Francis Ford Coppola’s new cut of The Godfather, Part III – Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone – will come as a surprise to many viewers. Questions like Why?, How?, and Again, Why? will no doubt spring to mind as one watches the new cut. First of all, the changes: the beginning and ending are changed ever so slightly. Other than that, the changes involve a little repositioning and trimming of scenes. The new running time is an unnecessary ten minutes shorter. It’s not like Apocalypse Now Redux which included about a half hour of new scenes, except in that both new cuts are completely unnecessary. Coppola’s instincts were more sound when releasing his films the first time and there is something inadvisable about an artist fiddling around with a solid work, decades after the fact.
Godfather III picks up fifteen years or so after the end of the second part. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is, as ever, trying to move away from his criminal milieu for more respectable pastures. He strikes a deal with the Vatican Bank in order to take a controlling share in Immobiliare, a large real estate company, while keeping an increasingly reluctant and watchful eye over his criminal enterprises. When Michael tries to leave the criminal world behind, the underworld is not happy. Furthermore, the powerful business interests which control Immobiliare attempt to cheat Michael out of his controlling share after taking his money. Michael, struggling with his guilt over ordering his brother Fredo’s death in Part II, is not up for it but must once again fight his enemies on multiple fronts. Enter Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the rough and tumble illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan in the original film of this trilogy)who insists on working for Michael and learns the ropes in order to take over as the head of the Corleone family.
As a film, the third installment was always the least favourite among Godfather fans. Coming almost twenty years after the first two, it was a reluctant addition on the part of Coppola. He has always been clear that he saw the first two installments as a complete story and that he ultimately bowed to Paramount’s wishes for a third installment due to his own financial difficulties. On DVD commentaries, he talks about using his clout in the seventies to convince Paramount executives to name the second film Part II but when the early nineties rolled around, Coppola was at a disadvantage and now had to go along with naming the third one Part III though he didn’t really want to. Coda (as unflattering and unnecessarily pretentious a title as Redux) means ‘an additional movement, and conclusion’ and this is somewhat ironic given that the only reason Part III proved to be the final one (Coppola and co-writer Mario Puzo were developing ideas for a fourth installment featuring Andy Garcia in the drug wars of the 80’s) was due to Puzo’s untimely death.
So, as best as can be made out, Coppola has recut the film in order to emphasize a ‘summing up’ and yet the new cut seems much less satisfying as a finale compared to the original version. Coppola himself introduces the new cut, talking to us for a couple of minutes about why he always thought of this film as The Death of Michael Corleone rather than The Godfather, Part III. He doesn’t have much to add but it’s shocking to see him so aged and having lost a great deal of weight – he’s almost unrecognizable despite sporting the trademark tie, suit, glasses, and beard. In the original Part III, after Michael’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) has died in his arms, and Michael gives vent to unbridled grief on the opera house steps, the film cuts to Michael at the end of his life, quite aged as he sits in the sun and struggles to wear a pair of sunglasses. He thinks about the women in his life, the film cutting to him dancing with his first wife, his second, and his daughter, and then he topples over, dying from natural causes. In the new cut, all we see is him straining to wear the sunglasses and a cut to him dancing with his daughter. No elegiac toppling from the chair in long shot. No sunlit Sicilian vista. No actual moment of death! So why then is the new cut titled The Death of Michael Corleone?
The change in the ending is indicative of the general tenor of alteration in the rest of the film. Many of the wide shots that gave the film its grandeur and leisurely, elegiac pace have been excised. As a result, the film feels a little odd in terms of its pacing, a little too hurried, fidgety in the way of a sugar rush. Most of the shots are medium or medium-long shots which make the film less cinematic. This is most keenly felt in the beginning which originally opened in a cathedral with Michael accepting an award from a bishop on behalf of the Catholic church. The early shots which referred to footage from Part II of the Lake Tahoe compound and segued to Michael receiving his medal during the hushed and sombre ceremony were evocative of the monumental nature of the Godfather films; the dark cathedral reaffirmed Gordon Willis’ contribution as cinematographer. The dark, golden patina and wide shots hearkened back to that incredible scene in Part I where Michael stands in the church at the baptism of Connie’s child (that baby in the early seventies was also played by Sofia Coppola), not to mention Anthony’s confirmation at the start of Part II. Instead, the new cut begins at the party afterwards in Michael’s deluxe Manhattan apartment and though this evokes the wedding party at the beginning of Part I (the Godfather in a dark room entertaining mafia requests, Johnny Fontane’s presence, the familiar Italian songs, Michael dancing with his daughter, etc.), it just doesn’t feel as momentous.
