Francis Ford Coppola's Best Year: 1974

scene from Godfather

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Francis Ford Coppola's Best Year: 1974
| published December 22, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film canon—and like all great writer-directors, his motion pictures fall reliably into a consistent moral framework of his own design—there are family people, and then there are loners. Family is the touchstone of safety and security, the ultimate bond, even if it is unconventional or dysfunctional; but woe is to the loner who leaves all vestiges of family, friendship, or communion circle behind. For Coppola, family must be present even when it is not: the small crew of a U.S. Navy patrol boat on a river winding its way through Vietnam (Apocalypse Now) serves as a necessary stand-in for traditional family, as do the bonds of a loosely-connected band of vampire hunters in search of evil incarnate in nineteenth century London (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Family must be recognized—and reckoned with—even at its most parentless, dysfunctional and dystopian (Rumble Fish and The Outsiders), and even in caldrons of violence or decadence (The Cotton Club).

In his cinematic language, sooner or later, those who reject family embrace demise. Which is why for the Francis Ford Coppola body of work, his best year was 1974, when—it can be argued—the writer-director presented us with both ends of that spectrum in what were surely two of his four greatest masterpieces of the screen.

Those who have read Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, released in 1969 by Putnam & Sons, know that the book stands in stark contrast to what was expected of it as a Hollywood box office release. In fact, that original work of fiction seems culturally incongruous when compared to the accolades later showered upon the film, now considered one of the greatest works of American cinema ever produced.

The novel—not to put too fine a point on it—is (was) salacious, gossipy, tawdry, and trashy, just the sort of thing that certain publishers favored in the mass market fiction industry of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Puzo, a great and gifted storyteller, and the author of several literary works prior to The Godfather novel, nevertheless felt compelled to include gratuitous sex and graphic descriptions of violence. The Godfather fell too easily into the same category of pulpy, mass-market, “easy-reading” novels churned out for more than a decade by writers like Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace. The only difference was that Puzo injected—perhaps for the first time ever for the American reading audience—a quasi-insider’s knowledge of old world Sicilian culture, the Italian-American experience in New York City, and the code words and creeds of the American Mafia. The book otherwise would have fallen into the same dismissive literary dustbin that now also holds the fiction pages of V.C. Andrews, Judy Blume, and Jacqueline Susann.

The novel was a best-seller, moving off of the bookshelves at a healthy clip—an estimated three million copies sold—during those first two years. But it was only after the release of the movie in 1972 that the book swelled in popularity so much that it became then (and remains now) one of the biggest selling books of all time. The Wall Street Journal estimates that Puzo’s novel has, to date, sold close to 31 million copies worldwide. But the same WSJ article warns those familiar with the film not to try to hold the book up in direct comparison to the movie—disappointment will surely follow.

So why has the film ascended so safely into the Pantheon despite the novel’s less-than-noble footprint in literary history?

That outcome can be traced squarely to labors of American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, a man who didn’t even really want to direct the pulpy, smarmy story in the first place, and a director Paramount hadn’t even placed on their list of ten possible directors. Robert Evans, then the chief executive at Paramount, didn’t particularly want the young Coppola anywhere near the Godfather project. But other directors turned it down outright, including Peter Bogdanovich and Sergio Leone. At least nine other directors were offered the job, and though some were deemed inadequate for the task, most directorial candidates simply rejected the offer—some were busy with other projects, others just weren’t interested.

The major New York and Hollywood producers were also nervous about Mafioso movies: previous attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to tackle the subject of organized crime had failed or even backfired, and many film historians point to lousy casting, poor scripting, and clumsy handling of the sub-genre (think of Martin Ritt’s 1968 The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas and Irene Papas). In fact, mob movies hadn’t had much success at all after their brief heyday in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and most of those had been based on highly dubious themes, hyperbolic scripts, or exaggerated performances. For his part, Coppola feared that he would be forced to make a pulpy mass market movie—insensitive and insulting to Italian-Americans—with few if any redeeming qualities, and of little use to him in his portfolio of generally literate filmmaking.

