The Godfather: Part II - Adults Only
Becoming a smash hit as a novel before becoming an even bigger smash hit as a film, The Godfather solidified its place in history as a game-changing form of entertainment, opening our eyes to the grayness and ambiguity of the lifestyles of the Mafia underworld. It went even further by introducing us to characters as complex as they were dangerous because of their reputation within this realm of society.
Then, in 1974, a sequel to the movie came along: The Godfather, Part II. How can you top something as masterful as The Godfather, Oscar winner for Best Picture of the year? Or rather, the bigger question is…did it?
For starters, this movie is divided into two narratives. The first one, taking place after the last movie’s events, chronicled Michael Corleone and his family as they moved and settled in a luxurious cabin nestled beside Lake Tahoe in Nevada. At first, they felt relaxed there, but out of nowhere, a series of gunshots lunged forth and almost hit Michael and Kay as they were in their bedroom. Michael soon discovered that these shots might have come from some henchmen working for a Mafia mastermind named Hyman Ross, who his father, Vito, worked with once upon a time. So, Michael decided to venture out into Cuba, where Ross lived, to settle some business on the dilemmas his way. In doing so, he also took the time to attempt to weave the tangling threads and pinpoint whoever was responsible for the attempted shootings, with the strong likelihood that the suspect may even have come from his own family.
And the second one, taking place before the events of the last movie, focused on Vito Corleone, formerly named Vito Andolini. He used to live in Corleone, Sicily, before his father, then his brother, and finally, his mother, were all killed by their crime lord, Don Ciccio. So, with a bit of help, Vito managed to escape Corleone under the alias Vito Corleone and settle as an immigrant in New York City. Starting as an orphan in the streets, he soon crossed paths with a young Peter Clemenza and Salvatore Tessio. Together, they created a career stealing various artifacts and soon made another selling olive oil. At the same time, however, Vito, his friends, his family, and their neighbors were getting bombarded with payment demands by their landlord, Don Fanucci. In response, Vito devised a plan to even the odds and execute him for mistreating their poor neighborhood for so long. Thus began his steady climb into society and his rise into power as the future Godfather of the Corleone family.
Now, here’s the first thing I love about this movie: the last movie detailed the fall of Vito as he got older and frailer, as well as the rise of Michael as he was reluctant to have anything to do with his family before becoming their next Godfather. And these two elements all happened simultaneously throughout the narrative. This movie, however, detailed the rise of Vito once he started devising clever tactics to be one step ahead of the curve and the fall of Michael as his methods for sustaining family stability gradually began to take their toll. And more impressively, they each had narratives of their own to serve these purposes, down to them occurring in the time periods where it was most appropriate; Vito Corleone in the 1900s through the 1920s and Michael in the late 1950s. These two narratives thoroughly complemented each other and yet stood as two wholly opposite morality tales, which I found just ingenious. It helped the movie present its message on the consequences of Mafia involvement with more cautionary lenses than the last movie. For instance, Vito had his methods for handling Mafia business, whereas Michael had different ways of doing so, only in his case, it resulted in his downfall. With Vito, he had to escape the persecutions of Corleone because his father was bold enough to question and insult Don Ciccio’s demands. Once the rest of his family was murdered, Vito was targeted next, so he had to flee for safety. So, with that experience, Vito knew that to survive, he had to use his wits and cunning to gain the upper hand over other people. And it would eventually have come in handy when he used his tactics to outsmart his enemies. However, with Michael, he started at the pinnacle of his reign as the Godfather before his pursuits for power started to go into his head. As the end of the last film made clear, he massacred the leaders of the Five Families, plus his sister’s husband, Carlo, as a means to tie up loose ends and ensure family strength. Now, Michael was arguably put into a corner when confronted with unforeseen circumstances that put his family at risk. And as soon as they further clashed against Michael’s intentions for the Corleone family’s welfare, they all added up and left the family and legacy to wither and fall. Frank was even very apt in commenting on this, comparing the family’s (then-likely) downfall with that of the Roman Empire.
I’ll hop onto the new characters very shortly, but I must make one thing clear regarding the adaptation process.
