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.

In Retrospect – New York, New York (1977)

Analyzing De Niro

I’m delighted to have contributed this review to You Talkin’ To Me‘s excellent Analyzing De Niro Blogathon, run by Mark at Marked Movies and Tyson at Head In A Vice. As the title suggests, the Blogathon focusses entirely on the movies of Mr Robert De Niro and this post covers Bobby’s third collaboration with Martin Scorsese, 1977’s New York, New York.

The long and fruitful partnership between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese has spawned a multitude of enduring classics forever etched in our collective cinematic consciousness.

A misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless, New York, New York is the oft neglected offspring of the formidable Scorsese/De Niro partnership

A misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless, New York, New York is the oft neglected offspring of the formidable Scorsese/De Niro partnership

In the four years between the release of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, De Niro and Scorsese collaborated on New York, New York, the oft neglected offspring of their remarkable relationship.

After the critical and surprising commercial success of the apocalyptically dark Taxi Driver, an emboldened Scorsese used the bigger budget he was able to command to break away from down and dirty depictions of the Big Apple to instead direct what amounted to a love letter, both to the city of his birth and to the old Hollywood musicals he grew up watching.

Start spreading the news, it's Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) in New York, New York

Start spreading the news, it’s Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) in New York, New York

Scorsese cast De Niro in the lead role of Jimmy Doyle, a smooth talking egotist with a zany streak and a gift for the saxophone. Audiences at the time were used to seeing Bobby play wiseguys and sociopaths, so to watch him clowning around on screen must have been a novelty.

The film opens in New York on V-J Day in 1945 and spends the first 20 minutes inside a nightclub in full swing, with Jimmy, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a shiny pair of spats he won in a bet, trying to work his magic on Liza Minnelli’s demobbed singer Francine. Through sheer force of will it seems, Jimmy eventually manages to woo Francine and the pair discover that her voice and his sax are made for each other.

Robert De Niro learned how to play the sax to play Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York

Robert De Niro learned how to play the sax to play Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York

A marriage and a child follow but, as Francine becomes more successful in her own right, Jimmy’s inherent insecurities, bullying nature and jealousy threaten to tear both their personal and professional ties apart.

De Niro could do no wrong at the time and prepared for the role in typically methodical fashion by learning to play the sax (although the arrangements were actually dubbed in post-production by the esteemed Georgie Auld). As such, he looks at home on stage leading his band and handles the sax with aplomb instead of looking like he picked it up five minutes before the cameras rolled.

New York, New YorkWe now know that De Niro can ‘do’ comedy almost as well as he does drama, but at the time it was uncertain if the actor, renowned for his on-screen intensity, would be able to sell funny. Minnelli’s reaction to some of De Niro’s goofing is priceless, while the scene with Jimmy feigning a war wound to get out of paying a hotel bill is pure slapstick.

The comedy gradually wears off as the picture becomes more of a relationship drama and it’s here Bobby spreads his wings. De Niro is a master of the long silent stare (the one where you’re unsure whether he’s going to explode with violent rage or not) and employs it to disquieting effect here on more than one occasion. Minnelli’s genuine unease in these moments is palpable.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) gets into a spot of trouble in New York, New York

Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) gets into a spot of trouble in New York, New York

As Cabaret had shown back in 1972, there was still an audience for musicals. However, unlike the Hollywood greats it was hoping to emulate, New York, New York suffers from confused plotting and a flabby narrative (the film is almost three hours long). Apparently, the actors ad-libbed much of the movie and it shows; scenes are allowed to play out for far too long and things aren’t helped by the tepid on-screen chemistry between De Niro and Minnelli.

A typically memorable Martin Scorsese shot in New York, New York

A typically memorable Martin Scorsese shot in New York, New York

Sandwiched between Travis Bickle and Jake Lamotta, De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle ain’t all that, but when considered as part of his overall career it’s a notable chapter for opening up audiences’ eyes to a part of his repertoire that he’s since gone on to enjoy considerable success with.

If for nothing else, the film gave Frank Sinatra one of his most iconic hits and provided nightclubbers with an end-of-evening drunken anthem.

Scorsese’s description of New York, New York as a ‘film noir musical’ is apt one –  both Old Hollywood (the lovely moment Jimmy watches a sailor dancing with his girl under the subway tracks is an affectionate wink to On The Town) and New Hollywood are fused into what might end up being a misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless.