Saturday, May 11, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by Oscar winning actor Charles Laughton. It’s too bad that the poor showing at the box office and the reviews of the critics at the time of its release in 1955 discouraged Laughton from doing more film directing. It is now considered one of the best films ever made, and is included in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies.
The film is a scary fairy tale about children pursued by a predator, a sort of Big Bad Wolf. The character of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in a great performance) is the boogeyman in this story. Mitchum’s performance is all the more frightening because, except when Powell doesn’t get his way, he is not ranting and raving, but instead is charmingly seductive, which makes him even more dangerous because he can get close to his victims.
The film starts with a shot looking up at the stars. So, it’s night time, when bedtime stories are read to children, but it also is the time when sweet dreams occur, or horrifying nightmares invade our sleep. There is a lullaby which fits the time of day, with the words, “Dream, my little one, dream.” The words of the song talk of “the hunter in the night fills your childish heart with fright.” But, it goes on to say, “fear is only a dream.” Is that line just a way of trying to soften the impact of these scary stories on kids, or is it trying to urge children not to give in to fear, but instead deal with danger? The images and music set the stage for this cautionary story that puts both children and adults in jeopardy. There is the face of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who will appear again in the last part of the movie, as she reads from the bible to children, warning them of those “Who come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” The movie cautions against those who present themselves as being righteous but are in fact evil.
There is an aerial view looking town on a small community, which could suggest a God’s eye perspective on human activities. The innocence of children playing games is undermined by the discovery of the body of a woman. Cooper’s voice-over says, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.” This biblical metaphor stresses that one can judge people, not just by what they say, but by their actions and the results of their behavior.
The next show, again from above, appropriately zeroes in on Powell, driving an early model car, since the movie takes place during the Great Depression. He believes he is talking to the “Lord,” not about holy matters, but concerning how many he has killed in His name. He obviously was the person who murdered the woman found by the children. He says he awaits the word of the Lord to tell him who should be the next victim, and wonders if it will be another widow. He says that God allows him to get enough money to preach the Lord's word, since a widow usually has a little money stashed away to keep him going. We have here that wolf who is clothed in the words of a preacher. The film explores how religion can be perverted by a sinister, psychopathic person, convincing himself and others that he is doing God’s will, but who is really self-serving.
Powell, though believing he is God’s instrument, is so self-righteous that he feels it’s okay to complain about being tired and wondering if God realizes what He puts him through. He says that it isn’t the killing that bothers him, since the bible is full of that, thus, in his mind, justifying homicide. He understands the Lord hates “perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” In these words, women aren’t considered humans, only objects, “things.” His real complaint with God is that there are just too many sinful women to kill. Powell’s character is a violent misogynist who wants to take the story of Eve in the Bible and use it as the justification to dole out divine punishment against women.
We then get an image of a scantily clad woman dancing on stage. Powell is in the audience, with a disgusted look on his face. He has the word “Hate” written, significantly, on the fingers of his left hand, “sinister” coming from the Latin word for “left.” He puts that hand in his pocket, and then the blade of a knife rips through the fabric of his coat. The image is a phallic one, a symbol of a violent erection, psychologically revealing male arousal coupled with guilt for having that response, and the urge to destroy what brought about the sinful excitement.
A policeman arrests Powell because the car he is driving is stolen. A judge sentences him to thirty days in the penitentiary. He is a man espousing God’s laws while breaking secular ones, rationalizing his actions by placing himself above human rules of behavior. (Abraham Lincoln’s picture hangs on the wall behind the judge, suggesting a non-religious figure that should be admired in contrast). Powell tells the judge that he is a preacher, but the judge is not going along with the hypocrisy, calling him a thief, and questioning why a man of God attended a show featuring a stripper.