But in the end, Coppola needed the work; his own finances were strained at the time, and his small film and artistic company, American Zoetrope, was suffering from overextension and debt. Besides, talk of the movie was soon everywhere, and Paramount—under growing pressure from a variety of social sectors and political circles—felt constrained to hire someone culturally appropriate to tackle the task. Ultimately, Evans insisted that Paramount choose only an Italian-American to direct The Godfather—fearing that any other choice would meet with not only a lukewarm film, but possibly result in yet another mob-movie fiasco.

The artistically headstrong, persuasive Coppola—already at odds with a studio system he regarded as overly-constrained by tight budgets and narrow-mindedness—insisted on revamping and retooling the whole project, and he took a passionate role in recasting what had been Paramount’s first choices for several key roles (movie trivia: Ernest Borgnine was Paramount’s first choice for Vito Corleone; Evans’ choice for Vito was Danny Thomas). Coppola also insisted upon working with other young actors whom he had previously directed, such as James Caan and Robert Duvall (The Rain People). Paramount’s Peter Bart had in the meantime cut a deal with Puzo to help adapt the story to the big screen.

Ultimately, the backstory and the after-story of the film is now a part of movie history. Despite a long series of problems and setbacks from the start—including injuries to Al Pacino in the first few days of shooting, the constant threat by Evans and others at Paramount to fire Coppola, crew disaffections and rebellions, and major cost overruns—the movie succeeded critically and commercially. And even though it had a modest budget of $6.5 million, the movie would eventually gross a staggering $266.5 million at the box office, and it still rakes in subsidiary profits and royalties even to this day. Its enormous success in the mid-70s spilled into other streams of revenue for Paramount and Coppola, including unprecedented rights paid by NBC to broadcast a slightly edited version of The Godfather during prime time on November 16, 1974, and additional millions paid by NBC to broadcast the re-edited and re-constructed Godfather Saga in 1977 (a chronologically rearranged compilation of Parts One and Two, with additional footage).

The Godfather became the biggest Hollywood money-maker for 1972, and was for several years (at least until Star Wars) the highest grossing film ever made, besting The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago, 101 Dalmatians, The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins. It earned more than $81 million just in the theatrical rentals that first year, and by mid-spring of 1973 it had grossed close to $90 million. At the Academy Awards, The Godfather received seven nominations, and won for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (for Duvall’s portrayal of Tom Hagen). The Godfather also swept the Golden Globe awards, with seven nominations, including dual nominations for actors Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. It won five of its seven Golden Globe nominations, a record number of trophies. The Godfather also won awards at the Grammy’s, again in the prestigious British Academy Film Awards, and in other European venues. And Coppola won Best Directorial Achievement at the Directors Guild of America that year, one of the most covted film honors.

As for the cash it earned for Paramount—and Paramount’s parent company, Gulf & Western—all Coppola doubters were effectively silenced. Even to this day, it remains one of the highest grossing films of all time, and it still rakes in revenue for the millions of VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray copies sold, and for the premium channel replays and streaming versions.

The Godfather’s success permanently changed the trajectory of Coppola’s film career, and set the stage for what would be arguably the director’s best year, 1974. After the accolades and financial achievements of the first film, talk of a sequel began in earnest right away. And this time, Coppola would be able to call the shots for what would become The Godfather Part Two.

But, in the meantime, the director had another project in the pipeline—a relatively low-budget story about a quiet, unassuming man whose specialty is gathering information through eavesdropping. That film, The Conversation, which would prove to be not only one of the most unusual movies of Coppola’s career, but also one of the most prescient, remains a gem—relevant even to this day.

