One story gave cinema two of its greatest films ever.
A testament to the matching popularity and quality of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” is that one usually isn’t televised without the other, and AMC will show both again Sunday, Aug, 16. “The Godfather, Part III” is widely considered the weak link of the series, and if it’s televised along with the other two, it’s often relegated to the late-late-night hours … like a relative who gets seated away from most others at a family gathering.
However, to coin a phrase, two out of three isn’t bad — and in the case of the first two “Godfathers,” both Oscar winners for best picture, it’s downright great. Francis Ford Coppola still was something of a Hollywood newcomer when he directed the first film taken from Mario Puzo’s novel about an organized-crime family, a 1972 epic in which Marlon Brando looms large as patriarch Vito Corleone even when he isn’t physically on the screen.
“The Godfather” made an immediate star of Al Pacino, who had a rich arch for his character Michael Corleone, an idealistic military veteran who isn’t sold on the family business until its effects hit too close to home and prompt him to step up. James Caan also made a big impression as Sonny, the Corleones’ resident hothead whose knee-jerk reactions prove to be his undoing. And as weak-willed sibling Fredo, John Cazale is one of the saga’s most tragic figures, trying to do well by his loved ones even if it means unwisely acting against them in the immediate moment.
Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister), Richard Conte, John Marley, Sterling Hayden and Alex Rocco also are members of the superb cast of the first “Godfather.” Pacino, Duvall, Keaton, Shire and Cazale would carry over to “The Godfather, Part II,” for which Coppola followed the brilliant premise of drawing a parallel between the young Vito in extensive flashbacks (played by Robert De Niro, earning his first Academy Award) and Michael, as his power grew and temperament changed.
“Sequel” doesn’t seem the right word to use in the case of Coppola’s 1974 follow-up, since it very legitimately is a “Part II’ to the original film, following through as a solid continuation more than a tacked-on afterthought. It expands the Corleones’ footprint to Las Vegas and offers excellent supporting roles to Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Troy Donahue and legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Another major contributor to both movies is composer Nino Rota, whose main theme is one of the most instantly identifiable pieces of music in screen history.
As their 50th anniversaries approach, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” are destined to remain two of the most essential motion pictures ever made. Quite simply, they’re offers you can’t refuse.