It is traditional in the movies to portray gangsters as having problems of a sexual nature. In Little Caesar (1931), Rico (Edward G. Robinson) despises women and love, calling it “soft stuff.” Some critics even argue that he is a repressed homosexual. In The Public Enemy (1931), Tom Powers (James Cagney) is a misogynist who smashes a grapefruit in a woman’s face. In Scarface (1932) and its remake (1983), Tony (Paul Muni and Al Pacino respectively) is incestuously possessive of his sister. In White Heat (1949), Cody Jarret (James Cagney) has an Oedipus complex. In Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) is impotent. In The Long Goodbye (1973), Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) smashes a coke bottle across the face of his girlfriend to prove to Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) how serious he is about wanting to know where his money is. In Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Noodles (Robert De Niro) brutally rapes his childhood sweetheart. Needless to say, these movie gangsters were incapable of having a normal family life.
The Godfather (1972) broke with that tradition. Both Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) are portrayed as good family men, who are never even tempted to cheat on their wives. It is a cliché in gangster movies that gangsters come to a bad end, such as by being riddled full of bullets and left dying in a gutter. Vito does get riddled full of bullets and lie in the gutter, but he pulls through. Years later, while playing with his grandson in the garden, he has a heart attack and dies, just the way a good family man should.
Michael’s marriages do not run terribly smooth, but that is not because of any sexual or emotional problems on his part. Instead, the trouble comes from external sources, like when his first wife gets blown to bits by a car bomb. But mostly he is able to run the family business without letting it interfere with his marriage, as when he and his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) go to church and become godparents to his sister’s baby while he has the heads of the other five crime families wiped out.
There is, however, one little problem with Michael’s marriage to Kay, a problem that women seem to be especially sensitive to. When I first saw this movie in a theater, my friend and I happened to be seated next to a couple of young women. Throughout the movie, whether it was the horse’s-head-in-the-bed scene, the scene where Sonny (James Caan) is machine-gunned to death, the scene where Moe Green (Alex Rocco) gets a bullet in the eyeball, or any of the other vividly violent scenes in the movie, I heard not one peep from the two women on my right. But one scene did bother them. When Connie (Talia Shire) accuses Michael of having her husband killed, which he did, Kay begins to wonder if it is true. She asks Michael about this later, and he becomes angry, telling her never to ask him about his family business. She begins to tear up, and he relents, saying that this one time he will let her ask him about his family business. When she indicates a repeat of the question as to whether he killed Connie’s husband, Michael looks at her tenderly, and with sincerity in his voice says, “No.”
At that point the women on my right were audibly outraged, one of them saying, “Oh, you bastard!” I have since talked to other women about this scene, and many of them agree that they were not bothered so much by all the killing going on in the movie as by Michael’s lying to his wife. Of course, given the patriarchal attitude of the movie, his lying was to protect her from knowing the harsh truths of the world, which only men are able to deal with. As Vito says to Michael, “Women and children can be careless, but not men.”
In The Godfather: Part II (1974), Michael is still a good family man, but just as families in general seem to be breaking apart, so too is Michael’s family being strained by divorce, abortion, and sibling rivalry. In particular, the sibling rivalry between Michael and Fredo (John Cazale) leads to an act of betrayal, which almost gets Michael assassinated.
Fortunately for Michael, other fraternal bonds seem to be intact. When Michael is called up before a Senate investigating committee on organized crime, he denies all wrongdoing. When he realizes that Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), who mistakenly thinks Michael tried to have him assassinated, plans to testify against him, Michael flies Frankie’s brother in from Sicily to sit in the committee room. When Frankie sees his brother, the thought of violating the law of omertà with his brother watching is too much, and he refuses to testify.
Admittedly, a lot of people interpret this scene differently. They believe that Frankie refused to testify against Michael because he was afraid Michael would kill his brother. But think what it would take to kidnap a Mafia don in Sicily, who is normally surrounded by bodyguards, get him on a passenger plane, bring him to the United States Capitol with all kinds of security about, and where the brother could scream for help at any time. Beyond that, this interpretation is too crude. It is far more in keeping with Michael’s understanding of the bond between brothers that the presence of one could instill a sense of shame in the other.
On the other hand, those who have no family are in trouble. We learn early on that Michael is going to have problems with Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) in his move to take over the Tropigala casino. To ensure his cooperation, when the senator visits a house of prostitution run by Fredo, he is drugged. When he wakes up, the prostitute that he had tied to the bedposts as part of a game lies there disemboweled. We know that Al Neri (Richard Bright), Michael’s favorite hitman, is the one who killed her, but the senator is made to think he did it. Michael’s foster brother and consiglieri, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), tells the senator, “This girl has no family. Nobody knows that she worked here. It’ll be as though she never existed. All that’s left is our friendship.”
The murder of the innocent prostitute is just one of the dark notes in Part II that were absent in The Godfather, where everyone who is killed by the Corleone family deserved it. In this sequel, when people are killed, we don’t always feel that they deserve it, or the manner in which they are killed is dissatisfying. Frankie Pentangeli is pressured to commit suicide. When Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) is assassinated by Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui), an important man in Michael’s organization, he is shot by the police. Kay essentially puts a hit on Michael’s future son by having him aborted, because she wants all this Sicilian stuff to end. And Fredo is shot in the back of the head while saying a Hail Mary.
Throughout this movie, there are flashbacks to when the young Vito Corleone, née Andolini, (Oreste Baldini and Robert De Niro) first came to America and slowly became head of a crime family. Unlike the problems besetting Michael and his family, Vito’s family life is good. In fact, his family feeling is so strong that he goes back to Sicily to satisfy a vendetta against the man who killed his father and brother, even though the man is so old he belongs in a nursing home.