I’ve always been a fan of The Godfather, Part III. I love the first two as well and in general, am a great supporter of Coppola’s career and ethos as a driving, creative spirit. It’s ironic then that the Godfather films (arguably his greatest successes) are vehicles that were not intended as personal ones. Much has been written about his battle with the studio while making the first one, and one only has to read the book to see what a different beast the finished film was. Though the book is full of detail and history in its chronicling of the Corleone family, the film injects a literary sensibility and class that revitalizes the gangster genre while heralding a major epoch in American cinema. Ultimately, Coppola’s attention to artistry, the institutions of family and Italian culture, and his penchant for tragedy elevate the films above the original source material. However, the Greek tragedy crossed with Italian opera may not be what many fans love about the films. For many, the tragedy of Michael’s fate is lost under his ability to exact vengeance, that Sicilian sense of Omerta and payback the films seem to glorify while being ostensibly critical at the same time. Indeed, the recent cut ends with an epigraph that says something to the effect that ‘a Sicilian never forgets,’ further complicating what it is that Coppola is trying to say. In short, people like seeing Michael take out his enemies. It was difficult for many, then, to see him weak, frail, and troubled. He suffers from diabetes and this crossbreeds with his haunted guilt over the murder of his brother. For many, seeing Michael lying weak and ragged in a hospital bed or confessing his sins to a cardinal are anathema to the spirit of the original films.
For others, the inclusion of Coppola’s daughter Sofia as a main cast member derailed the film. Originally, Winona Ryder was supposed to play the part of Mary and when she withdrew due to exhaustion, Coppola, no stranger to employing family (his sister Talia Shire for example plays Connie, which means that she happens to be the literal aunt to Sofia while at the same time playing Sofia’s character’s aunt), made a last minute decision to give the part to his daughter. Ryder is no great actor but it seems likely that her persona was the main reason she was picked to play Mary, a fairly naive and innocent character caught between her father and cousin. Sofia’s range as an actor was extremely limited both in terms of her facial gestures and her vocal mannerisms and so she glides through the film with a dazed drawl and a sideways glance that emphasizes her mandibular muscles and awkwardness. Andy Garcia, as her cousin and love interest, tries his best to act opposite her as she affects a sultry smile that is hampered by her inexperience and meekness. She exhibits a simpering vulnerability that unfortunately puts her in line with most of the other female characters in the series – this is not a saga that affirms the power or versatility or presence of women. As if to compensate, Connie has been made into a strikingly nasty and vicious dragon lady, a wraith-like Frida Kahlo lookalike who clicks around wearing black shawls and issuing imperative commands, a figure of Death very much at odds with her iterations in the other movies. This misstep, though fascinating, leads to some odd reversals that only seem to make Michael appear even weaker.
Pacino’s performances as Michael form the bedrock of his acting career. You only have to watch him in Scarface to see how fine the Godfather performances are by comparison. Like Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, Pacino has to act against his natural sensibility in order to portray the coiled and vengeful Michael – he has to hold it all in. If you see Pacino’s natural exuberance in Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon or later performances like those in The Scent of a Woman or Heat, you know what I’m talking about. It takes a supreme plateau of craft to balance Michael’s restraint with a weaker, more human side in the third installment; it’s what makes the film engaging and interesting. The third installment does suffer from the absence of Michael’s brothers whose contrasting personalities made the first film such a winner. Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen really needs to be there at the very least and his absence is quite palpable (he’s replaced by a lawyer played by George Hamilton which makes no sense to me, especially given Hamilton’s embodiment of a certain sunny kind of Hollywood facile charm). Garcia’s Vincent Mancini, at turns tempestuous like his father and sociable and vengeful like his uncles, helps balance things out a fair deal, as do the various bit characters like Eli Wallach‘s wonderful Don Altobello, but they can’t make up for the roster of fantastic actors/characters that propped up the first film. You have to accept this film as a more aged echo of the original.