Again, we get the shot from above, as if we are seeing what God sees, as the camera focuses on the prison where Powell is incarcerated, and then the view switches to a residential community. On the ground, two children play, and their father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), arrives in his car. He is bleeding and carries a gun and ten thousand dollars, which he obviously stole. A police siren is heard in the background. He tells his son, John (Billy Chapin) that he has to take care of his sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) whose name suggests that a child is the real treasure, not money. Ben tells them to swear not to tell anyone, not even their mother, where the money will be hidden. So, Powell is just one version of the wrongdoing in the world, since here is a father corrupting his own children with his criminality. He is perverting the oath to tell the truth by asking them to promise to lie. The troopers arrive, knock the father down and handcuff him. In a scene similar to the one with Powell, Ben is now the man in front of the judge. This similarity equates the two men as father figures. Since Ben killed two men during the robbery, the judge sentences him to be hanged.
Ben winds up in the same cell as Powell. Because Ben reveals some information in his sleep about the money, Powell tries to get Ben to say where the cash is hidden while he is dreaming. Powell is like Freddy Krueger, a demon figure invading one’s dreams. Ben wakes up and hits Powell for trying to make him talk. Powell points out that Ben quoted scripture, saying a “child shall lead them.” We again have this ironic placement of the religious in the context of a criminal situation. In a sort of unholy confession to the phony preacher, Powell, Ben says he committed the crime because he was “tired of seein’ children roamin’ the woodlands without food, Children roamin’ the highways in this here Depression, Children sleepin’ in old abandoned car bodies in junk heaps. And I promised myself that I’d never see the day when my young-uns had want.” Although Ben breaking the law and killing others must be condemned, he places his actions in a broader context of how desperate economic situations can create circumstances that can produce deadly behavior. Powell says he could use the stolen money to build a place of worship better than that of another preacher. Powell’s plan for the money springs from envious competition instead of any care for the suffering of others, which is what religion is supposed to stand for. Ben is cynical about all that Powell says.
Powell reveals that on the fingers of his right hand is the word “Love,” showing, along with his other hand, the duality in the world at large. (Spike Lee borrowed the hand image for his film, Do the Right Thing, and displayed the words on his own hands at the 2019 Oscar ceremony). Powell prays to God, seeing the placement of Ben in his cell as an act of providence, leading him as the Lord’s disciple to the ten grand, and providing him with another future widow, Ben’s wife, to take advantage of.
Bart, the guard who participated in Ben’s execution, goes home to his wife and two children, just like the man he just killed, showing that there is a shared connection between those that commit crimes and those that carry out the punishment. This observation suggests that, depending on the circumstances, events could be reversed for the two men. Bart wonders whether he should quit his job at the prison, probably finding it too stressful to carry out his duties. He considers that maybe he should return to his job working in the mines. His wife says it would only have made her a young widow if he had stayed there. The conversation shows how the trying financial times have placed a heavy burden on people, forcing them to make choices among punishing alternatives. Bart tucks in his two children as they sleep, hopefully having innocent dreams in a world of nightmarish reality.
The move to the next scene is a good transition since we go from the man who was involved in a hanging to where there are children in a playground who are singing about what a hangman does. One boy draws stick figures involved in a hanging as Ben’s children hear and watch. Even young Pearl starts to sing the song, which her older brother John tells her to stop doing, since he is embarrassed to know it has to do with their father. The words of poet William Butler Yeats come to mind about “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” as we see how corruption penetrates the lives of children.
Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben’s widow, works at the ice cream parlor (a symbol of American small town wholesomeness) owned by the appropriately named Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), and her husband. Icey tells Willa that it’s God’s will that a woman should have a husband to raise children. (This takes place during the 1930’s, remember). Willa says she doesn’t want to get married, probably since her first husband turned out to be a thief and a killer. We then get cuts to a train at night with bass-infused ominous music in the background, suggesting, despite Icey’s reference to God’s plans, that Willa’s future spouse may be one sent from hell, not heaven.
Pearl asks John to tell her a bedtime story, which continues the dream/fairy-tale theme. Her brother is an imaginative child who starts a tale that mirrors his father’s story, about a rich king who was taken away by bad men. He told his son to keep secret where his gold was hidden in case the bad men came back for it. As he talks about these “bad” men, on cue, there is the dark shadow of a man’s profile pictured against the window shade behind John. The looming image frightens Pearl. Outside Powell’s scary figure stands just outside the supposed safety of the home enclosed by a deceptively reassuring picket fence. He sings a hymn with the words, “Leaning, leaning. Safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.” Again, we have the weird mixture of religious hope with the threat of danger behind it.
