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“The Godfather Part II” and “Chinatown”: The Great Villain Blogathon

April 22, 2014

This is my entry in the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Ruth (Silver Screenings), Karen (Shadows & Satin) and Kristina (Speakeasy). Enjoy!

Film buffs who praise the 70’s as one of the golden ages of cinema talk about, among other things, the talent that all came together at the time (both in front of the camera and behind it), the willingness to explore darker and more adult themes, and the way the characters were drawn in three-dimensional terms, with no simplistic “heroes” or “villains” of the type you find in many of the mainstream films today. This is not to say, of course, there were no villainous characters in these movies (obviously, in the more mainstream films of the 70’s, there were). In fact, my two favorite films of 1974, The Godfather Part II and Chinatown, offer the most vivid portraits of villainy (and evil) I’ve ever seen in movies.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) giving his answer.

Of course, what makes The Godfather Part II (directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, adapted from The Godfather novel by Mario Puzo, who co-wrote the screenplay as well) a tragedy as well as a portrait of evil is the fact Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) didn’t start out as a villain. As we saw in the first movie, Michael was going to be the one in the family to go legit, as per two memorable lines in the film; after telling an unsavory anecdote about his family’s “business”, he tries to assure his then-girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), “That’s my family, Kay; that’s not me,” and late in the movie, when his father Vito (Marlon Brando) tells Michael, “I never wanted this for you.” As all fans of the first movie know, Michael got sucked into the family business when Vito was shot, Michael shot and killed two of the men responsible, was forced to flee to Italy, and got married, only for his wife to be killed by a car bomb meant for him. When he came back to New York, Michael was a changed man; cold, ruthless, and even more calculating than he had been before. He said the right things to get Kay back (“In five years, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate”), but on the day his sister Connie (Talia Shire) had her baby son baptized (Michael served as godfather to the baby), Michael had the heads of all five families killed, including the ones responsible for ordering the (unsuccessful) hit on his father and the (successful) hit on his older brother Sonny (James Caan). Michael also had killed the traitors with and in his family, including Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of Vito’s (formerly) most trusted lieutenants, and Carol (Gianni Russo), Connie’s husband. Naturally, when Connie confronted him about this, Michael denied to her and then Kay (now his wife) that he had anything to do with Carlo’s death, but the movie ended with Michael being treated like the don he now was, and with the door to his study (formerly Vito’s) being shut in Kay’s face.

Except for flashbacks showing the younger Vito (Robert De Niro) as he made his way from Italy to New York City in the early 1900’s and worked his way up to being a feared and respected gangster, Part II concerns itself mainly with Michael’s continued descent. Michael, Kay, and the rest of his family are now in Nevada. Michael is running the casinos in Las Vegas and still running the other family business. In one of many ways were Coppola echoes the first movie, Anthony’s first communion reception is presented in sharp contrast to Connie’s wedding reception, which opened Part I. Whereas the wedding reception had the feel of a family gathering, even in the favors Vito was granting to others, the communion reception is a considerably more impersonal affair (best summed up when Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) – one of Michael’s lieutenants and an old friend of Vito’s – tries to get the band to play a tarantella, but the band segues into “Pop Goes the Weasel” instead). Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin) of Nevada comes to the reception to accept a check from Michael (an endowment for the university), but as he says in a private meeting with Michael later, his real purpose in coming is to overcharge Michael for a gaming license he needs (to buy another hotel), because he intends to squeeze Michael out, as he despises Michael and his family. Michael’s reply is instructive and chilling; “Senator, we’re both part of the same hypocrisy. But never think it applies to my family.” So it’s no surprise when, sometime later, Senator Geary is found in bed with a dead prostitute, and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Michael’s half-brother and consigliere, is offering to “help” Geary. It’s readily apparent Michael’s promise to Kay about the Corleone family becoming completely legitimate in five years hasn’t quite happened yet (Kay points out it’s been seven years). Meanwhile, Michael is entering a business agreement with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg, Pacino’s real-life acting mentor), a gangster who worked with Vito in the past (according to Frankie, “Your father did business with Hyman Roth, your father respected Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth!”). Michael, in turn, has to deal with an attempt on his life that leads both to Roth and Fredo, who turned out to be betraying him. Then there’s the Senate hearings on organized crime that are targeting him and his family. Finally, Kay, who’s increasingly disgusted by what Michael has become, tries to leave him.