The Conversation tells the story of Harry Caul, a guy known in the rarified and closed world of surveillance and private detective work as “the best bugger on the West Coast.” Caul, played by Gene Hackman, takes on specific and carefully chosen jobs—often, we come to understand, in the form of wealthy patrons spying on either their spouses or their business competitors. Caul, we learn very quickly, is apolitical but paranoid, and painstakingly smart at what he does. He asks few—if any—questions of his contract employers. He completes each job according to his own exacting standards. And he requires nothing special at the time of the completion of each task, except that he be paid as arranged. Harry’s small, boutique-like operation is well-known and well-respected among his peers, and among his technical gifts is the ability to develop and build his own made-to-order tools and high-tech equipment. His loyal techie assistant, Stan, played by John Cazale, balances his small team.

scene from Godfather Harry is secretive to the point of distraction—fearful of sharing personal information even with his landlady, with his co-worker Stan, or with his casual girlfriend with whom he maintains a chilly, largely non-verbal relationship. Though he is rarely outwardly rude, his secretive side—necessary, he no doubt construes, to maintain credibility in the black arts of his closed-shop profession—means that he is man of few words and minimal human interaction. Despite his job spying on people, Harry is not a “People Person.” He is often impatient and irritable when pressed into social banter or chitchat.

What we do learn about him, and his humanity, speaks volumes: he is a devout Roman Catholic, and he is a serious devotee of American jazz. These personal elements are at stark odds with the chilling reality of his work: the freeform, unrestrained qualities of jazz which would seem to clash with his obsessive desire for order and control; the soul-searching tenets and precepts of Catholicism which would necessarily demand a more generous level of piety and righteous humanity than found among the members of his often cynical, amoral tradecraft.

The film opens with a broad, wide shot of a park square in San Francisco, where Harry and his hand-picked team—Stan and two others—are attempting to covertly record the conversation of a young couple. The couple walks on foot, in and out and through the busy lunchtime crowds, weaving in and out of competing noises, musical themes and styles, stopping briefly from time to time, then, moving in another direction. They discuss some sort of rendezvous at a downtown hotel. The young man and young woman, we suspect, fear that they may be the subject of precisely this sort of surveillance. But using Harry’s cleverly engineered equipment, coupled with dogged, on-foot detective work, Stan is able to capture much of the conversation back inside Harry’s van parked nearby. As for the couple, we are left to assume that they are lovers—star-crossed, each cheating on a spouse, both bent on secrecy. We are also left to assume that the story ends there: a wealthy businessman seeks to prove or disprove his young wife’s fidelity, and has therefore hired Harry Caul to gather the incriminating proof.

Coppola has, in fact, cleverly used the opening sequence in the city square—and the professional buggers and listeners placed in strategic locations—as an analog for the larger world. There is overlapping music coming from a variety of street musicians; there are hundreds of people moving about in small groups, in pairs, or by themselves; there are dogs, dancers, artists, mimes. The solitary Caul, choosing his footsteps around the city square with deliberation, must contend with a crowded, sometimes claustrophobic, often manic and confusing world. The weather is gorgeous, but dressed in his beige, semi-transparent raincoat, Harry seems ill-at-ease despite his comfort with his technical prowess. Coppola’s point: even in plain view, even in private, we are being listened to, monitored, measured.

It is a theme that might have been bordering on the avant garde in 1974, were it not for Watergate, the political scandal which had reached its crescendo by the time of the film’s release. In this sense, Coppola benefitted from timing, however accidental; though the plot of The Conversation bears little resemblance to Watergate, the tools and the tradecraft on display are not only entirely believable, but familiar in an almost visceral way. Example: the Uher audio tape decks used by Caul back in his shop are identical to those which had been installed in a tiny anteroom inside the White House—taping machines which were voice-activated. Later in the movie, one of Caul’s competitors brags that he ended the presidential fortunes of a certain “unnamed” candidate through the use of secretly-recorded conversations—incriminating chatter which was then given to a political opponent.

The Conversation should not be confused with an action flick or a high-volume thriller. This quiet film bears virtually no kinship with the great political or crime thrillers: there are no car or motorcycle chases; there are no fanciful weapons; no helicopters. On the contrary, the movie is tightly measured, carefully paced, even stealthy in the way it presents each new turn and each new dilemma, and in this sense the film bears an eerie thread of DNA with the best works of Stanley Kubrick. Coppola insists that the film be methodical, craftily paced, but never boring.

