It's almost impossible to review these three films without giving some of the game away. The Godfather and its sequel Godfather II have been around for more than 30 years so I'm guessing that most people will have seen these films and as such I'm going to try and expand on what I get from this film. For those who haven't seen this almost impossibly brilliant piece of work then let me just say that I feel you've missed out; parts I and II should be viewed as one feature and in my own opinion is the best piece of work ever committed to celluloid. III took some bashing when it was released but then it's almost impossible to say if this final chapter could ever have lived up to the previous instalments. If you've never seen this then it's a must buy, one I can whole heartedly recommend buying blind. If you're a lover of film, and I'm guessing that you are otherwise you'd probably be elsewhere, then this is a must have in your collection... one to return to every now and then but be warned it's a demanding watch.
Godfather I - Brief Synopsis.
It's the day Don Vito Corleone has been waiting for almost all of his life, the marriage of his daughter, family and friends have gathered to witness this momentous occasion and on this day Don Vito cannot ignore the requests of his visitors. We learn that the Don is named Godfather by those loyal to him, those who have provided him with favours in the past and those who now still ask for favours for their own personal gain. All of the Don's family are in attendance... Sonny, hot headed and the one destined to control the family's business interests once Don Vito finally relinquishes control. Fredo, a weak man with no determination or confidence to stamp his authority not only on his family and his position within it but also to those he has business dealings with. Michael the youngest, smartest, the one Don Vito places all his hopes and fears onto in the hope that Michael will ultimately one day represent the family's interest at a political level. Although important the other family members know their place, they're the women and after all this business (the mafia) is a man's world and in this world these women have to be at the side of their husbands, looking out for the sundry elements in life which the mafia bosses care little for.
Michael attends the wedding with his girlfriend, Kay. She's interested in the family for Michael's sake yet until now doesn't know what the business really is. Horrified when Michael tells her he reassures her that this is not him, that he will not be a part of this institution and ultimately would like to see the family move from its illegal husslings into more respectable ventures. All rarely goes according to plan though and through a combination of events, the shooting of Don Vito, an escalation in Mafia family war, the death of his brother Sonny, Michael finds himself pulled into a world he had no intention of participating in.
Godfather II - Brief Synopsis.
With Michael now at the head of the Corleone family it is his responsibility to ensure its survival in a rapidly changing world. Interests they have in Cuba are thwarted by Castro's socialist revolution, their gambling interests in Las Vegas are coming under increasing scrutiny and members of Michael's own family can no longer be relied upon. Even though Don Vito passed away in the earlier film we have the opportunity to visit his past, find out how Don Vito came to be the man he is and how he eventually controlled one of the largest mafia families in the U.S.
Vito starts out as a young man in Sicily troubled from the start as he attends his father's funeral; his father murdered by the local gangsters for merely speaking out of turn. Vito though has to flee to the U.S as the local Don wishes him murdered also for fear of reprisal later in life. After seeing his mother brutally gunned down Michael is briefly cared for then shipped off to the U.S. where he eventually starts a fledgling olive oil import business. His own business is squeezed by the local Don and Vito protects his own and his friends' interests by murdering him. His friends not knowing the outcome are nevertheless grateful for his intervention and so Vito starts on the road to providing people, businesses and communities with favours, happy in the knowledge that these very people are now in his debt and that the favours he has given them offer more purchase than money loans or extortion.
Godfather III - Brief Synopsis.
Michael is now in his twilight years as we rejoin him and his family; he's tried his best, and almost succeeded, in migrating his family's interests from the mob ventures of the mafia to legitimate industries. His attempts seem to be curtailed at every point and his own personal history comes back to haunt him. Trying to wash his soul clean he provides financial support to the Vatican yet it appears that this institution itself is not without its own corruption.
Strengthening his family he takes Sonny's illegitimate son under his wing only to his ultimate detriment as he finds that Sonny's brash hot headedness has been passed on and even though he himself wishes no more of the old ways he cannot escape the fact that a younger generation finds the allure of the mob lifestyle all too attractive. It seems as though no matter what Michael attempts to do historical forces, corrupt organisations and ultimately his own family don't necessarily conspire against him but their own ambitions are in direct opposition to what Michael ultimately desires.
There's not one aspect of this film, and when I say film I really mean the first two with the third tagging along, that really can't be ignored. It's a sprawling, detailed storyline following the fortunes of one of America's mightiest Mafia families. The Godfather trilogy demands your full attention, so varied are the many sundry characters that it's impossible almost to keep track of who's who in one sitting. It is this demand on the viewer, this understanding that your attention should never once waver that makes this story such compelling viewing. But what of those demands?
Initially it is viewed as a sprawling historical feature on the rise and continued rise of the Mafia on American soil, it is much more than that though. At the heart of this film is family; family and loyalty. Even those people not directly related to the Corleone's are still regarded as family in some way, hence why brief characters around Don Vito still see him as their own Godfather. The Corleone family, both Don Vito then Michael understanding that power rests in the hands of people and if you can control those people like puppets on a string then you by assimilation adopt their own power to use for your own ends, or to hold over those people and henceforth gain power over them. Family and power.
From the outset The Godfather was far from a sure fire hit, the only actor of any real note in there was Marlon Brando and some would say that at this juncture he was way past his sell by date, additional characters including Al Pacino, Robert Duval, James Caan and Dianne Keaton had had some brief success with earlier ventures notably Caan and Duval but nothing on a scale such as this. Similarly director Francis Ford Coppola was thought to be a new breed within Hollywood, a breath of fresh air from the older directors and producers from the 50s and 60s, someone who could revitalise the industry, bring to it new and fresh ideas. And so he did. Without The Godfather it's difficult to see how other greats such as Goodfellas or The Sopranos would have been born, they rely on this one feature for their characterisation, their unfolding plot, scene settings and style. The Godfather brought a sense of 'realism' back into the film industry, holding no punches and taking no prisoners it offered a story on a variety of different levels. On one you can see it as a continuation of a mob lifestyle with generation after generation taking the helm, on another you can look deeper into the souls of the characters and look for their own individual motives and like so many other aspects of this film those motives usually always come down to family. Michael for instance initially wanting nothing to do with the family business is pulled into the fray only when his father is gunned down, after that he never looks back always putting the family first even when this means he has his brother assassinated. Only at the end does Michael understand the horrors of his past, finally understanding that all this has been for nothing, his choices were wrong but for his right reasons, and now at the end of his days he pays the price unable to save his damned soul, he loses everything most precious to him and ultimately he has changed nothing.
The acting in The Godfather is yet to be bettered. Sure one or two individual performances might have eclipsed some others, but en masse there is no film where so many actors are playing at the absolute top of their game; Brando of course, Pacino as the calm and reasonable then mercenary Michael, Caan's Sonny, Keatons long suffering Kay as she begins to fully understand the horrors not only of the family she has married into but the ultimate nature of her husband, De Niro's as the young Don, Duval's reasoned advisor, Lee Strasberg's Hyman Roth, Richard Castellano, Richard Conte, Talia Shire who comes into her own in Part III and even John Cazal as the ineffectual Fredo. All of them and more have to be proud not only to have starred in these features but also for the exemplary performances which contributed to this tour de force. Although Marlon Brando won Oscar for Best Actor (which he subsequently refused, sending an American Indian to collect it for him - ironically though the woman in question turned out to be an actress herself ) any one of the supporting cast could have had their own mantelpieces adorned with trophies for the work they put have put in. Al Pacino in arguably the best performance of his career to date and not just for this first film but for the subsequent incarnations also. James Caan is perfectly cast as the fiery, short tempered Sonny with a passion for his roots and his Mediterranean ancestors. Again family is so important to Sonny and something which eventually, like Michael, proves to be his undoing. Robert Duval so respected in earlier and future works portrays the calm assuring voice of reason in Tom Hagen. Not a blood member of the family but always regarded as a son by Don Vito. He advised the Don always knowing that Vito would always take his own road, that road though always proved to be reasoned and Tom only really starts to see the edges fray when the advice he has to give to Sonny and Michael which must be adhered to, sometimes falls on deaf ears as unlike Don Vito his sons react more emotionally, summed up by the line.... this is business, not personal and no matter how often this is spelt out in the films certainly Sonny and to some degree Michael never really understand it. Dianne Keaton's Kay is a pure match for Michael; she's his love and although she trusts him to try and extricate himself from the business slowly but surely she realises that her own family will now be pulled into the fold and this she cannot let happen... ever. You can see the pain and in the end ultimate fear in her face as she confronts Michael but this fear is tempered with the protection of her own young family and is the only player in this trilogy who could ever stand up to Michael and come out relatively unscathed.
All of these characters, bar James Caan of course, continued their characters into the sequel and this sequel brings another sterling actor to the fold; Robert De Niro. De Niro's work though the Seventies, Eighties and some of the Nineties are excellent; in recent years there's no doubt that he's slipped somewhat. Prior to 1974 De Niro's only notable film was Martin Scorcese's Mean Streets, much like the cast of the original Godfather he didn't have too much prime exposure to a cinema going public; this role though would propel him onto such greats as The Deer Hunter, King of Comedy and of course Raging Bull. Playing a younger Vito Corleone he shows us the same qualities which Brando offered up for the aged version, calmness, reasoning, family oriented and ruthless. Brando's performance in Part I was a stunning piece of work but so is De Niro here, almost characterising from Brando, looking at his movements, his style from the first and presenting them up for a younger version of the character. It is this second film which looks back and in turn lays the foundations for what we see at the start of Part I, Young Viito's time in Sicily and his ultimate journey to the new promised land. As we see Vito's character develop from storehand to businessman to local hood then ultimately Godfather/Protector of the community we see the same shift in Michael in the 'present day'; how he now forms and shapes the family that fortune has handed to him. The two stories parallel each other and even though Don Vito wanted better things for Michael there is no doubt that in the end he was the best choice to continue the family's traditions. He respects family, he has no desire for indulging in territories which he knows will lead him and his family into misfortune and we see the simple, almost despondent, Michael from the wedding change into a calculating, ruthless leader who will never let anything come between him and his family's rise to power and control. He hasn't the same insight that his father has, he hasn't the same dispassionate distance his father could create between himself and other family members. Don Vito never interfered with Connie's troubled relationship for instance, both Sonny and Michael find it difficult to distance themselves from every aspect of their own family.
