[You’ll have to forgive all the shuffling around and editing in real time that’s happened to this post. It grew so large to where I needed to divide it in half, and in doing so WordPress had some issues with editing. Basically, I thought I had safely uploaded the first half and was editing the second in private, but little did I realize I was making changes to what I’d already posted in real time. Hopefully it’s all straightened out now.]
Ambiguous Plot Threads
What makes Part II ripe for endless rewatches and discussion is that there are many unanswered questions which it leaves to the viewer’s imagination. Some might say this is the film failing to accurately explain everything, but I greatly prefer this approach to the endless exposition and hand-holding in other movies. It both respects the audience’s intelligence enough to assume we can read between the lines and encourages us to look for clues. Here are a few examples:
- There was a theory on the old IMDb forums that Rocco Lampone also turned on Mike, and killed the would-be assassins to cover up his involvement. This is why he doesn’t promise to get them alive (“We’ll try.”) Mike already knew they’d be killed by whoever the traitor was, and Rocco was the one in their vicinity when the dead bodies were found. We know Fredo betrayed Mike, as that’s the whole point of the movie, but a killer he ain’t. And this explains why Mike sends Rocco on a suicide mission at the end. Rocco doesn’t balk at the notion of going to kill Hymen Roth in front of the FBI because he ultimately was given the same deal as Frank Pentangeli–he’d plotted against the Emperor and failed, so he killed himself in a useful manner so his own family would be spared.
- Where did those army men come from who killed Mike’s bodyguard before he could asphyxiate Hyman Roth? Was it Fredo who tipped them off when he went to get a “real drink?” If so, that means Fredo was still actively conspiring against Mike at this point which makes him far less sympathetic. It means that when Fredo was enthusiastically trying to get Mike to describe his move earlier, in their one brotherly scene in the film, he was doing so with malicious intent. Fredo actively withheld the information that the Senate hearing was a deliberate attempt to sabotage Mike and only relayed that fact after being goaded twice by Mike. (“The Senate lawyer, Questhadt, he belongs to Roth.”) The magnanimous interpretation of this betrayal is that Fredo was too scared to reach out and inform Mike, but if Fredo also tipped off the army men, that reveals a pattern of him still plotting against his own brother throughout the story. In Fredo’s defense, the phone call with Johnny Ola does seem to suggest that he was through with Roth after the failed hit, (either too scared to try again or realizing the moral consequences of his actions) but it’s overall a very subjective picture of his character. Fredo is morally gray, and exactly what shade depends on your interpretation of events. Personally, whether Fredo was still actively conspiring against him or not, I do not think it absolves Mike of guilt; he chose this lifestyle where such a crime could even be a possibility.
- Why does the Rosato Brother taunt Pentangeli with the lie that “Michael Corleone says hello” when he tries to strangle him? If it was to get Frank to testify, how did he also know the cop would come to break up the hit? If the cop wasn’t planned, then would they have killed Frankie or perhaps put the fear of God into him so he’d follow orders instead? If they did kill him, then how would Hyman have bested Mike at this point? There was another hit planned on Mike while he was in Cuba but the communist revolution threw a wrench in those machinations, and the Senate hearing was probably Roth making the most of a shifting situation.
- Was Pentangeli’s brother brought in to shame him, or as a message that “we can’t kill you but we can still kill your family?” I prefer the latter, but the implication seems to be the former in some instances. There’s considerable debate, because on the one hand the brother doesn’t look frightened in the hearing and Frank describes him as “ten times tougher than me.” However, I believe the threat of a family retribution is more in keeping with Tom Hagen’s speech about the Romans, and of keeping the mutineers’ families safe if they commit suicide. Plus, the way Kay doesn’t buy Michael’s shit (“all he had to do was show his face?”) seems to be the script implying it was more than a brotherly matter as Mike wants her to believe. Kay knew the kind of man Michael was at that point, and it seems that we are meant to share her perspective of that event. It’s possible the brother was made to believe Michael’s intent in bringing him was about keeping the family honor intact, but really there was more to it…
- There’s a subtle but brilliant little touch when Mike accuses Tom of shopping for a better job elsewhere and Tom gets offended. Look at the cutaway to Al Neri and he’s smiling in a very menacing way, clearly enjoying the tension. It’s my belief that he provided the damning information and is working behind the scenes to accentuate the divide between Michael and his last remaining family member. This way, after Mike is alone and friendless, Al can kill him without retribution and take over the business. This is mostly just a hunch of mine, one I haven’t seen anyone else support. Nevertheless, I love the irony that Michael is literally digging his own grave the whole movie, walking into a future assassination while avenging another. It would be in keeping with the conventions of a true Greek tragedy to think that in purging himself of potential threats, Michael was actually making himself more vulnerable the whole time.