What seems at first a straight-forward plot turns complex, even dark: Caul is being paid to capture the conversations of a young couple aware that their words might be ensnared by professionals. But soon after collating, editing and preparing his report—photos, transcripts, diagrams, and the all-important audiotapes—it becomes apparent to Caul that things are not what they appear to be. Among the difficult to divine meanings of his tapes: a garbled sequence which Harry—using his sophisticated audio editing gear—finally deciphers as a cryptic warning, “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Normally professionally agnostic toward his clients and the job, he suspects that a murder may be involved—and that one, or both, of the young people he has targeted may become the victim. Caul has also stumbled into something larger than his own professional parameters, and it becomes clear that there are forces out there—using tools and tradecraft more penetrative than those in his own formidable bag of surveillance tricks—who may all too easily turn the tables on him. Caul, the devout Catholic, is so troubled by the possibility that he presents this scenario to his priest in the confessional booth. People have been hurt by his work in the past, Caul tells the priest, and now he fears it may happen again. He insists in his confession that he was “in no way responsible” for what has happened, but then—paradoxically—asks forgiveness for the lethal outcome of his dark work. Cleary, Harry Caul is conflicted.

Gene Hackman is perfectly cast as the understated, solitary, nearly anti-social Harry Caul. And Hackman is able to capture, internalize, and synthesize the crisis of conscience which soon overwhelms our protagonist. Likewise, Cazale is able to effectively play the foil (as he often did with dazzling, heartfelt success in other films) to Hackman’s icy, nuanced performance. Cazale, who worked several times with Coppola, projects his humanity and his vulnerabilities with uncanny realism. Hackman projects a normally-tightly controlled professional coming unglued—rattled and frustrated by the contradictions he now must face, and the possibility that violence may result from the fruits of his labor.

The film twists its way toward a surprise ending, including a plot-twist skillfully embedded—in plain view, as it were—throughout the first three quarters of the story. Adding to the high-stakes turn-of-the-tables: Caul himself, after a cathartic rampage in his own apartment in search of hidden bugging devices, is left in his self-imposed loneliness and isolation, almost completely overtaken by paranoia, fear, and the desolation of his soul (hold that image for later!)—tenor saxophone in hand as he weaves his way through a loose, freeform jazz tune. The camera slowly pans around his apartment, now torn literally into shreds.

The film was a critical success, though its dark complexity and dehumanizing theme perhaps left many movie-goers chilled, if not baffled. The Conversation is also socially prescient in a way that few American films have ever been. Watching the film on its 40th anniversary can evoke a chilling reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same: in the recent period of less than 18 months, the world has learned of the truly penetrative nature of a government agency many had never heard of; the NSA’s byzantine “data harvesting” program may have included the capture of billions of text messages, cell phone calls, computer downloads and uploads, browser histories, and perhaps even credit card transactions. For better or worse, the names of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden are now synonymous with our notions about information and the reach of government technology. Celebrities have had their most intimate photos stolen and published, retailers have seen their databases hacked, and millions of people have seen their private information violated. And hackers ransacked emails and financial information from the offices of Sony Pictures, in what may yet turn out to be the first ever full-scale act of war using computers.

Like Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Coppola’s The Conversation seems more relevant with each passing year, and with each new headline.

Indeed, the film’s relevance seemed, at the time, lost on some viewers—many of whom were no doubt expecting an action-thriller. Roger Ebert says “Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time; not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.” This complexity and ambiguity did not translate into enormous commercial success, but it did enable Coppola to produce a film which many regard as one of his most deeply personal. The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards for 1974, and at the Cannes Film Festival that year it won the coveted Palme d’Or.

In the end, for the relatively low budget of roughly $1.6 million, The Conversation made money, generating about $4.5 million in the United States, and more in the European movie markets, where it was received with a greater level of appreciation than in the U.S.