John enjoys looking at a steamboat passing by on the town’s river edge, which suggests an escape to a better life. But, as he tells his friend, Uncle Birdie (James Gleason), an older man living in a shack near the river, John’s freedom has been restricted, having been tasked with watching over Pearl. The man says he needs to “sweeten” his coffee, putting whiskey in it, while flattening down a picture of his departed wife who tried to keep him away from alcohol, saying as an old man he needs some fuel in the morning to keep his “boilers” working. His words imply that decadence increases with the decay brought on by aging, emphasizing the fragility of earthly life. Here it is the woman who tries to thwart, not engage in, temptation. He informs John that there is a man in town who knew Ben in prison.
That man is, of course, Powell, who John finds at the ice cream parlor talking about Ben. He has already tried to weasel his way into their lives with Pearl sitting on the counter in front of him. Powell says he has come to comfort Ben’s family. Icey is a gullible religious person who has already allowed Powell to win her over as she praises him for going out of his way to cheer a “grievin’ widow.” He lies, presenting a false picture of himself as a caring man who worked at the penitentiary as a preacher, offering religious hope to the inmates. He acts like a sensitive soul since he says he had to leave his position because the place was too “heart rendin.’”
Powell then tells the story of love and hate, “good and evil,” since John stares at his fingers. Powell says that it was with the left hand that Cain killed his brother, Abel. He interlaces the fingers of both hands and says life is a battle between the two forces, as his two hands wrestle with each other. He shows “love” winning, but we know from his past that his contempt for women has won over his mind, and he actually represents the forces of “hate.” He presents a benevolent Dr. Jekyll surface that covers a violent Mr. Hyde lurking below. Powell holds Pearl in his lap, looking paternal. Willa, although appearing sad, wants John to show some appreciation concerning Powell’s stated intentions. But John has been growing up quickly because of what happened to his dad, and has a scowl on his face. Powell says that Ben told him that his children were like two little lambs, the reference implying innocence. But, are these lambs being led to the slaughter? Icey says she wants Powell to come to the town picnic.
Powell does attend, and he sings with the others there about “Bringing in the Sheaves,” although his harvesting plans are more diabolical. Willa also sings, but her eyes are downcast, and she looks like she is just going through the motions in her dejected state. Icey wants to play matchmaker, saying Powell is ripe to settle down. Willa counters by saying that John doesn’t care for him, and she, being rightfully concerned, wonders if Powell could be there to get at the missing money that Ben stole. The film is pretty cynical about relationships between men and women. Icey says, “A husband’s one piece of store goods you never know ‘til you get it home and take the paper off,” suggesting the unpredictability of what kind of man a woman may end up marrying. She, therefore, concedes the inability to prevent an unhappy union. She presents the jaded perspective of the adult world, saying that in her married life, she cared more about her “canning” than her husband. She basically believes that all that emphasis on love sustaining a marriage is just talk, and it really is just a practical arrangement. To her, she says that romance is a “fake” and a “pipe dream.” For Icey, “a woman’s a fool to marry” for sexual gratification. She believes physical pleasure is “for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that.” Her old-fashioned views equating sin with sex, even within a marriage, if taken to an extreme, as Powell does, can be perverted into justifying violent punishment toward females who seek physical gratification.
Willa and Powell talk alone, and she asks him if he knows what Ben did with the money. Powell says that on the night before his death, Ben told Powell that he wrapped the money around a cobblestone rock and sent it to the bottom of the river. Willa feels liberated, thinking that Powell is not there to get any money. She says she feels “clean” because with the money out of the picture, it can no longer taint her life. But, John smiles, because he knows that what Powell said is not what happened to the cash, and, thus, this stranger can’t get at it. But, Powell is just being deceptive again, lying about what Ben told him, to set the family up by putting them at ease so he can eventually discover where the cash is hidden.
