference for both the black sheep of a family and for strife between close associates and relatives. After learning of Fredo's betrayal, Michael establishes clear lines that his brother is not to be harmed while the mother is alive, but after her passing is determined to exact revenge on Fredo for his betrayal. It's almost an inverse of Vito's situation - rather than taking revenge when he feels his family has been wronged, he takes revenge on family when wronged by them. I'm not saying Michael is wrong for what he did (he kinda is though), only that it's a much different variety of justice.

How do you think the guy who got drafted to kill Hyman Roth felt about the assignment? That had to suck. How did Jack Ruby feel, for that matter?

Fredo emerges in this episode as one of the most intriguing characters in the saga - consistently passed over for the key spots in the organization and clearly incapable of handling them, he still harbors a resentment over his treatment, no matter how childish he knows it to be. It's easy to watch G2 and have very conflicted emotions over Fredo. While we're here, the actor who played Fredo (John Cazale) appeared in only five films: every one was nominated for Best Picture.

Among the perspectives on Mafia life that emerge from comparing the father and son dons is the fact that things were objectively more difficult for the younger Corleone. Things just get more complicated as society develops, and Michael faced a set of challenges that Vito just didn't have to deal with. Sure, Vito had his headaches, but the world late '50's was a lot more challenging for a mafioso to negotiate. Can you imagine being in organized crime today, with camera phones and the Internet? It's gotta be impossible. Apparently Cleveland still has a Cosa Nostra - New York's Five Families are still intact too, though three currently lack an official Boss.

Boss seems like a tough gig - why not aim for Underboss? You'll never take the big fall, you'll make plenty of loot, won't be such a target...seems like the way to go.

Fun fact: the word "mafia" is not spoken in any of the Godfather movies.

Speaking of organized crime and the underworld, The Sopranos is a good show, not sure if you've seen it.

If I had to pick one of the two, I would take this over the first one, though narrowly. I think it's deeper, more emotionally resonant, and simply better storytelling.

1 comment:

Jodie said...

I didn't read this post because I haven't yet seen The Godfather Part 2, but it's so funny that you wrote this now because I JUST saw The Godfather yesterday for the first time in my LIFE. It was pretty good, I admit. And I've heard Part 2 is just as good, if not better. Can't wait to see it, now!