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What’s Better? The Godfather vs. The Godfather: Part II

on December 20, 2014, 12:00am

Happy anniversary, Don Corleone. On the 20th of December, 1974, your second story, The Godfather: Part II, came into this world, and it quickly became the first response whenever someone asks, “What sequels are better or as good as their predecessors?” It is the 40th year since the release of Godfather: Part II, and it has grown to be a strong film, a masculine film, a brilliant and influential film, not just about lives of crime, but the American dream.

Godfather II’s legacy is secured as the very model of cinematic sequels, expanding and even deepening an already superb effort. Yet CoS film staffers wanted to ask a very difficult, possibly even cruel question: Which film is better?

No, we’re not drumming up some sort of mob-land turf war here. But we’re thinking about picking sides. Join us for what we plan to be a peaceful accord — until one of our writers pulls a gun from behind a toilet in anger over an opinion. In the end, we’ll try not to break your hearts, dear readers.

-Blake Goble
Staff Writer

gfather1 vs gfather2

Blake Goble (BG): Listen, I can pick a favorite between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II . I really can. But it’s bound to bring up a slow-gestating resentment in the style of Fredo Corleone. I’m not trying to make either one of Coppola’s crime epics feel stepped over. It’s not the way Coppola woulda wanted it! Remember when he tried to combine the films as the chronological Saga for TV, with extra scenes and toned-down violence? Yeah, that didn’t work, even if it helped fund Apocalypse Now. Each Mario Puzo adaptation exists in its own right and has to. Coppola’s ’74 and ’72 films are separate but damn near equal works. They’re luxurious dramas about the Corleones’ rise in the world of organized crime, lasting templates for mob movies about family and identity. Each film enhances the other. It’s silly to play favorites.

Ugh. No matter what we say, someone’s gonna feel hurt. Not like “Sonny Corleone shot at the Long Beach Causeway” hurt, but you get it. Again, I like one film a little more.

I think The Godfather: Part II was the stronger film. Its narrative rubber-banding from Michael Corleone’s rise to power in the 1950s to Vito Corleone’s arrival in America in 1901 makes for fascinating insights. Coppola was directing a lot of material with full power, digging into familiar pathos using even stronger methods than the first. Everything, from Gordon Willis’ more diverse photography to Nino Rota’s grander score, felt more accomplished. Leah, am I looking to get whacked here?

Leah Pickett (LP): Blake, I love you, but don’t ever take sides against the family again.

Kidding! But these are two of my favorite films of all time, so choosing one above the other feels a lot like picking a favorite child. When it comes down to it, though, The Godfather holds a special place in my film nerd heart, not to mention cinematic history, that The Godfather: Part II can only claim in shadow.

Of course, that’s not to say that Part II isn’t a stunning achievement in its own right. Coppola is more ambitious and clearly more confident in his direction than he was on the first film, when he was working each day in fear of being fired, and Willis’ reliably gorgeous cinematography benefits from having more ground to cover, from Michael’s story in Lake Tahoe, Havana, and Washington, D.C., to Vito’s in New York and Sicily. The scope is bigger, and the narrative more complex. And, in a performance that should have handily won Best Supporting Actor over De Niro, who in my opinion speaks decent Sicilian but is otherwise unremarkable as young Vito, John Cazale is magnificent as Fredo, taking what was a little more than a bit part in the first film and making him Part II‘s wrenching centerpiece. The two best scenes in the film — “You broke my heart” and “You’re not a brother, you’re not a friend” — represent the pinnacle of what great acting and directing should be: Pacino and Cazale as the masters of their craft and Coppola as their maestro.

BG: I’ll admit, Fredo screaming, with his pathetic voice cracking, slouched in that chair, that he’s not dumb like everybody says and how he’s been forced to run “Mickey Mouse nightclubs,” well, it brings me great pain every time I see it. It was his finest moment in a very abbreviated career.

But that De Niro claim … I’ll come back to that in a minute. Go on.

LP: Controversial opinion, I know. But, as difficult as it is to choose, my favorite scene in Part II might just be the final one, in which Michael flashes back to the life he had before he joined the family business, back in the good old days of Sonny, Connie, Carlo, Tessio, Tom, and Fredo in their New York home, preparing a surprise birthday party for Vito. So, I guess it’s no surprise that the first Godfather is my favorite film, not just because I miss the presence of iconic characters like Caan’s Sonny and Brando’s Vito, but because I also found Michael’s transformation, and the family’s transformation from beginning to end, to have consequences that reached much further and made much more of an impact than those in Part II. I’d even argue that Part I is more tragic.

