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The Godfather Part II

The Godfather Part II

By Kyle Barrett • December 14th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Paramount Pictures

Original release: December 20th, 1974
Running time: 200 minutes

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writer: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo

Cast: Al Pacio, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg

The Godfather Part II

The Godfather was a film that Paramount didn’t really want to make. After making the rounds to various studios, they reluctantly agreed to produce believing it to be a cheap gangster film based on the somewhat pulpy novel by Mario Puzo. They didn’t know what they had and bringing on new director Francis Ford Coppola who was taking on the studio system along with George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and many others was a risky choice. Coppola began making demands and wanted to take control as much as he could. Budgets began to inflate and the studio wasn’t happy with his choice of Marlon Brando to portray the Corleone patriarch and mob ruler Vito.

Not only did this upset them, Coppola also pushed to cast as many unknown actors as he could. The pivotal role of Michael Corleone, the son who would take over the mob empire, was given to the little-known Al Pacino. After giving a great performance in Panic in Needle Park (1971) the producers were convinced. After a bit of a troubled production, mainly Brando’s bizarre demands, the film was unleashed and became not only a box-office success but won a number of Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Brando as well as Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Godfather was a hit and then the studio begged Coppola for a sequel. With his power firmly set in American cinema, Coppola went on to direct The Conversation (1974) before taking on a sequel to his gangster opus. This time he had complete control and very little interference from the producers.

The Godfather Part II

Instead of doing a straight sequel, Coppola wanted to explore Vito Corleone’s roots as a boy in Sicily and how he arrived in New York. As a young man, Vito (Robert De Niro) begins to take control of the mob after eliminating the boss of his neighbourhood. At the same time, Michael is trying to expand his control of his empire whilst maintaining the image of legitimacy. As his power grows, Michael becomes more ruthless, isolating him from his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and his councillor Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). When an attack on his home nearly kills him and his family, Michael starts to question where loyalties lie and seeks out the wisdom of his father’s business partner Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). It becomes apparent that everyone’s expendable in Michael’s circle, including family.

Many consider Part II to be superior to the first film and it’s not hard to see why. The narrative, bouncing back and forth between Vito’s origins and Michael descent, offers a richer, more novel approach than the predecessor. Michael’s coldness is balanced with Vito’s loss of innocence when the mob kingpin in Sicily murders his mother. Vito later kills the local boss of his neighbourhood and takes over. Before long he’s respected and feared throughout New York and when he finally returns to Sicily to take revenge, it’s a brutal confrontation, showing us the true meaning of the Godfather.

Gordon Willis’ cinematography is developed further from the sepia drenched first instalment. Sicily is captured gorgeously with sumptuous yellows and greens, balanced with the cold whites The Godfather Part IIand greys of New York. Willis’ use of shadows, particularly when Michael takes visitors in his chambers earned him the nickname ‘The Prince of Darkness’ and these scenes stand out as if they were part of a horror film, part of Michael’s crypt.

In addition to the already stellar work from Pacino, Duvall and Keaton, the addition of method-acting guru Strasberg was an inspired piece of casting. Strasberg, who had done little film work and an advocate for the stage, plays Roth as a calculating ruthless businessman with revenge on his mind against the man responsible for killing his protégée Moe Green from The Godfather. Roth is a compelling villain and a true threat to the Corleone empire, something slightly absent from the previous film.

De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal as Vito and it is one of his finest performances. He echoes Brando but makes the character his own with deliberate, slow mannerisms and calm, The Godfather Part IIintroverted rage. John Cazale reprises his role as Fredo, the somewhat bumbling member of the Corleone family and older brother of Michael. Cazale was a fantastic actor who sadly passed far too young. Cazale played Fredo as a lost little boy. Unable to be the man he wants to be, he tries to betray his family and the infamous, “I know it was you, Fredo” scene is expertly handled with Pacino and Cazale.

Pacino is more comfortable in his role as the new Godfather. He was able to portray different sides to Michael throughout the series making him one of the most compelling characters every brought to screen. This would be considered his dark years, wiling to kill anyone who stands in his way. If you look closely, you’ll find many great character actors in small parts, including Danny Aiello, Harry Dean Stanton and G.D. Spradlin. Fans of The Sopranos should look out for Dominic Chianese in a small supporting role.

More novelistic in its approach, Part II is a superior sequel. The characters develop further and we get to see where the Corleone clan began. With fantastic performances throughout and solid direction, it remains a high-mark in ‘70s American cinema. Its lasting influence, not only on further films but in TV in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, we can see this as a piece of cinema that was willing to take its time, much different to what we have today.

The Godfather Part II

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.

He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.

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