Michael reacts after Kay (Diane Keaton) tells him her news.

The success of the first movie – it broke existing box-office records, received critical acclaim, and won three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Brando – allowed Coppola cache in the film industry after nearly a decade of flops. However, Coppola was  disturbed by what he saw as the public romanticizing the Corleones, and since he was promised carte blanche in making Part II (aside from not being allowed to use Brando for a flashback sequence at the end because Brando and the studio were angry at each other), he decided to rectify that. As Pauline Kael wrote in her rave review of Part II, while Vito in the first film might have recoiled from the drug business, Michael recoils from nothing here. Again at that first communion reception, the visual contrasts between the outside ceremony and the “business” Michael conducts in his study aren’t as pronounced as they were at the wedding reception in the first film (in that film, cinematographer Gordon Willis famously over-exposed the outdoor scenes while using low-level lighting for the scenes in Vito’s study). Michael is as cold to Senator Geary’s threats as he is to Connie when she shows up with Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue), whom she intends to marry against Michael’s wishes (the most Michael does is say how disappointed he’ll be if she marries Merle).* His coldness and calculating nature do serve him well in one respect – the agreement with Roth partly concerns Cuba, and as the film takes place during Castro’s revolution, Michael is the only one who sees that coming – but for the most part, it serves to cut him off from just about everyone, especially Fredo and Kay (he even threatens to fire Tom near the end of the film). Only with his mother (Morganna King) does he show a glimpse of humanity (he asks her if by being strong for his family, he would lose it).

One of the most unusual things about the movie, apart from its structure (going between Michael and Vito’s story and back without any particular rhyme or reason) is how there’s no real arc to Michael’s character. He merely continues, bit by bit, the descent he sunk into starting in the last 1/3 of the first movie. It’s tough on a film to hang a lead character like that onto its story, and it’s also tough on an actor to play that. Yet miraculously, Coppola and Pacino pull it off. As with the last part of the first film, Michael wears slick suites (unlike the warmer, muted color suits he wore earlier in that film) with his hair slicked back. Despite his shortness of stature, Michael always acts as if he’s looking down on whoever he talks to (to convey his superiority over them), and he stands (or sits) almost completely still. And he rarely raises his voice, even when he finds out Fredo betrayed him (in the famous scene in Cuba when he kisses Fredo and tells him, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart”, his anger comes across, but he still keeps control of his voice), or when he and Tom butt heads (and delivers the chilling line, “I don’t feel I have to wipe everyone out, Tom. Just my enemies”). Only Kay, his family, and what happens to them seem to push his buttons. After the attack on his home, Michael yells at Rocco (Tom Rosqui), one of his bodyguards, when the gunmen responsible are killed (Michael wanted them alive). He blows up at Frankie about the attack as well (“In my HOME!”), and gets angry at Tom when he hears Kay had a miscarriage (Michael wanted to know if it was a boy or not). But Michael really becomes unglued when Kay tells him she’s leaving him and taking the kids, and adding it wasn’t a miscarriage, it was an abortion (“because this must all end!”); he responds by slapping her and yelling at her.

Michael alone at the end.

