To say Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was a highly anticipated movie for Paramount Pictures in 1972 is an overstatement. Regarded with more trepidation than promise by the executive brain at Gulf + Western, the corporate leviathan having swallowed whole this once proud cornerstone of the motion picture industry for a paltry $600,000 in 1966, Coppola fought a long – and, at times, highly precarious battle, bolstered only by his personal convictions he was making a masterpiece; devoted to will it into existence. Despite his Italian heritage, Coppola thought Mario Puzo’s novel a rather tawdry affair, eventually recognizing its potential as a story of succession; essentially the time-honored tale of a king with three sons vying to inherit the legacy of an organized crime syndicate they neither understood nor – as fate would decide – could manage without losing their souls. Recently appointed VP in Charge of Production, Robert Evans went to bat for The Godfather, but frequently found himself the lone supportive voice in a boardroom hostile to practically every request Coppola made along this very bumpy and bullet-riddled road to greatness. No one liked the idea of hiring Brando as the name above the title; Brando’s eccentricities and temperament legendarily rumored to have delayed every major movie he appeared in since 1962’s disastrous and costly Mutiny on the Bounty. And Paramount was not warming to the subject matter either; what promised to be a clunky gangland ode to hitman stereotypes, shooting off their mouths and pistols and turning New York’s east side into a veritable bloody gumbo of discombobulated body parts. Perhaps they hadn’t read the book, or had and worried – needlessly in the end – that Coppola’s collaborative transformation of Puzo’s prose into a manageable screenplay would cost decidedly more than it was worth.
Like science fiction, mob movies then were considered money-losing B-grade fodder to fill the cheap seats for the Saturday matinee. Indeed, Paramount’s most recent attempt at this sub-genre – Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood (1968) had been an unmitigated disaster at the box office. Coppola, however, was neither interested in perpetuating the cinema stereotype of the lumbering, fractured-English dumb guinea he believed to be wholly untrue, nor extol the virtues of a life in organized crime through the glamorization of the novel’s frequently gruesome vignettes. What appealed chiefly to Coppola was the sense of integrity Puzo’s characters possessed; hard-working men of conscience, devoted to their families, and otherwise believing in the promise of the American dream, only to have their ambitions shattered; forced into impossible situations from which only a life in organized crime could protect them from even more insidious influences in an altogether more corrupt outside world. In retrospect, the exploration of these themes became crystalized as the franchise evolved from one movie into a trilogy; the first, about a man’s brutal sacrifices to provide for his family; the second, an almost biblical parable echoing the sins of the father revisited upon the son; the third, a Shakespearean-structured reflection (nee, nightmare) of the even more careworn cliché, ‘like father/like son’.
In reviewing The Godfather some 44 years after its debut, one is immediately struck by how sincere Coppola and Puzo remain to these unlikely truths and, at their core, reverent to these otherwise ‘ordinary’ individuals. The Corleone family is driven neither by greed nor ambition. Held together by a devout patriarch, who unapologetically sanctions and administers his brand of ‘justice’ from the armchair of his shuttered study, more than anything else, The Godfather is a saga about familial solidarity and the fiery incandescence of that next generation, threatening to dismantle such already flawed, if time-honored ‘principles’ among thieves. There are moments in Coppola’s trilogy (though particularly in the first two movies) that seem more genuine, perhaps even than life itself; Coppola’s vision grim, operatic and fearless in wielding such an awe-inspiring discipline to make a truly unique and very fine work of art. Connie’s wedding, as example, just feels like a memory; the outdoor reception suggestively ‘not staged’ for the Hollywood cameras, but stolen from a series of snapshots; the guests, unaware they are being filmed. It is, of course, a ruse; the sequence expertly paced and edited by Coppola; cut together with all the verisimilitude of an amateur party guest – albeit, one possessing finely honed powers of very keen observation and a photographic eye - let loose with his first Kodachrome camera. We have cinematographer extraordinaire, Gordon Willis to thank for ‘the look’ of The Godfather; the aptly nicknamed ‘prince of darkness’ who, as Coppola once put it, skates on the outer peripheries of the emulsion, drawing barely noticeable detail from the murky density of those dimly lit frames. Willis’ copper-toned tinting to invoke the mood of late 40’s Americana set a new standard and established a trend for period picture-making.
Reportedly, Paramount exec, Peter Bart insisted on Coppola’s participation as director, chiefly because he could be had for a bargain basement fee; Coppola’s independent film company – American Zoetrope – having fallen on hard times and a $400,000 deficit still owed to Warner Bros. for cost overruns on George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971). But Production Head, Robert Evans has always held fast to the decision as ‘good casting’; as only an Italian American would understand the more intricate details and dynamics of the Corleone family unit. To this end, Sergio Leone had been Evans’ first choice to direct, turning to Coppola only after Leone declined the offer; already well into preliminary development on his opus magnum, Once Upon A Time in America, a troubled and lengthy gestation that, for various reasons, would not materialize on the screen until 1984 and even then, recut and bastardized by the studio; unceremoniously dumped on the North American market in an grotesque edit that in no way reflected Leone’s original hope or vision. Considering Evans’ recollections on how Coppola came to be cast as ‘his second’, it is interesting to note Paramount continued to shop around the directorial duties on The Godfather to practically every headlining director of his generation, including Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Yates, Richard Brooks, Arthur Penn, Costa-Gavras, and Otto Preminger. In the meantime, Coppola was consternating over his decision to return to Hollywood. Indeed, he had gone to San Francisco to establish his own film-making paradise away from the crumbling empires of Tinsel Town. Regrettably, American Zoetrope was foundering badly; Coppola’s cohorts, particularly George Lucas, lending their support to his accepting the assignment, merely to pull their beleaguered fledgling out of the red.
Coppola, who admittedly did not care for the subject matter at first, and conceded he did not get all the way through Puzo’s novel before saying ‘yes’ to The Godfather, nevertheless dove heart-strong and head-first into the project, agreeing to $125,000 and 6% of the gross as his recompense. Known for his due diligence in staying within the budgetary parameters outlined by the studio, Coppola seemed a very competent choice. However, it did not take very long for the executive brain trust to rumble with hints of misgiving. Part of the issue was Paramount had not had a major hit in a very long while. Worse, they had all but drained their coffers on a series of expensive flops; Paint Your Wagon (1969), Darling Lili (1970) and Dino De Laurentiis’ costly spectacle, Waterloo (1970) among them. Originally budgeted at $2.5 million, Coppola quickly realized The Godfather could not be made to his specifications without a considerable increase. The studio’s original plan – to shoot on a shoestring in modern-day Kansas City, with interiors lensed under a controlled environment on the Paramount backlot – were eventually vetoed by Coppola, who insisted the novel’s runaway success warranted further consideration; particularly, an adherence to the original 1940’s and early 50’s milieu. Then, as now, shooting ‘in period’ adds not only cache but sizable girth to a film’s budget. Paramount begrudgingly agreed to allow Coppola his extensive shoot in New York and Sicily, upping the ante by $6 million.
