19 August 2008

Lighten Up, Mikey

Watching the Godfather Part II (1974) is like settling in with a big thick historical novel that you've read before.

Oh the places you'll go...Sicily. Ellis Island. New York circa 1917 and the same city in the late 1950s. Havana Cuba on the eve of the revolution. Miami. Lake Tahoe. Senate hearings.

All these locales are peopled by a rich array of characters. Everything from a corrupt U.S. Senator, to a Jewish mob boss to Mafia underlings.

But at the center of the story is ice. The frigid persona of one Michael Corleone, as portrayed by Al Pacino. This is not the wild and wholly Pacino of Scarface (1983). This is not a preening rageaholic like Robert DeNiro's Al Capone in The Untouchables (1987). Nor does he have the swagger and underlying vulnerability of James Cagney's mob portrayals. While there are powerful bursts of anger and even a slap to his wife, Michael Corleone is generally dispassionate, utterly humorless and in complete control. Other movie mob bosses wound up in jail or died in a hail of bullets. Others drank to access, womanized or made fatal errors. The self contained world of Michael Corelone was invulnerable.

As a person he sacrificed his humanity. By having seen the first Godfather (1972) you can see the startling transformation in the character. From a bemused, love happy war hero who was clearly the outsider within the family business, to the ice man of later years. It was a transformation wrought by family tragedy and his own faithful decision to participate in that awful by product of the family business -- violence.

Michael vanquished his foes, sacrificing a brother in the process, but by the end of the story was left literally alone with his thoughts.

Godfather Part II is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time. No argument here. I think the scenes of young Vito Corleone as played by DeNiro are some of the best ever filmed. It's difficult to imagine that what's on screen isn't a documentary. The re-creation of early 20th century New York, Gordon Willis' cinematography combined with perfect casting (including the late great Bruno Kirby) is damn near perfect. Okay just plain perfect. DeNiro's OScar was well earned.

Director Francis Ford Coppola and company also deserve a shout out (if you'll excuse the modern parlance) for the scenes in Havana. Having just read a book about the Mafia in Cuba and the parallel rise of Castro (more on the book in a future post) I can humbly attest to the accuracy of those scenes.

A good epic novel can be read in fairly short order if its a page-turner. Similarly Godfather Part II clocks in at 200 minutes but doesn't drag for a second. I just spent three hours watching a movie? Didn't seem like two! This is a testament to a director who was at the top of his game -- sadly his ride atop filmdom seems to have encompassed only four films over the course of eight years (but what films!).

What is perhaps most remarkable is that the story is so compelling despite having such a cold blooded creature at the center. Maybe it is the very heaviness of Michael Corleone that audiences find fascinating. One scene that always sticks out to me is when Michael enters a small motel room in Nevada after escaping Cuba. It's the precise way he loosens his tie, dabs his weary eyes with a wet towel, sips a glass of water. These actions speak volumes about a man conscious of his own every move, never making a wasted or false one. Is this what allows him to so closely monitor his enemies? Remember he believes in keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.

Of course, there is a lot going on around Michael and in many ways he is the puppet master. He is certainly the master of reacting to those few situations that he has not anticipated.

A final point that should be made is that Al Pacino's performance as Michael is one of the greatest on film. How many actors could reveal so much with just their eyes? Note his reaction (before the outburst) to Kay's revelation of an abortion. It's far simpler to embody a character by using broad gestures with over-the top-emotions. But to say so much by inflection and expression is another matter.

Plus he doesn't get to smile.

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