Meanwhile, talk of a Godfather sequel had become unstoppable. In fact, most Hollywood observers assumed it was only a matter of time—a very short interlude—before the shooting of a sequel would be underway.

And indeed, by the time filming began, Coppola was able to call the shots—insisting that he produce and direct, as well as assume absolute control over casting. The dazzling success of the original film had empowered him to take full, uncompromising command of the project. Still working alongside Puzo, Coppola would even have final say-so over the screenplay, all rewrites, and veto power over individual scenes. Casting would reflect a direct extension of the first film, though clearly new characters would have to be introduced to lend substance to the sequel—after all, The Godfather’s climactic final sequences included the murders and assassinations of a dozen of Michael Corleone’s enemies, thus ensuring his ascension to the top of the pyramid of organized crime. Among those killed: his disloyal brother-in-law, Carlo; one of Vito’s once-loyal capos, Tessio (played by Abe Vigoda); the brash, imprudent casino owner Moe Green; and several heads of rival gangs.

Coppola was able to sign many of the top-tier and second-tier actors for a reprise: Al Pacino as Michael Corleone; Diane Keaton as Kaye; John Cazale as Freddie; Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen; Talia Shire as Connie Corleone; Richard Bright as Al Neri; Tom Rosci as Rocco. This carryover casting solidifies the bonds between Part One and Part Two. A contract dispute precluded an appearance by Richard Castellano as Clemenza, so Puzo and Coppola wrote the character of Clemenza out of the chronologically-latter sequences (Clemenza has been murdered, we are left to assume), replacing him with stage star Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli, Clemenza’s successor. Also added: a very young Bruno Kirby who plays the young Clemenza, Frank Sivero as a young Genco, and G.D. Spradlin as the arrogant, powerful United States Senator, Pat Geary. But Coppola also accomplished even more stupendous casting coups, with Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth, and a young Robert Di Niro—then a relative unknown—as the young Vito Corleone. For his part, Marlon Brando, through his agent—though initially welcomed by Coppola to return to play a bit part as the don—demanded an exorbitant fee for any appearance (even a brief one), and on this point even the newly empowered Coppola lost to Paramount.

Little Vito Part Two, for those who have never experienced it, is much grander, layered and complex than Part One. And at 200-plus minutes, it became one of the longest mainstream movies ever released. But, after the success of Part One, Paramount assumed there was little risk in such a long film as sequel. Length would be, as it turns out, a necessity: The Godfather Part Two, as envisioned by Coppola, was to be a presented as two interlocking films—the “early” story of the boy Vito leaving Sicily at age nine, arriving at Ellis Island in New York, and growing up to become the neighborhood don; and the “modern” saga of Vito’s youngest son Michael Corleone, now at the height of power, but besieged by all the formidable tensions and problems which face the CEO of any large business. Though this two-fold storyline could have easily backfired, Coppola accomplishes it with such skill that the film seems to fit naturally into the time-shift framework. In roughly ten distinct segments, or chapters, we move back and forth, from Di Niro’s portrayal of the measured and skillful rise of Vito as a powerful young man in Hell’s Kitchen in the early part of the century, to Pacino’s understated and nuanced performance as Michael, now contending at mid-century with overlapping investigations, high-stakes business considerations, and even outright extortion in the form of political pressure. The two non-parallel stories move forward in time, but roughly 50 years apart, often buffered by soft dissolve transitions from symbolically analogous images—the face of the young Vito, for example, to the suffering, stoic face of Michael.

