The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Second Coming: Cinema’s Greatest Sequels. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Mixing two storylines in different eras together is daring. That is even without considering the monumental success of The Godfather as a film. It sits proudly on many a critical list and even more of people’s list, but there still rages debate on which is better: the first or the second. The first excels as a straightforward film with incredible performances, directions and especially cinematography. The opening shot of the first film as it slowly zooms out of a pleading man’s face is outstanding, one of the most interesting film openings in history and, sadly, if made now, would be cut to deaths. The Godfather: Part II succeeds by not trying to replicate the success of the first. It, instead, tries to completely outdo its predecessor with an ambitious two-hander between the 1920s and 1958 - a prequel-sequel.
The Godfather: Part II succeeds by not trying to replicate the success of the first. It, instead, tries to completely outdo its predecessor with an ambitious two-hander between the 1920s and 1958 - a prequel-sequel.
It is hard to pinpoint where the success comes from in the first, because it is one of those rare instances where everything works together. Director working with the material, the actor living the characters, and that cinematography from the legendary minimalist Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. Paramount were keen to replicate that by bringing back Francis Ford Coppola. Oddly enough, considering the success of the first - artistically and commercially - he was not that interested in returning to the Italian-American world. Then they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. For $1m (a considerable sum for a director, especially in the ’70s), 13% of the profits (the first made over $100m) and complete artistic control. What director could resist that?
Teaming together again with Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo brought his book to life. With full artistic control and feeling completely invincible, Coppola decided to do Vito Corleone’s backstory but without leaving that final shot hanging, showing Michael’s full descent into the mob boss role, legitimatising himself as a corrupt business. What is even more daring is that it gathered together two of the best actors working at the time. Now it’s the stuff of dreams: Al Pacino with Robert De Niro (ignoring Righteous Kill, of course). But they do not even share any screentime. After Mean Streets, people were making claims that De Niro could be a young Brando so he went off to play young Brando. This segment is similar to the first, showing the rise of Michael to a Don, but the rise for Vito was purposeful and earned; Michael’s rise was out of necessity and obligation, far away from his early ambitions.
The Godfather: Part II even borrows from the thriller genre, wrapping a series of clues as Michael progresses which leads to that heartbreaking final scene.
The Godfather: Part II even borrows from the thriller genre, wrapping a series of clues as Michael progresses which leads to that heartbreaking final scene. Tension is gained more than the average thriller through the careful build-up of sequences, like the one that breaks the film into its second part if you’re watching the early DVD release. Coppola’s dedicated universe expansion is so epic and operatic that it could not be contained to a single disc. Though its running time may feel excessive to some, it is revelling in the drama of the characters that audiences fell in love with back in 1972. Trusting the audience to love the characters, their complications and allowing them deep exploration of their inner machinations. It damns the criminal world without going into overdrive of creating caricature criminals or showing them meeting their ‘deserved’ demise.
It has had the loving label of ‘the greatest sequel ever’ for years. In a decade where sequels are released weekly, that title becomes more and more prestigious as time goes by. And as time goes by, these two films do not age. They are timeless classics that co-exist yet could exist separately from each other. It is difficult not to mention one without the other, whether complimenting both or debating which is better. The truth is they are both classics, they are both incredible pieces of cinema that came from a fantastic time in Hollywood cinema where directors had more control over their products. Careful thought has gone into constructing a sequel that echoes the first film with many reoccurring motifs and themes. Power is corrupting. Vito’s rise to power is through corruption. Michael’s rise into the legitimate brings more illegality than before. The Godfather: Part II is a magnificent follow up to an outstanding film, that is somehow standalone yet connected, expanding and borrowing from the first’s artistic brilliance while carving its own legacy.
The Godfather: Part II is a magnificent follow up to an outstanding film, that is somehow standalone yet connected, expanding and borrowing from the first's artistic brilliance while carving its own legacy.