This then was the ultimate let down for Part III. We have seen Michael change and grow to be the man he is and in this final instalment he shows little of the ruthless streak shown to such great intensity in the earlier films. Perhaps Coppola and Puzo wished to return him to his roots, and that is fair enough to a degree after all in your old age most do look back with some regrets but you still have the same personality, but Michael seems to contain none of his earlier streak, no sign of the subtle insinuations, and apart from one shaving session with Andy Garcia none of the insight which he showed show well in the earlier instalments. It was this change in Michael for me which was the biggest let down. The themes of family and loyalty are still there with Andy Garcia as the bastard son of Sonny finally being taken into the family fold and Connie now ultimately pulling the strings of the family and those around her to ensure that even after her and Michael's demise the family will continue in the same vein. For me this was more Connie's film than Michael's. As in Parts 1 & II we see Michael develop to head of the family so here in Part III we see almost the same transformation for Connie. There are other flaws within this last instalment. In the earlier works the performances from everyone on screen was second to none but the same cannot be said here and that really rests firmly on Sofia Coppola's shoulders. For Francis Coppola these films themselves were a family affair with Sofia being baptised in the second, his own father conducting the score and of course Sofia returning to play Michaels daughter in the third. She's no actor though and ultimately spoils this film. There are reports that initially Winona Ryder was ear marked for the role (someone Coppola used later of course in Bram Stoker's Dracula), but really in all honesty that would have been like asking Keanu Reeves to play the part of Michael, it just could never work. Neither Ryder nor Sofia Coppola have the weight or presence on screen to play any part in these films. It's to Francis Coppola's credit that he passed on work to his family but this was just one step too far and for me a definite distraction for this film.
Like the evolving, detailed story and the acting the production design on all three films cannot be faulted. Designer Dean Tavoularis worked on all three producing some beautiful, intricate sets of 1920's New York, the wedding setting, the Don's study. His set designs coupled with the costume design by Anna Johnstone produces a seamless world one which the viewer completely believes in. It's hard and gritty, nothing polished for the sake of it other than the fake smiles at the Las Vegas casinos. Similarly the cinematography by Gordon Willis , again for all three films, captures the moments and time perfectly from the muted almost sepia drenched tones of the cafe in New York in the 1920s to the blistering, searing vistas of the Sicilian landscapes. Alas Johnstone never worked on Part III that role was taken up by Milena Canonero, however it is yet again to Coppola's credit that he managed to procure the services of not only the same actors over a twenty year period but also the majority of the crew responsible for bringing these films to our big screens. Such a level of continuity only recently matched by The Lord of the Rings Trilogy which in fairness were all filmed back to back. And on mentioning the crew then obviously Nino Rota's score has to be included. There are many scores which will live with us for many years, John Williams' Star Wars, John Barry and 007, Vangelis' Chariots of Fire and of course Elmer Bernstein's Magnificent Seven or Morricone's Fistful films, and Nino Rota's themes in all three films (conducted by Coppola's father Carmine) for some is the top of the list. The opening theme melodic, haunting sad in such a way that it almost foretells the demise of the family which is at the heart of this film. The Love or Apollonia's Theme as Michael meets his bride to be in Sicily still reflecting some sadness but the lighter strings lifting it somewhat matching the feelings which Michael himself feels when back in his home country for the first time. All of the main themes presented have the same undercurrent of sadness, the same tonal ranges the same consistency almost gluing the film together. Iconic to say the least as soon as the first few bars ring out anywhere you can identify the score. One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever commissioned for a theatrical release.
Like the musical score which you can hear people hum days after they have watched or re-watched this film offers up a wealth of quotes that even Uber Reviewer Chris MacEanery would be proud of. Quotes which now have passed into cultural history, quoted time and again by individuals and of course in other films since that time.... “sleeps with the fishes”, “going to the mattresses”, “business not pleasure” of course “make him an offer he can't refuse” and my all time favourite “Leave the gun... take the cannoli”. All of these and more have been passed down to use almost like historical fireside stories from one generation to the next, they will be quoted daily somewhere and used for many a year to come.
So where does that leave us? A duet of films from the early Seventies and a pair which one could argue where the sequel actually surpasses the giddy heights the first set for itself. Matched up on the tail end by a weaker third act but only because the acting is at times a little wooden in comparison to the first two, Michael's character has changed far too dramatically and perhaps a convoluted storyline. The third is still a good watch in my opinion but not up to the almost perfect presentation of the first two; but then what could be? Overall the first two get top notch billing from me with a perfect 10, the latter dropping to an 8. That said though as a continued story of a family desperately trying to keep together but ultimately can't the whole set still comes out a 10, it's that good. If you've seen it then you'll know what I'm on about... if you haven't then you deserve it to yourself to watch this, keep this and watch it over and over. It never becomes boring, there's always new subtle nuances to to found... oh, and keep your eyes on the oranges.
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