Some of Coppola’s riskiest casting decisions proved to be the film’s most memorable elements: Lee Strasberg, for example, an accomplished stage actor and a well-known instructor of the “method acting” school, had never performed in front of the movie camera. Likewise, Michael V. Gazzo was well known for his own stage appearances, and though he had done a few movies, was deemed by Paramount to be a risk if thrown against Pacino, Duvall and Cazale. But both casting decisions proved not only memorable and appropriate, but downright inspired. Gazzo (as Frankie) and Strasberg (as Hyman Roth) turn out to be pivotal characters upon whom much of the latter story hinges. Indeed, Pentangeli and Roth become Michael’s chief antagonists, though in the fragmented, box-within-a-box world of organized crime at mid-century, Michael must play cat-and-mouse in order to figure out which among them is the greater traitor, and which a mere puppet to other forces. Michael must also attempt to hold the older Pentangeli—the capo who assumed control of Clemenza’s old group back in New York—in check, reining him in from local street fighting so as not to disrupt the multi-million dollar deals in the works with Roth, whom Michael regards as a false father figure until he realizes he can trust Roth no more than he can trust anyone else among his partners and adversaries. This give-and-take between Michael Corleone, Hyman Roth and Frank Pentangelli serves as the backbone upon which the flesh of the story is crafted. Some of the most electrifying scenes of the film are those taut, tense interactions between Michael and these complex adversarial foils.

Then there is the issue of that always present disclaimer found normally near the very end of the scrolling credits: this motion picture is a work of fiction; any similarity between its characters and real life is purely coincidental. For the first film, Paramount yielded to some behind-the-scenes pressures, and insisted that appearances of “fiction” be amplified, while real-life analogs were carefully subdued or snuffed.

But among Coppola’s victories after Part One was his ability—working alongside Puzo—to remove the veil, as it were, from Part Two. Those familiar with the true-life saga of the Mafia saw The Godfather Part Two as being chock full of loosely-disguised characters, Hyman Roth (Strasberg) being the most infamous of these analogs. Roth bears about as close a resemblance to real-life mobster Meyer Lansky as anyone working in fiction at the time might have dared (Lansky was still alive at the time, living in Miami). The comparisons were abundant: both lived in quiet, modest suburban homes in Miami; both were considered the shrewdest of the “money men” within the mob; both were savvy “investors” in semi-legitimate businesses; both were Jews in a tight fraternity dominated by Sicilians; both nevertheless possess almost unlimited power—even veto power—over the activities of other Mafiosa; both were considered essential at a “corporate” level within the mob, acting as a kind of super-consiglieri; both eschewed violence, endorsing it only as a last resort. And both had a disdain for politics and law enforcement, which Lansky regarded more as irritants than genuine threats. In real life, Lansky was a close and early associate of Bugsy Siegel, instrumental in creating modern Las Vegas; in the film, Roth is a close and early friend to Moe Green, the fictional inventor of Las Vegas. Siegel was killed by being shot through the eye at home; Green is killed by being shot through the eye as he receives a massage in his hotel.

The thinly-veiled references do not stop there, and many an aficionado of the American mob has played the endless parlor game of comparing the fictional characters of Part Two to real life: Senators, FBI agents, mobsters, business leaders. Frank Pentangeli, for example, bears more than a close resemblance to the real life personas Joseph Valachi and Joe Adonis, both of whom testified before Congressional committees. Johnny Ola (played by Dominic Chianese), is a close analog to real life gangster Johnny Roselli. And most of the story set in Havana, Cuba parallels with uncanny accuracy the final weeks and days of the crumbling Batista regime, including the incumbent loss of cash and investment by American Mafioso—criminal syndicates hopeful that their gambling and entertainment empires would find a comfortable legitimate home in tropical Cuba, out of reach of meddlesome agencies like the IRS and the FBI.

Elaborately staged scenes in which Michael—with lawyer Hagen at his side and long-suffering wife Kay behind him—sits stoically and unmoved as a ponderous hearing is conducted by a committee of U.S. Senators, bear an unvarnished resemblance in both style and substance to the real-life investigations of the so-called Kefauver Committee (Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce), the sometimes dramatic and widely-watched hearings held to look into the Mafia’s deep involvement in business operations in various states. Other critics have suggested that Michael’s thinly-concealed disgust for a pompous panel of Senators and their aides bears an even closer resemblance to labor leader Jimmy Hoffa’s disdain for the hypocritical politicians who compelled him to appear before racketeering hearings in the 1960s. Hyman Roth’s famous excoriation to Michael during one of their meetings in Havana, in which he references a “young man looking to be President of the United States,” was a not-so-subtle rewrite of a line allegedly used by Sam Trafficanti to Johnny Roselli in 1960, in which he implied it mattered not who was in the White House—Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy—for both were fixed to his satisfaction. Roth to Michael: Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.

