Saturday, December 20, 2014

Completing 'The Godfather' Saga

"There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer."

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)

"The Godfather Part II," which premiered on this day in 1974, was that rarest of all movies — a sequel that surpassed the original.

I thought the original movie was great, and there were even some things I liked about Part III, but Part II was a complete story, even though it actually told a couple of stories at once.

When you have seen it, though, you understand why it had to be that way. I assume that nearly everyone who saw it had seen the original movie, and those viewers needed to know how Don Corleone had come to America. They also needed to know what happened after the conclusion of the original "Godfather."

What happened in "Godfather Part III" was not so important for viewers to see. That, I believe, is what was really the problem with that movie. The Corleone family saga was complete with the sequel that premiered 40 years ago today.

Since the advent of home video, I have believed it is best to watch the movies back to back. Only then can you truly see the evolution of Michael Corleone from the family golden boy, the college man and ex–Marine, to the cold, callous successor to Don Corleone's criminal empire. Only Michael lacked the common touch his father possessed, to quote film critic Roger Ebert. "And because he has misplaced his humanity," Ebert wrote, "he must suffer."

I have heard some people say that this was Robert De Niro's first movie. I even thought that myself for awhile. It wasn't, but it might as well have been. De Niro, who is certainly considered one of the finest actors of his generation, did not get off to an auspicious start. He appeared in a few noteworthy movies, but it was his role as young Vito Corleone that captured the attention of the movie–going public.

The more I have watched "The Godfather Part II," the more convinced I have become that Nino Rota's music deserves much of the credit for how it has been perceived. Anguished, rousing memories of the past and awakening strong emotions, the score stirs viewers to feel things that they normally would not feel when watching a crime drama. Viewers typically do not regret the end of a brutal empire that systematically seized its power through murder and bribery and all the things that usually go into the construction of a crime family.

But De Niro's contribution should not be underestimated — and Rota's music, manipulating the viewers in ways few scores have accomplished, played an important role in that. Rota's Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score was richly deserved. (I will never understand why he wasn't even nominated for his work in "The Godfather.")

The success of "The Godfather Part II" was also due in part to the fact that so many of the original cast members returned. Not only Pacino but Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Diane Keaton as Pacino's increasingly alienated wife and so many others.

Nevertheless, the first two "Godfather" movies wouldn't have been what they were without director Francis Ford Coppola. It was Coppola's vision that united the stories, an impressive cinematic achievement.