For many of the saga’s fans, the key to the popularity of the first two films is their code of masculinity. The original two boasted great moments which unembarrassedly revealed a world that was all too sexist, patriarchal, racist, and ultimately unsympathetic to any concerns its characters might feel about such things. In the name of honour and tradition, most of these concerns were swept under the rug. Perhaps this was the tragedy Coppola sought to highlight most of all, along with the Shakespearean stakes of a man who forfeits his youthful independence to save those old world values embodied by his family. Michael is a man who is supremely intelligent and intuitive about human nature, but he could never stand back and assess his own defects. It’s the irony of having all that wealth and power, yet being completely unable to affect one’s character or destiny. Each of the films ends with Michael victorious but troubled by the cost of what he’s done to achieve his victories. The very thing that Coppola sought to critique was what fans loved about the films in the first place. In the third installment, Michael does question some of the things he’s done and though he cannot change his nature, he possesses a self awareness that makes him sympathetic. After the death of Don Tommasino, Michael sits beside his confederate’s cadaver and asks himself why Tommasino was so loved while he (Michael) was so feared. After all, the early nineties was a different time, socially and politically, from the seventies.
There are many great lines in the film that speak to Coppola and Puzo’s understanding of character, drama, and tragedy. Coppola refuses to lower the bar of intelligence that permeates all three films. Here are some of my favourite lines in no particular order:
Don Lucchesi: “You understand guns? Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.”
Cardinal Lamberto: “Your sins are terrible and it is just that you suffer. Your life would be redeemed but I know that you don’t believe that – you will not change. Ego te absolvo.”
Michael: “The higher I go (in society), the crookeder it becomes.”
Kay: “That’s your whole thing isn’t it, Michael? Reason backed by murder?”
Calo: “Power wears out those who don’t have it.”
This is an underappreciated film that deserves greater recognition even if it is an aged counterpart to the first two. It is much more like the first film than the second. As in the first film, the entire enterprise consists of one long story rather than two intercut tales. It focuses on good old fashioned mafia plots and counterplots with a lengthy episode in pastoral Sicily. The second film focused more on politics and history. Politics and history are present in the third installment (the stuff with the Vatican bank scandal and its roots in actual historical events is fantastic, as are Puzo and Coppola’s attention to mafia history) but they never get in the way of the plot’s momentum. It also speaks to corporate globalization which was a new concern in the early nineties, and astutely saw the corporate world as the new ‘pezzonovante.’ Last but not least, the finale with the opera and Coppola’s signature use of Sergei Eisenstein’s cross-cutting techniques between the drama on stage and that in the theatre’s seats is exquisite. It’s not a perfect film but it’s in keeping with Coppola’s experiments and endeavours throughout his glorious career.
Ultimately, I cannot be too hard on any of the installments or versions because I love the spirit with which Coppola has approached his work and life. If he didn’t mess around, we wouldn’t have the great stylistic work or experimentation in Rumblefish or The Cotton Club or One From the Heart. We would never have gotten the original Apocalypse Now which might just be my favourite film of all time. We wouldn’t have the sublime The Conversation. Coppola is ultimately an indie filmmaker that somehow, against all odds, became a big shot auteur and then lost it all, only to start again. On my wall, I have a framed bank loan application he and his wife Eleanor filled out in the late sixties, a few years before he was picked to direct the first Godfather. It is an application for $20,400 to the City National Bank in Beverly Hills, California and is dated December 16th, 1969. It might have been used to finance his small film The Rain People (which features Robert Duvall and James Caan) or it might have been for something much more quotidian – the application might have been declined for all I know. I keep it on my wall because it reminds me that everybody starts somewhere and it’s amazing where one can go with effort and inspiration. In many ways, Coppola’s life, his achievements and setbacks, the twists and turns, are no less remarkable than Michael Corleone’s.
The Godfather, Part III – Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is out now of Blu-Ray and DVD