The hereditary disease

Making clear the meaning of it all

Published: Mar 24 2022, 01:01:am

Friday, December 20, 1974

THE GODFATHER: PART II. Based on the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo. Music by Nino Rota. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Running time: 200 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional scenes of brutal violence.
FIVE YEARS AGO [1969], PARAMOUNT Pictures offered Francis Ford Coppola the opportunity to direct “a cheap gangster movie budgeted at $2 million.” According to George Lucas, a close friend of Coppola and the director of American Graffiti, “Francis said no.”
    Paramount persisted, and Coppola reconsidered. He was $300,000 in debt and needed the money.
    The result was, of course, The Godfather. Released in February 1972, it was both a critical and economic success. To date [1974], it has returned nearly $130 million to its producers and heads the list of all-time top-grossing films.
    This year, with the world in his pocket, Coppola reached for the sun, the moon and the stars. He nets the lot with The Godfather: Part II, a triple triumph that cannot help but be an enduring landmark in film history.
    Coppola’s accomplishment is threefold. He has produced a film that stands on its own as an independent feature.  At the same time it is a perfect complement, indeed the completion, of his previous film. Together, they stand as one of the few true epics of our time.
    The filmgoer's immediate concern is with Part II as its own entity. What Coppola offers is a film that can be enjoyed without knowledge of, or reference to, the original Godfather.
     Here, too, is the writer-director's answer to those who were repelled by what they saw as the original's glorification of gangsterism. Encouraging this wrong but popular conclusion was the fact that The Godfather was a straight-ahead story with a powerful narrative drive.
    It introduced a war hero named Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the youngest son of an aging crimelord who understands the family business, but insists to his girlfriend "that's my family . . . it's not me."
    By the end of the film he and his family are one and the same, as he assumes his father's role as "godfather." There were those in the audience who viewed his succession as success, and his consolidation of criminal power as proof that he was the story's "hero."
    Part II allows for none of this. A more consciously artistic film, it makes entirely different demands on its audience. The Godfather grabbed filmgoers by the throat and whispered “feel."
     Part II smooths out our lapels and snarls "think!" It does this by telling two stories simultaneously, a ploy that forces the audience to weigh its response to each in relation to the other.
    In one instance the protagonist is Vito Corleone, nee Andolini (Robert de Niro), the young Sicilian immigrant who eventually becomes the “godfather.” In the other, it is Michael Corleone, his son and heir, who is tending to the business he took over at the end of the last film.
    For those unfamiliar with the events in the original story, Coppola's script provides enough information to make Part II flow smoothly. Unlike the original, it is a dark pageant, one that deliberately sets out to chill the blood. In this respect it probably succeeds too well for the pure action fan, who needs a hero to side with and to root for.
    Coppola’s second accomplishment is in having turned out a film that is not a sequel but an expansion, a complement and completion of his original. His concern is not so much with characters or events — although both are handled with unfailing consistency — as with themes.
    His Godfather can, and some day will be, viewed as a single movie: a six-hour, ten-minute epic. Nor is Coppola the first filmmaker to think on such a grand scale.
    In the silent era, Erich von Stroheim made a movie that ran more than nine hours. Nobody outside the studio ever saw it, though. When it was finally released, it was about two hours long. Film historians always refer to 1924’s Greed as "the mutilated masterpiece."
    Since then, American filmmakers have considered three and a half hours the absolute limit for a commercial feature. With the two parts of The Godfather, Coppola changes the rules of the game. His is the unmutilated masterpiece.
    By shifting back and forth in time, Part II develops the major themes expressed in The Godfather. "Where are all the men?” Michael Corleone asked during his Sicilian exile in the original film.
    "All dead from vendettas," he is told.
    Part II opens with Vito Corleone (Oreste Baldini), a nine-year-old vendetta orphan, arriving in the United States. A routine examination reveals that the child is sick. He's put in temporary quarantine.
    Coppola is too good a director to belabour a metaphor. The child who will be father to the man has brought a disease with him from the Old World. A picture of young Vito on Ellis Island fades into one of his grandson Anthony.
    The modern story begins. The disease is hereditary.
    Coppola's third and greatest achievement is the creation of a modern tragedy so stark and powerful that it will one day stand among the great screen classics. And this, it should be double-underlined, is Coppola's achievement.
    Mario Puzo's 1969 novel, despite its best-seller status, was no work of art. A writer who wasn't making it as a serious novelist, Puzo decided to make a few dollars hacking out a guess-who potboiler in the Harold Robbins manner.
    Coppola, an Oscar-winner for his 1970 Patton screenplay, saw the elements of epic in Puzo's pulp. His translation for the screen brought out not only the tragedy of Michael Corleone, but of the hope that is generally called the "American dream."
    Throughout the film, the Corleones attempt to isolate family from business, personal morality from corporate self-interest. It can't be done, however. The moral poison released in the interests of the Family ultimately destroys the family.
    Two small flaws are immediately apparent on Coppola's broad canvas. Richard Castellano, the actor who played the caporegime Clemenza in the original, could not come to terms with Coppola for Part II.
    His off-screen "death" is reported, and a new character introduced. He is Clemenza's successor, an old hood named Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo). The specific dramatic effect is considerably diluted by the substitution, the only one necessary in the project.
    The second disappointment is Diane Keaton, reprising her role as Kay, Michael's wife. Despite her husband's oft-stated protestations to the contrary, she seems peripheral to the proceedings. Coppola, apparently, saw no way to deepen her character, and Keaton has little to do except look lost.
    Both, of course, are small quibbles with a film that is otherwise rich almost beyond measure. The Godfather: Part II, makes filmgoers another offer that they can't refuse.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: For Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 was a very good year. He co-produced and directed two of its five Academy Award Best Picture nominees. The ballot included his ground-breaking surveillance drama The Conversation as well as The Godfather: Part II. Not unexpectedly, the latter film got the most attention, winning six of 11 nominations, including the picture, director and adapted screenplay prizes, presented to Coppola on the day after his 36th birthday. The picture entered Hollywood history as the first sequel to win an Oscar (an achievement that wouldn’t be matched until Peter Jackson’s 2003 win for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).
    Over the years, I’ve often joked that the Detroit-born Coppola is my favourite Italian director. And it’s true that the half of his film devoted to Vito’s story is almost entirely spoken in Italian (with English subtitles). It’s also true that Coppola's cinematic roots are all-American, including an apprenticeship served at the “school of Corman.” Along with such future talents as Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard and Joe Dante, Coppola learned his craft working for low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman, producer of his 1963 directorial debut feature Dementia 13. Paying proper respect, he asked his former boss to appear in The Godfather: Part II. Watch the scene in which Michael appears before a Congressional commitee hearing and you’ll see the dapper Corman playing a cameo role as Senator Weekler.

The whole story: The Reeling Back archive now contains my reviews of 1972’s The Godfather, 1974’s The Godfather: Part II, and 1990’s The Godfather: Part III.  The first two films are mentioned in my 1979 interview  with Coppola in New York.