The first battle won, almost immediately Coppola’s preliminary search for the perfect cast fell under the scrutiny of Robert Evans and Gulf + Western’s exec’, Charles Bluhdorn, who could only see how the director’s ‘indecisiveness’ was costing the already cash-strapped studio more than $40,000 a day above beyond the allotted budget. Paramount’s VP, Jack Ballard, agreed to keep a watchful eye on Coppola’s development; rumored to have urged his director to consider a ‘big name’ above the title, and even suggesting the fair-haired Ryan O’Neal for the coveted part of the Corleone’s number one son, Michael. However, Coppola was rather determined the part should go to olive-skinned, dark-haired Italian, Al Pacino (a virtual unknown) instead. To elevate the film’s star-powered cache, Coppola had another actor in mind – one, equally as unpopular. From the outset, Coppola had hoped Marlon Brando would accept the part of Don Vito Corleone; the imposing patriarch of this crime family. Indeed, Puzo had confided that in writing the novel he too had used Brando as his template. Robert Evans echoed Coppola’s sentiments; later, even suggesting he had been first to consider Brando for the part. And while Brando expressed a most enthusiastic interest to partake, just as quickly Coppola was informed by Ballard, Brando would never set foot on the Paramount lot ever again.
Since 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty – the landmark release that nearly sank MGM – wild speculations had dogged Brando’s reputation. An article published in The Saturday Evening Post shortly thereafter had ‘Bounty’s’ director, Lewis Milestone vehemently chastising Brando, adding MGM’s mismanagement “deserves what they get when they give a ham actor, a petulant child, complete control over an expensive picture.” For the rest of the decade, Brando would concurrently be accused in the press of selling out in subpar movies or not performing up to expectations in ones worthy of his time and talents. His decision to sign a five picture deal at Universal quickly soured and virtually all five movies made for that studio failed to perform at the box office. The critics savaged his reputation, suggesting the one-time rebellious stud of such iconic fodder as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Wild Ones (1953) had inexplicably morphed into an idiotic buffoon and spoiled caricature of his former self. Perhaps, not altogether free of these criticisms, there is little to deny Brando remained as hard-working as any actor throughout the 1960’s; arguably, never intentionally sabotaging a production solely on the basis of satisfying his own ego.
Nevertheless, by 1970 the unflattering moniker of ‘un-bankable’ had stuck to Brando. Now, the same clout that had afforded Evans the right to turn The Godfather into a prestige picture, was decidedly working against Coppola’s fervent desire to cast Brando in this pivotal lead. Previously considered actors, like Ernest Borgnine, Frank de Kova, John Marley (eventually cast as movie producer, Woltz in the picture) and Richard Conte (hired to portray the beady-eyed and lethal, Don Barzini), paled to Brando’s raw magnetism and marquee-drawing power. Producer, Albert S. Ruddy conceded Brando was the real deal and essential lynchpin for the picture’s success. But Brando, who had made rather a bad enemy of Paramount’s Executive VP, Stanley Jaffe after the release of 1961’s One-Eyed Jacks seemed dead in the water after Jaffe reportedly told Coppola, “As long as I'm president of this studio, Marlon Brando will not be in this picture, and I will no longer allow you to discuss it.” Mercilessly, Coppola persisted; Jaffe eventually relenting, but setting three rather humiliating conditions, in hindsight, probably meant to discourage Brando’s participation. First, Brando would have to do the picture for $50,000 – an embarrassingly low fee for his services. Second, Brando had to sign a contract stipulating any cost overruns incurred from his delays would be covered by him personally. Third, Brando would submit to a screen test to convince the studio he could carry the part.
Coppola attempted to soften this latter blow by suggesting the ‘test’ was for makeup rather than to prove Brando’s acting ability to the studio bosses; Brando, appearing in makeup he conceived for himself, stuffing cotton balls in his mouth to puff out his cheeks. Utterly impressed by the actor’s transformation, Charles Bluhdorn agreed to hire Brando as Don Vito Corleone; adding a caveat of 1% of the gross on a sliding scale to the actor’s deal for each $10 million over $10 million, or up to 5% if the movie exceeded $60 million – a profit margin no one could have expected the movie to surpass. The deal ought to have made Brando a very rich man, except Brando, already in desperate need of funds, prematurely sold back his points to Paramount for an estimated $100,000; kicking himself in the pants when The Godfather grossed $85.7 million on its initial release, by some conservative estimates, screwing Brando out of an $11 million dollar profit. “The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it,” Coppola would later admit, “The studio was very unhappy with it. They didn't like the cast. They didn't like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired.”
Coppola’s one ally throughout the shoot was Brando, who steadfastly threatened to walk off the picture should Coppola be unceremoniously terminated; a not altogether unlikely prospect. On his best behavior throughout filming, Brando also served as something of the head of an impressive array of up and coming talent; including Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton, all readily in awe to be working in such esteemed company. Still, as the daily rushes were being screened back at Paramount, the execs began to grumble The Godfather lacked both the impetus and violence readers of the novel would be expecting. Coppola’s take on the tale was too subdued, too Italian perhaps, for their tastes. Unable to see the merit in his vision, rumors abounded the studio was preparing to replace Coppola with ‘another’ director. But Coppola’s reprieve would come when executives screened the now infamous cop-killing scene in which Michael unexpectedly assassinates corrupt Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) and his crime syndicate mouthpiece, Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), thereby setting his feet upon a lifelong path of self-destruction only partially born out in the first film. It must be said the sequence, apart from its potency in the first movie, set a new standard for screen violence, in the process, creating the prototype all future mob movies would follow; the ghastliness of seeing the back of a man’s head blown apart by a gunshot, ratchetted up in The Godfather’s other outstanding shocker; Sonny Corleone’s (James Caan) horrifically cold-blooded assassination at the toll booth; a veritable blood-bath with Caan’s body riddled by rigged explosive squibs. Whether or not Coppola resented being forced to add such graphic vignettes to his familial saga is unclear. What is for certain is Coppola was intimidated by the studio’s decision to hire a ‘violence coach’ to augment his work should he be unwilling to comply with their edicts on his own.
In some ways, The Godfather: Part II (1974) is a much more immersive contemplation on themes of familial succession and self-destruction Coppola had hoped to investigate more deeply in the original movie. The pacing of the sequel is decidedly different; more methodical and more subtly engrossed in the finer nuances of a man’s slow and self-inflicting tragic demise. The outbursts of violence are less gratuitous, though no less powerful in expressing the thematic implosion of a dream and waning modicum of self-preservation. The parallel cutting between two stories in this sequel – following young Vito’s (Robert DeNiro) rise to power as the unlikely head of a crime syndicate and Michael’s own hegemony to reign over the so called ‘five families’, reluctantly forced to step into the Don’s shoes – makes for a startling contrast between a perhaps good man’s descent into purgatory, coming to know the ominous strength and purpose of his convictions. Both men become Don Corleone out of necessity. Yet, unlike his father, Michael is never comfortable in the role. Indeed, Vito’s sanctioning of ‘justice’ by satisfying ‘requests’ is viewed with nonchalance. By contrast, while Michael steadily professes “it’s not personal…it’s just business”, his reign is increasingly marked – and marred – by selfish motives: to assert and cement his authority in the underworld hierarchy not yet having seen enough of his potential might to take him seriously. In the sequel, Michael aligns his interests with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) a dying puppet master who nevertheless, derives a certain unquestionable autonomy from the same generational wellspring as his late father.
