For Your (Re)Consideration: The Godfather, Part III

March 13, 2012

Film

This new series, “For Your (Re)Consideration,” is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, in order to take a look at older pieces – books, music, movies – that either have been maligned, or have become classic to the point of ignoring.  What I mean is, there are works that everyone hates because you’re supposed to hate them, but is it warranted?  Then there are works that are so obvious – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or The Catcher in the Rye, that we just know are great and classic that we never actually enjoy because it’s too obvious, or we think we’re over-exposed.  I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of them.  In other words, I’m going to review old things. I hope you’ll come with me.  We’ll start with little loved The Godfather, Part III.

There might be no movie more collectively ignored, more relegated to a cinematic blind-spot, than The Godfather, Part III.  Read a book about the films and barely a couple of pages will discuss the third film.  Buy the DVD’s and descriptions of the films will include only a cursory mention of it.  It is mentioned, if at all, as the example of how far a filmmaker can fall – from the near perfection of the first two films to… this. People who adore the first two films basically pretend this one isn’t even there.

Whenever I teach a film class, we study the first two films.  Slowly, thoroughly, we make our way through them.  Invariably, students ask about the third film. Is it worth watching?  What happens?  And invariably, I respond with the standard response of,  “Don’t see it.  It’s awful.  It’s a desecration of the first two.”  But this time, I decided to re-watch it and re-evaluate.  Is it really as bad as I remember?  Or have I simply jumped on the bandwagon?

*Oh, just in case… I’d think it goes without saying, but I’m going to be talking about the films and a couple key events in them so… spoiler alerts?  I mean, The Godfather came out 40 years ago, so if you haven’t seen it I’d guess you’re not in a big hurry.  Plus, a lot of the elements have become such a part of our cultural consciousness that you probably know them even if you think you don’t.*

First off, you need to understand, however briefly, these “heights.”  The Godfather was a film no one was interested in directing, handed to a young director who thought it might be a way to make some money in order to finance his independent company.  Instead, he made a masterpiece.  Two years later, he released a sequel – an action begging to fail horribly – that many argue surpasses the original in its scale, its artistry and its allegorical depth.  Between the two, Coppola made The Conversation, a quietly brilliant work. From there he would scale to the tipping point of genius and megalomania into very literal madness with the making of Apocalypse Now.  From that insanity he never really recovered.  When he returned to filmmaking he made works that were largely safe, bland, and formulaic.  So in 1990, 16 years after Part II, when he released Part III, he had everything riding on it.

The rest of the world did not.

Part of the quiet, tragic beauty of the ending of Part II is that in one short, silent scene, in which Michael Corleone sits motionless, we learn everything we need to know about his future.  Cinema is an inherently shallow medium – capable of communicating a tremendous breadth of ideas immediately, but never really able to move to the depths of the written word.  This moment, however approaches it.  The idea of a part III seems like epilogue.  The reality, unfortunately, does too.

The basics of the plot is that Michael Corleone, tormented by the killing of his brother, is giving a fortune to the Catholic church in an effort to buy forgiveness.  At the same time he’s trying to, at long last, get out of the “family business” by passing the empire on, in a quasi-reworking of King Lear.  Okay.  Fair enough.

It is not a terrible movie.  In some ways this is the worst thing of all.  This is not an artist, furiously trying to capture is earlier magic, swinging for the fences and either hitting, or crashing. The movie is fine.  It’s just… fine.  It’s like someone made a TV movie follow-up.  Where the first two build slowly, refusing to hurry or pander, with subtly visual parallels and moments whose power and complexity don’t pay off until a couple of hours further in, or even in to the second film?  The third one brings up almost no points that aren’t resolved immediately.

One of the only things students always want to know at the end of Part II is what happens to Anthony, Michael’s son.  In the film, as a boy, he seems to be being trained to follow Michael’s descent in to isolation and cruelty. He asks to go along with his father on business and help, and Michael says. “Some day you will.”  Later, Connie tells Anthony to leave the room and he doesn’t budge until Michael gives him the nod.  The same nod he uses to excuse his hired killers, Al Neri or Rocco Lompone.

Remember how Kay aborted their child, just to bring the Corleone's to an end? And Michael shut her out forever, even from her children? Yeah, well, they took a walk, talked it out. They're good.

So in the third film he doesn’t want to be in the family business.  Okay, well, that’s kind of a parallel to Michael wanting to leave the business in Part I, even though it doesn’t fit his backstory, but maybe that can make sense. But the scene in which he confronts his father basically plays like this: “Father, I want to be an opera singer.”  “NO!  YOU WILL BE A LAWYER AND THEN IF YOU WANT TO SING AS A HOBBY, SO BE IT… okay fine, be an opera singer.”  Phew.  That’s some drama there.

It appears that Joey Zasa is trying to take over the Corleone’s empire?  Next scene: Pow!  One dead Zasa.  And virtually everything in the film plays like this.  Set up, resolution.  Set up, resolution.  And subtlety?  Nooo, thank you.  Gone are the lies and deceptions.  The cold stare of Frank Pentangeli’s brother that gets him to reverse his testimony against the Corleone’s for reasons we’re left to decipher.  Time to try and kills someone?  Why not pull up a helicopter and some machine guns like in this scene?  And, in case your lost, someone even yells out the name of who seems to have done it.

And people always like to go on and on about how bad Sofia Coppola, playing Michael’s other child, Mary, is in the film.  And she’s pretty bad; but it’s scapegoating to blame her.  The breathy, half-whine with which she delivers every line does kind of make you crazy after a while, but it’s a minor point in the scope of things.

One character is really enjoyable to see, and that’s how Connie Corleone, the abused wife and wayward daughter, has hardened. She gives easily the most compelling performance of a woman whose spirit was broken, so she rebuilt it with concrete.  She lives only to further the family’s power.  When Michael tries to tell her of the things he’s done? She stops him and repeats the lies, assuring him that that’s what needs to be true.  When she decides a rival must die, she consents to take a bite of a dessert she herself has poisoned, just to ensure that he will eat more of it.  But Connie is the exception.

Two moments really capture the sort of sad impotence of Part III.  The first is the moment in which Michael finally confesses that he had Fredo, his brother, murdered.  Now, this confession scene should be stomach churning.  It should be devastatingly powerful.  The killing of Fredo is one of the most tragic moments in cinema – the ice-cold depths to which Michael has sunk, killing his simple-minded brother for making a mistake, and because Michael believes he must eliminate anyone who crosses him.  And yet the confession scene?  Hm.  Fine.  Yes, it appears that was quite bothersome to him, holding that secret in.

There is a scene in the final episode of the TV series The Shield in which Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey finally confesses – after years of denials – to the murder of a fellow police officer.  It plays out with a seemingly interminable silence as the truth seems to bubble up from the tarry depths of Mackey’s soul.  It looks like it might literally break him to speak.  It’s a scene that is overwhelming. (sorry about the subtitles) 

The scene of Michael’s confession should be that.  At least that.  Instead he says it, seems to feel better.  Needs a candy bar.

The second moment is the ending.  In the end of the first film, Michael has abandoned his nobility, and taken on the helm of the Corleone empire.  As Kay, his wife – and the symbol of his life outside this shadowy world – is literally shut out of the room, dark men kiss his hand and call Michael Godfather.  At the end of part II?  The moment I already mentioned.  The Corleone empire is more powerful than ever, yet we can see that Michael has destroyed everything his father really built – a family, a community.  He is alone, broken and unloved.  He sits with his hand to his lips – remembering a happier time – as though the only one left to kiss his hand is himself.  An empire unto his own. And we know.  We know what the rest of his cold, isolated life will be.  He has failed.  He has brought about his own destruction through action after action he thought would preserve his world.

At the end of Part III?  Michael is sitting in a chair, alone, and he dies.  Get it?? Because he died alone!  The end!  There’s nothing to understand, nothing to contemplate, no poetry.  It’s right there.  It just needs narration, or subtitles to really hammer the moments obviousness home.

So, is it worth watching? No, not really.  But it’s not a desecration.  It’s not a travesty.  It’s a whimper, not a bang.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll get back to funny. Promise.

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Blog in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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46 Comments on “For Your (Re)Consideration: The Godfather, Part III”

  1. Valentine Logar Says:

    You did a good job of taking it apart. Personally? I barely even liked the second one, guess that means the third hardly hits my radar.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      “Like” is a tough word to apply to Part II. I love it, I appreciate it… but it’s definitely not one to flop on the couch, grab some ice cream and throw on at the end of a tough day.

      Reply

  2. MJ, Nonstepmom Says:

    I didnt realize this was such a hated film; but then again I loved em all, Casino, Scarface…..