Coming back at night from Uncle Birdie’s, the part of the day that points to the title as the time of the hunter, John is eerily surprised by the predatory Powell who tells the boy that his mom and he are going to get married. John says that he isn’t his father and never will be. He then makes a child’s mistake because he is not used to dealing with deception, and says that Powell is just trying to get John to tell him where the money is hidden. Now Powell knows that John was told by his dad where he hid the cash. John immediately realizes he said too much and covers his mouth. Powell, with a sly smile, asks if he is keeping secrets. Then he ominously says not to worry because they have a long time together for him to find out what John knows. The younger, more innocent Pearl, more vulnerable to lies, says she loves Powell and wants to tell him about the robbery, but John tries to persuade her not to say anything.
Willa gets ready for the wedding night and finds Powell’s knife in his coat pocket. He earlier told Ben the weapon was a type of holy sword, but it really represents a perversion of the male sex drive. When Willa comes to bed, Powell lectures Willa about how marriage should not be about disgusting “pawing,” (which sounds animal-like) but instead is the joining of “two spirits.” He commands that Willa look at herself in the mirror. He says that her body was meant by God for procreation, not satisfying the lust of men (forget about the fact that women might want to experience pleasure. That would be unthinkable to a man like Powell). Since she confesses that she wants no more children, the marriage should be sexless according to her new husband. Powell’s distorted view toward women is shrouded in religious pretensions to purity, and Willa, accepting how men have blamed women for making them fail God’s test of temptation, feels depraved as she prays to become “clean” to comply with Powell’s version of a wife.
Uncle Birdie takes John fishing, and apologizes for cursing in front of the boy, given the supposed preacher status of his stepdad. But John, almost in rebellion against the fatherly usurper, doesn’t seem to mind. Birdie promises John that he will be there for the boy if needed, as if Birdie expects there will be trouble from Powell. He catches a fish, curses it because it has been a threat to fishermen because it steals bait, and he kills it. The scene seems to imply that Powell is analogous to the nasty fish that takes from others out of selfishness.
At an evangelical event that Powell hosts, Willa says she was a sinner for causing Ben to rob and kill so she could have perfume, clothes, and cosmetics. Powell preaches an interpretation of Genesis that absolves men of responsibility for doing any wrongs, and instead puts the blame on women for using their seductive ways. causing men to sin.
Pearl is in the backyard of the house and has retrieved the stolen money. But, being an innocent child who doesn’t realize the crimes people will commit to acquire wealth, only sees it as something to play with, and cuts a couple of the bills into paper dolls that represent her and John. Her brother finds her with the cash and hurries to hide it as Powell comes to get them inside. The camera stays low as we see a couple of escaped bills blown under the back porch as if the greed for wealth contaminates the home. Powell confronts John with his usual deceptive good-natured manner which tries to hide his sinister intents. He says he knows that John told his mother that Powell asked him about the money. But, he says that it doesn’t matter, because she believes Powell over her son when he told her John was mistaken. John is open-mouthed in surprise that Willa took the word of Powell over her own boy. This realization furthers John on his coming-of-age journey that tries to destroy his hope for happiness.
Willa, under Powell’s religious charismatic spell, thinks that her son is just being impudent and stubborn about not accepting Powell as his stepfather. John continues to tell her that Powell asks about the money, but she accepted Powell’s story about it being at the bottom of the river because that is the story she wants to believe, relieving her of any ties to Ben’s crimes. Willa tells Icey that she is happy to take on the burden of trying to reconcile Powell and John, probably seeing it as a form of penance to rid herself of her sins.
Powell continues to pressure the resistant John about the money. He then feels he can persuade Pearl, who is too young to perceive Powell’s evil ways, to get her to tell him where the cash is. He plays a game of revealing secrets, as he perverts the childhood way of having fun. Powell takes on the role he condemns, that of Eve, as he tempts others to do wrong. Before she says anything, John hits Powell with a hairbrush. Powell starts to take Pearl out of the bedroom, but she picks up the doll in which the siblings stashed the cash. The stolen money, acquired in a bloody theft, representing adult depravity, hidden in the toy of a guileless child, is another symbol of contrasts, like the words on Powell’s fingers, pointing to warring moral forces.
