You Remember Merle, Don't You?
I don't know which I'd choose between THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II. I used to think of them as a piece, then I started to develop a preference for the original, and now, after seeing PART II this summer and being over- whelmed by it as if for the first time, I'm not so sure anymore. I do know that I like seeing them back-to-back more than I do the chronologically reshuffled version (which loses some evocative transitions between generations), and that the qualitative gap between the first two films and PART III is greater than the gap between PART III and MEET THE STUPIDS. Some notes on PART II: Best single piece of acting: It's hard to know where to begin--from top to bottom, THE GODFATHER PART II must have more great performances than any film ever made (if it doesn't, then only because THE GODFATHER has more). My vote goes to John Cazale's breakdown scene when Michael interrogates and then disowns him. When Cazale blurts out "It's not the way I wanted it," he does this thing with his arms that borders on an epileptic seizure. My favorite acting through the years has almost always come from people who underplay, a perfect example being Pacino here or Hackman in THE CONVERSATION. Cazale's cathartic unburdening of Fredo's resentment towards Michael crosses a line into some place where most actors look silly. Best tantrum from Michael: He has four, and they're all riveting. 1) When he orders his underlings inside the Corleone compound to keep his would-be assassins alive ("Did you hear me, Rocco?--alive"); 2) When he visits Pentangeli soon after ("In my bedroom, where my wife sleeps..."); 3) When Tom breaks the news about Kay's miscarriage ("Can't you give me a straight answer anymore?--I said, was it a boy?"); 4) When Michael gets the truth from Kay ("You won't take my children...You won't take my children"). Best tantrum from someone other than Michael: Either Pentangeli in his first meeting with Michael ("and there's not gonna be any trouble from me") or Roth's reaction to Michael asking who gave the order on Pentangeli ("because this...is the business...we've chosen"). Michael's scariest moment: It's not one of his tantrums; they make you sit bolt upright, but he's at his absolute most sinister when, as he embraces Fredo at their mother's funeral, he looks up slowly and makes eye contact with Rocco. Senator Geary's best moment: G.D. Spradlin is just brilliant in GODFATHER II (he's almost as good in NORTH DALLAS FORTY as Nick Nolte's coolly heartless coach). There's his comic mispronunciation of "Corleone" at the communion, his contemptuously correct pronunciation of the same later that day, the catatonic shock on his face when he wakes up beside the butchered showgirl, his phony magnanimity at the Senate hearings, pretty much every last line of his. I love it in the Cuba sequence when he whispers to Fredo about getting him one of those "redheaded little Yolandas." Tom Hagen's best moment: Along with GODFATHER III's 900 other problems, the hole left by Robert Duvall's absence is incalculable. I think his greatest moment in THE GODFATHER is the way he looks away from Tessio when he says, "Can't do it, Sally." In II I'd go with his affectionate farewell handshake with Pentangeli: "So long, Frankie Five Angels." Pentangeli's best moment: To watch GODFATHER II is to fall in love with Pentangeli--he out-Clemenzas Clemenza, and with Michael and Tom reduced to empty shells through most of the film, he's the truest link to the spirit of the original. Easy choice: "Your father did business with Hyman Roth, your father respected Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth--or his Sicilian messenger-boy, Johnny Ola." Most shattering moment: Bookends: Michael's "You broke my heart, Fredo" kiss of death, brought full circle by his forgiving embrace of Fredo at Mama Corleone's funeral (see above). Most powerful segue: The slow fade from the nine-year-old Vito sitting in his quarantined cell singing ("Vito Corleone, Ellis Island, 1901") to Anthony Corleone walking up the aisle at his communion 57 years later. Pauses that last a lifetime: 1) Michael to Connie: "If you don't listen to me, Connie, and marry this man...you'll disappoint me." 2) Michael to Al Neri: "I don't want anything to happen to him [Fredo]...while my mother's still alive." Best piece of violence: The violence in PART II is much less flashy (though no less effective) than the original's. The most startling moment for me is when young Vito puts the gun inside the already-dead Fanucci's mouth and takes one final shot. Best historical allusion: There are at least two that stand out: 1) When Michael's being chauffeured through the streets of pre-revolution Cuba, besieged on all sides by kids banging on his car windows, there's a strong echo of Nixon's disastrous trip to Caracas in 1958; 2) The staging of Roth's assassination as he's escorted through the airport is clearly modelled on Ruby's assassination of Oswald. Funniest line: Again, where to begin? Two that always get me: Michael's "He's been dying of the same heart attack for 30 years" line on Roth, and Connie's schlub boyfriend Merle--stupid, silly Merle--asking "Can I get a drink?" in Michael's office. Three people to watch for: The easiest to pick out is Roger Corman as one of the senators on the investigatory panel--Corman was fairly well known when the film was made, so that counts as a cameo. More eye-opening are Harry Dean Stanton as one of Pentangeli's FBI bodyguards--he sits behind Pentangeli at the Senate hearings--and Danny Aiello as the Rosato brother who makes the attempt on Pentangeli inside the bar ("Michael Corleone says hello"). I'd seen the film probably 15 times before I picked out Aiello this year, more because of his voice than the shadowed view you get of him. Who does Michael most resemble at the end of the film?: In Peter Biskind's excellent THE GODFATHER COMPANION-—from which I stole the format for this piece--there's an anecdote about how II's final scene was referred to on the set as "the Hitler scene," and how Coppola specifically thought of Michael in terms of Hitler. The film came out in 1974; to me, it's impossible not to see Michael as a kind of FINAL DAYS Nixon as he retreats further and further into himself (a parallel drawn by many). "I don't feel as if I have to 'destroy' everyone, Tom. Just my enemies." What else came out in 1974?: Among films that I love, there was THE CONVER- SATION, CHINATOWN, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and CALIFORNIA SPLIT; BADLANDS, ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, THIEVES LIKE US, LENNY, HARRY AND TONTO, and THE PARALLAX VIEW were also 1974, and MEAN STREETS, THE LONG GOODBYE, and SERPICO were late-73 releases that were either still in theatres or didn't really even get an opening until '74. Checking movie listings in those days must have been a lot like turning on the radio in 1965.