There are no horses heads, no fishes wrapped in bulletproof vests, no hail of bullets at a toll booth, or even any Marlon Brando. But over 40 years since it was made,The Godfather Part II is still the superior film in one of the big screen’s greatest ever trilogies.
Like many cinematic milestones of its era, Part II’s greatness is very much a product of its environment. Released in 1974, it was made at a time when North American cinema was taking risks.
As the ultimate risk takers, directors were kings. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet were crafting complex stories featuring fatally flawed but compelling characters.
Coppola was a king among the kings when he came to make Part II. He had already won an Oscar for scripting Patton (1970), the awesome character study of a war-hungry general.
He followed that up with The Godfather (1972), a searing indictment of the dark underbelly present in the American Dream of self-made men and family unity.
Coppola was a director so hot he could call his own shot. That shot involved following his mega hit with a thematically risky sequel-prequel combo, featuring an overlapping narrative to tell the story of a young Godfather and his successor, his favourite son, Michael Corleone.
When has a director been so indulged since? Maybe the Coen Brothers after the brilliant No Country For Old Men (2007). They now have license to make any kind of flick they can think off, almost immune to box office and critical failure.
In fairness, No Country merits the Coens directing crappy shampoo adverts for the rest of their career if they want.
But 40 years ago it was Coppola who was free to riff with it. If he subverted myths about the American Dream in The Godfather, he went ahead and defecated all over them with Part II.
Through Al Pacino’s increasingly inhuman Michael, Coppola shows that the central strand of Americana, to be the best you can be, always come at a price, one usually soaked with blood.
There is a line in the brilliant mini-series The House of Cards – To Play the King (the BBC original, not the Netflix tosh), that encapsulates the essential conflict in Part II.
Francis Urquhart, the loathsome Chief Whip, come Prime Minister, explains the nature of power to super-sexy pollster Sarah Harding: “It(power) tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
That is precisely Coppola’s view of Michael in Part II. The character frantically attempts to escape the street-level strong-arming, backroom extortions of his father, Vito’s way of doing things.
His attempts take him to creepy, duplicitous old letch Hyman Roth, played superbly by Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg. Michael and Roth will fashion cooperation to control gambling in a decadent, pre-Castro Cuba.
It is a million miles above anything Vito could have imagined, or would even try. As Roth slimily points out: “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel.”
But the higher Michael goes, the murkier the waters get, and the more ruthless and malevolent he becomes. Coppola spends most of the 200-minute running time turning Michael from the conscience-led, begrudging successor to Vito, into a monster the original Godfather would surely have shunned.
It is a testament to Pacino’s brilliance that Michael, a character the director is almost hysterical about undercutting, remains so watchable.
Part II is without a doubt Pacino’s finest performance on the big screen. He hovers like an oily black spectre over every other character.
The acceleration of his bloodlust in punishing dissenters, perceived or otherwise, is alarming. The pattern for that bloodlust was actually set at the end of Part I.
After Michael has ordered and viewed the death of his brother-in-law Carlo, an associate behind the Don can be seen casting a fear struck look at his boss. The message is clear: nobody, family or not, is safe from Michael’s wrath.
In Part II, Coppola burns that message into the mind and soul of the viewer via Michael’s clumsy older brother Fredo, whose mixture of naivety and resentment leads to a Shakespearean end.
While his cronies become increasingly shocked at the levels Michael will go to, the viewer is only shocked that he leaves anyone alive by the end of Part II.
As Michael is rapidly marginalised by his ruthless streak, his struggles are contrasted by the relatively smooth rise to power of a younger Vito, played with carefully controlled depth by Robert DeNiro.
While Michael becomes a blood-soaked tyrant, Vito starts as a benevolent ruler of his times. He is presented almost as the iron hand in the velvet glove.
Vito’s potential for violence, brutal when unleashed, is only reserved for the truly deserving of his wrath. They are reptilian local extortionists and an evil Sicilian overlord, whose merciless rage not only creates the original Godfather, but also ironically mirrors what Michael will later become.
In between meting out punishment to the dregs of the underworld he populates, but never lets alter his soul the way it does Michael’s, Vito is the kindly helper of the weak.
He rescues old lady’s from a manipulative community baron and raises his people up, rather than keeping them ground under foot.
The flashback scenes of a younger Vito really serve as another way for Coppola to undercut Michael. He is not revered by his family, friends or even his henchmen, the way Vito was.
Those around Michael survive only through obedience motivated by fear of his wrath. Coppola’s savage demolition of the Michael character is what makes Part II a classic. It is also why Part III failed.
By the end of Part II, Coppola has done all he can to punish Michael for his sins. The haunting final image of Michael sat on a bench, his face a pale, hollow shell compared to the vigour it carried in the original, superbly depicts this.
Michael is a desolate, isolated figure whose only company is his bitterness, paranoia, moral compromise and regret.
That is why the flashback scene immediately before this sad, but unforgettable image, works so well. It shows Michael for what he always should have been: the one who breaks free from the family’s criminal ties and forges his own, righteous path.
Contrast the colourful, optimistic buoyancy of boyish Michael, sat around the table prepared to celebrate his father’s birthday with his family, to the drained, vapid expression of the man brooding on that bench.
That contrast is proof that Coppola has done more than enough to defame Michael for betraying his instincts and conscience.
A quick checklist of the sufferings Coppola inflicts on Michael in Part II makes for grim reading. He loses his wife, Kay, who has long represented his humanity. His mother, the last link to the “old world” values he craves, but can never emulate, dies.
He engages in a fratricidal conflict with an elder sibling, while his own offspring show him the same fear-fuelled, slavish obedience as his criminal associates.
That is surely more than enough pain returned for a lifetime of vicious ruling.
So when in Part III, Coppola kills of Michael’s daughter and leaves him to rot in a squalid, Sicilian dustbowl, it feels over the top.
Part III comes off as not merely the act of kicking a man when he’s down. It is the scriptwriting equivalent of using his nether regions as a trampoline.
Coppola’s third instalment of The Godfather trilogy could never match a second part that had exceeded the original.
Part I is a powerhouse of visual cinema, with its seamless collection of set-piece scenes, such as Sonny’s bullet-ridden death on the causeway, or Michael’s execution of Sollozzo and McCluskey in a cosy, placid restaurant.
By contrast, Part II is an amalgamation of wicked dialogue and menacing gestures.
Michael telling Tom Hagen, “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” And his death-knell look over the shoulder of a sobbing Fredo to primary torpedo Al Neri, are the two best examples.
Part I is like a pop culture selection box, with its endlessly quotable phrases and indelible images. But Part II is the richer, deeper work.
It is not only the finest instalment of The Godfather, it is also a true great of the big screen no self-respecting cinema fan can miss, regardless of previous viewings.
You owe it to yourself to revisit the greatest sequel, and arguably greatest film ever made, on a screen big enough to do its brilliance justice.