Late in The Godfather: Part II, Michael counsels his mother (Morgana King) about his presumed failings to the family, a good husband to his wife, Kay and loving father to his children, expressing the belief he has gradually allowed himself to become un-tethered from his roots, to which she assuredly replies, “You can never lose your family.” But what Michael is perhaps expressing is an acknowledgement he has already lost ‘control’ of the variables that once made up their tightly-knit solidarity. And, indeed, The Godfather: Part II remains a story about losing one’s way; of fate’s chronic intervention to deprive Michael of the life he would have chosen for himself and – manipulating others to preserve the myth of family as a never-changing united front. This absence of legacy wounds Michael’s confidence – though hardly his stubborn resolve – throughout this second pivotal chapter in the Corleone family saga. Michael’s purpose is both flawed and gauche; desperate, even, as he chooses murder rather than exile to resolve a misguided betrayal from a disloyal, though decidedly easily swayed/simpleton elder brother, Fredo (John Cazale). We get a sense of this looming cruelty as Michael quietly threatens to disinherit his sister, Connie (Talia Shire) if she marries Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue) - clearly a fortune hunter – having already ordered the hit on her first husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo) to satisfy a vendetta for Sonny’s murder.
In the original Godfather, Coppola makes a startling jump cut to illustrate Michael Corleone’s fall from decorated and clean-cut war hero to cold-blooded assassin; the latest ‘recruit’ in the Corleone dynasty and, in fact, Vito’s last hope for a legitimate heir. Alas, the death of Michael’s beloved first wife, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) from a car bomb in Sicily meant for him, is immediately followed by Michael’s reappearance in a suburb of New York, confronting former flame and the future Mrs. Corleone – Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) after an absence of almost a year. The cruelty inflicted from these losses has already hardened Michael’s heart, converted his resolve to the dark side of crime. More than ever, he is the Don in training, and swift to take his place as the avenging arc angel of the family. And Pacino delivers with a riveting transformation, from the naïve Lochinvar of only a few scenes before to this beady-eyed boss; the pierced look of veiled regrets having mutated into a subtext of contained homicidal rage, glimpsed in brief fitful outbursts, more readily expressed as an intrinsic part of his DNA in the last installment to the franchise: The Godfather: Part III (1990).
After a riveting preamble in which Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto); a grieving father pleads with Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) to avenge the brutal beating of his daughter by her boyfriend and his friends, The Godfather opens on the occasion of Vito’s daughter, Connie’s wedding. It is a spectacularly staged sequence on the grounds of the Corleone compound; marred only by the presence of FBI agents perusing the parking lot and jotting down various license plates to run their background checks. These ebullient snapshots from a sun-filtered afternoon are intercut with the Don entertaining various requests in his cloistered study; an old Sicilian custom. We are introduced to the rest of the Corleone clan; Sonny and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) – a onetime urchin the Don took in a reared as his own who, having completed his law degree, now acts as consigliere; an exalted position. We also meet various members of the Don’s inner circle; his lieutenant, Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano), hitman, Luca Brazi (Lenny Montana); devoted thug muscle come to pay his respects, and the Corleone’s driver, Paulie Gatto (John Martino in a part originally intended for Robert DeNiro, who actually screen tested for the role). Also in attendance is rival mob boss, Don Barzini (Richard Conte), Tessio (Abe Vigoda), and the Don’s bodyguard, Al Neri (Richard Bright).
The suddenly arrival of bobbysoxer-heartthrob, and the Don’s godson, singer, Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino) creates a minor stir. Indeed, the ‘stir’ extended off-screen; reportedly, Frank Sinatra not at all pleased with the transparent parallels drawn between himself and the fictional Fontaine; rumored to have made several veiled attempts through third parties to have the depiction removed from the film. As an interesting side note: Al Martino, then a popular nightclub singer was initially given the part of Johnny Fontaine at the behest of his agent, Al Ruddy. However, when Coppola came to the project he replaced Martino with singer, Vic Damone. And here is where the waters between truth and fiction become muddied: Damone, accepting, but then inexplicably dropping out, siting the part as both too small and anti-Italian. But perhaps Martino’s reinstatement had more to do with his contacting Russell A. Bufalino; a well-known crime boss who also happened to be Martino’s godfather. Whatever the case, Martino was in and Damone out.
While Sonny’s wife, Sandra (Julie Gregg) is busy extolling the virtues of her husband’s sexual prowess to some of her girlfriends, Sonny is off seducing one of the bridesmaids, Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero). Meanwhile, the Corleone’s youngest son, Michael, arrives with his girlfriend, Kay Adams. Michael is the pride and joy of the family; a decorated war hero, newly discharged from the army. Michael explains to Kay that although his family is involved in organized crime, he has remained apart from any involvement in these greyer areas of ‘the family business.’ Meanwhile, in the Don’s study, Johnny Fontaine implores his godfather to ‘convince’ Hollywood mogul, Jack Woltz (John Marley) to give him a career-defining part in his next movie. The Don sends Tom Hagen to make Woltz ‘an offer he can’t refuse’. And while Woltz initially seems receptive to at least listening to this proposal, he suddenly becomes volatile, ordering Tom from his mansion and flat out refusing to grant his request. This leads to the first iconic moment in The Godfather; Woltz, awakening in his Beverly Hills mansion the next morning, making the grisly discovery of the severed head of his prized stallion lying between the blood-soaked bed sheets. The head was real, bought by Coppola’s property master from a local dog food manufacturer who would have discarded it anyway.
We jump ahead to Christmas 1945. Backed by the Tattaglia crime syndicate, Virgil ‘the Turk’ Sollozzo makes his pitch to the Don to invest in his narcotics business, suggesting the Don might offer him protection via his political and police connections. Concerned his high-profile contacts will frown upon such a venture, Don Corleone declines, telling Sollozzo he will remain neutral. Suspicious, the Don sends Luca Brasi to cautiously observe. Sollozzo, under Bruno Tattaglia’s (Tony Giorgio) watchful eye, makes Luca a faux offer to leave the Corleone family and join them. Believing he will be able to keep closer tabs on the Tattaglias from within their organization, Luca falls for their trap by accepting the offer and is garroted; his bullet-proof vest sent to the Corleone home with a dead mackerel wrapped inside; an old Sicilian message to mark the murder. In the meantime, an attempt on the Don’s life is made – shot six times in the back while shopping a street vendor for fruit. Tom Hagen is kidnapped by Sollozzo and ordered to ‘make the peace’ with Sonny over the drug deal.
Wisely assuming Paulie’s conspicuous absence at the time of the Don’s shooting means he was likely ‘encouraged’ by the other side (as chauffeur, Paulie would have been expected to defend the Don), Sonny orders a hit; Clemenza and Rocco driving with Paulie to a remote location under a false pretext, before shooting him in the back of the head). Making an impromptu visit to the hospital, Michael discovers someone has ordered all his father’s bodyguards to stand down; the corridors virtually emptied of any hospital personnel, save one nurse whom Michael orders to help him relocate his father’s bed to another room because he has wisely assessed Sollozzo is sending henchmen to finish the job. Michael’s clash with corrupt Police Captain McKluskey, also on Sollozzo’s payroll and chiefly responsible for removing the Don’s protection, results in a broken jaw and Michael’s pivotal decision to enter ‘the family business’ in the worst of all possible ways; avenging his disgrace as well as the attempt on his father’s life by gunning down McKluskey and Sollozzo in cold blood. Exiled to Sicily, Michael is placed under the care of loyal family friend, Don Tomassino (Corrado Gaipa) who periodically keeps him informed of developments in America. Michael also meets Apollonia, the daughter of a local restauranteur. Their carefully observed courtship blossoms into romance and the two are eventually wed. Alas, the bliss is short-lived. Word arrives from America Sonny has been assassinated after flying off the handle in Connie’s defense; Carlo severely beaten his pregnant wife and, on the Tattaglia’s payroll as an informer who helped in Sonny’s ambush at the toll booth. Not long thereafter, Don Tomassino informs Michael it is not safe for him to remain in Sicily; prophetic words, as a car bomb, meant for Michael, kills Apollonia instead.
