Fathers And Sons
by Pauline Kael
At the close of The Godfather, Michael Corleone has consolidated his power by a series of murders and has earned the crown his dead father, Don Vito, handed him. In the last shot, Michael — his eyes clouded — assures his wife, Kay, that he is not responsible for the murder of his sister’s husband. The door closes Kay out while he receives the homage of subordinates, and if she doesn’t know that he lied, it can only be because she doesn’t want to. The Godfather, Part II begins where the first film ended: before the titles there is a view behind that door. The new king stands in the dark, his face lusterless and dispassionate as his hand is being kissed. The familiar Godfather waltz theme is heard in an ambiguous, melancholy tone. Is it our imagination, or is Michael’s face starting to rot? The dramatic charge of that moment is Shakespearean. The waltz is faintly, chillingly ominous.
By a single image, Francis Ford Coppola has plunged us back into the sensuality and terror of the first film. And, with the relentlessness of a master, he goes farther and farther. The daring of Part II is that it enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the first film; The Godfather was the greatest gangster picture ever made, and had metaphorical overtones that took it far beyond the gangster genre. In Part II, the wider themes are no longer merely implied. The second film shows the consequences of the actions in the first; it’s all one movie, in two great big pieces, and it comes together in your head while you watch. Coppola might almost have a pact with the audience; we’re already so engrossed in the Corleones that now he can go on to give us a more interior view of the characters at the same time that he shows their spreading social influence. The completed work is an epic about the seeds of destruction that the immigrants brought to the new land, with Sicilians, Wasps, and Jews separate socially but joined together in crime and political bribery. This is a bicentennial picture that doesn’t insult the intelligence. It’s an epic vision of the corruption of America.
After the titles, the action begins in Sicily in 1901, with the funeral procession of Michael’s murdered grandfather, and we realize that the plaintive tone that was so unsettling in the opening music is linked to funeral drums and to a line of mourning women. The rot in Michael’s face starts here, in his legacy from his father. The silent nine-year-old boy walking behind the coffin with his strong, grief-hardened mother is Vito, who will become the Don, the Godfather (the role played in the first film by Marlon Brando). Shots are heard, the procession breaks up — Vito’s older brother has just been killed. And in a few minutes Vito, his mother dead, too, is running for his life. The waltz is heard again, still poignant but with a note of exaltation, as a ship with the wide-eyed child among the hordes in steerage passes the Statue of Liberty. The sallow, skinny boy has an almost frightening look of guarded intelligence; not understanding a word of English, he makes no sound until he’s all alone, quarantined with smallpox on Ellis Island. Then, in his hospital cell, he looks out the barred window and, in a thin, childish soprano, sings a Sicilian song. As he sings, we see the superimposed face of another dark-eyed little boy, a shining princeling in white with a pretty flower-face — Michael’s son, the little boy who had been playing in the garden with the old Don Vito when he died. It is the rich princeling’s First Communion, and there is a lavish celebration at the Corleone estate on the shore of Lake Tahoe. The year is 1958, and the surviving members of the Corleone family, whose base of operations is now in Nevada, are gathered for the occasion.
The first film covered the period from 1945 to the mid-fifties. Part II, contrasting the early manhood of Vito (played by Robert De Niro) with the life of Michael, his inheritor (AI Pacino), spans almost seventy years. We saw only the middle of the story in the first film; now we have the beginning and the end. Structurally, the completed work is nothing less than the rise and decay of an American dynasty of unofficial rulers.
Vito rises and becomes a respected man while his son Michael, the young king, rots before our eyes, and there is something about actually seeing the generations of a family in counterpoint that is emotionally overpowering. It’s as if the movie satisfied an impossible yet basic human desire to see what our parents were like before we were born and to see what they did that affected what we became — not to hear about it, or to read about it, as we can in novels, but actually to see it. It really is like the past recaptured. We see the characters at different points in their lives, with every scene sharpening our perception of them; at one moment Michael embraces his young son, at another Vito cradles young Michael in his arms. The whole picture is informed with such a complex sense of the intermingling of good and evil — and of the inability to foresee the effects of our love upon our children — that it may be the most passionately felt epic ever made in this country.
Throughout the three hours and twenty minutes of Part II, there are so many moments of epiphany — mysterious, reverberant images, such as the small Vito singing in his cell — that one scarcely has the emotional resources to deal with the experience of this film. Twice, I almost cried out at acts of violence that De Niro’s Vito committed. I didn’t look away from the images, as I sometimes do at routine action pictures. I wanted to see the worst; there is a powerful need to see it. You need these moments as you need the terrible climaxes in a Tolstoy novel. A great novelist does not spare our feelings (as the historical romancer does); he intensifies them, and so does Coppola. On the screen, the speed of the climaxes and their vividness make them almost unbearably wounding.
