Whether you consider it a strength, or the movie's most damning flaw, I think this much cannot be denied: The Godfather, Part II knows the scale of the movie it's following, and it is hellbent on topping it. 1972's The Godfather, adapted from Mario Puzo's 1969 crime novel, was never supposed to be one of the defining films of the New Hollywood Cinema and from there, of contemporary American filmmaking. It was a commercially-minded adaptation of a sudsy bestseller made by a down-on-his-luck director and starring basically nobody with much of a reputation among critics or audiences.* By the time Part II entered production, Part I was, of course, an anointed modern masterpiece: a box office titan, winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and recognised by the end of its first theatrical run as one of the all-time great American films. The screenplay for the sequel had already been commissioned before the first film even opened, but it was being developed during exactly the period when Part I was making the scope of its achievement known.

And so, back we go: Part II knows the expectations it needs to live up to, and it decides the way to live up to them is go really big. Not that Part I was a tiny film, with its ten-year narrative span and its embrace of themes from the moral deflation of a single human all the way up to The Rise Of America As A Superpower. And yet, it still feels compact and self-contained next to the grandiose sprawl of Part II, which covers a much smaller slice of time in its A-plot - from the early autumn of 1958 to sometime in the second half of 1959† - and has a much narrower range of story material to cover, but nonetheless seems much vaster and greedier in the amount of history it scoops up. And that's not even touching on the B-plot, a very weird set of five chunks of scenes taking place decades earlier than the rest of the movie - even going so far as to call them "flashbacks" would imply a much more identifiable relationship between the two time streams than we are ever given - that themselves offer a potted history of The Immigrant Experience In New York (And From There, The United States As A Whole) that contains more in its limited screentime than any other film on the same theme. Which is in part because virtually every story about early 20th Century immigrants I can name borrows anywhere from "quite a lot" to "literally everything" from this movie.

If the five "can't call them flashback" scenes are probably the element of The Godfather, Part II that has exerted the most influence over the subsequent history of cinema, it's important to acknowledge that they are, nevertheless, a bit marginal. The heart and soul of the film lies in the tale of Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who spent Part I enacting a moral fall from grace. That film tells a complete arc, detailing how a morally grey character who thinks he's superior to the rest of the cast descends into ethical blackness that makes him worse than any of them. It is about a child failing to move outside the shadow of his father, with the wrinkle that his father is a notorious crime lord. It is a character story. Part II is, in contrast, a tragedy - at the end of the first movie, we have not seen Michael's self-destruction, we don't even know that it's coming. We just know that he has become the thing he puported to loathe. The second movie, in contrast, is about very nearly nothing else other than that self-destruction. From the beginning to the end of its imposing 200-minute running time, Part II is about one thing only: Michael losing everything that makes him human, inevitably and inexorably. I do not think, as is often held to be the case, that Part II only works as an extension of Part I. Clearly, it's better if you have the first film to serve as context, and it takes some shortcuts with exposition that only a sequel could take. But I do think it's a perfectly self-contained object, because of how obsessively it focuses on just the one thing: Michael's tumble into spiritual oblivion.

This makes it a more focused and intensified experience than the first movie, and pretty much everything works towards making sure we feel that intensity. The most obvious example of that is Pacino's own performance: he is much louder and bolder-faced than he was in Part I, describing a much simpler and less nuanced arc. I still prefer his work here; it is more naked and raw, less about crafting a complicated character than about laying bare pure, furious, naked emotion. It is, in this sense, the first example of what would soon become Pacino's speciality, and then become a crutch, and lastly become an embarrassing tic that made almost all of his performances from the late-'90s onward veer into unabashed, unlikable camp. But that is all in the future. Here, all that energy is more tightly wound, focused in his body and his big staring angry eyes. I have been known in the past to call this my favorite performance ever given by a man in an English-language film, and while I don't know if I can quite stick with that, it's still operating at a level of heightened operatic fury that I find completely intoxicating. It is not a little movie - it does not want a little performance at its center, and it absolutely does not get one.

