As the follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s 1972 classic The Godfather, often considered one of the best films ever made, 1974’s The Godfather: Part II had perhaps the highest hurdle to cross that any sequel could be faced with. When you consider that the film had no source material outlining its plot and lacked the iconic titular Godfather, as performed by Marlon Brando, at its centre, it makes the incredible achievement of the film’s success all the more impressive.
The Godfather: Part II is widely posited as the best film sequel ever made, not just because it builds upon and expands the ideas and themes of the original, but because it excels as its own individual piece of art. The film has a core thematic arc that takes the audience exactly where it needs to go to fully unravel characters and ideas, without relying on its predecessor for understanding, or on its successor for closure. Michael Corleone’s story might have begun before this film, and might continue after it, but as far as its narrative is concerned, we know all that we need to know about him within its bookends.
Of course though, that’s not exactly how this film was intended. From the production of the 1972 original, it’s clear that Puzo had a direction in mind for the sequel as more of a completion of the ‘saga’ than its own film (evidenced by the 1977 seven-hour compilation of the two films with extended footage simply entitled ‘The Godfather Saga’). Whilst Coppola’s involvement as director and co-writer was not confirmed until after the original’s release, there was never any question between the two men that this was a two-part story. Perhaps this is part of why 1990’s fifteen-years late Part III has been treated as a bit of a black sheep in the wake of two of the greatest crime films ever made, even described by Coppola as just an ‘epilogue’ to a two-part saga. The Godfather: Part II ends so poignantly and wraps up both parts so succinctly that it seemed incredibly difficult to follow it up; perhaps that was an instinct Coppola and Puzo should have followed.
Puzo never wrote a sequel to his novel that the original film adapted, but Part II compensates for this by using the excluded backstory of Brando’s Vito Corleone as a sort of framing device and interlude for the continuation of Michael’s story, and that of the Corleone family as a whole, after the events of the first film. The two films build upon each other beautifully, neither one essential to enjoy the other, but still definitively two parts of the same story.
Vito’s rise to power mirrors that of Michael in the first film in many ways, but also resonates thematically with many of the decisions Michael is forced to make in the present — loyalty, legacy and the cost of revenge are aspects the two men both grapple with while trying to maintain their empires, and while balancing their marriages and looking after their young children. Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of a young Vito takes very visible cues from Brando’s aged mobster, but also mirrors aspects of Michael, his son. The two men are posited almost as different versions of the same person in many ways, and through carefully blocked crossfades and masterful editing, the two stories blend seamlessly into one remarkably cohesive narrative.
While the 200-minute runtime may seem intimidating to some of today’s audiences, it’s a testament to the film that I was so captivated that over three hours passed without even a hint of notice. The gorgeous 4k restoration of the film showing at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse was only for a limited time, but if ever given another opportunity, any cinema lover owes it to themselves to see Gordon Willis’ gorgeous camerawork on the big screen, and to hear Nino Rota’s haunting score just one more time.
It might be far from a controversial statement to make at this point, but The Godfather: Part II is not just an incredible sequel, it’s also simply an astounding film. It’s a testament to the Hollywood of old that Coppola bragged about making the first numbered sequel in cinema history, but 44 years later still holds the honour of having made the best of them. To many, including myself, it is superior to both its predecessor and its successor, and stands alone as one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments.
Image: FilmGrabber via FilmGrab.