Those who think of Pacino only as a “Hoo-ah!” ham should watch this, if for no other reason than to see how subtle he is, and how he’s able to suggest the inner rot inside Michael simply from his voice and eyes (especially when Michael signals Al Neri (Richard Bright), his closest adviser aside from Tom, through just his facial expression it’s time to kill Fredo). Even in crowded scenes, Coppola and Willis often frame Michael by himself, to emphasize how cut off he is from everyone, and in the last part of the film, we often see Michael alone. Pacino is also able to suggest Michael’s loneliness simply through the way he conducts himself, even when other people try to get through to him (as when Connie attempts to reconcile with him near the end of the movie; he just stares straight ahead). Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Pacino’s work is, despite the monster Michael has become, we still feel for him. The Academy may have overlooked the performance at Oscar time (De Niro won Best Supporting Actor, but Pacino lost to Art Carney (Harry & Tonto) for Best Actor), but today, Pacino’s work is rightly considered classic (it remains my single favorite performance by an actor in film). Part II wasn’t as financially successful as Part I (though it still did good business), and while Part II won more Oscars than Part I, the reviews were more mixed (Kael and Richard Schickel praised it, Roger Ebert liked it with reservations, and Vincent Canby panned it); still many critics today consider it better than the first (It remains my favorite movie of all time). Coppola may not have been able to destroy the mystique of the Corleones as he wished; the first two films not only inspired gangsters of the time, but also businessmen who use it as a template (in You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’ character calls the movie the “I Ching” of business), not to mention its impact on popular culture. Still, Coppola, along with Pacino, managed to create a landmark film, with an equally landmark portrait of villainy.

*-In a deleted scene, included in The Godfather: A Novel for Television (the first two films re-edited and shown chronologically from young Vito in the early 20th century to Michael at the end of the 50’s), we see Michael give his blessing to Francesca (Jeanne Savarino Pesch), Sonny’s daughter, when she asks if she can get married, but even though he makes a show of being the paterfamilias as Vito was, you can still see his cold and calculating side.


Noah Cross (John Huston) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) have lunch.

Few directors had as colorful a resume, before they came to Hollywood or during, as John Huston. Though a sickly child, he recovered enough to be, among other things, an amateur boxer, a stage actor, a cavalry officer, a painter, a newspaper reporter, and a short-story writer and playwright, among other things. Though he was far from the only director to enlist in the war effort during WWII – and like many directors at the time, was forced to recreate battle footage (The Battle of San Pietro, one of his documentaries, was subject to this) – he also strove to show the horrors of war, especially with Let There Be Light, his documentary about returning vets suffering what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (then known as “battle fatigue”). Unlike most directors, Huston was never tied to one particular studio, but bounced around, taking whatever job suited him (or, on a rare occasion, when he needed money or a hit). Huston’s off-screen life was just as colorful, with several marriages and affairs, brushes with the law (a hit-and-run accident, a barfight or two), and even holding up a movie shoot so he could hunt elephant (as alleged in Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart, about the making of The African Queen). In other words, this all made him an excellent choice to play Noah Cross, the villain in Chinatown.

Before Chinatown came out, Robert Towne was best known as a script doctor (as well as adapting Daryl Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail for director Hal Ashby). He did uncredited work on Bonnie and ClydeDrive, He Said and Cisco Pike, and wrote a famous scene in the first Godfather movie (the scene where Vito tells Michael, “I never wanted this for you”). Towne had planned an ambitious trilogy about how Los Angeles had changed from the 1930’s to the 50’s in regards to water, gas and highways, all through the eyes of a private eye named Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson).** As conceived by Towne, Gittes had a shady past while in law enforcement (when asked what he did working for the DA in Chinatown, he joked, “As little as possible”), spent his time and career now dealing with cheating wives and husbands, and thought he knew everything. That was until a case he took up involving a woman who claimed her husband was cheating on her ended up with the woman being a fraud, the husband being murdered, and the trail leading to Cross, a wealthy landowner who was diverting water to his land, was willing to hurt or have killed anyone who stood in his way, and for good measure, raped his daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). And Cross is now after the child that came from that rape.

Jack will soon find out Cross really is capable of anything.

