Saturday, February 18, 2012



THE GODFATHER II was the first sequel to ever win a best picture award, and, with its epic sweep, gorgeous period sets, and terrific acting, its victory was far from surprising.  Whether or not it's superior to the original is often still debated, but what isn't is how impressive an achievement both films were for writer director Francis Ford Coppola, who, somewhat amazingly, also made the excellent THE CONVERSATION the same year that this was released.
Given its enormous box office success, it was no surprise that Paramount studios wanted a sequel to THE GODFATHER.  At first, Coppola, remembering all the difficulty he had with the studio on the first film, did not want to direct it himself, and he recommended Martin Scorsase to the studio as a director, while he himself would produce it. Although Scorsase had already made the gangster film MEAN STREETS by then, (to great critical acclaim) the studio said no, and so Coppola agreed to accept the directoral reins himself.   But this time he was able to dictate his own terms: he would, for the most part, be given unlimited funds for the film, and there would be no studio interference.  Also,  he wanted the film to be called THE GODFATHER PART II and not THE GODFATHER PART 2.  Although the studio initially balked at the use of a roman numeral, which had never been used for a sequel to a Hollywood movie before, it would eventually become a standard usage for film series, with even the trashy FRIDAY THE 13TH movies using roman numerals!
Coppola would work again with the novel's original author, Mario Puzo, on the script, and early on they realized that they could not only tell the continuing story of Micheal Coreleone, but that they could use flashbacks to cover the early days of  original Godfather Vito Coreleone and his rise to power.  It was a brilliant move, in that it allowed the film to show the enormous changes that both the Coreleone family and the country itself went through over the years.  Then mostly unknown actor Robert De Niro was cast to play the young Vito after Coppola remembered what an impressive audition he had given for the first film.  Most of the rest of the cast from the first film returned, except for Marlon Brando, who was slated for a cameo but turned it down because he was still mad about how little he was paid for the first film. Also, Richard Castellano, who  played Clemenza in the first film,  couldn't come to terms with Coppola about his role in the second film, so his character was rewritten to be Frank Pentangeli, with gravel voiced playwright  Micheal Gazzo cast in the role.  And for the crucial role of Jewish mobster Hymen Roth (loosely based on real life gangster Myer Lansky), legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg  was brought in for his only film role.   Surprisingly, given how much he and Coppola fought while shooting the first film, Gordon Willis returned as cinematographer. Nino Rota was also brought back to do the soundtrack, although much of his now famous score for the first film was reprised.  In contrast to the first film, the shoot for this one went smoothly, moving from different locations in the US to Italy and the Dominican Republic (substituting for Cuba), while no expense was spared in recreating early twentieth century Little Italy in New York. The final budget for the film was over fourteen million dollars, about twice that of the first film, and its final box office take was around forty eight million, less than half of the first film, still, it was far from a flop. 
The film's story cuts between the early twentieth century, when a nine year old Vito makes his way to America from Italy and eventually becomes a criminal leader, and 1958, when Vito's son Micheal considers expanding his criminal empire from hotels in Las Vegas to Cuba while dealing with the duplicitous Hymen Roth.  He also discovers that he has been betrayed by his dim witted older brother Fredo (John Cazale).

