The greatest scene in American movies starts off with some beautiful yammering. Hotheaded Sonny (Caan) and his buttoned-down consigliere, Tom (Duvall, Coppola’s secret weapon), are at each other’s throats, arguing strategy in a smoky study. The godfather, Vito, has been shot; the family’s in turmoil. Exhausted, Tom sits. The camera makes the tiniest adjustment, centering on a Shemp-like character who, up to now, has mostly been referred to as “Mikey.” Who is this guy—this nice boyfriend who just got punched in the face? Suddenly, Mikey opens his mouth and a master plan for revenge emerges. We track in, inexorably. After this pivotal moment, Al Pacino will always be central, seated like a king, potent, his eyes burning with lies and compromise. Michael Corleone’s jaw heals, but Pacino never relaxes it again. The older men laugh at him, but their day is done.
You will have your own favorite scene from The Godfather, a saga built from perfect sequences—of Italian weddings and baptisms, of violence, red sauce and a horse’s head in a Hollywood bed. But there in that study is the birth of cinema’s most complex villain. Much has been made of Coppola’s gift for familial warmth, of his “bada bing” dialogue and pop culture’s pervasive embrace of the criminal clan. Yet Michael represents the souring of the American Dream. Marlon Brando became grandfatherly; Pacino became Satan.
When superfans speak of the superiority of The Godfather Part II, this is not merely to be contrary. Coppola took Mario Puzo’s pulp and darkened it with Nixonian paranoia and the power of political back rooms. The sequel’s decadence—Michael sweeping down on Fredo, Kay, all of them—is counterweighted by nostalgia, as we see the young immigrant Vito (De Niro) striving to protect his own. Thus we have the birth of a quasi-noble idea: the neighborhood defender. But De Niro, gun barrel blazing, plays it squirrelly, unsure if bad wheels have been set in motion. Vito’s son will pay the ultimate price, a descent that is the richest the movies have to offer.