Pacino's performance is one of the primary ways in which Part II is just heavier overall than its predecessor. I have heard it said, I do not know on what authority, that director-producer Francis Ford Coppola was upset that audiences didn't entirely suss out the moral message of The Godfather, responding as much to it portrait of honor between thieves and timeworn traditions, and the general lushness of the Corleones' lifestyle, as to the destruction of Michael's soul, and one of his goals with Part II was to leave no doubt that these were wretched, awful people doing wretched-awful things. To this end, the new film has a story that's much more politically sprawling than anything in the first movie. That film had virtually no characters who weren't part of the New York Mafia; Part II has several. Part I was all about the maneuvers within the Mafia, and between the powerful families; Part II is about how the Mafia fits into society at large, and the currents of history in the middle of the 20th Century. It is much more overtly about the corruption and underhanded dealing that are the meat of organised crime, and as a result, it's much harder to feel any sense of romanticism for what we're seeing. It's ugly stuff being conducted by craven people, right from first big scene in 1958: the confirmation party of Michael's son, a bland celebration that has been pointedly stripped clean of any traces of Italian tradition, the better to accomoate the venal WASP senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) who gives an alarmingly unconvincing speech about how much he loves his good buddy Michael Corleone. This is part of the film's overwhelming cynicism: not only do various tendrils of organised crime have their hands around the throats of multiple governments, nobody involved can bother to put up the pretense otherwise.

All of the very complicated shenanigans that go into the story - which is ultimately about how an attempt to jockey for influence in Cuba leads to bad blood between the Corleones, other New York families, and an independent and massively powerful Jewish mobster named Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), and how the interchange of betrayals and revenge killings triggered by this plot continues to unspool even after the Cuban government falls to the Communist rebels and the stakes have been reduced to basically nothing - are much grubbier than the only slightly less complicated shenanigans that went into the first movie. Nothing much is actually achieved; a lot of people die, power is consolidated, but the stakes are murky and ultimately irrelevant. This is the point, I think: it's all just corruption and depravity for no real point, making Michael's descent that much more tragic, since it doesn't even yield anything tangible.

So much for the A-plot. What about those leaps back to the past, and the arrival of the orphan Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) of Corleone, Sicily to the United States in the first years of the 20th Century? This material is taken from Puzo's novel, and the tonal difference with the material in the 1950s is striking. For one, the narrative focus is more diffuse: the Vito scenes, which go on to trace his almost accidental stumble into a life of crime as he grows into adulthood (played by a young actor nobody had heard of named Robert De Niro), and then his actions that solidified his power as the head gangster of a neighborhood, play like a summary of a much more sprawling, multi-year process. Michael's story really just includes one storyline, which takes around a year to play out; it is concrete and driven where Vito's is hazy and memoiristic. The film knows this, and leans into it: Gordon Willis's cinematography puts a huge gulf between the Michael scenes, which are basically just a higher-contrast, darker, and browner version of his groundbreaking work in the first movie, and the Vito scenes, which paint New York in the first quarter of the 20th Century in rich golden hues and a much softer, almost glowing look. It's an aesthetic that has influenced basically every single subsequent screen portrayal of New York between the 1890s and 1910s, with some of its most notable descendants including Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, and James Gray's The Immigrant, and it gives all of them a similar tone of picture-book nostalgia. Part II makes use of that, with Vito's story seeming warmer and more simply pleasurable than Michael's, though the closer it gets to the end, the more that even this nostalgia is poisoned by violence.

As for what in the hell the two movies are doing in the same film: it's not exactly the case that the Vito plot runs in parallel to the Michael plot. Nor do the stories exactly comment on each other. But they do hook into each other: the points at which the film cuts between the two storylines are connective by certain motifs and concepts, and even more by tone; the familial warmth of the Vito scenes always seems to know when to intrude into the chilliness of the Michael scenes to make it clear how far the son has fallen, even as the fifth of the Vito sequences offers the bleak punchline that Michael has turned out this way because he never had a chance with a killer mobster as a father. It's both tragic and ironic.

