WFTB Score: 20/20
The plot: Michael Corleone, respected Godfather to his family, finds there’s no room for sentiment in the face of business opportunities. However, when assassins target his home and a deal with Hyman Roth to do business in Cuba is interrupted by revolution, he finds his empire threatened from all sides. We also follow Michael’s father Vito from his boyhood exile from Sicily to New York, where he slowly begins to assume a power base through gentle – and not-so-gentle – persuasion.
With a jubilant family celebrating son Anthony’s first Communion, and the public backing of Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), you might think that all was well for Michael (Al Pacino), ‘Godfather’ to the Corleone clan. However, behind closed doors, affairs are murkier: Senator Geary vows his opposition to the Corleones increasing their influence in Las Vegas, while Michael’s association with ballsy businessman Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) causes friction between the young Godfather and Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), who’s struggling to keep control of New York. Michael also has problems with ineffectual brother Fredo (John Cazale), louche sister Connie (Talia Shire) and fretful wife Kay (Diane Keaton), who despairs that Michael’s affairs are not yet legitimate. When Michael’s house comes under attack, he leaves for Cuba, leaving the house in the charge of staunch ally Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
Meanwhile, young Vito Andolini leaves Sicily in 1910 with his mother’s murder scarred into his heart. Arriving in New York, Vito’s re-named Corleone and (played by Robert De Niro) grows up learning how the power structure works in Little Italy. Vito’s petty thieving brings him to the attention of Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), a loathsome extortionist who meets his match in the young man. Vito starts to exert his own influence and goes into partnership importing olive oil – though there may be a deeper motive lurking behind his dealings with the old country.
If you’re going to take critiquing seriously, it’s very important to constantly make sure you’re being fair. I occasionally give very low scores to films (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example) that few would consider classics but many (on IMDB, at least) consider worthy of scores of five/six out of ten. I can’t accept that, and films like The Godfather Part II are the reason why. The story of Vito Corleone’s struggle to gain power, and Michael’s struggle to keep hold of it, is so accomplished on every conceivable level that to say it’s only twice, or even three times, as good as poor films is an insult to the efforts of Coppola, cast and crew.
The first half hour in particular is about as good as cinema gets. It establishes the genesis of the Corleone family, showing us why vulnerable young Vito had to flee Sicily while – through his troubled passage through Ellis Island – simultaneously telling the story of modern New York (and by extension, America), a city fashioned by immigrants. Then, in an echo of The Godfather Part I, we’re re-introduced to the modern-day (alright, late 50s) Corleones at a celebration, with Michael having assumed his father’s position, though in a hugely troubled climate (note how Michael lives almost exclusively in darkness). Between Senator Geary, Fredo, Frankie and Connie, the opening generates the utterly captivating tension on which the film then thrives. To an extent, the juxtaposition of father and son’s lives is a marriage of convenience, but somehow it works brilliantly, ultimately emphasising Kay’s point that what really drives the family is not love, or success, but revenge.
If I’ve implied that after the first half hour, The Godfather Part II slides away from brilliance, I don’t mean to. Time and again the film impresses, from the complicated machinations of Michael’s business dealings with Roth and their effects on the family to Kay and Fredo’s personal tragedies, from the beautiful recreation of 1920s Little Italy to the technical excellence of Vito’s disposal of Fanucci – the rhythm of the tracking shots along the rooftops is glorious. And the performances! Children aside (though Baldini’s very good), everyone inhabits their roles so thoroughly that acting scarcely seems the right word: Pacino*, incendiary, and De Niro are the obvious standouts, but Cazale, Strasberg, Keaton, Duvall and Gazzo (amongst others) run them close with wonderfully complete supporting performances. Even the out-of-place, nostalgic flashback to the old days which wraps up the film works magnificently: whereas Vito’s struggles finally earn him a loving family, Michael’s single-mindedness isolates him totally, a control freak left with no-one to control. At times a period melodrama, at others high-stakes soap opera, and others still courtroom procedural, Part II has an overwhelming, yet effortless self-assurance that can’t help but win you over.
Though perhaps not totally. There are a few rough edges, with a considerable amount of obvious (and distracting) re-recorded dialogue because (I suspect) of the re-ordering of the material; De Niro’s unnecessary Brando impersonation comes and goes too. Furthermore, it’s virtually impossible that a three-hour-plus film can’t be tightened up; for me, the trip to Cuba outstays its welcome, though I understand that it’s relevant in terms of plot, character and theme – incredibly, there are forces even bigger than the mafia’s power to persuade.
However, The Godfather Part II isn’t a film to which I can pettily dole out points for one thing or take off for another. It is a sensationally good film whose crackling tension, mastery of atmosphere, commanding performances and incredible stories all assure its place as one of the greats of cinema. Others prefer the linearity of Part I over the sprawl of Part II; however, by making this epic more epic than his last, I believe that Coppola’s ambition deserves only the highest praise. Bravissimo!
NOTES: I may struggle to get hold of a copy of Harry and Tonto, but Art Carney (and his cat) must have put in a hell of a performance to beat Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and especially Pacino to the Oscar in 1975.