Much of the material about Don Vito’s early life which appears in Part II was in the Mario Puzo book and was left out of the first movie, but the real fecundity of Puzo’s mind shows in the way this new film can take his characters further along and can expand (and, in a few cases, alter) the implications of the book. Puzo didn’t write the novel he probably could have written, but there was a Promethean spark in his trash, and Coppola has written the novel it might have been. However, this second film (the script is again by Coppola and Puzo) doesn’t appear to derive from the book as much as from what Coppola learned while he was making the first. In Part II, he has had the opportunity to do what he was prevented from doing before, and he’s been able to develop what he didn’t know about his characters and themes until after he’d made the first picture. He has also been able to balance the material. Many people who saw The Godfather developed a romantic identification with the Corleones; they longed for the feeling of protection that Don Vito conferred on his loving family. Now that the full story has been told, you’d have to have an insensitivity bordering on moral idiocy to think that the Corleones live a wonderful life, which you’d like to be part of.
The violence in this film never doesn’t bother us —it’s never just a kick. For a movie director, Coppola has an unusual interest in ideas and in the texture of feeling and thought. This wasn’t always apparent in the first film, because the melodramatic suspense was so strong that one’s motor responses demanded the resolution of tension (as in the restaurant scene, when one’s heart almost stopped in the few seconds before Michael pulled out the gun and fired). But this time Coppola controls our emotional responses so that the horror seeps through everything and no action provides a melodramatic release. Within a scene Coppola is controlled and unhurried, yet he has a gift for igniting narrative, and the exploding effects keep accumulating. About midway, I began to feel that the film was expanding in my head like a soft bullet.
The casting is so close to flawless that we can feel the family connections, and there are times when one could swear that Michael’s brother Fredo (John Cazale), as he ages, is beginning to look like a weak version of his father, because we see Marlon Brando in the wide forehead and receding hair. Brando is not on the screen this time, but he persists in his sons, Fredo and Michael, and Brando’s character is extended by our seeing how it was formed. As Vito, Robert De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but that he has Brando’s wary soul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end. In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. Even the soft, cracked Brando-like voice seems to come from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a cowardly landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.
De Niro is right to be playing the young Brando because he has the physical audacity, the grace, and the instinct to become a great actor — perhaps as great as Brando. In Mean Streets, he was a wild, reckless kid who flaunted his being out of control; here he’s a man who holds himself in — and he’s just as transfixing. Vito came to America to survive. He brought nothing with him but a background of violence, and when he believes the only choice is between knuckling under to the gangsters who terrorize the poor in Little Italy—just as gangsters terrorized his family in Sicily — and using a gun, he chooses the gun. In his terms, it’s a simple matter of self-preservation, and he achieves his manhood when he becomes a killer. Vito has a feudal code of honor. To the Italians who treat him with respect he’s a folk hero — a Robin Hood you can come to in times of trouble. No matter what he does, he believes he’s a man of principle, and he’s wrapped in dignity. The child’s silence is carried forward in the adult. De Niro’s performance is so subtle that when he speaks in the Sicilian dialect he learned for the role he speaks easily, but he is cautious in English and speaks very clearly and precisely. For a man of Vito’s character who doesn’t know the language well, precision is important — sloppy talk would be unthinkable. Like Brando’s Vito, De Niro’s has a reserve that can never be breached. Vito is so secure in the knowledge of how dangerous he is that his courtliness is no more or less than noblesse oblige.
The physical contrasts between De Niro’s characterization and Pacino’s give an almost tactile dimension to the theme. Driving through the streets of Batista’s Havana, which he’s buying into — buying a piece of the government — Michael sees the children begging, and he knows what he is: he’s a predator on human weakness. And that’s exactly what he looks like. He wears silvery-gray nubby-silk suits over a soft, amorphous body; he’s hidden under the price tag. The burden of power sits on him like a sickness; his expression is sullen and withdrawn. He didn’t have to be what he is: he knew there were other possibilities, and he chose to become a killer out of family loyalty. Here in Part II he is a disconsolate man, whose only attachment is to his children; he can never go back to the time before that moment in the restaurant when he shot his father’s enemies. In the first film, we saw Don Vito weep when he learned that it was Michael who had done the killing; Michael’s act, which preserved the family’s power, destroyed his own life. Don Vito had recoiled from the sordid drug traffic, but since crime is the most competitive business of all (the quality of what you’re peddling not being a conspicuous factor), Michael, the modernist, recoils from nothing; the empire that he runs from Nevada has few links with his young father’s Robin Hood days. It’s only inside himself that Michael recoils. His tense, flaccid face hovers over the movie; he’s the man in power, trying to control the lives around him and feeling empty and betrayed. He’s like a depressed Brando.
