The Godfather Part II (1974) Review

The Godfather Part II (1974) Director: Francis Ford Coppola

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart…”


The beauty of the Godfather Part II lies in it being both a sequel –perhaps the greatest sequel in cinematic history– and yet also a prequel. The two narratives, sequel and prequel, are beautifully interwoven in a way that forces the audience to contemplate the distinct lives between the old generation of Vito Corleone and his rise from Sicilian orphan to American mafia Don, and the new generation of Michael Corleone whose reign as mafia Don is plagued by political infighting, legal crackdowns, and familial collapse.

Shortly before the original Godfather was released, a sequel was approved by Paramount and Mario Puzo began working on the script for a sequel. Throughout the film we see Francis Ford Coppola quoting himself and re-working or reimagining scenes from the first film in new ways as the change of regime unfolds in troubling ways. Initial reviews for The Godfather Part II were somewhat split, but today it is considered one of the greatest films ever made and for good reason. To date, The Godfather Part II is the only sequel to win Best Picture in Oscars history alongside The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The Vito Corleone Story #1:
It begins in 1901 in Sicily, Italy in the town of Corleone. Young Vito Andolini is joining a funeral procession for the death of his father who was murdered by a local mafia chieftain. Vito’s older brother, Paolo, swore revenge for his father’s death and disappeared into the hills. During the funeral procession, Paolo is suddenly murdered so Vito’s mother pays a visit the mafia chieftain, Don Ciccio , to beg for forgiveness but he coldly refuses because Vito will undoubtedly seek revenge when he grows up. Vito’s mother then holds Don Ciccio at knife point, allowing young Vito to escape while she is shot and killed by Ciccio’s men. Meanwhile, Vito is hidden away in the town and covertly smuggled to America. When booked at Ellis, Island he is given the surname of his hometown, Corleone.

At the outset, we are already we are exposed to a key theme in the film: familial generations and the parallel or divergent lives of fathers and sons.

The Michael Corleone Story #1:
We first meet Michael Corleone (reprised by Al Pacino) in 1958 hosting an elaborate celebration at his Nevada-side Lake Tahoe home. The party is to celebrate his son’s first communion -this hollow religious ritual is mirrored by Michael’s private meeting with a corrupt Senator named Pat Geary (played by G. D. Spradlin). The purpose of the meeting is to discuss pricing for gaming licenses at hotels and casinos the Corleone family is planning to purchase in Las Vegas. Senator Geary makes his contempt apparent for Italians like Michael and his family. Senator Geary promises a huge fine to Michael because he does not like the un-American clean-cut Italian businessmen of shady backgrounds moving into his state to exploit the growing gambling industry. In anger, Michael offers Senator Geary no payment.

Michael also meets with his sister Connie who is recently divorced from her second husband (after her abusive first husband was brutally killed in the first Godfather film). She plans to marry a new man with little means and of whom Michael disapproves. He also meets with Johnny Ola, the right-hand man of Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg -the acting teacher of Al Pacino). Hyman Roth is a Jewish, New York mobster and business partner of the Corleone family -he supports Michael’s move to gambling in Las Vegas. Later in the film, we find Hyman Roth elderly and in poor health living in Miami, Florida. Lastly, Michael meets with Frank Pentangeli, or “Frankie Five Angles” (played by Michael V. Gazzo). Frank Pentangeli is running certain activities back in New York after the death of Peter Clemenza, trusted associate of the Corleone family in the first film. Frank Pentangeli wants Michael’s help and blessing to eliminate the Rosato Brothers, backed by Hyman Roth, who are claiming certain territories. When Michael refuses, because he does not want to jeopardize his deal with Hyman Roth in Las Vegas, Frank is irate and reminds Michael that his father respected Hyman Roth, did business with him, but never trusted him. Frank then abruptly leaves. We get the sense that Michael is neither respected nor trusted by his close family and business partners (contrast this scene with the warm and friendly reception Don Corleone experiences with various well-wishers at the beginning of The Godfather).