Historical approximations aside, two elements that help make The Godfather Part Two successful are its skillful, measured pacing, and its seamless layering of scenes a generation apart. We experience both almost from the beginning: Vito, who is forced to flee mafia violence in Sicily as a young boy, arrives at Ellis Island with only a small bag and the clothes on his back—sailing into New York past the Statue of Liberty as hundreds of his shipmates, families and children, gaze with a kind of reverence and innocence at Lady Liberty and her unspoken message. Then, sitting alone in the isolation of a tiny room on Ellis Island, the little Vito begins to sing. The image slowly dissolves to the young Anthony Corleone—Michael’s son, grandson to Vito—taking his first communion in a Roman Catholic Church in Nevada in 1958. It is a kind of signatory transition which Coppola will employ a dozen times throughout the film, and he establishes this first segue so impressively that we immediately accept the remaining nine transitions across the century.

Robert Di Niro gives a deeply felt portrayal of what it must have been like to the immigrants of the early 20th century, and the nuanced story of his rise from grocery store assistant to local mafia don is both believable and historically telling. The young Vito, who develops an antipathy toward the neighborhood mafia bully—an imperious, pompous Black Hand extortionist named Fanucci—is tested by hardship and struggle, developing and nurturing a sense of justice, balance and proportion (the benevolent thief), even as he sharpens his street skills, hones his tactical prowess, and plots his rise to modest levels of power.

When the opportunity presents itself for Vito to rid the predominantly-Italian neighborhood of the dreaded Fanucci, he acts with cunning and quiet resolve. Here is Coppola the visual poet at his best: Vito (Di Niro), navigating rooftops and chimneys, stalking his prey as the ostentatious Fanucci walks along the crowded street below, amidst the processions and music and celebrations of an Italian-American festival. The entire sequence is one long horizontal tracking shot; prey becomes predator, predator becomes prey, until Vito enters Fanucci’s apartment building from the roof, and Fanucci makes his way up the stairs. In a rapid ambush, Vito kills Fanucci in his apartment doorway, as outside—on the streets—the music symbolically shifts from processional to joyous, and the festa is overcome by the sounds of fireworks, cheering families, and dance music. Vito’s rise is now certain. It is one of the most impressive sequences ever filmed and edited, and solidified the operatic grandeur that Coppola sought to attain in the sequel.

Even as the “early” chapters show us the rise of the benevolent Don Vito, the “modern” chapters give us Michael’s imperial, quasi-corporate world—beset by constant threats which encircle his family and ultimately his soul. Michael, even at the height of his powers, must endure the indignity of explaining himself to self-serving, publicity-seeking Senators, just as he must sort out friend from foe in almost every business transaction. Like other corporate types and mega gangsters, his losses are incalculable when Cuba falls to the Marxist-Leninists led by Castro’s band of rebels, and he retreats deeper into paranoia and fear, unable to trust anyone—even the loyal Tom Hagen, even his brother Fredo, now revealed to have been the original traitor to Roth. Again, Coppola chooses his tools carefully, scrupulously: at the opposite of the grand, elaborately staged scenes in Havana or Little Italy, are the dour, minimalist scenes inside Michael’s tomblike, gated estate on Lake Tahoe. Shot against windows behind which heavy rain and snow fall on the dark lake, Michael—gently at first—confronts his hapless brother, a chilly, minimally-lit scene almost suffocating in its emotional, cathartic weight. Film historians have said it was Cazale’s finest performance—anger, frustration, envy, familial baggage, pointless rage, all poured out in what may have been the cinema’s most famous confrontation between siblings. It was homage to both William Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud, with searing, volcanic results.

