Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino): “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”— The Godfather: Part II (1974), screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, based on characters created for Puzo’s novel The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather: Part II, which premiered 40 years ago today in New York, didn’t have the propulsive drive and shock of its predecessor, but it surpassed it in demands on the audience, ambition, and assessment of the soul-deadening costs of a life of crime. In the process, it became the first sequel to win the Best Picture Oscar.
One of the most common criticisms of the first Godfather film was that it romanticized mobsters as family men. Part II, in many respects, seemed to be a direct answer to that complaint, as Michael—whose progress from idealistic war veteran to head of a crime family was detailed in Part I—now finds himself progressively isolated from all members of his clan.
Michael adheres all too well to the advice of his father: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” To expand the “family business,” from Las Vegas to pre-revolutionary Havana, he embodies the cold, coiled lethality of a snake.
In fact, perhaps he displays more passion here, in his confrontation with weak, unwary sibling Fredo (played by John Cazale), than throughout the rest of the film. A slip of the tongue by Fredo confirms his younger brother’s suspicion that Fredo not only connived with Hyman Roth, but that he helped the older gangster set up a hit on Michael.
And so, in a scene more shocking and devastating than the violent scenes (16 deaths) throughout, Michael plants a “kiss of death” on Fredo at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Havana. The act functions as an inversion, turning an affirmation into a negation, a vow of good faith into a naked avowal of betrayal, and a year’s beginning into an unmistakable mark of a life’s ending.
It is hard not to see how bleak his entry in The Godfather Saga has become. The first film, opening the year of the Watergate break-in, was cynical about both government and law enforcement, yet continued to hold the banner of family aloft. No such solace is offered this time.
Cold, manipulative, deceptive Michael has so often broken his promise to go legitimate that wife Kay decides to punish him by aborting his son. That is not the only promise he will break to a family member, however: he also reneges on his agreement with his sister Connie that he forgive Fredo. That radical act of love could have broken the endless cycle of violence, perhaps, but it is impossible given the life Michael chose more than a decade ago.
The last extended flashback in the film—Pearl Harbor Day, when a birthday party for Vito Corleone is being planned by Michael and three family members who will die from violence, future brother-in-law Carlo and brothers Sonny and Fredo—is followed with the muted, desolate scene of Michael, sitting alone and lost in the family garden at Lake Tahoe. He may have turned his family-owned business into an enterprise "bigger than U.S. Steel," but at what cost?