(This is the last of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
At last, the most anticlimactic pick of them all.
Anyone who knows me understands that my #1 choice was inevitable, as was my decision to treat two films as one. I don’t care if it’s cheating. Either film on its own would be a contender for my #1 slot. Together, they constitute epic greatness.
Part I (it’s not really called that, of course, but it’s easier for the purposes of this discussion) is a masterpiece of storytelling. It is hugely entertaining, but it is also intelligent, or perhaps better said, it does not insult the intelligence of its audience. The Godfather is filled with memorable set pieces and quotable dialogue that has long since entered the general vernacular. The casting and performances are so perfect it isn’t always clear where one starts and the other begins. In fact, at this point, the casting seems inevitable: of course Abe Vigoda is Tessio and John Cazale is Fredo and Richard Conte is Barzini. But at the time, it wasn’t so inevitable, with the obvious example being Marlon Brando, who was no one’s idea of Vito Corleone until we saw him in the movie.
Brando’s charisma is so great that Vito’s presence is felt throughout the film, even though he disappears after 45 minutes and doesn’t return until late. This allows for the gradual emergence of the character of Michael Corleone, the true center of the two films. Folks who have seen the direction of Al Pacino’s career might be surprised to revisit the first two Godfather movies, where Pacino keeps the vehement histrionics to a minimum. His performance over Part I and II is one of the greats of cinema history. At the start, he’s quiet and reserved; at the end, he is quiet and reserved. But the difference between Michael the returning war hero and Michael the Godfather is clear, and Pacino manages to show us this in his face.
The Godfather is superior entertainment; Part II takes things to another level. Without the sequel, The Godfather would not reach beyond its own basic excellence (which is no small thing in itself). The sequel gives the original a depth it doesn’t necessarily have on its own. If the first film begins with the lines, “I believe in America,” Part II shows us why Vito dismisses such sentiments by giving us the roots of the character. And the fate of Michael shows us beyond a shadow of a doubt just how corrosive the Corleone’s Sicilian heritage can be.
Part I is the story of a family, and it is understandable that some viewers saw in Vito the kind of benevolent lover of family that we wish was part of our own family. Part II gives the lie to such beliefs. It is unlikely that anyone, watching both movies, would wish they could be a Corleone.
The narrative structure of the two films, wherein we get the middle of the story first, after which we get the beginning and end intermixed, is also brilliant. The more straightforward first film allows for the kind of immediate response that leads to a popular classic, while Part II expands our understanding from both ends. And Coppola seamlessly blends the two periods, which is harder than it looks. Throughout, Coppola and his crew manage to create three completely believable periods in the 20th century, and also recreate several locations (New York, Sicily, Nevada, Havana) with seeming ease.
The character trajectory of Michael is the core of the films. Vito knows what he has done in his life, but he has done it for what he thinks are the right reasons: “I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family.” Michael knows what he has done with his life, but he also knows he could have chosen another path, and he knows that in the name of family, he has destroyed his family. He knows he is a bad person, but still he continues.
When Michael commits his first murder, he takes the step from being the Corleone who would do something different to being the Corleone who would eventually become the Godfather. He hesitates just before leaving the bathroom, and in that hesitation, he takes one last moment to consider what he is about to do, while we in the audience, wanting him to succeed, become implicated.
The comments section was filled with “so, now what?” posts. It may be time to come up with an answer to that question.