Hear me out.

Michael has more of an arc in Godfather. We see him go from a sweet, soft-spoken war hero who tells his WASP girlfriend, with sincerity and obvious disdain for what his father and brothers do when he’s not around, “That’s my family, Kay, not me,” to not only becoming one of them, but ascending to the top of the ranks, taking Vito’s place as Godfather. Sure, it’s devastating when Michael has his own brother killed at the end of Part II, but honestly, it wasn’t that surprising. After watching him order hits on the Five Families, Tessio, and Carlo in Part I, and then lie to his sister about killing her husband like a cold, heartless bastard, I knew he was capable of worse. He begins Part II ruthless and calculating, and he ends the film the same way, albeit more haunted by Fredo than others he’s offed. But to see Michael fall so far from grace in Part I, and to compare where he started out to where he ended up, delivers not only a more compelling performance from Pacino, but a more compelling storyline for our main character as well.

I also liked that Tom Hagen had more to do in the first film, but that might just be my bias for Bobby Duvall talking.

BG: Oh, Robert Duvall’s always been a boring old biddy. Except in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; he was apeshit awesome in that, what with the napalm and the smelling and so forth. Heheh, Kilgore…

But to your reasons for getting into the first film more, I can hardly argue with you. Michael’s arc is an epically tragic through-line, and the sheer memorability of it all is what makes Part I so lasting. Did you know that Al Jean, The Simpsons‘ eternal showrunner, has claimed that both Citizen Kane and The Godfather could be Simpsonized and re-created using Simpsons clips because the show has referenced them so many times? Between the offers we can’t refuse and the taking of cannoli, well, have you tried sticking an orange in your mouth to scare a small child, too? I mean … I’d never do that, no … But yes, Godfather probably gets the prize in terms of pop memorability.

However, it’s because of the first movie’s notoriety and obvious popularity that I probably like Godfather II just a little more. No, this isn’t hip defensiveness. Again, showing preference is unfair because both films give so much. What I truly love about Part II is that it goes deeper, it’s more elaborate, and it’s a more sly and more nuanced and more challenging film than its predecessor. Think about it. It’s a prequel and a sequel at the same time. Micheal’s story is still heartbreaking and compelling. Watching him testify to the Senate is ballsy, and watching Michael face off with Hyman Roth is graceful, intense gangster stuff. Hell, the last moments of Michael alone drive this series as the fatalistic reminders of what crime does to people and families. And while Michael had the richer story in the first part, seeing Vito Corleone’s origins and uprising is possibly more fascinating. Even without Brando! Vito Corleone is in the canon as a Mafioso masterpiece, yet Brando is caricatured more than considered these days. That’s what I love about Part II. In my opinion, it’s the best stuff of the trilogy, addressing Americana and its heritages, the birth of crime, and how one would be able to ascend to such power.

We see the story of Vito Andolini’s escape from Corleone, Sicily, in 1901, his arrival to Ellis Island, and how he took that famous name, Corleone. Plus, 1917 rolls around, and Vito is fixated on Don Fanucci, a member of The Black Hand, the mafia’s racket for extortion. He sees and capitalizes on opportunities that made him The Godfather we know. It’s the rare case of a backstory providing actual interest to the whole saga. It shows how crime was born and its romantic, gold-hued beginnings tainted with bloodshed.

I would say that between Fredo’s meltdown and Vito’s patient and beautifully choreographed assassination of Fannucci, The Godfather: Part II has the more dynamic, dramatic, and altogether cinematic stuff.

Also, did you just call De Niro unremarkable as young Vito Corleone? He was remarkable, pensive; through his often-expressionless face, you see a man with the careful desire for power, the lust within. Now, that I cannot stand by. Leah, my father’s name is Roger Goble, and this is for you.

Wait, no, all I have are butter knives around here. Scratch that last plan. Sorry! How about we just agree that Godfather: Part III kind of blows?

LP: I thought that Duvall’s Hollywood sojourn leading up to the horse-head-in-the-bed scene (“Mr. Corleone never asks a second favor once he’s refused a first, understood?”) and his voice-cracking delivery of “They shot Sonny on the causeway. He’s dead,” were brilliant. But hey, I get it. His work has been, erm, questionable post-’90s, but the same could be said of Pacino.

And yes, The Godfather: Part III blows, hard, but we will get to that.