Although Part II is a great movie, it is logically flawed, and in such a way that once noticed, it is impossible to ignore. Early in the movie, Michael walks into his bedroom, where Kay is sleeping. She wakes up and asks him why the drapes are open. He looks around at the open drapes, apparently sees something outside, and drops to the floor as submachine-gun bullets riddle the bedroom. The compound is sealed off, and Michael gives orders that the gunmen be taken alive, but they are found shot dead shortly thereafter.
Now, presumably these hitmen had an escape plan. The fact that Michael is not dead should not have made any difference in that plan. So, there was no reason to think that these men would need to be killed before they were captured. Furthermore, the one who killed the hitmen had to find them before anyone else did, notwithstanding the fact that these men would have been running for their lives. Was he standing right behind them ready to kill them regardless of the outcome?
Michael tells Tom that there is a traitor in the family, and so he is turning power over to him while he, Michael, disappears for a while. Though Tom is only a foster brother (and not Sicilian), and though Fredo is Michael’s older brother, yet Michael does not turn temporary control over to Fredo because “he is weak and stupid.”
From the beginning, the word “family” has been used ambiguously: first, in the ordinary sense of people that are related to one another by blood; second, in a slightly extended sense to include someone that was adopted, not a minor consideration in the Mafia, where being Sicilian and connected by blood is of utmost significance; and third, in a figurative sense that includes all the people that work for a family in the first or second sense. In the first movie, the ambiguity was interesting, but here it takes on a more ominous significance. In what sense does Michael mean when he says there is a traitor in the family? He probably meant it in the third sense. But Fredo turns out to be the traitor in the family in the first sense.
And it is here that the story becomes illogical. Are we supposed to believe that Fredo is the one who sneaked into the bedroom and opened the drapes while Kay was sleeping? And does that also mean that Fredo was the one who executed the two hitmen before they could talk? If he did all that, I am ready to believe that he was the one who set up his father Vito for the hit in the first Godfather movie. But given his character, we cannot believe Fredo did any of these things. He says he didn’t know it was going to be a hit, and we believe him, because he’s weak and stupid, just as Michael said.
In that case, however, we have to ask what it was that Fredo did that was so bad. Fredo says that Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese) enlisted his aid because Michael was being tough in the negotiations about Cuba. So what does that mean? That occasionally Fredo was supposed to say to Michael, “Don’t you think you’re being a little tough in the negotiations?”
Furthermore, the person who did open the curtains and executed the hitmen is the real traitor in the family, in the third sense of the word. There are plenty on the compound who might have done that, and that person, whoever he is, is still a threat to Michael. It might even have been Al Neri. But Michael seems to be unaware of this obvious implication. Though he has Fredo killed for being disloyal in some way that is not clear, yet he has no concern about the man still on the compound that facilitated the attempted assassination.
These first two movies have been combined from time to time, telling the story in chronological order, eliminating the flashback structure of The Godfather: Part II, and adding additional footage that was never seen in the theaters. More recently, HBO presented Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: The Complete Epic 1901-1959 (2016), which is the best one thus far. The additional footage typically spends more time introducing characters, explaining how certain situations came to be, or killing a few more people off as part of a vendetta. None of it is necessary, for we never had any trouble following the story by using our imagination. But if you just like the first two Godfather movies so much that you think you would enjoy a leisurely stroll through the history of the Corleone family, The Complete Epic may be the version for you.
Of course, if the additional footage had shown Fredo opening the curtains in the bedroom and then putting a silencer on his gun before killing the assassins so they wouldn’t be able to talk, then that would have been something else entirely.
Regarding The Godfather: Part III (1990), this is a movie that should never have been made: in part because it is in itself a bad movie, and in part because it tends to infect the two great movies that came before it. The story itself might have been all right, but there are way too many lines stolen from the previous two movies and repeated in this one. In fact, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), who is Sonny’s bastard son, made me think of Don Quixote. In his eponymous book, Quixote goes mad reading books about knight errantry and starts seeing the world in those terms, even though the days of chivalry and knighthood have long since passed, and he ends up looking ridiculous. In Part III, it is almost as if Vincent went mad watching the first two Godfather movies of this trilogy over and over again, and then went onto the streets trying to play Godfather, even though the modern world no longer seems appropriate for that sort of thing. And the speed with which he goes from street punk to head of the Corleone family is not plausible.
On the other hand, with all the allusions and quotations from the first two movies crammed into this one, you would think the characters in this third movie would also be familiar with what has come before, but not so. In the first movie, Vito tells Michael that the traitor in the family will be the one who comes to him with a deal to meet with the heads of the five families. And sure enough, when Tessio (Abe Vigoda) tries to set up a meeting, Michael knows he is a traitor and has him killed. But in this third film, when Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) tries to set up a meeting between Michael and other mobsters, Michael suspects nothing. Even when Altobello refers to Michael’s father, that does not jog Michael’s memory. And sure enough, although we in the audience know it will be a hit, Michael is oblivious.
In my opinion, a big opportunity was missed. First, they should have had fresh dialogue. Second, they should have eliminated the Vincent Mancini character. Third, they should have allowed Michael to be assassinated, followed by a struggle over the Corleone empire between Connie, who wants to continue the criminal activities of the family, and Kay, who wants to realize Michael’s dream of making the Corleone family legitimate, but who in the meantime needs Al Neri, who is loyal to her, to protect her from her sister-in-law. That would have been an ironic end of the Corleone patriarchy.
Instead, all we got was a bad movie.