We jump cut a year into the future; Michael, returned home under a safe guarantee and free to pursue Kay as his wife. She is reluctant, though nevertheless willing. Michael pursues an ambitious campaign to move the Corleone’s crime syndicate out west to Nevada; tempting high roller, Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) with a buy out. Greene, however, is incensed he should give up one of the most lucrative gambling houses in Vegas simply to satisfy Michael. After the Don passes away from natural causes, Michael learns of both Tessio and Carlo’s involvement with Don Barzini and the Tattaglias; ordering an aggressive vengeance on all of the five families and Moe Greene. In the ensuing bloodbath, Michael is the only one left standing; confronting Carlo at the family home. Pretending to have decided on exile as punishment for his involvement, Michael hands Carlo a plane ticket and orders him to leave for the airport at once. Yet, only a few paces out of the Corleone compound, Carlo is garroted by Clemenza; Connie, arriving as Michael and Kay are moving in to confront her brother about the murder. Michael lies to Kay about his involvement. She naively believes him, but begins to suspect her deal in marriage has been made with the devil as Michael entertains a select group of his late father’s loyal contacts who refer to him as ‘Don Corleone.’
Rumor has it, the powers that be at Paramount received veiled threats from several mob bosses regarding the use of the words ‘mafia’ and ‘Cosa Nostra’ – neither appearing in the original Godfather’s dialogue, though each prominently featured in The Godfather Part II, during Michael’s interrogation by the Senate Committee investigating organized crime. Indeed, the Italian-American Civil Rights League had its own misgivings about various aspects of the original script, gravely concerned it glorified stereotypes and whitewashed all Italians in an unflattering light. Underestimating Coppola’s resolve and purpose, not only to make a good picture, but also to honor his Italian-American ancestry with faithful depictions, Coppola worked diligently and in close collaboration with cinematographer, Gordon Willis on establishing the sepia and Kodachrome look of The Godfather; bathed in brassy copper hues for the exteriors, and saturated in oppressively dark shadows for its interiors. Coppola applied ‘old school’ principles in shooting the film; no zoom lenses or clever aerial photography; but expertly composed master shots with as much attention paid to detail in the backgrounds as to what was happening in the foreground. During post-production, Coppola made a fortuitous decision in hiring Nino Rota to compose the underscore, a veritable potpourri of since iconic themes, almost disregarded wholesale by Robert Evans as being ‘too highbrow’, but rescued by Coppola’s own last minute stubbornness. For some time thereafter, The Godfather Waltz became a very popular selection to introduce all fathers of the bride at weddings.
Coppola’s last minute fine touches and tinkering cost The Godfather its planned Christmas release; the picture debuting the following March to almost unanimous acclaim and record box office; earning $81.5 million in North America alone, displacing the all-time record holder, Gone With The Wind (1939); a hallowed position briefly held until the release of Jaws (1975). Nominated for 7 Golden Globes and 11 Academy Awards (and winning 5 and 3 respectively, including Globes and Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture), it was inevitable Paramount would order up a sequel. Coppola’s place in the cinema firmament – precarious a few scant years before by a few abysmal misfires – had suddenly, and justly, been secured for the ages. Already immersed in the material, Coppola brought Mario Puzo back to co-author The Godfather Part II (1974) – something of both a sequel and prequel to his original movie. In splitting the narrative into flashback and a continuing saga, Part II evolved a cinema language all its own – drawing parallels between the young Vito Corleone (now played by Robert DeNiro) and his son, Michael assuming control of the family business, only to rule it with an iron fist. Coppolla’s original desire to bring back Brando to reprise his role in flashbacks was quashed by Robert Evans; Coppola ingeniously staging an off-camera birthday surprise for the Don without Brando’s participation.
Today, many forget that this sequel was the first of its kind to use ‘Part II’ in its title; Paramount’s initial apprehensions unfounded when the second movie proved just as popular with audiences as the original. However, it might have gone the other way. Al Pacino almost did not sign on to this continuation of the Corleone family saga; Coppola re-polishing the script to satisfy the actor’s needs and flesh out his role. A sneak peek of Coppola’s ‘final’ edit left a select gathering of critics cold; the crosscutting of two parallel narratives considered choppy, with not enough time to flesh out characters. As a result, the picture grew longer, at 175 minutes, complete with intermission, one of the last ‘road show’ events. Undaunted, Coppola returned to his editing room, combining several flashbacks together with less back and forth between the past and present. Regardless of how one feels about sequels today, it is nevertheless true The Godfather Part II ushered in the era of the big studio-committed franchise film-making that has all but taken over – and sadly - bastardized the industry’s collective output today. Shooting at Lake Tahoe between October and June allowed Coppola to run the gamut of seasons, adding more girth to the ‘period’ and passage of time; the globe-trotting continuing in Palermo, New York and Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the latter subbing in for Cuba which, owing to the embargo was decidedly off limits. The studio-domineering yolk loosened after Coppola’s vision for the first movie proved a runaway success, Coppola vacillated in his new-found autonomy; still working at a feverish pace, but with a decidedly more leisurely approach to hand-crafting his material.
In retrospect, The Godfather Part II is a much darker movie (figuratively speaking) than its predecessor; beginning ominously with a funeral in Sicily set in 1901; young Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) and his mother (Maria Carta) following his late father’s funerary cortege through the craggy terrain. Their mourning is interrupted by another assassination; Vito’s elder brother, at the behest of local Mafia chieftain, Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato). Begging for Vito’s life, his mother momentarily takes Ciccio hostage at knifepoint before being murdered in front of the boy with a double-barreled shotgun by one of Ciccio’s henchmen. Miraculously, Vito escapes the Don’s assassins and is sent to America, mistakenly registered by a well-intended Ellis Island official as ‘Vito Corleone’. The Ellis Island sequence is among the many tour de forces in the sequel; Coppola particularly tuned into the immigrant experience. Perhaps desiring a counterpart to Connie’s wedding in the first movie, Coppola cuts to 1958; the First Communion of Vito’s grandson, Anthony Michael Corleone (James Gounaris), lavishly staged as an outdoor party at Lake Tahoe. Like his father before him, Michael is entertaining various business ventures on this otherwise festive afternoon, petitioning Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) for a gaming license to further dig into his holdings in Vegas. Publicly, Geary cheerily professes his gratitude for the Corleone’s charitable works; but privately he attempts to squeeze Michael for some quick cash, believing his political clout far outweighs any thug muscle Michael might choose to exercise in order to enforce his will. Of course, the Senator is mistaken, although it will be a while before he figures this out for himself. In the meantime, Michael is visited by Corleone caporegime, Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), who is bitterly disappointed Michael will not back him in his dispute with the Rosato brothers over the Brooklyn territory.