- The weakness of Fanucci is not spelled out to the viewer directly. Vito doesn’t reveal it to Tessio and Clemenza in a big courtroom drama style recap. The clues are subtle but undeniable if one pays attention, however. The fact that he personally threatens all of his victims in one. The fact that he strong-arms his way into perks of his neighborhood’s “friendship” is another. (Contrast how Fanucci forces Abandando to take on his nephew in the grocery store vs how Vito could call in favors from anyone and they’d be happy to oblige.) Fanucci steals single oranges off a cart, or dresses right off a truck, rather than take them wholesale or receive them as tribute. He almost immediately lowers the amount of money he’s asking for when Vito mentions having friends as if he fears retribution. Rather than threaten with hitmen, he threatens Vito that he’ll call the cops on him. In a deleted scene, some teenage punks cut Fanucci’s throat without retribution. After Fanucci accepts less money from Vito, and practically apologizes for the inconvenience to boot, he pinches Vito’s cheek and the latter feels the wetness of Fanucci’s sweaty hands, indicating the supposed King of the Neighborhood was more nervous than his supposed victim. It’s a brilliant characterization that for all his projections of strength, Fanucci still manages to appear weak if one knows what to look for.
In stark contrast, the scene where Fredo reveals himself as the traitor is so unsubtle that, in lesser hands, it may have come across as a farce. However it manages to work despite the ridiculously on-the-nose parallel. Fredo just outright admits his disloyalty in a stupid drunken haze. In his own way, Michael is being violated just as gruesomely as the woman on stage taking in Superman’s massive dick. Yet somehow the music and atmosphere makes this moment effective despite how ham-fisted the setup reads on paper.
The Fate of All Empires
The Godfather Part II is the defining statement on Western society in the medium of film. (Or, one of them at least.) By showing us the birth and decline of the Corleone family, it demonstrates what gives rise to an empire and how they always lose their way.
Along with the fights between Micael and Fredo or Kay, the best scene in the whole movie is where Tom meets with Frankie and suggests he commit suicide. Tom does so by talking about ancient Rome, and how an exposed plotter against the emperor’s life could still maintain his family’s honor and wealth if he killed himself. In-universe the reason Tom expresses his instructions in such a roundabout way is because guards are listening. He can’t just say “Mike wants you to kill yourself.” Artistically, this allows us to place the rise and fall of the Corleones in the greater context of the Western world. Rome was a backwater town that held its own against other small-time Italic cities before besting the old-old world of Greece, Carthage and the Middle East, eventually conquering all of them and more. It did so through its militarily adaptability, its reputation for ruthlessness and the ability to levy troops after defeats which would have sent other cities scrambling for surrender. Similarly, America was once the poor, precarious upstart that’s now the lone superpower on Earth, supposedly believing in the enlightened values of liberty and democracy all the way. Just as the Corleones were initially a new breed of mafia family which helped the little people like Signora Columbo rather than bully them as Don Ciccio or Fanucci had before.
In each case, the decline began when moral lines were crossed. For the Corleones, ironically this came with the murder of Ciccio. When you’re murdering harmless old men half a world away who can do you no harm then it’s not strictly business, it’s absolutely personal. This precedent would lead them to the slaying of a brother who was no longer a threat purely for ruthlessness. By projecting such an unflinchingly fearsome reputation, Michael backed himself into a corner where he could no longer afford to look weak even if it meant sparing a family member’s life. For Rome, eventually the facade of republicanism which had allowed Augustus to prosper would come back to bite the empire when there was no formal method of succession. This allowed any man with an army to claim the right of imperial authority during the crisis of the third century, after which it was never the same again. For America, it’s the destruction of our own Constitution for the sake of the farce that is the War on Terror. It’s when we went from a truly reluctant leader, a modern Cincinnatus in Washington to the power-hungry and dishonorable Nixon. It was when we overextended our reach abroad and can no longer afford to pull back for fear of the whole rotten system caving in behind us.
By framing the story with Vito’s arrival at America, all the immigrants gazing at the Statue of Liberty in awe, we can appreciate the corruption of America as it relates to everyday people like the Corleones. We see it go from a promising land of new opportunities to a place rampant with the same tin pot dictators who make life miserable for those whom they feel they can assert power over. The government won’t protect him, so Vito does what he must to keep his family’s position secure. Later, in the Michael sections, we see politicians rubbing elbows with known mobsters while hypocritically acting as though they were above it at the same time. Our “noble” magistrates (personified by Senator Pat Geary) spend their time soliciting prostitutes and investing in shady Havana enterprises. They don’t take any action against criminals like the mob families unless they’re (ironically) being payed off by other mafiosos to do so!