scene from Godfather By this point in the film, the dual timelines have diverged in tone and mood: Vito has become a beloved and respected leader in his neighborhood, and is now easily and gracefully forging his path to wealth and power; Michael, all-powerful and with a reach extending to every continent and into every form of commerce, has become helpless to avert the darkness, and trapped in a web which he helped spin. And just as the Godfather Part One ends in a spate of murders, assassinations and settling of scores, so too does Part Two: Michael grimly orchestrates the murder of Roth; he uses Tom Hagen to facilitate Pentangeli’s suicide; and he orders his ever-loyal Neri to kill his own brother, Fredo.  Fredo is shot in the head while fishing on Lake Tahoe, dispatched after reciting a Hail Mary against an idyllic backdrop of blue-gold waters and snow-peaked mountains.

Isolated, alone, encased in pain, Michael suffers in gloaming silence by the lake in one final close-up shot, a wordless, soundless scene which conveys an ancient Judeo-Christian message, and a paradox—having attained all, he has lost everything.

The film was a critical success unlike anything since Orson Wells released Citizen Kane. Unlike Wells, who shattered a dozen conventions of movie-making, Coppola broke no rules. But by the time that The Godfather Part Two had completed its successful run at the box office, it could be argued that Coppola has singlehandedly rewritten the entire playbook on the business of making movies about organized crime. In the same way that sci-fi writers and directors are unable to escape the gravitational rules established by Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it was the Coppola set the bar for Mafioso movies.

Few writer/directors have escaped this influence, and one could easily argue that—despite the obvious and sometimes painful knockoffs and imitations—the mafia movie was reborn as a new American genre, never to return to those bad old days of yore. The lineage of quality mob movies and their directors is solid: Martin Scorcese (Goodfellas and The Departed), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America), Barry Levinson (Bugsy), Michael Mann (Public Enemies), Robert Benton (Billy Bathgate), and the Cohen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing). Even those films fact-based or broadly biographical, as in Scorcese’s Casino and Danny DeVito’s Hoffa, owe something to the mob movie canons established by Coppola.

Both of Coppola’s 1974 masterpieces end in somber final frames. Neither preach a unified moral sermon, save the lesson familiar to those who appreciate Coppola’s basic theme of family (or the rejection of family).

One man, Harry Caul, is the consummate loner, a curmudgeon trapped with his soft, sweet jazz music amid his ruined apartment, stuck in an ambiguous, conflicted place where his paranoia has driven him to a moment of depravity. The other man, Michael Corleone, is awash in unimaginable power, staggering wealth, able to extend his reach even to the murder of those he cannot trust, and shielded with impunity from the secular judgment of mortal men. Both have, in their own way—repudiated family, though in Michael Corleone’s case, there is a Shakespearean quality to his simultaneous victory, and loss of soul.

The Godfather Part Two opened on December 20, 1974, forty years ago this week. An enduring, never-resolved debate emerged as to which of the two Godfathers (we don’t count Part Three in this contest, since it was but a pale imitation of the first two) was the better film. To the general movie-mob-loving public, it was Part One—direct, linear, earthier, formidable. And it’s hard to best Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Vito. To the snobbier set, Part Two was always the better film—operatic, grand, morally complex, threaded with revealing moments and character development. Taken together, which most Godfather fans typically do, they form perhaps the best pairing of interlocking stories told on the big screen.

The 40th anniversary of The Godfather Part Two reminds us that once in a long while—so rarely even that we forget that it happens—a motion picture sequel can stand alongside its predecessor. Sometimes, it can exceed.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Retro Review: Sidney Lumet's Network; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 20, 2012.

The End of the Film; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 18, 2014.

Godfather images courtesy of Paramount Pictures; The Conversation image courtesy American Zoetrope/Paramount/The Coppola Company.