I’m actually a huge De Niro fan. I love him in Taxi Driver, GoodfellasRaging BullHeatCasino, heck, even Meet the Parents. But in the case of young Vito, I am of the admittedly rare opinion that the character he is playing is much more interesting than the performance itself. I agree with you that Vito’s character arc in Part II is a fascinating one, certainly more than Brando’s in Part I. But in comparison to the knockout dynamism of his other roles, De Niro is just good here, not great. And perhaps another reason that I feel this way is because I keep thinking back to his screen test for the first Godfather film and how electrifying that was. Have you seen it? Turns out De Niro originally auditioned for Sonny. And, judging by about 30 seconds of his “Hey, whaddya gonna do, nice college boy, eh? Don’t wanna get caught up in the family business?” spiel, I believe he could have commanded that role even better than Caan did. And that’s saying a lot too, because I adore Caan’s “bada-BING!” portrayal, and I may have cried a little bit when the tollbooth guy shut his window on the causeway and I knew it was curtains for Santino.

Sure, Vito is supposed to be downplayed; he’s not explosive like Sonny. And, to his credit, De Niro deserves praise for being able to do so much with such little expression. But that golden statuette should have been Cazale’s. And when it comes down to which Vito left the most lasting and, in the literal sense of the word, remarkable impression, it’s Brando all the way.

We all like to rip on Brando’s performance now, as his larger-than-life persona has become even more inflated with the more stories that leak of his bizarre and quite frankly diva-ish behavior on sets. But Coppola took a huge gamble casting this guy, as Hollywood had essentially blacklisted him by 1970, and almost got fired because of it (ditto for a then-unknown Pacino, the studio wanted Robert Redford). And despite the fact that Brando was reading off cue cards and improvising much of his dialogue, because, according to Coppola, he basically just gave up on memorizing lines and responding to direction, it’s no accident that his role became iconic. Brando owns this part completely. In fact, he came up with the idea to slick his hair back with shoe polish and stuff his cheeks with cotton balls on the spot, during his screen test, bringing his character to legendary life right before Coppola’s eyes.

Actors talk a lot about making choices, and I gotta say that Brando made all of the right ones here, strange and potentially disastrous as they were. His Vito is a bundle of contradictions — menacing and gentle, enigmatic and empathetic, a family man and a murderer — and miraculously, it works.

Now, on to something that doesn’t work: The Godfather Part III. I like to pretend that it doesn’t exist, because I love the first two so much and hold them in such high regard. In fact, I’m perfectly fine with you liking Part II a bit more, while I stand up for Part I, because then both can be defended and upheld as the masterpieces that they truly are. I want to be fair to both of them. But Part III? Honestly, there is little good to defend about it. Okay, maybe Andy Garcia, whom I also have a not-so-secret crush on. Not that I haven’t watched When a Man Loves a Woman multiple times alone with an ironic bottle of pinot noir or anything…

BG: I watched the “Just when I thought I was out” clip earlier, because I’m not re-watching Part III in its entirety any time soon, but it’s so overblown and rapturous in all the wrong ways. For one thing, all I could see was Silvio on The Sopranos doing that scene like the dork he was. Also, it ends with Michael, older Michael, having something resembling a heart attack or a spasm, out of nowhere, in what looks likes desperate melodrama, not the graceful stuff of past chapters. If there’s a silver lining, it’s Sofia Coppola finding directing, doing it damn well, and nearly obliterating collective memories of her performance.

Back on point: Our initial question was which Godfather film is better? You argued for the first, and I the second, yet in the end, it’s an unfair question. There’s no definitive answer; we’re just debating preferences. I think you and I can agree that Coppola’s first two Godfathers are still authoritative works. One can make fun of latter-day Brando with ease (earlier this afternoon I was telling someone about how he showed up, all overweight by surprise, to the set of Apocalypse Now), but I cannot deny his power as Don Corleone. You’re absolutely right to praise his choices. And Cazale is taking on this late appreciation that’s wonderful. And Caan was so brash, and, and … I’m getting into hyperbole now. I’m just amazed that we’re still reflecting on these 40 years later.

LP: Agreed. It warms my heart that after nearly a half-century,The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are still just as striking, moving, and impactful as they’ve always been. Coppola was on an epic roll throughout the ’70s (The Conversation, Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now), as were Pacino (Godfather I and II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) and Cazale, who had a perfect run of films in his relatively short career before dying much too soon at age 42, after completing his work on The Deer Hunter.

Looking back, I wonder if they had any inkling, as the ’70s dawned and the second Golden Age of Cinema began, that they were about to make film history. Ultimately, though, they did more than that. They changed history, reaching new heights of violence and beauty and artfully crafted tragedy that would inspire many more generations of filmmakers and audiences to come. Because, in the immortal words of Michael Corleone,”If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”

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