Remember in my review of the last Godfather how the original book had a section that focused on Vito’s settlement in America? The entire half of the movie centering around Vito was based precisely on that, and in general, it felt just as I remembered it from the original book as I read it. Now, regarding the movie’s faithfulness to the novel, there are two things about it that you’d find most intriguing. One, even though the Vito half did a great job of documenting how Vito came to establish the Corleone family empire, it was technically the first half of his journey as written in the book. From what I remember of it, the last half chronicled Vito’s settlement as the Godfather as Sonny, and soon, the rest of his brothers and sister came of age. And two, the whole half of the movie centered around Michael Corleone? This was all made up for the movie; it never came from the book in any form besides the proposed move to Lake Tahoe. I find it impressive that both Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo worked out their magic and expanded on Mario Puzo’s novel in a way that complimented what Puzo had already established beforehand. In fact, this continued the duality themes I already cherish so much about this movie: the contrast between what was adapted from another source and what was written exclusively for this film. It’s just incredible.
Let’s look at the new characters and actors joining the Godfather parade, starting with this movie. Frank Pentangelli felt like a lively, slightly crass character who ironically felt like he had character. But maybe that’s just because of his affiliation and friendship with the Corleones. In addition, I found Michael V. Gazzo to be very extravagant as Frank Pentangeli. His brash persona highlighted his somewhat lighthearted approach to something as serious as Mafia activities. But, he also hammered in his more outraged moments with conviction when he was at odds with the situations at hand. Of the newbies who showed up in this picture, I am glad that he got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this movie. He was just terrific.
Hyman Ross felt slithery underneath his elderly exterior. He displayed his methods for handling Mafia affairs, and the fact that his seemingly harmless elderly posture hid the fact that he was a schemer and a weaver of plots to get what he wanted all made him look more menacing. And he became an even more significant threat when it turned out that he knew Vito Corleone when they were in business together in the olive oil market. So in Michael’s eyes, seeing someone so close to his family in years past even attempting to be out for their heads was an automatic red flag. Lee Strasberg nailed it in expressing his character with these underhanded details, and because of that, Ross looked like a worthily formidable foe.
While it’s still fresh on my mind, let’s talk about Vito. The most prominent new actor in this movie that I should comment on is Robert De Niro. The Godfather: Part II was one of his first significant film roles, and it’s pretty much a given how he was the mega superstar he became after seeing him in this movie. If Marlon Brando hit a home run with Vito Corleone in the last film, then Robert De Niro had proved himself as the Babe Ruth of Godfather actors by playing Vito Corleone in this movie. He hammered in all the inner, yet budding, complexions we would typically associate with his character in his elderly years while also showing him as a struggling newbie in America trying to make a living before finding his calling in the Mafia regime. De Niro mastered his character’s appearance, his demeanor, even his voice. He perfectly replicated Marlon Brando’s slightly nasally, gaspy tone, and I recall that 95% of his dialogue was all Italian. It must not have been an easy role to pull off, especially after Marlon Brando mastered it and even won an Oscar for it, but De Niro was the next actor to master his character in this movie, and it shows.
How so? Let’s say you are new to the Godfather movies, and you never saw Robert De Niro’s films before these two. When you compare both Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro together, which actor do you think felt best suited for the role of Vito Corleone? Here are my two cents. Marlon Brando nailed the eminence of a Mafia overlord for sure, on top of expressing his character in a more rounded light. But we never see him do many Mafia-related activities outside of ordering his associates to arrange the hits for him. And other times, he was either unconscious from his gunshot wounds or busy just being a family man. Robert De Niro, however, looked like he was just born for this role and the gangster tropes associated with his character. He had the complexions, the soft cunning, and the tenderness of a loving father, but he also demonstrated the ruthless motives to get what he wanted. He, too, just like Marlon Brando, won an Oscar for playing Vito Corleone, and clearly, he deserved it.
The rest of the returning characters in this movie came back much more nuanced and more mature, to some degree, than they ever were before. And while the new actors who were new to The Godfather did a great job here, all the actors who returned here generally went from excelling at their performances to perfecting them.