Coppola has, I think, become an even stronger director than he was with the first film: there is generally more interesting blocking throughout the sequel, and stronger performances overall. In the former list, I would think of something like the very random Hyman Roth birthday scene, in which two nameless mooks serve cake to several gathered politicians and criminals; it creates an odd tension between Roth's attempts to hold court, and the ungainly human activity that simply refuses to stop long enough to dignify the moment. Most scenes aren't quite this aggressively shaggy, but enough of them do have this kind of messiness that I suspect we're seeing the fruits of Part I's success: Coppola got to do this kind of thing because he had earned a free reign.

As far as the actors, beyond my preference for Pacino here, this film also has, in Talia Shire and John Cazale, two better supporting performances than anything in the exemplary cast of the first film. Shire has greatly expanded her character from a meek little sidekick to a calculating, active member of the crime family, a thoughtful strategist in her own right, sort of like the feeling human mirror to Michael. If there's any sense in which The Godfather, Part III actually earns being this film's sequel, Shire's performance is the core of how that works. Cazale similarly deepens his character from a pathetic sad sack to a pathetic sad sack with a vivid psychopathic streak, revealing the depths of bitterness and hate in his characters' guts ever so slowly, so that we can still be mostly blindsided by his huge exploisive rant near the end.

And to be sure, Part II has its share of unforced errors. The worst of these, by far, is its complete failure to do anything remotely interesting with Kay, Michael's wife; Diane Keaton is strangled by a role that asks her to look nettled in the background of shots a lot, and is at her most interesting only when Willis lights her in blue in a shot dominated by brown. She is saddled with a nightmare of a monologue, including the all-time awful metaphor "It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael! Just like our marriage is an abortion! Something that's unholy and evil!" And it goes on for ages: I get that the film need to give Michael time to get wound up enough that he hits Kay, which is the moment at which he becomes irredeemable once and for all, and Pacino's reaction shots are some of his best acting in the whole movie. But there's no need to humiliate Keaton (a much bigger name in 1974 than '72) by asking her to make this doggerel the center of an undernourished part that could be much more central, to the film's benefit.

The film generally has a problem giving all of its characters enough to do: as great as Shire and Cazale are, Robert Duvall joins Keaton in being entirely wasted (though at least he is hung with no dreadful dialogue), only given a chance to stand-out in a scene that's a direct retread of one from the last movie. New character Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) - who clearly should have been Clemenza from the first movie, but there was a whole thing with the actor - sits uncertainly between comic relief and serious player in the plot machinations, and while Gazzo handles the role extremely well, it routinely pushes him into needlessly goofy extremes. The WASPy senator doesn't have nearly enough personality for how much screen time he gets. And if I can be permitted a complete heresy, I don't really love De Niro as young Vito: he's copying Marlon Brando's whispery line delivery and it's clear he doesn't entirely know why he's doing it (fellow nominees Gazzo and Strasberg both deserved the Supporting Actor Oscar more than De Niro did, and the unnominated Cazale deserved it more still).

For the most part, though, the two films are a pretty evenly matched set: Gordon Willis is up to the same wonderful things in both, as is composer Nino Rota (who starts to draw some very strong distinctions between "Italian" and "Italian-American" - and just plain "American", for that matter - in his melodies, helping to guide the film's themes about immigrants' duty to their home country, and to their heritage). While the film doesn't fly by as fast as Part I did, it's still a remarkably spry 200 minutes. And once again, the question of how America formed itself in the years after World War II makes such a faultless parallel with the story of Michael's soul-destroying depravity that it's hard to tell whether this is mostly a metaphor or mostly a character drama, because it's superb at both. One of the best American films of its generation got one of the best sequels ever made - hardly something that obviously had to happen, and it speaks immensely highly over everyone involved in making Part II that they so consistently took the hard path to making something that could stand head and shoulders with the original, deepening it and expanding it while hardly ever repeating it.

Reviews in this series
The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
The Godfather, Part II (Coppola, 1974)
The Godfather, Part III (Coppola, 1990)

*Brando, recall, was at the nadir of his career in the years immediately prior to The Godfather.

†One scene near the end is heavily implied to take place right around the U.S. presidential election in 1960, but it's detached from the rest of the story.