Al Pacino

While Marlon Brando's regal Vito and James Caan's dynamic Sonny are both sorely missed from the first film, (Caan camoes in the film's final scene) there's no denying that Coppola once again gets great performances from his full cast.  Pacino may be even better here than he was in the first film; his Micheal now has a dead eyed glare mixed with a volatile temper that shows just how low he has sunk.  And the moment where he confronts Fredo after learning of his betrayal has rightfully become a classic scene in movie history.  And Cazale's Fredo, who has relatively minor in the first film, really comes across here, playing a man who is not only a fool, but one who is tragic and embittered over the fact that his younger brother is the one who runs the family business instead of him.  He has a great scene late in the film where he first begs with Micheal to forgive him and then lashes out at him.  And Diane Keaton, who is mostly in the background here, gets a very strong moment in which finally confronts Micheal and storms out on him for good; Talia Shire also has a very good scene(she's much better here than she was in the first film) in which she begs Micheal to forgive Fredo, still simmering with her anger at him for having her first husband killed.    And, like in the first film, Coppola  sometimes used non movie actors, like Micheal Grazzo and Lee Strasberg,  and once again it worked like a charm.
But the real discovery in this film is, of course, Robert De Niro, in his first real break out role as the young Vito Corleone, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor award.  After he was cast in the part, De Niro, showing the  attention to detail for a role that would become his trademark, lived in Sicily for a while before shooting to more understand his character and get his accent right.  De Niro wisely avoids imitating Brando's performance from the first film and instead creates a totally new and believable character, one who genuinely seems to grow in stature and power right before our eyes.  Coppola and Puzo frame him as the classic American immigrant success story, in which that success just happens to be in organized crime.  And its fun to see that Vito entrance to a life of crime was an inadvertent one, as he literally has a bag of stolen guns dumped in his window by a young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby).

The cutting between the past story and the more recent one works wonderfully: it allows us to see not only the contrast between Micheal and his father, but the changes the country itself went through in a single generation.  While Vito  flees Italy as a child to wind up in a Little Italy that is almost the same as the country he left,  Micheal, who, it is pointed out, does not have a single Italian musician playing at his son's communion party, has moved so far from his father's Italian New York roots that he now spends most of his attention on Las Vegas and considers moving on to Cuba.  It also shows how far Micheal has gone from his father's belief in the importance of family (Vito kills a rival gangster, and then immediately goes home to hug his wife and kids), as Micheal winds up alienating his wife, sister and brother.  
The increase in budget over the first film allows Coppola enjoyable indulgences like an extended recreation of the Cuban revolution and the lovely staging of a religious festival in Little Italy.  And while Gordon Willis's camerawork may be a bit too dark and shadowy, at times,  he mostly delivers a terrific looking film, that at two hundred minutes, never slows down.

Robert De Niro

As I mentioned in my review of THE GODFATHER, Coppola was stung by accusations that he made 
his gangsters too likable, and he certainly seems to have taken that to heart with Micheal's character; much of the film has him being confronted by people dumping on him for terrible things he has done or is considering doing, until he is truly all alone.  While we can admire his intelligence in knowing how to run his business well (he sees the Cuban revolution coming and makes sure he can get away, and later figures out how to avoid jail time by applying the right kind of pressure on a witness), this is undercut by his complete lack of joy in his work; he wants more power and money for power and money's sake.  Even a scene where he tenderly talks to his young son is undercut by the clear implication that he expects his son to someday join him in the family business.   Michael's complete moral corruption is strikingly shown in a montage of killings (one character is coerced into suicide) being carried out on his orders towards the end that purposely echoes a similar montage at the end of the first film, but with  striking differences: although the murders in the first film are brutal, they are carried out either as defense against attacks or in order to increase the family's interest.  In other words, they are strictly business.  But in the second film he has Roth and Pentangeli killed, even though he has already undercut both of them, and neither could possibly be seen as a threat.  And to make matters worse, he has Fredo killed, even when his brother has admitted that he was wrong and begged for his life.  It's an act of complete bitter spite.  While I understand what Coppola and Puzo were getting at here, I do think it highlights what is the film's biggest flaw; while there is a lot going on the first film, I think it's mainly a tragic story about how Michael, a young man from a criminal family, tries to avoid being drawn into his family's business, but is eventually corrupted, and winds taking it over completely.  The second film begins with his character already evil, and shows him sinking lower and lower, until he doesn't even wince as he hears the gun shot that kills his brother.  I find the changes his character goes through in the first film more compelling, and therefore I think the first film is slightly better.  But really, they're both wonderfully made, excellent films that continue to watched again and again by modern audiences.


