The conventional wisdom is that movie sequels are never as good as
the original, and the common belief among most critics is that THE
GODFATHER: PART II (1974) represents the classic exception to that
rule. As strong and innovative as was THE GODFATHER (1972), most
reviewers prefer its successor. (Since I recently had the opportunity
to see both on the big screen again, I'll discuss in the end of this
review whether I subscribe to this logic.)
Unlike the linear structure of the original, PART II has two
parallel stories spanning two different time periods. In the main
storyline, the Corleone family continues their nefarious activities
from THE GODFATHER, but now it is 1958, and they are concentrating
their misdeeds in the Nevada casinos.
Al Pacino repeats his role of Michael Corleone, but he has become
the Don since his father, Vito Corleone, died toward the end of THE
GODFATHER. (The only other cast member not returning is James Caan as
Sonny Corleone since Sonny died in the middle of the original. In an
uncredited role, Caan does appear briefly in a flashback sequence in
Al Pacino, who was nominated for Academy Awards for both pictures
but won neither, approaches his more mature role quite differently from
the way he did in the original. This time he plays it much more soft
spoken and self-assured. The beauty of the performance can be heard
with the tone of his voice and seen in his lips. In most of the film
he speaks as a Caesar. He does not need to justify, he needs only to
ask, and it shall be done. His clear but low enunciation is that of
someone who has the power to make people hang on his every word.
Michael's quietness gives way to tremendous fear whenever he does
raise his voice. Most actors confuse shouting with overacting and have
trouble separating the two, but not Pacino, at least not in this role.
He owns any scene where he shouts.
In all of his scenes, save one, Michael maintains total confidence
in his ability to control the situation whether testifying before a
pack of voracious Senators or trying to outfox his enemies. His wife,
Kay (Diane Keaton), tells him a secret, and Pacino's quivery lip
demonstrates the devastation Kay's revelation has had on him. It is
during this scene that he childishly sounds his false mantra. "I'll
change; I'll change," he insists to a disbelieving wife. "I've learned
that I have the strength to change."
The secondary, but significant, other plot revolves around the
young Vito Corleone and his introduction to a life of crime. This part
starts in 1901 with Oreste Baldini playing Vito Andolini, later renamed
by mistake at Ellis Island as Vito Corleone which the immigration
official confused his birthplace with his last name.
This part of the story quickly skips ahead to 1917 where a young
and innocent looking Robert De Niro gives an Academy Award winning
performance in his portrayal of Vito Corleone. De Niro's subtle acting
is nevertheless powerful in his exploration of the birth of evil in a
person. He turns the film into a coming of age drama, but not the
normal saccharine one. This is the genesis of a loving family who was
anything but to their enemies and to the world at large.
The most effective part of this story has to do with Vito's
overthrow of the local leader of "The Black Hand," Don Fanucci (Gastone
Moschin). Theadora Van Runkle's costume for Fanucci with his fancy
white suit and large brimmed hat sets up the character so perfectly
that the acting is of almost secondary importance. During this part,
Vito utters the precursor to the most famous line in THE GODFATHER.
"I make him an offer he don't refuse," he tells his friends of his
plans to get Fanucci to accept $100 instead of the $200 that they owe
The script by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo and the editing
by Barry Malkin, Richard Marks, and Peter Zinner takes care not to rush
either of the two stories. Typically, either a film is told almost
totally in flashback or flashbacks happen briefly and then it is back
to the main storyline. The subplot of the young Vito in PART II takes
perhaps a quarter of the movie and the sequences go on so long, that
when you see the movie for the first time, it is easy to convince
oneself that most of the movie may be set in Vito's early life.
The original and the sequel contain perfect symmetry without ever
seeming repetitious. The beginning of both films has a lavish party at
the Corleone estate in celebration of some church event associated with
one of the younger members of the family. In the original, it was the
wedding of Vito's daughter, and in the sequel, it is the first
communion of Vito's grandson. Both parties have people waiting to talk
to the current Don. (This church linkage, which the first two suggest
but never explore, is developed into the main theme in the fairly
unsuccessful PART III -- remember that sequel rule.)
Both films end in a hail of violence with the editing interlacing
and carefully sequencing a stream of deaths. Although the first's
ending was more like a Goetterdammerung, both are powerful and
The best new character in PART II is the Jewish gangster Hyman
Roth. Roth, played with style and cunning by the famous acting coach
Lee Strasberg, tries to out-connive Michael. Most people get lost
during this part of the story, but I think that is what director
Francis Ford Coppola wanted. If you are part of the mob, it is rarely
clear who are your friends and who aren't. This ambiguity is endemic
to crime families. Roth's duplicity is best seen when he expresses
regret that someone has attempted the assassination of Michael and his
family. "Stupid thugs," complains Roth to a stone-faced Michael.
"People behaving like that with guns."
Roth's best line is his boast to Michael on the size of their
crime empire -- "We're bigger than U. S. Steel!" (This could be
considered the most dated line in the film. Try to think of some
current corporate powerhouse in place of U. S. Steel, and the line has
more impact.) Equally good and more accurate is Michael's line when he
rejects Tom Hagen's (Robert Duvall) suggestion that Roth cannot be
touched. "If anything in this life is certain," he lectures Tom
sternly. "If history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill
Nino Rota's music, conducted by Carmine Coppola, has great imagery
from romantic and nostalgic to foreboding. It's the type that has you
humming the tunes when you leave, but moves you while you are watching
the film. Gordon Willis's cinematography again uses low natural light
to create ominous shadows indoors and bright colors outdoors to cast a
false sense of security about the Corleone family.
Is it true that most sequels pale in significance to the original?
Absolutely. The BATMAN series is one of many such examples. But is
THE GODFATHER: PART II an exception? Yes and no. I am a big fan of
both pictures, but prefer the original slightly for its originally and
the intensity of the character's emotions. The sequel is more cerebral
which is not bad, but it lacks some of the punch of the original. But,
these are two great movies so which is better is probably unimportant
THE GODFATHER: PART II runs 3:20, but feels no longer than most
run-of-the-mill hour and a half shows. It is rated R for graphic
violence and profanity. I give the film my strongest recommendation
and my top rating of ****.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes