The Godfather @ 40. Imagine.
A few years ago when they came out with “The Coppola Restoration” of the film trilogy on Bluray, many people took the chance to re-watch at least the first two installments and fall in love again.
Now the national news media is telling us that the four decades passage means we have to do it again. Normally I just hate the media telling me to do anything — and usually struggle to do the opposite — but this one is an exception.
Seeing either The Godfather and/or The Godfather, Part II again, any time, is always welcome.
By now it’s all become a part of our collective cultural memory — the horse’s head showing up in the bed, the making of an offer that can’t be refused, and that haunting score by Nino Rota. What some don’t remember, after all the plotting, double-dealing and bloodshed, is that The Godfather, released four decades ago back in 1972, was one of the great family dramas ever filmed. And not just crime family either. The dynamics of the Corleone clan would be worthy of study in advanced courses in psychology, not to mention undertaking.
What is most astonishing about The Godfather, which won Oscars for best picture, lead actor (Marlon Brando) and screenplay adaptation (Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola), is that two years later The Godfather, Part II topped it with another slew of Academy Awards, including best picture. Coppola, who won that year for director and earned another statue with Puzo for adaptation, delved even deeper into the family story, setting up a multi-generational saga as deep and satisfying as anything in modern literature.
All of this pretty much qualifies the second film as the unquestioned best sequel of all time. And, of course, it triggers a Smackdown to find out which of these two extraordinary films is the best.
A Smackdown this big deserves an added bonus: Three of our critics weigh in at the end with their individual essays. Kevin Wohler, Sherry Coben, and Mark Sanchez, all come at the material with their unique POVs, each providing something different. Check them all out, and then let us know which film shines brightest by voting in our poll.
If you think about it now, the Godfather films are the modern world’s version of those Shakespeare plays about kings and princes. This is the film where Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the aging Don of a powerful Mafia family hands off the power, reluctantly, to his youngest son Michael, delivering one of the saddest lines in cinema, “Michael, I never wanted this for you.” Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone is one of the greatest acting performances on screen ever and his transformation from shy son to ruthless criminal makes you forgive any of the actor’s excesses over the years.
The film opens on a wedding where Michael has returned from World War II just in time to see his sister Connie get married. All of the men in Michael’s family are involved with the Mafia and it’s assumed the older brothers will handle the criminal duties while Michael lives a legit and decent life — or at least as legit and decent as a future senator can be. It’s truly the story of the family but the engine that drives the action is about a drug dealer Virgil Sollozzo who wants Don Corleone to go into the drug trade with him. Corleone refuses, gets shot by hit men, barely survives. This opens the door for his son to begin a violent mob war against Sollozzo that changes him and his family forever.
It’s the story of the old ways surrendering, violently, to the new. You probably know all this. Beautifully photographed, scored, directed, written. Most critics have it on their Top Ten lists and more than a few place it as #1.
The Godfather, Part II
The sequel, The Godfather, Part II builds on what came before by giving us both the prequel to the first film and continuing the story of what happens after Michael takes over. It’s really two films in one. The first lets Robert DeNiro strut his acting stuff as the young Vito Corleone in 1920s New York. The second is all about the rise of the son to power and how he expands and tightens his grip on his crime syndicate stretching from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to pre-Revolution 1958 Cuba.
It has scope and intensity and even though it reaches back into the past to deepen its central premise and character, it truly does take place in a more modern world. In this telling, the struggle is to surrender criminality to capitalism and it’s not a smooth transition. Gangster tactics manipulate normal business procedures and the scale goes global. Still, and this is key to the success of both films, the family drama still rules. By the time it’s over, Michael Corleone commits an act so hideous that it actually manages to quietly trump the mass murder ending of the first in its emotional context. Most of you know what I’m talking about but for those who don’t, well, watch and enjoy.
You’ve probably seen both of these films and maybe many times. They are both great — full of great actors, directed well and classics for the ages. We’ve asked our critics to comment about how they feel about the two.
I’ll admit it. I was a latecomer to the Godfather series. But in my youth, we didn’t have DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix On Demand. So, I hope my sin can be forgiven.
When The Godfather was restored and re-released to theaters for its 25th anniversary, in 1997, my friends – who liked to think of themselves as film hipsters – invited me to see it. I didn’t know anything about the film, other than it was supposed to be a classic. But it was the type of movie my parents had loved, so it was… suspect.
I went anyway. And I fell in love.
The Godfather was everything people had said, and more. Coppola created a world that gave me chills. The power of each performance – Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton – hammered me. The story, though filled with twists and turns, was also wonderfully simple – just like real life.
Instantly drawn in to their world, I found myself agonizing over each betrayal in the film, devastated with every act against the family. By the time the film ended, I felt wrung out – as if the gods of cinema had pulled back the curtain and given me a small glimpse at true perfection.
I didn’t run right out and rent The Godfather, Part II. I lived with The Godfather for a little while. I read the novel by Mario Puzo. I talked about the film and allowed it to slowly turn in my mind. When I was finally ready, I sought out Part II.
Artfully speaking, The Godfather, Part II is every bit as perfect as the original. Its direction, cinematography, score, and art direction are wonderful. The acting – with the addition of Robert DeNiro as a young Vito Corleone – is just as powerful.
If anything, the sequel is more complex than the original. And that’s why I don’t like it as much. Part II not only takes on the back story of young Vito, it also looks forward as Michael tries to remove the family business from the less savory aspects of organized crime. And there’s Cuba. And the congressional hearing. It’s a lot to take in. And it might take repeated viewings to catch it all. (I’ve seen it several times, and I still catch something new ever time I watch it.)
The power of The Godfather is in its simplicity. It’s a story of love, respect, honor, power, and betrayal. But in its essence, it’s simple. It’s about family. And for me, it connects on that level. That’s why The Godfather wins this Smackdown and is one of my favorite films of all time. (KEVIN WOHLER)
Like so many others, I worship at the cinema altar of the Godfather films. The occasion of their re-release thrilled me like news of a new Beatles album used to do. Am I dating myself? Fine. I saw the first Godfather film in my freshman year at Cornell, and it ushered in a proud new era of American film. Previously, we film buffs turned to Europe for masterpieces of cinema; the ’70s auteur period made me proud to be an American. Oh sure, we had made good movies in the good ole U.S. of A, but in the ’70s, American artists made great films.
To this day, I can’t flip by a channel on TV airing any of the Godfathers without stopping to watch till the end. By my own cautious estimation, I’ve watched them all hundreds of times. I can leave the room and come back in, my internal clock pre-set and humming, knowing exactly what image will be on the screen as I re-enter. I recite lines of dialogue in my everyday life; even my family memories are mixed with flickering images of the fictional Corleones — their post-war dinner table re-cast with the faces of my grandparents and uncles and aunts, their vividly depicted immigration story mingled with the saga of my Russian Jewish ancestors. This obsession runs deep.
Which is part of the reason why I’m reluctant to play favorites. Which movie is better? Well, obviously, The Godfather, Part II had the bigger budget and the broader scope. And the original tells a more linear story, bridging that wide chasm from movie to film with brilliance, improvisation and wit. I love them both. I wouldn’t change a frame in either.
If I have to choose (and I do), I’ll take The Godfather, Part II. For Fredo, for Frankie Five Angels, for Johnny Ola, for young Vito, for the unmatched rooftop sequence and the killing of Don Fanucci, for Lee Strasberg’s touching portrayal of Hyman Roth, for the impeccable casting of the young Clemenza and Tessio, for the locations, for the sheer uncompromised intelligence and the challenging structure and storytelling.
While every film buff should make a concerted effort to see them all on a big screen in all their glory, I most heartily recommend you rent the DVDs and watch them with Coppola’s commentary. It’s absolutely breathtaking, like sitting with him in a room as he remembers and shares the experience. As a total wonk on the trilogy. I learned so much more than I thought I ever could… about the films, about family, about work, about life. The three films and the commentary comprise a work of true genius, great character and formidable intelligence, and the experience of watching left me with an even greater appreciation of the films and the man who made them.
Thank you, Mr. Coppola, for making me feel like part of the family. (SHERRY COBEN)
Much tougher than “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” In both films Francis Ford Coppola is working at the top of his form, creating two entries on my Best 25 list. How similar in achievement and narrative sweep: Both snared 11 Academy Award nominations; both deservedly won Best Picture. These films embody the notion of “Hollywood studio movie” at its highest expression.
So where are the differences that create a margin between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II? They feature perhaps the most memorable film performances of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Both capture the tone and
rhythm of the times. They feel right, sound right. Three decades of commentary describe the films as peculiar stories about honor, duty, even as a metaphor for corporate America. They satisfy, no matter where you land on the continuum. These are gangster movies rightly honored for complicated storylines so well resolved that both tower as stand-alone films. You don’t need one to appreciate the other.
Here’s the key for me: The Godfather developed one large story masterfully; The Godfather, Part II handled parallel storylines equally well. One of them fleshed out the creation of the Corleone crime family and the other shows us what happens after Michael becomes the Don. The Godfather, Part II paints a disturbing picture of the corrupted human heart.
These are works of fiction, but they ask, “How real do you want to get?” That makes it hard choosing between the two. They get under your skin. Audiences will always delight in Don Vito Corleone telling Johnny Fontaine the studio boss will put him in the movie because, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” They know what will happen –- if not quite when — after Michael tells his brother, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
It would break my heart not to have The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. For this Smackdown, it’s The Godfather, Part II, but what a choice! (MARK SANCHEZ)
You’ve heard from some of our critics, now it’s your turn. Vote for your favorite Godfather film in our poll. It’s an offer you can’t refuse.