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      If it existed on its own it would probably be fine, it’s just that it exists as a component to the highest examples of “mob” movies (Coppola famously told Paramount that he would not make a “mob movie” for them, but that he would make a movie about the Corleone family)

      Reply

  3. therealkenjones Says:

    You know, I pretty much agree with your entire post and love the breakdown. I never realized that immediate conflict/resolution dynamic before but I think that is the culprit that hurts the movie (and Sofia’s performance…the Jar-Jar Binks of the GF Universe). I especially love Vincent going from an ear-chewing thug to a worldly, even-keeled under-boss literally from one scene to the next.

    However… I think the Shield comparison is unfair. Contextually, the Mackey confession scene is the equivalent of the Fredo resolution in The Godfather II. It is the baring of the black depths of the protagonist’s soul. I always saw the confession as Michael basically laying his cards on God’s table. Michael’s soul has gone from innocent, to corrupted, to evil. After conceivably years struggling to wash Fredo’s blood off, Michael tries to buy his salvation. When that doesn’t work he puts his fate in God’s hands. The resolution of the movie is the judgement for what he’s done.

    Godfather 1 – Flawless Perfection. Best Scene: “I love America…”

    Godfather II – The pinnacle of cinema. Best Scene: (Tie) “You broke my heart!” & “I’m smawt! Not dumb, not like everyone says! I’m smawt! And I want respect!”

    Godfather 3 – It’s…good…? Best Scene: “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      I was going to mention Vincent, but was already running so long – but you’re absolutely right.

      That’s an interesting take on Michael’s confession scene. It still felt so flat to me, though, that it’s hard for me to appreciate in a different context.

      Reply

  4. thesinglecell Says:

    Here’s a fact: I have never seen any of the Godfather movies all the way through. I think I’ve seen the lion’s share of Part I. Maybe some of II. I’m pretty sure III was on cable a lot last week but I kept finding a table full of people (maybe right before the helicopter) and that was clearly the middle of III so I didn’t bother. I’m a girl – I think most of us don’t go in for The Godfather. But I’ve always found the mafia compelling and I still think I’ll see it one day. Diane Keaton said III was horrible and complained about Sofia Coppola because Francis threw her in at the last minute when the actress meant to play the role went to rehab. Keaton felt like it was opportunistic. There’s so much backstory to the series… much like the mob itself. Thanks for the good read.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Yes, Winona Ryder was originally supposed to play Mary, but then got “exhausted.” And the cable channels have been running the films over and over because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of The Godfather.

      Reply

  5. She's a Maineiac Says:

    I’ve never seen a single Godfather movie. I’ve caught a few key scenes here and there and I know a lot of the famous quotes, but for some reason, I just never sat down to watch one in its entirety. But I enjoyed your post because now I will be sure not to see the last one. The only gangster flick I’ve seen is Goodfellas and I loved it.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Goodfellas is terrific, but there is nothing in the league of Godfather I & II. It’s an entire other level of filmmaking and scope. Watch I, take a break, then watch II slowly, appreciating that it’s staggeringly hard to follow the first couple of times, and that it’s not… it’s not a happy movie.

      Reply

    • mj monaghan Says:

      D-Woww?! WTH? Haven’t seen a single GF movie – you have homework this weekend sister! At least watch GF 1. But not with the kids around. It’s violent.

      Reply

  6. tomwisk Says:

    Coppola made a masterpiece with Godfather I. Godfather II could not have been made without Godfather I. We need Michael to ponder his place in the scheme of things. The flashbacks to his father’s ascension serve to show that his father was a Man of Honor, a throwback, if you will, to the Mafiosi of the old country. Michael doesn’t have this. He is after all is said, a businessman. Godfather III completes a circle. As Michael rose the Corleone family has become a business and he’s lost control. He doesn’t have the soul of his father who could’ve run rampant but chose negotiation instead of violence when it would work (Okay one horse’s head is compelling) Michael kills his opposition and there is no more a fitting end than dying alone, an old man who’s lost what was left of his soul. Instead of a flesh and blood organization, all that’s left is a golem.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Some people felt like the Vito story was unnecessary in Part II, but I feel like it A) is a break from the relentless darkness of the Michael story and, more importantly, B) underscores that Vito did everything he did to build his family and protect his community. Michael acts pure to preserve the business he’s found himself taking over. Earned power vs. inherited power.

