The Godfather Part II: The Rise and Fall of a Big Man

In the early 80’s, Showtime broadcast what were at that time the only two The Godfather movies in chronological order. It was my first ever experience with the Godfather saga.

For those of you who have never seen either, the first Godfather movie showed the transition of the Corleone family post WWII, as Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) arrives home from serving the country in WWII, and the family’s dealings with pressure to expand it’s operations from gambling and prostitution into the drug culture, among other things. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is an old-fashioned guy who resists the coming change, while his eldest son, Sonny (James Caan) looks at the potential from a money point of view.

Michael himself is resistant to get involved, wanting to distance himself from the family “business.” But when Sonny is killed in a gang hit, Michael eventually transfers from being a reluctant participant to an active leader, and after the death of his father takes over.

In The Godfather Part II, Michael is now the capo di tutti capi, and is trying desperately to maintain his empire. In contrast the film also shows the immigration and maturation of the original Godfather, Vito (played by Robert DeNiro), as he learns how to survive in the Italian ghetto of New York.

When Showtime originally aired its edited version (a four-hour-plus extravaganza), it transitioned the Vito/DeNiro portion to the front of the movie series, thus making it more historically in sequence. It wasn’t until a few years later that I got to see both movies in their original form. Needless to say, the effect was eye-opening.

You get the idea that Hollywood doesn’t really understand some of its potential. Why else would they have allowed Ted Turner to “colorize” dozens of black and white films back in the 80’s, most of which were not improved by the process and many of which lost its cachet by the coloring? And why would they allow the altering of director Coppola’s vision by taking the flashback sequences out of context in this film? It’s fortunate that the historical sequencing of the Godfather films did not become big, because watching The Godfather Part II in its original form has something that would be entirely missed watching it in sequence. The whole film acts as a parallel between the rise of Vito and the gradual decline of Michael.

The film was a big hit at the Oscars. It was nominated for 11 awards and won six of them, including Best Picture and an award to DeNiro for Best Supporting Actor — which I think was the first time for an actor in that category, whose character spoke virtually no English in the role. He spoke Italian with the exception of one or two phrases.

The Godfather Part II (1974):

1901: We are first treated to a flashback to a young Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) as he accompanies his mother to beg the local Mafioso chieftain, Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato) to spare the life of young Vito. See, Vito’s father insulted the Don, and the Don had him killed. It is probably already too late for Vito’s older brother who has sworn vengeance for his father, but mother thinks she can convince the Don that Vito is too shy and stupid to join in. When shortly thereafter Vito’s brother is indeed killed attempting to extract vengeance, mom helps Vito to escape and young Vito heads to America.

1958: Michael is trying to gain control of several gambling casinos in Las Vegas, part of his attempt to legitimize the family business. At his son’s First Communion party, Michael meets with a corrupt senator (G.D. Spradlin) who tries to extort more money from the Corleones than is normally charged for the transfers. Michael counters with another offer, one which the senator rejects. (But he will live to regret it, as we shall see).

Michael also meets with a mob sub-boss Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) who wants permission to dispense with a pair of brothers, the Rosatos, who are causing him some grief in his New York territory.

But Michael refuses to grant permission because the Rosatos are connected with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a business partner in Miami. When later that night an assassination attempt is made on Michael, he suspects his business partner.

1917: The now grown Vito Andolini (now called Vito Corleone, due to a discrepancy during his initial immigration) is working in a grocery store and raising a new son. Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), the local Mafioso boss forces Vito’s boss to hire on his nephew, thus essentially forcing the man to have to fire Vito. Vito meets Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) for the first time and unwittingly helps him in a robbery.

1958: Michael meets with Roth, although he does not let on his suspicions that Roth was involved in the attempted assassination. Instead, he convinces Roth he suspects someone else. Roth and Michael travel to Havana where they have an ongoing relationship with the current leader of the country, Batista. Several things occur to sour things, including a failed attempt by Michael to have Roth killed and the revolution that brings Fidel Castro to power coming to fruition.

1920: The situation with Don Fanucci is getting out of hand. The Don extorts money from everyone and even tries to muscle in on Vito and his friends’ occasional robberies, demanding a cut in return for the Don not ratting them out to the police. Vito arranges for the Don to take an early exit from life.

1958: Michael has to deal with the Senate Subcommittee’s investigation into the activities of the secret organization known as the Mafia.

He also has to contend with his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) who may or may not be ignorant of his involvement behind the attempted assassination of Michael. But Michael resolves not to do anything while his mother is still alive.

And what’s worse is his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) insists that she is leaving Micheal and taking the kids with her. Not only that, but she tells him the miscarriage he assumed she had was actually an abortion. And that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

1923: Vito returns to his hometown of Corleone and exacts his revenge on Don Ciccio, now an old man and no threat to anyone, but revenge is revenge, especially in the society of which Vito has been a part.

The movie comes full circle as by the end we see Michael sitting alone and contemplating his future. His friends are gone, his enemies are gone, his family is gone and he has only what he has built for himself, a life of crime and the loneliness it produces.

Watched by itself, The Godfather Part II may not completely satisfy since you are not really given much background on why Michael is where he is today. But then how many movies have you seen recently as stand alone movies are there in which all the characters motivations are revealed in the context of the movie? Personally I would watch all three Godfather movies in succession (there was a third one that came out in the 1990’s which takes up the Corleone saga 20 years later from the end of Part II).

Al Pacino is in top form in this outing. At the Oscars that year, he competed with the likes of Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), any one of which COULD have won, but all lost to Art Carney (Harry and Tonto), and the less said about that injustice the better.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.