The Cuban revolution is another example of this theme in the movie. It represents the final state of a corrupt government, when it collapses under the weight of its own top-heavy power structure. People can only be kept down for so long before they lash out against their tormentors. The discontent with the gridlocked republic allowed a demagogue like Julius Caesar to rise to power. The Batista regime selling out the country to foreign plunder created the demand for a communist regime like Castro’s. America refusing to protect its downtrodden immigrants allowed the Mafia to become so powerful in the first place. And Michael Corleone, by alienating everyone in his family, fostered the betrayals of Fredo, Pentangeli and Kay. He made a point of noticing that Castro’s men believed in their cause while the army had to be paid. He noted this as a weakness, but failed to see the parallel to his own empire and how his father gave his underlings something to believe in. Michael, in an early scene with Tom, treats them as businessmen only, and assumes their loyalty can be bought. There’s a reason everyone from (supposedly) Rocco Lampone to Tom Hagen was looking for greener pastures during the height of Michael’s power, while Vito’s underlings remained loyal even when his strength was at its weakest ebb.
The fall of Rome haunts the collective Western consciousness. The lesson that all empires, no matter how large, inevitably fall is one we all know but constantly challenge anyway. What makes Godfather II so powerful is that it takes that idea and embodies it through the focused, personal fall of Michael Corleone. The story is a classic Greek tragedy personifying the folly of Western Civilization at the same time. That’s what elevates this as a far more thought provoking narrative than either its classical peers like Medea or Shakespearean cousins like MacBeth. (And certainly it proves the sequel’s superiority to its exalted predecessor if my opinion counts for anything.)
The Final Scene
The last scene in the film is a stupendous bookend to the two-film saga, full of callbacks, sadness and fan service done right (looking at you, Force Awakens). It’s a very haunting scene; everyone starts off happy but end up leaving Mike alone one by one. There’s the characterizations from the predecessor but masked in the depressing undertone which Part II lives and dies by. Coming after the tragedy we know is about to befall this family, it’s a superb example of dramatic irony, making us wish we could turn back the clock.
I think most people who are interested in Godfather know by now that Marlon Brando was initially supposed to return, but declined to his mistreatment from Paramount. In this blogger’s humble opinion, that ended up being for the best. I think Brando would have overshadowed the point of the scene, and perhaps drowned out the atmosphere which the entire picture had constructed. (As I said earlier, Brando’s presence in the original seemed to add an air of reassurance to its tone, and the absence of that is one of the qualities which makes Part II superior in my eyes.)
What seems to be a lesser known bit of trivia is that originally there was another scene in the script where an adult Anthony rebukes his father, Michael, and leaves the family. I’m glad this was cut as well, for I think it would have felt a little too on-the-nose. One of Part II’s strengths, as described earlier, is its subtlety and leaving so much to the imagination. I find it much more compelling if Anthony’s fate is unknown, and the viewer is left to decide if he had the strength to walk away or perhaps became another sensitive Fredo-archetype born into a cruel world. We don’t know his destiny but an emotionally negligent father, criminal background, murdered Uncle and divorced mother are not the makings of a successful development.
Essentially what the filmed version of this scene is telling us is that Michael has always been an outcast in his own family. Even when he was surrounded by people he purposefully set himself apart, he made decisions that he knew others would disapprove of and almost reveled in their displeasure. On the face of it, that’s a great leader, sticking to his guns no matter how unpopular. But when you factor in the emotional complexities of being a family patriarch, that’s a whole different set of skills which Michael just wasn’t prepared to handle. Ironically, Fredo would have been a great father, as I said earlier, but he was ill-equipped for the cut-throat business side of things. The tragedy is neither man had the very diverse set of people skills which their father mastered, that allowed him to run both seamlessly.
In terms of subtext, there’s also a lot to take in here:
- Sonny proudly introduces his friend Carlo to Connie, setting them up to be a couple, even though their marriage troubles would lead to his death years later. He calls Mike “stupid” for the wrong reasons, but the descriptor is accurate in that Mike made bad decisions which destroyed his family. Mike was too stupid to appreciate the good thing he had in front of him.
- Fredo was the only one to congratulate Michael on his decision, showing that he always had Mike’s back even when others didn’t. You can hear Sonny order Fredo to get him a drink, displaying just how far back he was made to feel inadequate by his own family. Perhaps he could tolerate it under Sonny as he was both the oldest and could be dismissed as a hothead. But to then have the younger, quiet civilian brother turn around and treat you the same way if not worse must have felt like a slap in the face.
- Tom Hagen is plotting Michael’s future with the Don, while in the future he will be Michael’s underling at his beck and call.
- Tessio is a dutiful member of the family here, even though he will betray them in the future. (Pentangeli too, in place of Clemenza.)
- Michael claims to have his own plans for the future, when we know the first film will throw a monkey wrench in them. Clearly Michael never imagined being a Don, much less a fratricidal wife-beater. He’ll never be the kind of person that people love enough to throw surprise parties for.