Later that evening, there is an assassination attempt against Michael at his Nevada compound. Machine-gun rounds suddenly pour in through his bedroom windows and he narrowly escapes, but the two gunmen are killed. Michael quietly suspects Hyman Roth but he knows there must be a traitor on the inside of his family. He instructs consigliere, Tom Hagen (again reprised by Robert Duvall) to leave with certain entrusted powers for his family.

The Vito Corleone Story #2:
In 1917 in New York City the adult Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro who spent three months in Sicily learning the culture and dialect before embarking on his role) works in a grocery store on the Lower East Side with a friend. The neighborhood is run by a calloused Black Hand mafia boss, Don Fanucci, who extorts neighbors and business owners. One night, a neighbor of Vito (a young Peter Clemenza) asks him to hide a stash of guns. Later, they join together and rob an elegant apartment, stealing a fancy rug.

The Michael Corleone Story #2:
Back in 1958 Michael Corleone meets with Hyman Roth and falsely tells him he believes Frank Pentangeli is behind the recent assassination attempt. Later, he meets with Frank and tells him he knows Hyman Roth directed the hit, and he needs time for his plan to exact revenge. Michael tells Frank to make peace with Rosato brothers, but when he does Frank is strangled and nearly killed –“Michael Corleone says hello”– but a police officer intrudes and a shootout ensues, but Frank Pentangeli survives.

Then Tom Hagen visits a brothel in Carson City run by Michael’s older brother, Fredo (again reprised by John Cazale). Senator Geary is sitting on the bed, naked, beside a bloody and lifeless prostitute. Tom offers to take care of the situation in exchange for ‘friendship’ with the Corleone family. Notably, Michael rarely offers friendship in the film.

Meanwhile, Michael and Hyman Roth attend a meeting in Cuba under the Bautista regime which is soliciting foreign American investment. Roth hosts his own birthday party at a rooftop flat, but Michael notes that the rebel leaders in the country might prove victorious when he witnesses a man blow himself up with a grenade inside a car on the street. Roth seems uninterested and notes that Michael has not made his investment of $2M as promised. Fredo arrives in Havana with the money in a suitcase. Michael asks Fredo if he knows Hyman Roth or Johnny Ola, but Fredo denies ever knowing them. Michael then tells Fredo it was Hyman Roth who tried to kill him, and that he has a plan to strike back before the new year. Michael confronts Hyman Roth demanding to know who gave the order to attack Frank Pentangeli, but Hyman Roth deflects and angrily reminds Michael of the killing of his old friend Moe Greene (killed at the direction of Michael at the end of the first film).

Michael asks Fredo to show a cohort of men, including Senator Geary, a good time out on the town in Havana. When Johnny Ola shows up, Fredo awkwardly pretends not to know him, but later in the evening at a sex show and after a few drinks, Fredo loudly declares that he initially discovered the place from Johnny Ola. In this moment Michael realizes Fredo, his own brother, is the one who betrayed him.

Michael’s bodyguard slinks away and strangles Johnny Ola and attempts to suffocate Hyman Roth in a hospital, but he is killed before the deed is done. At a New Years Eve party hosted by Cuban leader Bautista, close to the stroke of midnight, Michael gives Fredo the kiss of death, and reveals to him that he knows of Fredo’s betrayal and that it broke his heart. Just then, the rebels take over the country and Bautista resigns. Fredo flees into the night while Michael escapes back to the United States. Back at his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael meets with Tom Hagen who informs him that Roth escaped Cuba after suffering a stroke, Michael’s bodyguard is dead, Fredo is probably hiding out in New York, and that Kay had a miscarriage. Michael furiously demands to know the sex of the child but Tom does not know.

The Vito Corleone Story #3:
In 1920, Don Fanucci is aware of a partnership between Vito, Clemenza, and Tessio. Don Fanucci demands to receive a cut of their profits. Clemenza and Tessio agree, but Vito tries a different approach -and it works. Don Fanucci agrees to a significantly smaller cut of the pay. Later during a neighborhood festival, Vito murders Fanucci just outside his apartment. We then see him embracing baby Michael on the footsteps of his own townhome.