Michael is faithful to Pentangeli – a holdover from his father’s time. But his present business venture with the supreme puppet master, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) precludes divulging the particulars of his plan to his old friend just yet. Aside: Hyman Roth was loosely based on real-life mobster, Meyer Lansky who, upon seeing the movie is rumored to have telephone Strasberg to inquire, “Why couldn't you have made me more sympathetic? After all, I am a grandfather.” One of the great tragedies that befall Michael in this sequel is losing the trusted support of Pentangeli, who cannot see the bigger picture and decides to betray Michael after he erroneously assumes Michael is responsible for his botched assassination. Immediately following the party, Michael and Kay narrowly survive a bungled plot to murder them in their beds. Michael is incensed and departs Nevada at once to unearth the truth; leaving Kay and his children behind on the heavily guarded family compound. Before his departure, Michael confides in Tom Hagen he will become the new Don for a time and oversee the evolution of Michael’s grand plan while Michael keeps a very low profile.
We flashback to 1917, Vito (now played by Robert DeNiro), working hard in the dried goods business for a local merchant in New York (production designer, Dean Tavoularis’ immaculate recreations of the dingy tenements of ‘little Italy’ superbly realized down to the very last detail). Vito already has a wife, Carmela (Francesca De Sapio) and infant son, Sonny. But he loses this job when his boss is forced to placate Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin) – a member of ‘The Black Hand’ by hiring his grandson instead. Vito’s first brush with organized crime is anything but brief. Concealing several guns wrapped in a blanket for his neighbor, Peter Clemenza (Bruno Kirby), Vito is later invited by Clemenza to help him burglarize a posh estate; the two stealing an oriental rug from the parlor and narrowly averting discovery by a policeman casually walking the beat, momentarily pausing to peer in through the window. Clemenza suggests a lucrative black market business; Vito putting up the Genco Olive Oil Company as its front.
In the present, Senator Geary is framed for the murder of a paid escort he frequented at a brothel managed by Fredo. Awakening from his drug-induced stupor to find the girl chained to his bed, having hemorrhaged to death, presumably after a night of kinky sex, a frantic Geary is comforted by Tom Hagen who, knowing what the scandal could do to the Senator’s career, insists the incident will be managed by Michael in exchanged for the Senator’s loyalty. Meanwhile, Michael suspects Hyman Roth as the architect behind his botched assassination. Drawing on an old adage about keeping one’s enemies at arm’s length, Michael, accompanied by Roth’s protector, Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese) enjoys Roth’s hospitality in Miami. Each feigns ignorance about the other’s complicity in the incident; Roth suggesting Frank Pentangeli is responsible. Knowing this to be untrue, but determined to maintain a successful façade, Michael confronts Pentangeli at first, but behind closed doors explains he knows there is a snitch lurking somewhere very close, but as yet unknown to him. Once again, Michael implores Pentangeli to pretend to make his peace with the Rosatos. Alas, Roth is two steps ahead of the game, setting up an ambush for Pentangeli inside a local bar where the Rosatos, Carmine (Carmine Caridi) and Tony (Danny Aiello), are waiting to garrote him with piano wire, planting the notion it was Michael who has betrayed him. The murder sabotaged by a cop just passing by while the crime is taking place, Pentangeli survives the attack, but fearful of reprisals and not knowing who to trust, turns state’s evidence on Michael to save his own skin.
Meanwhile, Michael travels to Havana with Geary, Fredo and Roth to ring in the New Year and negotiate their mutual ‘business’ interests with Fulgencio Batista’s (Tito Alba) government. Before attending the lavish state dinner, Fredo takes the men (all except Roth, who is gravely ill, and Johnny Ola, electing to remain at his side) slumming inside some of Cuba’s seedier nightclubs; one of them where a simulated sex act is performed by a freak of nature with a rather grotesque endowment. When Geary laughingly inquires how Fredo discovered this place, Fredo accidentally lets it slip he has known Johnny Ola long before their presumed first meeting only a few days earlier. Michael sends his bodyguard to Roth’s penthouse to kill both him and Johnny Ola. Alas, the unnamed assassin is only successful at Ola’s murder before paramedics burst in to the penthouse, presumably telephoned by Roth, who is ailing. The assassin follows Roth to the local hospital, but is killed by police after attempting to smother Roth in his hospital bed. As midnight approaches, Batista’s government is overrun by Castro’s rebel forces. He abdicates and urges all his guests to make haste to the docks to escape the city as his forces can no longer guarantee anyone’s safety. Amidst the chaos, Michael and Fredo are separated, but not before Michael makes Fredo aware he knows he is the one who betrayed him.
Back in Nevada, Michael learns from Tom that Kay, pregnant with their third child shortly before he left for Cuba, has since ‘miscarried’. The news is devastating. But even more so is Fredo’s confession to Michael: that he took Johnny Ola’s side to become his own man rather than remain a ward of Michael’s charity. Michael cruelly exiles Fredo from the family. Behind closed doors, Michael instructs Al Neri that Fredo is to remain untouched until after their mother has died. Not long thereafter, Kay tells Michael she is leaving him for good. At first, Michael believes Kay is merely bluffing. But then she confesses to the ultimate betrayal; having deliberately aborted Michael’s son to avoid continuing the Corleone family bloodline. Michael has Kay declared an unfit mother and legally separated from her children. Connie is sympathetic, allowing Kay regular visits to the compound when Michael is not around. However, when Michael learns of this, he promptly ambushes Kay during one of her visits. She will not see young Anthony or Mary again.
Again, in flashback, we find Vito and Carmela with two more sons, Fredo and Michael, now living comfortably; thanks to Vito and Clemenza’s lucrative business; peddling stolen goods on the black market. Learning of their enterprise, Fanucci attempts blackmail; Vito suggesting to both Clemenza and their other ‘business’ partner, Salvatore Tessio (John Aprea) Fanucci will settle for far less of a payment than he has initially proposed. Bewildered, Tessio and Clemenza leave the decision-making to Vito. Instead, Vito stalks Fanucci through the streets of Little Italy during a noisy neighborhood festa, cold-bloodedly gunning him down in the hallway of his apartment before disposing of the pieces of the murder weapon down several rooftop chimneys. At this juncture in the story, Coppola breaks for an intermission; when next the story commences, we are once more in the present – this time, in Washington D.C. at the senate committee hearing on organized crime where several witnesses testify to Michael’s reign as ‘the godfather’. However, the FBI’s linchpin is Frank Pentangeli. Too late, Frank finds Michael has brought over Pentangeli’s brother from Palermo to witness the trial. Fearful Michael will not hesitate to exact revenge on his brother in his stead Pentangeli rescinds his sworn statements, claiming he was bullied by the FBI. Realizing he has painted himself into an impossible corner – no longer Michael’s confidante and likely to be ousted from the Witness Protection Program – Pentangeli elects to take his own life by slashing his wrists in the bathtub.
In flashback, Vito visits Sicily for the first time since emigrating. He and Don Tommasino (Mario Cotonne) are admitted into Don Ciccio’s compound, ostensibly to ask for Ciccio's blessing on their olive oil business. Instead, Vito gets close enough to exact his childhood vengeance by gutting Ciccio with a knife. In their daring escape, Don Tommasino is shot and paralyzed. The last act of The Godfather Part II escalates the liquidity and frequency between these flashbacks. Upon the death of their beloved mother, Connie encourages reconciliation between Fredo and Michael; one Michael ostensibly takes to heart, allowing Fredo to come live at the Nevada compound and be a devoted uncle to his son, Anthony. Alas, this too is a ruse, Michael ordering Al Neri to assassinate Fredo while the two are fishing out on the lake. Meanwhile Roth, who realizes he is a dead man, is refused political asylum in Israel, soon to be publicly executed at the airport by Michael’s other caporegime, Rocco Lampone as stunned members of the press look on. This sequence has always reminded me of the brutal public execution of Lee Harvey Oswald, although I could find no reference in Coppola’s records to suggest he shared as much in his inspiration. Indeed, while The Godfather Part II reports to be based on incidents derived from Mario Puzo’s original novel, only the flashbacks bear a marginal resemblance to passages from the book; the bulk of the story re-imagined from scratch by Coppola, once again collaborating with Puzo.