There are times when Pacino’s moodiness isn’t particularly eloquent, and when Michael asks his mother (Morgana King) how his father felt deep down in his heart the question doesn’t have enough urgency. However, Pacino does something very difficult: he gives an almost immobile performance. Michael’s attempt to be the man his father was has aged him, and he can’t conceal the ugliness of the calculations that his father’s ceremonial manner masked. His father had a domestic life that was a sanctuary, but Michael has no sanctuary. He cannot maintain the traditional division of home and business, and so the light and dark contrasts are not as sharp as in the first picture. His wife knows he lied to her, just as he lies to a Senate investigating committee, and the darkness of his business dealings has invaded his home. Part II has the same mythic and operatic visual scheme as the first; once again the cinematographer is Gordon Willis. Visually the film is, however, far more complexly beautiful than the first, just as it’s thematically richer, more shadowed, more full. Willis’s workmanship has developed, like Coppola’s; even the sequences in the sunlight have deep tones — elegiac yet lyrical, as in The Conformist, and always serving the narrative, as the Nino Rota score also does.
Talia Shire had a very sure touch in her wedding scenes in the first film; her Connie was like a Pier Angeli with a less fragile, bolder nature — a spoiled princess. Now, tight with anger, dependent on her brother Michael, who killed her husband, Connie behaves self-destructively. She once had a dream wedding; now she hooks up with gigolo playboys. (Troy Donahue is her newest husband.) Talia Shire has such beauty and strength that she commands attention. It’s possible that she didn’t impose herself more strongly in the first film because Coppola, through a kind of reverse nepotism (Miss Shire is his sister), deemphasized her role and didn’t give her many closeups, but this time — pinched, strident, whory — she comes through as a stunningly controlled actress. Kay (Diane Keaton), Michael’s New England-born wife, balks at becoming the acquiescent woman he requires, so he shows her what his protection means. It’s dependent on absolute fealty. Any challenge or betrayal and you’re dead — for men, that is. Women are so subservient they’re not considered dangerous enough to kill — that’s about the extent of Mafioso chivalry. The male-female relationships are worked out with a Jacobean splendor that goes far beyond one’s expectations.
There must be more brilliant strokes of casting here (including the use of a batch of Hollywood notables — Phil Feldman, Roger Corman, and William Bowers — as United States senators), and more first-rate acting in small parts, than in any other American movie. An important new character, Hyman Roth, a Meyer Lansky-like businessman-gangster, as full of cant and fake wisdom as a fund-raising rabbi, is played with smooth conviction by the near-legendary Lee Strasberg. Even his breath control is impeccable: when Roth talks too much and gets more excited than he should, his talk ends with a sound of exertion from his chest. As another new major character, Frankie Pentangeli, an old-timer in the rackets who wants things to be as they were when Don Vito was in his heyday, Michael V. Gazzo (the playwright-actor) gives an intensely likable performance that adds flavor to the picture. His Pentangeli has the capacity for enjoying life, unlike Michael and the anonymous-looking high-echelon hoods who surround him. As the bland, despicably loyal Tom Hagen, more square-faced and sturdy now, Robert Duvall, a powerful recessive actor, is practically a genius at keeping himself in the background; and Richard Bright as Al Neri, one of Michael’s henchmen, runs him a dose second.
Coppola’s approach is openhanded: he doesn’t force the situations. He puts the material up there, and we read the screen for ourselves. But in a few places, such as in the double-crossing maneuvers of Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth, his partner in the Cuban venture, it hasn’t been made readable enough. There’s a slight confusion for the audience in the sequences dealing with Roth’s bogus attempt on the life of Pentangeli, and the staging is a little flatfooted in the scenes in which the Corleone assassin first eliminates Roth’s bodyguard and then goes to kill Roth. Also, it’s a disadvantage that the frame-up of Senator Geary (which is very poorly staged, with more gory views of a murdered girl than are necessary) comes so long after the provocation for it. Everywhere else, the contrapuntal cutting is beautifully right, but the pieces of the Senator Geary story seem too slackly spaced apart. (The casting of G. D. Spradlin in the role is a juicy bit of satire; he looks and acts like a synthesis of several of our worst senators.) These small flaws are not failures of intelligence; they’re faults in the storytelling, and there are a few abrupt transitions, indicating unplanned last-minute cuts. There may be too many scenes of plotting heads, and at times one wishes the sequences to be more fully developed. One never wants less of the characters; one always wants more — particularly of Vito in the 1917 period, which is recreated in a way that makes movies once again seem a miraculous medium.
This film wouldn’t have been made if the first hadn’t been a hit — and the first was made because the Paramount executives expected it to be an ordinary gangster shoot-’em-up. When you see this new picture, you wonder how Coppola won the fights. Maybe the answer is that they knew they couldn’t make it without him. After you see it, you feel they can’t make any picture without him. He directs with supreme confidence. Coppola is the inheritor of the traditions of the novel, the theater, and — especially — opera and movies. The sensibility at work in this film is that of a major artist. We’re not used to it: how many screen artists get the chance to work in the epic form, and who has been able to seize the power to compose a modern American epic? And who else, when he got the chance and the power, would have proceeded with the absolute conviction that he’d make the film the way it should be made? In movies, that’s the inner voice of the authentic hero.
The New Yorker, December 23, 1974