      And in a sense the resolution of III completes the circle (although Coppola wanted to make a IV, but Puzo was too sick to work on the screenplay), but what I love so much about the end of II is seeing the circle laying out in front of me, instead of having it traced.

      Reply

  7. sj Says:

    I am shocked and appalled at the number of commenters that haven’t seen these movies. Maybe it’s just because my dad was a huge fan of the first two and I saw them over and over when I was young? Dunno.

    Anyway, now I have this song in my head.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      I’m always shocked by that, but I’ve crossed over to the extreme end and have lost rational perspective.

      “What do you mean ‘was that Al Neri who shot Hyman Roth’?? That was obviously Rocco! Oh my God, they look nothing alike! Neri is a bit pudgy, and Rocco is taller and slightly balding!!”

      Reply

  8. PCC Advantage Says:

    “Is it really as bad as I remember?” ~ Yes. In fact, it’s worse.

    Reply

  9. tomwisk Says:

    AMC ran “The Godfather Saga”. I heard an urban legend that the first two were recut and put in chornological sequence.

    Reply

  10. gojulesgo Says:

    Thanks to the braveness of other commenters, I’m now willing to admit I’ve never seen The Godfather trilogy (only bits and pieces)! Yet, I had to watch Citizen Kane for three different classes in college. Dear god, do you make your students watch that? Don’t get me started, Byronic Man. Do-on’t do it.

    Sorry. Getting side-tracked. I loved the thoughtfulness of this post, and the blog theme idea! You think you’re not funny here, but I laughed out loud (“I’d guess you’re not in a big hurry” and “They’re good” in the caption)!

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Actually, I’ll probably do one of these on Kane at some point, especially because everyone sees it in a film class in college (I did) and hates it (I did). The professors I had did just a crap job of explaining it (“You can see the ceilings in many scenes!”) and I thought, “There is a reason this is considered the greatest movie ever made. I am going to figure out what that reason is.” So I did. Now I love it. Sorry.

      So with my film students I spend a few weeks doing a sort of “Live Commentary Track” to it, then some background and then they watch it, once they know what they’re looking at.

      Reply

  11. BrainRants Says:

    Byron, I truly couldn’t have written a straight-faced review of Godfather III any better than this. I like the movie, but don’t love it. That about sums up what you say… it’s hard to love it like I and II.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Thanks, I really appreciate that. I was actually kind of anxious about deviating this much from my usual format (then I remembered, wait, it’s my blog), and then kicking things off with a movie almost no one’s seen… I was bracing myself for a slow day here at The Byronic Man.

      Reply

  12. ghfool Says:

    I haven’t seen GFp3 and now I’m tempted. Regardless, VERY well written analysis of the trilogy.

    To read my Terrorist Trilogy go to:

    glasshalffool.com

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      That’s always the funny part – whenever I explain to my students why they should not see GF3, they’re just more tempted. It’s the equivalent of saying “Don’t think about elephants” to them.

      Hey, did you see you’re a finalist in last week’s Weekly Question of the Week? Don’t forget to vote for yourself twenty or thirty times!

      Reply

      • ghfool Says:

        I didn’t know about a Question of the Week? Thanks, but where do I find it?

        Reply

        • The Byronic Man Says:

          It’s from the “what’s the worst question you could be asked at a job interview post.” The voting is on the post about clock change day, or just click the big picture of the baby in the sidebar.

          Reply

          • ghfool Says:

            Thanks! Hey everybody vote for me (ghfool)! My answer was the best because not only is it insensative and shocking but it means that I was accidentally interviewing for a PORN job.

            Reply

  13. cassiebehle Says:

    What is this “Godfather” movie you speak of?

    Reply

  14. mj monaghan Says:

    Byron, great analysis. GF 3 just wasn’t very good, that’s all there is to it. FFC did a fantastic job in 1 & 2, but ran out of steam in 3.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      It’s kind of sad to hear Coppola talk about his career – how he was seen as one of cinema’s great geniuses, but that he suspect no one would trade places with him now.

      Reply

  15. Stacie Chadwick Says:

    You have a lot of hot chics and asexual gravatars who leave comments on your posts. Just sayin’.

    Reply

  16. Blogdramedy Says:

    I had heard all this previously over the years. So, this is what I did. I watched them in reverse order. When I was done, I poured myself a rather large martini and gave it a good think. By the time I was done…I determined that’s the only way to watch the Godfather trilogy.

    You’re welcome. 🙂

    Reply

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