The last moments of The Godfather Part II are devoted to Michael’s conflicting reminiscences of the life he has squandered – a reflection as bittersweet as it remains imbued with an overriding Shakespearean sense of a man having completely lost his soul; beginning with the final flashback; young Michael’s decision, made shortly before Vito’s surprise birthday party, to enlist in the army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sonny is furious; Connie and Tom sparing the two a physical altercation; everyone hurrying into the next room to meet the returning patriarch with a cake and their ebullient good wishes. Coppola had intended this to be a more detailed sequence with Brando brought in for a day’s shoot to complete the scene. Regrettably, Paramount refused to hire Brando back, forcing Coppola to restage the moment in the actor’s absence. Interestingly, the scene is more ominously heartbreaking as we hear the off-camera cheers of ‘surprise!’ while, in the foreground, a forlorn Michael sits in the dining room all alone; the moment dissolving into another; this time, of Michael, isolated on the Nevada compound, staring blankly off into the distance. Are his final thoughts about what he has done to his father’s legacy; of the breadth of realization he has murdered his parent’s son, or regret over his complete ineffectualness to keep his own family – Kay and their children – free from the devastating effects of these outside influences? Coppola leaves us guessing, as does Al Pacino’s haunted, far away, and, dreadfully vacant gaze.
In the end, The Godfather Part II is an infinitely more complex and masterfully put together reflection of the self-inflicted cruelties that derive from a life in crime. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed more little gold statues on the sequel; including another for Coppola and Best Picture. Many of the scenarios developed for Part II were, in fact, augmented by unused bits ported over from Puzo’s original novel. Apart from Brando’s absence, the entire cast reunited – a near unheard of accomplishment and major coup for Coppola who, only two years before had had to beg Paramount executives for every casting decision made. Reportedly, after screening Coppola’s five hour rough cut of The Godfather Part II, fellow film maker, George Lucas told his friend, “You have two films. Take one away.” Instead, Coppola chose to rework both as a two-sided parable running in tandem and continuing the arc of familial succession begun in the original movie.
Interestingly, Paramount did not immediately chomp at the bit to produce yet another sequel, perhaps, in part, because Coppola had made it very clear he was decidedly finished with the Corleones – at least, for the moment – and would not be returning to the fray, should the studio so desire to continue the franchise. In hindsight, it was the right decision; one marginally marred by Coppola’s reversal in 1990 to reconsider what a decade of marginal hits like Peggy Sue Got Married, and colossal box office flops, One from the Heart (1981) and The Cotton Club (1984, butchered in the editing process to transform what ought to have been a musical homage to the famed New York landmark into a disjointed melodrama), had done to his reputation as a film maker. Indeed, Coppola increasingly was feeling his strengths as a producer over directing; perhaps, still in partial recovery from the insane production shoot in Vietnam on his opus magnum anti-war epic, Apocalypse Now (1979); a movie threatening to drive everyone to the brink of insanity via Brando’s chronic delays, it drained United Artist’s coffers to the point of foreclosure, and, resulted in Coppola’s star, Martin Sheen, suffering a near-fatal heart attack while on location.
Whatever the reasons, Coppola did not return to the mob milieu until 1990, prompted by inquiries from fans and Paramount – both of whom considered the Corleone family saga as yet incomplete. However, upon its release, The Godfather Part III was generally eviscerated by the critics and dismissed by its most ardent following, some of their criticisms not entirely unwarranted. Indeed, in reviewing the picture again some sixteen years after its debut, and, even more so, when watching all three movies back to back as a mob movie marathon, one is immediately struck by two aspects from the production: first, and most regrettably, its copycat aspect, with Coppola returning almost verbatim to at least two pivotal moments from his first two movies, wholesale cuts borrowed to augment this final installment: first, the death of Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), set up during a festa not unlike the one staged for Fanucci’s murder in Part II, although, this time, publically executed by Corleone button-man, Lou Pennino (Robert Cicchini) and Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the latter, masquerading as a cop: the climax from the first movie (the operatically staged assassinations of the heads of the five families) ever so slightly re-orchestrated by Coppola for a new series of penultimate murders in Part III, escalating from the poisoning of an old family friend cum turncoat, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), to the shooting of the Vatican’s corrupt Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), poisoning of Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone) – an honest man – shortly after he has ascended to the throne as Pope, the assassination of International Immobilare’s chief executive banking officer, Don Licio Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), and, most startling of all, the unanticipated death of Michael’s now adult daughter, Mary (Sophia Coppola), shot through the chest by an assassin’s bullet on the steps of the opera house in yet another botched attempt on Michael’s life.
Once again co-authored by Mario Puzo and Coppola, The Godfather Part III’s chief inspiration is drawn from two actual events: 1978’s mysterious death of Pope John Paul I and the Papal banking scandal that rocked the Vatican from 1981 to 1982. Thinly veiled in the movie, each is directly linked to Michael’s failed endeavors to legitimize the Corleone family business. Too little/too late, it seems, as Michael has already lost his former wife, Kay to a new love and created a near irreparable rift in his relationship with adult son, Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) whom Michael has been pushing toward a law degree even as the young man’s first love is to become a famous opera star. Filled with stories of his father’s cruelties and corruption – including prior knowledge of Michael having orchestrated Fredo’s murder – Anthony’s much beloved uncle – Anthony resents his father’s involvement in Mary’s life. Indeed, Michael has made her the cornerstone of his legitimate business ventures; the chairwoman of the Corleone Foundation, raising money for the beleaguered in Sicily. Anthony assumes the charity is just another front, but actually, in this regard Michael is most sincere. Moreover, he is ill with diabetes and desperately hoping for peace – not only in his old age, but to settle the tumult within his own family.
The bulk of Part III’s backstory reaches a quirky and awkward impasse: Mary’s growing romantic infatuation with her first cousin, Vincent Mancini, Sonny’s adult love child sired with Lucy (Jeannie Linero) in the first movie. The movie attempts to make ‘another’ Sonny of Garcia’s performance – a flawed endeavor since Garcia is increasingly uncomfortable and looking stiff, even as he adds to his tough guy chops a fitful streak of psychotic rage directed at the bad guys. Michael forewarns Mary that no good can come of her love for Vincent. He all but threatens Vincent should he pursue even the slightest hint of a romantic relationship. Part III is also hampered by the never explained absence of Robert Duvall – replaced by the ineffectual, if every polished and tanned George Hamilton, as the Corleone family’s attorney, B. J. Harrison; also, a lethal interjection of new faces that in no way create indelible impressions either to fit into the narrative trajectory already established in the first two movie’s or conspire to elevate and drive Part III’s storytelling impetus.