Talia Shire, for instance, left a mark this time as Connie Corleone. In the last movie, she was shown as a respectable member of the Corleone family who constantly fell victim to all the unfavorable circumstances falling upon her, whether it be by her husband, Carlo, or by the hits planned by Michael. Here, however, all her insecurities from the last film were replaced with poise and borderline pomp. Sometimes, whenever she attempted to do something without Michael’s permission, she did so with the utmost conviction. But other times, she went as far as to concoct solutions for Michael to consider amid their troubles. This demonstrated not only the role she had to play in the Corleone family, but that whenever she did her part, she did so with grace.
Kay Adams, now Kay Corleone, went from being an outsider in the Corleone family to resembling something of a trophy wife since she barely said or did that much within the movie. But whenever she did do something here, even you’d be left dumbfounded over her decisions for a second. And it was all thanks to Diane Keaton’s performance. She allowed her character to surround herself with an aura of family dignity but also of innermost contempt.
Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen overflowed with confidence as the family consigliere. Duvall allowed his character to stand with a more noticeable level of authority as he abided by Michael’s demands and actions. But other times, Tom still had his more questioning nature whenever Michael’s orders started to go out of line, as he attempted to reason with him every time that happened. This was especially poignant since he knew Vito for as long as he knew Michael and might have known how Vito rose into power compared to how Michael did. I feel like this exchange between him and Michael over their family strength highlighted it best:
Tom Hagen: Are we strong? Is it worth it? I mean, you’ve won...you want to wipe everybody out?
Michael: I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies, that’s all.
We all know that Fredo was a bit of a loose cannon in the last film. I mean, when he welcomed Michael into Las Vegas, he had it set with a party and wild girls even though Michael did not ask for any of this. But in this movie, his actions, particularly his shadiness and his involvement with Hyman Ross, were among the first of many tests of family and trust that Michael had to put up with throughout the movie. And John Cazale helped add complexity and even tragedy to his character by showing him as needy of self-respect and even some authority since he was technically Michael’s older brother. So naturally, this resulted in him accusing Michael of micromanaging him from time to time.
Heck, in the little screen time James Caan had in this movie as Sonny Corleone, Sonny was easily fed up by Michael’s decision to enlist in the army when it was clear that Vito had plans for Michael in advance. It felt as if Sonny was being shown up by Michael, too, and so often ridiculed him for his actions. Because Michael was belittled from time to time when he was younger in the last movie, the underlying discord that may have occurred between the Corleone children, whether they concerned Michael or their sense of tradition, should not go unnoticed.
And finally, Al Pacino mastered his imminence as Michael Corleone, Godfather of the Corleone family and ruthless master of his kingdom. He displayed himself both as a flawed father figure and a flawed brother figure and was continually tested once his expectations were at a crossroads with reality. Further testing his tolerance was the minor resistances occurring even within his family, down to the likelihood of a traitor lurking within his realm. It all put him in a state of self-conflict over how to respond and how far he could push his limits to maintain power, whether for himself or his family.
Now, I’m not 100% savvy about how Mafia lifestyles did their thing, especially in real life, but I understood that they at least had their own set of laws laying out how to function as an adequate Mafia family. Among such laws was the banning of harming another family’s children and the prohibition of harming your family members, whether either one was enacted out of retaliation or not. I’ll bet that’s what went through Michael’s head as well, so that added fuel to the intrigue that came with The Godfather.
For my money, the most haunting scene in the whole movie, and arguably, one of the most haunting in the film series, was the clash between Michael and Kay over the ownership of their children. What happened was Tom Hagen mournfully told Michael earlier in the film that Kay had a miscarriage. They both were expecting a baby, and Michael hoped that it would’ve been a boy. Part of it may have stemmed from his hopes of the next generation maintaining his family’s longevity. But what happened in this scene was just a domino effect of bombshells. The first one, obviously enough, was that Kay had it with the Mafia lifestyle and planned to take their children, Anthony and Mary, with her. And when they calmed down, Michael tried comforting her about her miscarriage and reassuring her that they could start all over again. This only led to the following bombshell: the quote ‘miscarriage’ was an abortion. In other words, the death of the baby was entirely Kay’s idea. And the next bombshell? The preborn baby that Kay left for dead was a boy after all.
Not only was the writing here just phenomenal, but you can feel every ounce of tear-laden desperation, scorn, and spite that Kay had harbored against Michael for so long as she unleashed them onto him in full force. The look on Michael’s face as all the love he ever had for Kay up to this point started draining out of him like a sieve was especially petrifying. You can tell that he was wanting – ready, almost – to take a page out of Sonny Corleone and flat out rip her to shreds.