Vito quickly earns the respect of the neighborhood and he begins handling local disputes, like a magistrate operating out of his olive oil business store front.

The Michael Corleone Story #3:
In 1959 in Washington DC Michael is brought before a Senate committee investigating organized crime. Senator Geary makes a dramatic statement about supporting Italian Americans and promptly departs the proceedings. Michael then denies all charges and challenges the committee to produce a witness. Then we discover that Frank Pentangeli has agreed to a deal with the FBI and will serve as a witness against Michael (he still believes called the hit on him). Michael and Tom Hagen discuss the masterfully crafted plan by Hyman Roth to bring down the Corleone family.

Meanwhile, Fredo is persuaded to meet with Michael in Lake Tahoe. Fredo angrily explains his betrayal as a consequence of him being passed over despite being the elder brother. Michael disowns Fredo (he privately tells his henchman that nothing can happen to Fredo until his mother dies).

At the congressional hearing, Michael shows up beside Frank Pentangeli’s brother, a native Sicilian. Immediately Frank recants everything he said to the FBI, claiming he only told them what they wanted to hear, and Tom Hagen loudly demands an apology from the committee.

Michael privately meets with Kay to discuss the miscarriage, but in a wild rant she tells Michael she got an abortion because she refused to bring another Corleone child into the world under Michael’s criminal enterprise. Furthermore, she tells him it was a boy. In a fit of rage, Michael punches Kay in the face.

The Vito Corleone Story #4:
Vito takes his family on a vacation to the old country in Sicily. Vito pays a visit to the elderly Don Ciccio under the pretense of an olive oil business arrangment. When asked who his father was, Vito claims it was Antonio Andolini. Vito then whips out a butcher knife and guts the aging Don in broad daylight, thus avenging his father, mother, and brother.

The Michael Corleone Story #4:
In 1959, the Corleone matriarch dies. Michael has still been shunning Fredo but he relents when Connie asks him to finally embrace his brother (Michael covertly gives the sign that Fredo’s demise may now be made). Later, Tom Hagen and Michael discuss their options regarding Hyman Roth who has been seeking asylum from various countries. Michael wants revenge but Tom Hagen counsels Michael against doing anything rash now that the Corleone family is secure. Tom Hagen pays a visit to Frank Pentangeli and subtly encourages him to take his own life in a noble way like a Roman Senator so that his family may be taken care of.

Michael’s sister Connie tries to allow Kay to secretly visit her children (Kay has been effectively excommunicated by Michael) but Michael cautiously approaches and coldly closes the door in her face. The film ends in a montage scene reminiscent of the first film. Frank Pentangeli is found bloodied in a bathtub with his wrists slit, Hyman Roth is gunned down at an airport, and Fredo is quietly shot in the back of the head while fishing on Lake Tahoe.

The penultimate scene gives us a flashback to friendlier times. A much younger Corleone family is gathered around their kitchen table prepping for a surprise party for Vito (Marlon Brando declined to appear in this film). They discuss the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Michael announces he has enlisted in the military. We see Tessio enter the room (he later died in the first movie after betraying the Corleone family), Sonny slaps Michael (Sonny was brutally shot dead in the first movie), Michael’s mother walks in (she has died in the second film), along with Tom Hagen and Fredo (who betrayed Michael and now is dead). Michael sits alone at the table, and the flashback ends. We cut to a scene of Michael sitting alone again at Lake Tahoe in silent contemplation. Now, all of his allies, most of his friends, and his whole family are all dead or ostracized. Michael is truly alone. Whereas his father was always surrounded by people -friends, family, and well-wishers, we see Michael often alone, muted, sitting beside a cold and snowy lake in his large, dark house. The tone is isolating and desolate. Throughout the film I found myself longing to return to those sunny, golden moments at Connie’s wedding ceremony in the outset of the original Godfather. After entering a world that was never meant for him and losing his idealism and faith in people, at the end of the film Michael’s eyes seem cold and dead, yet he is also reflective and introspective.

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