The first narrative artery pursued in Part III is Vincent’s blood feud with Joey Zasa. The two are marginally antagonistic from the start; Vincent biting off a chunk of Zasa’s ear in Michael’s study after Joey agrees to a truce, but then refers to Vincent as ‘bastardo’. Kay’s arrival this same afternoon is purely mercenary. After having divorced Michael almost two decades earlier, she has come to plead for Anthony’s desire to give up his law degree and follow his heart for a career in music, much against Michael’s wishes. It really makes no difference. Anthony will not comply, nor will he return to the family fold. He might, however, be willing to accept his father should Michael show some respect for his dreams. Begrudgingly, this Michael does. Kay, however, is unforgiving; calling the church-sanctioned ceremony in which Michael was made a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian, a sham and suggesting that ‘legitimized’ he is now even more dangerous than ever; her truest ‘dread’.
Vincent pleads with Michael to let him have a crack at eliminating Zasa, since taken over the drug distribution arm of the Corleone family business and turned Little Italy into a needle-ridden slum. Troubled by Vincent's fiery disposition, but ultimately impressed by his loyalty to the family, and at Connie’s behest, Michael agrees to take Vincent under his wing. Michael's recent investment in International Immobiliare, a real estate holding company with far-reaching assets, makes the Corleones its largest single shareholder. Michael makes a tender offer to buy the Vatican’s 25%, thus giving him absolute control. However, unbeknownst to his superiors, Archbishop Gilday, head of the Vatican Bank, has accrued a massive $600 million debt. Michael offers to quietly expunge this from the bookkeeping ledgers in exchange for the Vatican’s shares. After some consternation, Immobiliare's New York Board of Directors approves the offer. However, it must be ratified in Rome by Pope Paul VI, who is gravely ill. Meanwhile, Don Altobello, Connie's godfather, informs Michael his old partners want in on this new deal. While determined to keep Immobiliare untainted from any direct connections to the mob, Michael offers to pay off his partners from his own liquidated Las Vegas holdings. Realizing Zasa is working against him, Michael excludes him from these generous reparations; Zasa storming out in a huff with Altobello trailing behind, presumably, to broker favor and smooth over the rough edges. But only a few moments later, the penthouse meeting is sabotaged by assassins raining down a hailstorm of bullets from their helicoptered perch. Together with Al Neri’s help, Vincent manages to save Michael from certain death. But virtually all the other mob bosses are wiped out.
Sometime later, Neri informs Michael the surviving bosses have all aligned with Zasa. However, realizing Zasa lacks the cunning to pull off such a coup, Michael orders Vincent refrain from murdering him just yet, hoping to gain more insight into where Don Altobello fits in. The strain proves too great. Michael suffers a diabetic stroke and is hospitalized. While he convalesces, Vincent takes matters into his own hands, deriving great satisfaction from personally killing Zasa. He also allows Mary to pursue him, the two eventually becoming romantically involved. Partially recovered, Michael berates Vincent’s rashness. He also challenges Connie’s authority to go over his head with Al Neri’s complicity. “Now they’ll fear you,” she cruelly assesses, to which Michael glibly replies, “Maybe they should fear you instead.” After Michael’s recovery, the Corleones travel to Sicily for Anthony's operatic debut in Palermo at the Teatro Massimo. Ensconced in Don Tommasino’s villa, Michael suspects a plot afoot. Partly to gain the upper hand, but also to drive a wedge in Mary and Vincent’s relationship, Michael sends Vincent on a knight’s errand to convince Altobello he intends to leave the Corleone family.
Don Altobello introduces Vincent to Don Licio Lucchesi, a spurious and shadowy political figure who also happens to be Immobiliare's chairman. In the meantime, Michael discovers that the Immobiliare deal is an elaborate swindle orchestrated by Lucchesi, Archbishop Gilday, and the Vatican’s accountant, Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger). To shore up his confidences within the church, Michael visits Cardinal Lamberto, who is favored to become the next Pope. Recognizing Lamberto as a true man of the cloth, Michael acquiesces to his first confession in thirty years; suffering a momentary breakdown, admitting he ordered his brother, Fredo’s murder. Lamberto concurs with Michael’s self-assessment he has committed grave sins. And yet, Lamberto suggests no man – not even Michael – is beyond redemption. Now, Altobello hires Mosca (Mario Donatone), an aged hitman to stage Michael’s brutal assassination at the opera house. Disguised as priests, Mosca and his son murder Don Tommasino, Michael vowing over his old friend's casket to sin no more. Lamberto is elected as Pope. But his honorable intentions sound the death knell to this plotter’s scheme in the Immobiliare deal. Michael designates Vincent as the new Don, but only if Vincent agrees to end his dalliances with Mary. Like Michael before him, Vincent is driven by power which supersedes his love for Mary. He spurs her – gently – though nevertheless, cruelly.
What plans to be a pleasant night at the opera turns devastating as Altobello and Michael’s henchmen quietly clash behind closed doors. Mosca takes out Michael’s protection, one armed guard at a time and ever-drawing nearer to Michael himself while the performance is taking place. However, Vincent discovers several of the garroted bodies and hurries to escort Michael from the theater. Meanwhile, Connie watches with opera spectacles from her box at the opera as Altobello consumes the poisoned cannoli she has personally prepared for him. The old man quietly suffocates just as Anthony’s debut draws to a close. In Rome, Don Tommasino’s bodyguard, Calò (Franco Citti) meets Don Lucchesi, claiming to bear a message from Michael. As he pretends to whisper it in Lucchesi’s ear, Calò instead stabs the wily fraud in the jugular with his own glasses. Coppola now moves into his even more operatic grand finale of death; Michael’s hired guns taking care of Gilday, shot, then, needlessly thrown off a balcony at the Vatican. On the steps of the opera house, tragedy strikes closer to home; Mosca, taking dead aim at Michael and getting off several rounds, killing Al Neri and wounding Michael.
Vincent permanently removes the threat by putting an expert marksman’s bullet between Mosca’s eyes. Only then does Mary reveal to all she has been mortally stricken in the chest with a bullet meant for Michael. As she suddenly slumps back, caught in Michael’s arms, the realization of her lifeless body sends Michael into a fit of hysteria. If The Godfather Part III has its own tour de force moment, it remains this exquisite evocation of parental loss; Coppola silencing Pacino’s erratic screams of unholy grief with an overlay of Carmine Coppola’s tender underscore; only revealing the brevity of Michael’s pain in a single gasp at the end, resonated in reciprocated blank stares of disbelief from Kay and Vincent who share in the loss. We fade to a scene on Don Tomassino’s property some years into the future; Michael, hunched, decrepit and having lost his will to go on, clutching a rose; his mind turning toward a series of flashbacks of all the woman his life of crime has betrayed; the montage culminating in his own quiet collapse and death; the journey to ‘greatness’ having concluded with a whimper, rather than a bang.