But those are not the only reasons I find this scene so awe-inspiringly frightening. I just mentioned to you how the Mafia heads, including someone like Michael Corleone, had to uphold the family rules to function properly, right? Well, even though Michael should’ve been obliged never to harm Kay out of technicality, this was the closest that anybody, whether it be from within his family or outside it, ever came to beating Michael at his own game. Only in Kay’s case, while she never harmed him physically, she did harm him psychologically.
This entire scene just allowed the degeneration to sync in until it left you overwhelmed with dread. And given that this came from a series whose other memorable moments included a decapitated horse head being snuck into its master’s bed while he was asleep, that’s saying something.
The movie still carried some of the sepia tones that were most noticeable in the first movie. But this time, there were plenty of shots throughout the movie that emphasized a more colorful palette, highlighting several blues, greens, reds, and even some grays. It was almost unlike the first movie, where it was mainly in a sepia tone. While it did do an excellent job of creating an illusion of a family photo, it made the general picture look a bit dull on rare occasions. Well, not dull, per se, just a little too refined. However, the more extensive variety of colors applied to this movie helped make it look a skosh livelier by comparison and arguably a little more accessible. I think it had something to do with the late 50s art-deco displays from some of the buildings and cars and environments that gave this movie something of a stylish edge to it.
The locations explored throughout the movie were striking and truly stunning. They went everywhere, from New York City to Lake Tahoe, NV to Corleone, Sicily to Miami, and Cuba. They were all explored with a sense of atmosphere, enough for you to feel immersed in them every step of the way. Ergo, you would likely feel a tad closer to the action. On top of that, such scenes were touched up by the Mafia experience, becoming more intriguing because of that. I especially liked the new office Michael had in Lake Tahoe. I still remember the stunning colors and atmosphere of the old office in which Marlon Brando sat, with its rich balance of red and yellow hues and its emphasis on that room oozing with the presence of an untouchable authority figure. This time, Michael’s office was more mellow and low-key, with stone walls, a sizeable square space, and the windows with blinds peering out into the aspen trees in the background. This room still carried the dignity of an untouchable authority figure’s office, except with a more noticeable touch of modest Americana.
The music in this movie felt more exquisite, too. Nina Ross returned to compose it, with Carmine Coppola joining in, and it was mostly the same themes in the last film, only it was amplified by a myriad of musical cues to heighten the mood. The tone felt more diversified now, ranging from modest to suspenseful, quiet and tragic, powerful and elegant, and contemplative and expressive, all with the familiarly elegant threads of Italian culture interlaced throughout the melodies. Truth be told, parts of the music reminded me of Disney's Sleeping Beauty at times.
Unlike the last film, where it was snubbed for Best Original Score at the Oscars, even if it was only out of illegibility, this film not only got a nomination for that Oscar, but it also went home with it. The music in the first film was good, too, but this was an overdue reward for the composers for crafting such iconic themes fit for The Godfather. Better late than never.
Even though many people generally hailed the Godfather film series as a wholesome, experiential film series, more than plenty of them debated over which film among the first two was better. Some liked the first one more than the second one, others liked both films equally, and others thought the second one did better than the first one. Me? I’m strongly tempted to lean more towards the latter group: I find the second movie better than the first one.
The Godfather broke many boundaries and revolutionized the film industry when it came out in 1972. That’s why what The Godfather: Part II had to offer when it came out two years after that was revolutionary in and of itself. It continued the story, addressed its themes with potency, continued to test its characters, and the result was epic, grand, lavish, and colorful. It followed the first film’s footsteps and left its mark in cinematic history by jumpstarting a legacy of its own: by being a follow-up that proved itself as a true heir to a true legend.
What else can I say but…this movie puts the ‘equal’ in sequel.
My Rating: A high A+
Man, the television version of The Godfather is becoming more interesting with each detail I catch of it. For example, in its analyses about Part II, I remember reading about an execution in Sicily where Michael’s associates hunted down and murdered Fabrizio for murdering Apollonia in the last film. Not only was this mentioned in the book, too, but once again, this demonstrated Michael’s willingness to hunt down only those who wronged him.