Near the end of the film, Cross says, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of *anything*.” Huston certainly makes you believe he’s capable of anything. Though he only actually appears in a couple of scenes, Huston makes his presence felt. Despite his 6’2″ height, Huston wasn’t as physically imposing at the time he made the film as he was when he was younger (he’s a little more hunched over), but he still cut a commanding figure (and you believe, for example, how nervous Evelyn gets whenever he’s mentioned around her). He does it by the fact he believes he’s capable of anything, and also by instinctively knowing which buttons to push. At a lunch he and Gittes have together, Cross has fish served to Jake with the eyes still inside (“I hope you don’t mind; I believe they should be served with the head”), and asks Gittes the rather pointed question, “Are you sleeping with (my daughter)?” (made even more pointed by the fact Nicholson, at the time, had recently started a relationship with Huston’s real-life daughter Anjelica). At their second and final meeting, Gittes asks Cross how much he’s worth (he has no idea, but laughs approvingly at Gittes’ suggestion of $10 million), and wonders what Cross can buy with all his money, to which Cross replies, “The future.” What makes him even more depraved, of course, is how he acts as if he’s in the right, telling Gittes, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” Like Pacino as Michael, Huston rarely yells (though he talks louder than Pacino does), and except for his face, he stands pretty still. Yet through that, and thanks to his somewhat ravaged look, Huston is able to make you believe Cross is capable of anything.

As fans of the movie know, Towne originally meant for Evelyn to shoot her father and get arrested for her crime, but director Roman Polanski fought for the darker ending, with Evelyn being shot by the police, and Cross, though wounded, triumphant as he takes the child away. While Towne was unhappy with that ending, years later, he acknowledged Polanski had made the right decision, and it was; if nothing else, Cross would never have resonated the same way if he wasn’t able to get away with it. As the film came out the same year as Godfather Part II, it’s no surprise Polanski and Towne’s film was overshadowed at the Oscars (only Towne won for Best Original Screenplay), though the fact Huston wasn’t even nominated seems a grievous oversight (three actors from Part II were nominated, which is understandable, but getting passed over for Fred Astaire (The Towering Inferno) Jeff Bridges (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), who each gave so-so performances, seems especially egregious). Still, the film lives on as one of the best detective stories of the last 40 years or so, as well as one of the best neo-noirs, and while everyone involved deserves credit, Huston deserves special mention; despite how little he appears on-screen, you really feel just how depraved, and villainous, he is.

**- The gas storyline came up in The Two Jakes, which came out, after an acrimonious development period, 16 years later, while the highway storyline was appropriated for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

From → Movies

  1. You’re absolutely right – the 1970s were unafraid to have complex villains and “good guys”, and these two movies you’ve featured are perfect examples of that. (Plus! Great casting and screenwriting.)

    Thanks for including such a thoughtful post to the blogathon.

  2. Kudos on this epic post, and for choosing these two great characters, I hate to think of Michael Corleone as a villain, because I liked his character so much in The Godfather, but there’s no denying the unforgiving ruthlessness that he represented. And as for Cross — yikes. He’s as scary as Michael! Good stuff!

  3. Emily Crawford-Margison permalink

    Excellent writing. Engaging to the end
    . Thanks!

  4. Great post about both characters! One of the things I love about Michael Corleone is how the initial impression of him–as a war hero, a gentle lover to his girlfriend, and someone who opposes his family’s business–carries over even as he become more and more monstrous. And Cross getting away with everything makes that film. It wouldn’t be half as great without that ending.

  5. Godfather II is, hands down, my fave Pacino role ever. For me, that wonderful scene in the first film (when he shoots his father’s killers) represents the moment when he becomes a villain. There’s no going back, no matter how much ‘the family’ try to protect him. I must admit that I’ve never seen Chinatown, it’s one I keep meaning to but never get round to!

    • Thanks! It’s my favorite of his as well, though actually I would say it’s the scene where he announces his intent to shoot his father’s killers, with a hint of the calculation you see later, that marks him as a villain.

      And if you haven’t seen Chinatown, by all means do so.

  6. doriantb permalink

    Sean, having known people like Michael Corleone WAY back when I was a kid living in The Bronx, we can certainly relate to the Corleone family and the world where they lived in both the novel and the film version of THE GODFATHER PARTS ONE AND Two. Coppola and his superb cast are mesmerizing, in the best films of Al Pacino’s career! (Not that there’s anything wrong with SCENT OF A WOMAN and Pacino’s “Hoo-hah!” 😀 Bravo to you on a truly superb post for the Great Villain Blogathon, my friend!

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