Richard Lutz is entranced by a movie gem in the midweek TV schedules.
The Godfather Part II hits town (Wednesday, Film4, 21.00) and it’s simply a matter of clearing the decks, ripping the scales from your eyes, getting out the wine and cheese doodles and settling down to this movie feast.
For those who have been living under a public convenience for the past forty years or only recently arrived from a minor planet circling the Dog Star, this is the 1974 follow up to the original Godfather. It opens with masterful and eerily atmospheric re-creation of end-of-the-century Sicily with a young Vito Corleone living through the ruinous internecine violence of the 1890’s. He leaves this destructive island knowing he will return with vengeance in his heart decades later after seeing his mother murdered. It is tragically magnificent and sets up the rest of the psychological thrust of the story as he heads for America.
The film’s cinematography is visually dark and sombre, almost a painting at times; its plot is large and sweeping, taking in the tumultuous turn of the century Lower East Side of Manhattan to the inevitable Sicily return of Corleone to the hard and violent times of the late 1950’s when Corleone’s son Michael (played by Al Pacino) throws aside the remnants of an ethical life to lose himself in a maelstrom of horrific violence: what profit to gain the world and lose your soul and all that.
Robert DeNiro turns in a sterling performance as a young Vito seen only in sepia toned flashback. He loves his family but realises the life of mob businessman is his way into the American way of life. Pacino is the son who he hopes will lead a straight life but, the American dream evanescent, never can turn his back on the drug of mob crime.
Other solid performances that make this one of my favourite alltime movies come from John Cazale as weak brother Fredo (in real life, this actor was Meryl Streep’s first husband before he died of cancer); Rober Duvall as hardpressed mob lawyer Tom Hagan and, interestingly, Diane Keaton as straight-laced WASP mob wife Kay who has to accept she is married into crime and forced to make impossible decisions.
De Niro lived in Sicily for four months before stepping in front of the camera to pin down the island’s dialect and he seems to physically and emotionally mature as he moves with feline grace from young family man to the mid aged confident crime boss in charge of his ‘olive oil import’ business.Pacino transforms from the young Mafia lion to hardened manic tough guy with tragic speed. He is the flip side of the American dream, going slowly crazy as his future slips into neverending bloodlust.
Watch out for some neat cameos: Harry Dean Stanton is an FBI agent; horror cult director Roger Corman is a senator; and Dominic Chianese, who rose to later fame as Tony Soprano’s crazy uncle Junior is….well, you watch the movie and see if you can spot him 20 years before he hit fame in the TV mob series.
Hats off to director Francis Ford Coppola who also steered Godfather 1 to success. He pushed out Godfather II in 1974- the same year he also finished The Conversation with Gene Hackman. Coppola considered this modern noir film about secret surveillance his best effort – it too is a beauty with its prescient look at the out of control world of spooks, tapes and CCTV. Looks like 1974 was a good year for the Coppola harvest.
But there is something special, something absolutely seductive about Godfather II – it could be the best film to come out of the Hollywood ratnest.