The Godfather Part III is a movie that desperately wants to be considered the last word in the Corleone family saga. Regrettably, its misfires are many and more than occasionally distracting; Coppola’s own family nepotism in casting daughter, Sophia in the pivotal role of Mary Corleone, a major stumbling block from which, arguably, the picture never recovers. The younger Coppola is clearly out of her depth, incapable of revealing genuine love or even masqueraded lust without a sort of wretchedly awkward adolescence, neither as heartfelt in its puppy-like adoration of her elder cousin, nor as endearing or even competent to convince us she is anything but casually impressed with this temperamental young Lochinvar who has supposedly fired her heart. There is zero chemistry between Sophia Coppola and Andy Garcia, the latter appearing more amused than interested in procuring ‘an affair; Garcia’s antsy outbursts played strictly as shtick and occasionally for laughs. Garcia lacks the unpredictability, if not the ruthlessness, of James Caan’s Sonny; queerly aping the superficial mannerisms of his predecessor without fully comprehending Caan’s – or his own – motivations; the playacting devolving into mere pantomime as a result. The elder statesmen of this ensemble, particularly Talia Shire’s Connie and Diane Keaton’s Kay are relegated to supporting bit parts at best; the whole enterprise top-heavily situated on the Mary/Vincent romance.
Part of the success of the first two Godfather movies is they virtually rework the time-honored cliché of good vs. evil in a decidedly off kilter way; told from the perspective of severely flawed, but strangely empathetic criminals who are more misunderstood than maniacal. Part III is almost a subversion – or perhaps, perversion – of this revisionist take on organized crime; Michael, desiring legitimacy at any and all costs and pursuing it aggressively, hampered by the real ‘bad guys’ to which he no longer wishes to belong, and queerly considers himself apart from, despite the severity of his own crimes against humanity and his complete betrayal of his father’s legacy. This was well-established in the first movie and continued to resonate in the second as Brando’s inquire from the original film, “You spend time with your family? That’s good, because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Despite his determination to step in as the head of the family, Michael’s entire reign as the Don, at least by his own father’s precepts, has been an absolute failure.
Largely on the reputation of its predecessors, The Godfather Part III grossed $136,766,062, a sizable hit for Paramount. Yet artistically, the picture continues to lack something of Coppola’s total investment to tell this new chapter in the Corleone family saga and break any new ground in the process. Indeed, there are whole portions that seem more repurposed than refreshing; ‘old hat’ and careworn; a sort of creative ennui creeping in; perhaps, even an understanding all this has been done before – and to far better effect – in the previous two movies. Arguably, Coppola felt an obligation to revisit the same material in a highly familiar way to reacquaint a new generation of filmgoers with ‘the traditions’ of his mob movies. We must also consider what the passage of time between Parts II and III had done to contemporary filmgoer’s tastes – sixteen years: a lifetime in movie-land history, the culture having morphed beyond and decidedly away from the seventies low-budget verve for gritty reality, and into the eighties superficial patina, thirsty for more gloss than substance on the whole. At least Part III is immeasurably blessed to have Gordon Willis once more behind the camera as the constant link between all three films – stylistically speaking.
And yet, it is Coppola’s ‘old-school’ staging techniques – responsible for some trend-setting timelessness in the first two movies – that now, ironically have dated Part III rather badly. With so many of the principle cast from the first two Godfathers already wearing toe tags, Part III also suffers from an infusion of too many underdeveloped ‘new’ characters at odds or disconnected from these returning veterans in the franchise. A good many of the new arrivals merely float in and out of the story without establishing either their characters’ motivations or making any sort of genuine impact. Finally, there are the aforementioned copycat moments; deliberate homage, inserted by Coppola to suggest some sublime and inescapable symmetry to these tales or simply his copout to resolve certain complexities within the narrative storytelling? The jury remains out on this matter, although it is highly unlikely a complete reprieve for this final chapter in the Corleone family saga will ever be forthcoming.
It has been seven years since Paramount Home Video first released The Godfather: The Coppola Restorations on Blu-ray – at the time, a ground-breaking and very costly last ditch effort to rescue the fragile and decaying emulsion off the original camera negatives. I recall so well popping these discs into my Blu-ray player back in 2008, not exactly certain what to expect – having experienced the first two Godfathers only in deplorably faded and grainy home video masters, but herein, quite unexpectedly, suddenly and extraordinarily revitalized under the supervision of film preservationist, Robert A. Harris. Gordon Willis’ sepia-richness restored, I can honestly say I was immediately and overwhelmingly blown away by the results: not so much anymore; as hi-def mastering technologies have steadily improved – or rather, caught up to where these efforts were seven years ahead, but also, as imperfections that seemed minor and forgivable back in 2008, now appear as absent-minded oversights in need of correction.
Indeed, only the first two movie transfers included in this set are advertised as ‘restored’, the elements used for Part III, promoted as ‘remastered’ for this home video release; a fine line of distinction. It bears further mention that by the time Mr. Harris and his team got their hands on these original camera negatives they were so utterly dirty and in such a delicate state of disrepair they could no longer be run through any standard film laboratory printing equipment, resulting in a digital, rather than photochemical restoration. Both the original 1972 movie and its’ ’74 sequel have been reassembled in 1080p hi-def, utilizing the very best archival materials culled from innumerable sources; all of them scanned in at 4K resolution at a time when such preservation techniques were not only in their infancy but virtually unheard of, having since become the norm. Thousands of instances of dirt and scratches were digitally removed. Alas, Gordon Willis’ exceptionally dim cinematography reveals some glaring nicks and chips and occasional dot crawl still present. The original grain structure is exceptionally well preserved herein, save a few brief shots and/or cutaways in which it inexplicably can appear slightly exaggerated and/or clumpy. For the first time, all three Godfather movies are given an extremely accurate rendering of what the original 35-millimeter projected print, viewed in its opening night splendor, must have looked like; a true phenomenon of the digital age, once inconceivable on any home video setup. Concurrently, the audio masters also have been given a superior cleanup; dialogue and SFX sounding decade’s more refined with the Rota/Coppola underscores given renewed life in 5.1 DTS.
Extras are plentiful, beginning with three thoroughly engrossing audio commentaries from Francis Ford Coppola; one to augment each movie. With exceptional recall, Coppola accounts the details of making each movie, does not appear to be reading from any prepared monologue or even personal notes, but frankly speaking off the cuff, delving into an impressive mental acuity and veritable archive of absolute riches sure to excite both novice and Godfather aficionado alike. The extras produced exclusively for this Blu-ray reissue, while good, pale in comparison to the ones ported over from the original LaserDisc releases from the mid-1990’s. The Making of The Godfather, as example, is all too brief; a glossy but glossed over ‘lost opportunity’ to give fans a comprehensive look behind-the-scenes; despite having a litany of interviews distilled into mere sound bites. We also get additional scenes, a featurette about the various locations used; another, on the Corleone ‘family tree’, and ‘the underscore; plus, Godfather World, another featurette extoling the vices Coppola endured while making the picture and a brief, but engaging short subject on the restoration of the first two movies.
Again, to my thinking, the best features housed on a separate Blu-ray are all derived from the original DVD release; extensive audio only and archival interviews with Coppola where the camera just runs as Coppola spitballs ideas off the top of his head or illustrates for us the creative genius and process by which he made such artistic decisions and cuts to his masterpiece. Finally, it all gets topped off with deleted scenes, a scrapbook of stills and theatrical reissue trailers made to promote the limited reissues. Bottom line: one could not have hoped for more or better. The Coppola Restorations release of The Godfather is a top-drawer compendium of at least two of the most influential movies of all time. While the restorations were cutting edge in 2008, it might behoove Paramount to have another go at further eradicating the minor imperfections that, on occasion, continue to draw undue attention, particularly if we ever get a UHD-Blu-ray release. Otherwise, you will be pleasantly pleased by what’s here. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 -5 being the best)
The Godfather – 5+
The Godfather Part II – 5+
The Godfather Part III – 4