Four Frames – The Godfather: Part II (1974)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. It’s the festive season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘family’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘family’ classic The Godfather: Part II.

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. As for family, well…

Towards the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s tenebrous portrait of a family eating itself from the inside, an aghast Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) asks his adopted brother Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) why he wants to wipe everyone out when he’s already won, to which he’s cooly informed: “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom, just my enemies.”

The Godfather: Part II

Just who isn’t an enemy in Don Corleone’s paranoid mind by this time is open to debate, but any hope of saving his corrupted soul from damnation evaporates when he has his own brother Fredo (Jon Cazale) killed. Fredo is a dead man walking from the moment Michael discovers his weak-willed brother has ties to Florida crime lord Herman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a former associate of their father whom Michael is convinced wants him dead.

The die is cast when, during a New Year’s Eve party in Havana, Michael dramatically embraces his brother and says “I know it was you… you broke my heart”. Despite seemingly acquiescing to his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) pleas for Fredo to be brought back into the family fold following their mother’s death, it’s mere window dressing; Fredo is nothing more than an enemy in Michael’s eyes that needs to be “wiped out”.

The Godfather: Part II

The Shakespearian tragedy of this moment is lent even greater weight when Coppola flashes back to a Corleone family dinner party almost 20 years earlier in which a wide-eyed Michael defiantly resists taking after his brothers into the ‘family business’ by announcing that he’s signed up for the Marines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, Fredo is the only one to support his decision.

This scene evokes the Michael we meet at the start of The Godfather (1972); a man determined to live a life governed by his American future rather than his Sicilian past, which is exemplified by his relationship with Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). However, just when he thought he was out, the family business pulls him back in.

The Godfather: Part II

When Kay reminds him of his promise to make the family’s affairs legitimate within five years of becoming Don (“that was seven years ago”), Michael swears he’s doing all he can. However, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ low-lighting tells another story. Indeed, darkness gradually envelops the film as the light of hope and redemption is extinguished.

Michael comes to see Kay as little more than a vessel to produce a son in order to continue the Corleone line and a revealing moment comes when, instead of enquiring about his wife’s health after receiving news of her miscarriage, he demands to know whether it was a boy.

The Godfather: Part II

A later confrontation accentuates the irrecoverable chasm that has opened up between them. So blinded by what he has become, he is indifferent to Kay’s heartbreaking admission that “at this moment I feel no love for you at all”, but reacts with volcanic rage when she drops a bombshell about their lost child. When Michael closes the door on Kay, he is also closing the door on any future happiness.

While the family business thrives, Michael’s other family lays in ruins, a victim of ruthless ambition and rampant neurosis. Sat alone at the end of the film, dead-eyed and paralysed by vengeful enmity, we see what it has cost him.

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19 comments

  1. Cindy Bruchman · December 20, 2014

    Nice! I liked your analysis how the darkness of the cinematography compliments the internal darkness of Michael.

    • Tom · December 20, 2014

      Me too Cindy, I really thought Mark stabbed at the core of this film. He’s a great writer, isn’t he?

      • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

        You’re officially hired as my manager Tom!

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      Much appreciated Cindy. Willis’ cinematography is extraordinary and very influential. Some people say it’s too dark; they’re talking nonsense.

  2. le0pard13 · December 20, 2014

    Great write-up, Mark. The latter half of the greatest tandem of film (we’ll not mention it as a trilogy 😉 ).

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      I haven’t seen Godfather III for years; that probably tells you everything!

  3. Paul S · December 20, 2014

    “This is the business we have chosen!”
    – Hyman Roth

    Great analysis of a classic and you’re right about the impact of the cinematography.The use of shadows in particular is impeccable. The contrast of light and dark perfectly showcasing the contrast between the man Michael Corleone once was and the evil man he has now become.

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      Cheers! The darkness creeps up without you realising and by the end completely envelops the film and its dooked characters.

  4. Tom · December 20, 2014

    “However, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ low-lighting tells another story. Indeed, darkness gradually envelops the film as the light of hope and redemption is extinguished.” Now that, my friend, is a line of genius. Nicely done sir.

    The Godfather is a series I actually haven’t been overwhelmed by. However, I pin that more to the immense amount of distractions that are always going on around me whenever I have the time to sit down and watch these. I’ve never been able to give any of these films my undivided attention. That’s kind of annoying. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      Too kind. Again! The first two films are works of genius mate. Man, the 70s were an incredible decade for film. I still find it incredible that Coppola knocked out The Conversation inbetween the first two Godfathers.

  5. Victor De Leon · December 21, 2014

    This was brilliant! I hold Coppola and Willis’ work in these films in very high regard. Awesome work. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · December 21, 2014

      You are too kind! A classic pure and simple. Nothing more to say!

  6. ruth · December 22, 2014

    Great pick of a family-themed film. It’s interesting how tight-knit many Mafia families are. You REALLY don’t want to be on the wrong side of them though.

    • Three Rows Back · December 22, 2014

      They’ll make you an offer you cannot refuse Ruth!

      • ruth · December 22, 2014

        Indeed they do… for better or worse, ahah!

  7. fernandorafael · December 24, 2014

    Great piece!

  8. vinnieh · January 18, 2015

    Excellent piece of work man, really amazing analysis.

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