1974 was a terrific year for film, with not only Coppola making this and THE CONVERSATION, but also Scorsase's ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE and Bob Fosse's LENNY,  not to mention those perennial comedy classics MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and Mel Brook's YOUNG FRANKENSTIEN being released that year.  But to me, the film that stands above the rest and that should have won  is Roman Polanski's outstanding detective movie,  CHINATOWN.  As much as I love GODFATHER II,  I think Polanski's film was the really outstanding one of that year.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

THE STING (1973)


Sandwiched between the victories for the first two GODFATHER movies, George Roy Hill's THE STING is a good natured period piece made in the classic Hollywood style, complete with likable stars and a fun story.  While it is perhaps a trifle too light weight, it's still highly entertaining.  Its victory also marked the first time that a woman ever won an Oscar for Best Picture; the late Julia Phillips, who in 1991 famously penned a scandalous Hollywood memoir, YOU'LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN.
Screenwriter David S Ward first came up with the idea for THE STING while researching con artists for his first film, STEELYARD BLUES.  Loosely basing his script on the real life exploits of  brothers Charlie and Fred Gondorf, Ward wrote with Robert Redford in mind for the lead role of John Hooker.  Director Hill liked the script, and eventually he and Ward convinced  Redford to star.  Hill also brought along Paul Newman to play veteran card sharp Henry Gondorff; it seemed like a logical choice since it was Hill who had brought the two handsome stars together in 1969's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and their immediate, easy going chemistry had made that film a critical and commercial hit.  Although set in Chicago, creating the 1930's setting proved easier to do on sets in Los Angeles, except for a few exterior shots. The  shooting process went easily, and the film opened on Christmas day 1973.  Not surprisingly, it became an immediate hit, grossing over 160 million dollars on a budget of around five.
Set in 1936, its the story of John Hooker (Redford), a small time grifter who, with his partner Luther  (Robert Earl Jones), tricks a man on the street out of ten thousand dollars.  Unfortunately, the money belonged to big time gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who has Luther killed.  John teams up with well known con man Henry Gondorff to get vengeance on Doyle; using a large gang, they set up an elaborate fake gambling parlor to trick Doyle.  Meanwhile, corrupt cop Lt. Synder (Charles Durning) is pressuring Hooker for money. 

Paul Newman and Robert Redford

This really is a fun movie, with lots of nice touches; from Edith Head's Oscar winning costumes to the great looking sets and sepia toned cinematography, not to mention the clever use of old hand drawn title cards, (made to look like Norman Rockwell paintings), to set up the story.  Hill said that he got the idea of using the music of Scott Joplin in the film after overhearing his son playing some in his room, and while a stickler may note that Joplin's music predated the film's setting by about twenty years, who cares when Joplin's arrangements are played so wonderfully by Marvin Hamlisch on the soundtrack, and add such a jaunty air to the film.
In keeping with the lighthearted tone, Redford and Newman never take themselves too seriously and rely on their natural charms to carry the film.  Newman often seems to be having fun here, especially when he rudely berates Doyle while cheating him at cards, meanwhile the more earnest Redford does a good job of using his natural likability to make himself a believable con artist.  And Shaw, with his loud Irish brogue and threatening limp, makes a good villain as  Doyle.  Durning also makes a good, despicable cop.

Robert Shaw

Hill makes sure that the film really zips along (his formula seems to be, whenever the story starts to slow down, have some bad guys start chasing Redford, which happens three times in the film!), and Ward's script comes up with a believable way for our heroes to fleece Doyle  and get rid of Lt. Synder without either of them coming across as total fools, with Newman's Gondorff using a small army of loyal con men to pull the scam off. The film's final twist doesn't really work, since it involves a moment where we are supposed to believe that Hooker has sold out Gondorff; really how many people in the audience would think that a Newman Redford buddy movie could possibly end with one of them backstabbing the other.  Still, this is a minor point that hardly hurts the film.
Overall, I do prefer the first paring of Newman and Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, over this film, because that film had a historical heft and themes (the ending of the old west) that the more lightweight THE STING does not have.  Still, both films are a delight to watch, and I often wish the two stars made more films together.


While I praise this film quite highly, I can't quite say that I think it was the best film of that year.  Not when George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Peter Bogdanovich's PAPER MOON(another movie about con artists), William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (perhaps the best horror movie ever made), Bob Raphelson's THE LAST DETAIL and Bernardo Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS were all also released then.  But, I can't say that THE STING is a bad choice.