Almost 20 years ago, when I was film editor of Time Out magazine, to celebrate the centenary of the first public film screenings by the Lumière brothers we invited several hundred filmmakers, critics, programmers and other professionals to vote for their top 10 movies. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) topped the poll. The runner-up was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), some way ahead of Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).
That’s a little different to the results of the 2012 Sight & Sound Polls. Among critics and programmers, the Hitchcock, Welles and Renoir made the Sight & Sound top five; The Godfather clocked in at number 21 and The Godfather Part II at number 31. Among directors, meanwhile, The Godfather nabbed seventh place and Part II 30th.
The discrepancies can obviously be put down partly to changes in taste and perspective over the years, partly to the different people polled. But also, the fact that Coppola’s film did so well in the Time Out poll may be attributed in part to our having decided not to distinguish between the various parts of the trilogy (some people had voted for the whole thing, some for the first two parts, others for either the first or the second part), whereas Sight & Sound treated the constituent parts of the trilogy as entirely separate films.
Still, whichever way you look at it, The Godfather trilogy – thanks to its first two superlative instalments – undoubtedly ranks as one of the most highly respected achievements in filmmaking of the last half century.
I first saw the original film shortly after its initial release and was certainly impressed by its scale and sobriety. But it wasn’t until a second viewing in the mid-70s, by which time I had changed from an ordinary, fairly regular filmgoer into a full-blown cinephile watching an average of around half a dozen movies each week, that I saw it again and came to recognise more of its virtues (and, indeed, more of its flaws).
In the meantime, I’d had the chance to see The Godfather Part II. This was just as I was falling head-over-heels in love with film as an artform (as opposed to the mere entertainment I’d been looking for as a schoolkid), and I was knocked out. It was a time when I was discovering the work of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujio Ozu, not to mention what seemed to be distinctly unHollywoodian American films by the likes of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Dennis Hopper, Sam Peckinpah, Terrence Malick and Bob Rafelson. And the Godfather films – especially the second one – seemed to mesh perfectly with the seductive combination of innovative art and adult entertainment purveyed by these directors.
Why Part II even more than Part I? For more than 40 years now, I’ve rated the sequel more highly than the original, even if it doesn’t have Marlon Brando to lend it his peculiar brand of mythic grandeur. I like the first film enormously, for the performances by that extraordinary cast (besides Brando and Al Pacino, there’s James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire, not to mention two more superb veterans in Richard Conte and the inimitable Sterling Hayden); for Gordon Willis’ brooding cinematography; for Dean Tavoularis’ art direction; for the carefully crafted dialogue, the measured pace and the stately sense of family ritual.
But The Godfather Part II has nearly all that (sadly, the veterans are no longer in the cast, though you do get the Actors’ Studio’s near-legendary Lee Strasberg as a welcome addition) and more – and I don’t just mean Robert De Niro, at his most hauntingly beautiful as the young Vito Corleone.
There lies the key to the film’s superiority and greatness: it’s both sequel and prequel, extending the original film’s timeframe both backwards to Vito’s arrival in New York from Sicily at the start of the 20th century and forwards to his son Michael’s ruthless protection of his own authority as family capo during a period of expansion into Las Vegas, Cuba and elsewhere.
Where the first film was to some extent simply about the constant conflict between the Corleones on the one hand and competing clans and corrupt cops on the other – with, by the way, the existence of innocent victims of organised crime barely if ever acknowledged – its successor is about something more dynamic: the changes that take place not only in the Corleones (and, more particularly, within Michael himself) but in America itself.
The pernicious and increasing influence of organised crime on ordinary people (including, initially, young Vito, his wife and children) and on the so-called bastions of society – not just the police but the politicians and judiciary – becomes a dominant theme of the film, which coolly chronicles one family’s inexorable progress from petty to corporate crime, from survival instinct to an icy, self-destructive obsession with power for power’s sake.
It’s why the film is imbued with such a strong undertow of melancholy; it’s there, calm and chilling, in Michael’s eyes. And it’s that melancholy, that almost tragic self-awareness about what might have been and all that has been lost, that makes The Godfather Part II far, far more than just another gangster movie.