Willa, outside before entering the house, hears Powell trying to turn Pearl against her own brother, telling her he is a bad person. He asks about the money, and when she hesitates, he calls her a “a little wretch” and threatens to tear her arm off. Pearl screams and runs away from him. There is a cut to Icey and her husband, Walter (Don Beddoe), who says there is something off about Powell, and is worried about Willa. It seems that the men, the judge, Ben, John, Birdie and Walter are able to see through Powell’s fake, pleasant, holy exterior, maybe because they see something of the frailty of themselves in him. The women he killed, and now Icey, Willa, and Pearl are seduced by his charms, possibly showing how society has made women vulnerable so as to require them to depend on men.
Later, in bed, Willa has finished her prayers, and tells Powell that she now knows that Ben didn’t tell Powell the money was at the bottom of the river. Powell then savagely smacks Willa across the face for having questioned him. But she takes the attack in stride. Instead of being outraged about his lies and abusiveness, she sees the money still being around as “tainting” their lives, it, not Powell, being the problem. She says she realizes that he knew about the money, but she has drunk the Kool Aid, and believes that God sent Powell to her not just so he could get the money but to help her save her soul. Powell exploits the biblical blame placed on women and makes females want to atone for the horrible crime that Eve perpetuated, causing humans to be expelled from paradise. The shot of their bedroom has a peaked ceiling, looking like a church interior, but there is nothing holy about what is happening. Powell, realizing that he can’t afford to have Willa know about his plans to get the stolen money, takes out his knife, and kills her, as he probably planned to do as soon as he found the money, and as he did with the other widows he cast his spell on. Like Norman Bates in Psycho, Powell’s pathology allows him to penetrate a woman only violently, with a blade.
John wakes up in the middle of the night and hears a car starting up, but goes back to sleep with the money-doll between him and Pearl, an image of adult corruption violating their childhood. Powell shows up at the ice cream parlor acting sad because he says that Willa took the Ford Model T and left him and the children. He has staged his deception, painting women again as sinners, to divert others away from his own evil. He quotes scripture as he bemoans the deceptive ways of women taken over by Satan. Suspicious Walter asks if he had a feeling about something being wrong with Willa. Powell says on their honeymoon night Willa, (not him), turned away from her husband, refusing intimate relations. The hoodwinked female, Icey, probably believes there must be something seriously wrong with Willa for refusing such a righteous hunk as Powell. Walter, at least questioning what happened, wants to know if Willa left a note. Powell says she did, but he burned it since it reeked of hell, as he continues to weld religious justifications onto all of his actions. Powell says he sees it as his responsibility to now take care of the children. When Walter suggests that Willa might return, Powell’s chilling response is that he can guarantee that she won’t. He has succeeded in infiltrating the family, and now can get the information out of the children about the money with no adult to prevent him.
There is a shot of Willa in her car, with her throat cut, at the bottom of the river (taking the place of the money in Powell’s story), her hair mixing sadly with the seaweed. But, above Birdie is fishing, the hook at the end of his line getting close to the car that represents literally and figuratively how Powell has submerged his crime. Birdie looks into the water and can see Willa in the car, and is horrified.
We hear Powell again singing “Leaning, leaning,” as Birdie looks at the body, followed by the words, “Safe and secure,” which state how God is supposed to be protecting his flock, coming, ironically, from a man who does just the opposite. Powell is leaning against a tree outside the house, like that wolf in sheep’s clothing, calmly ready to pounce on its prey. John has Pearl hiding with him in the coal cellar. Powell says he can hear them whispering down there, and says almost playfully, that he can feel himself getting mad. Everything about him is geared toward drawing others in by presenting a deceptively pleasant surface, but it comes with an escalating threat of danger when he starts to not get his way, and culminates into violence when thwarted. Icey shows up and unwittingly delays his plans. He says that the two children are just playing and won’t obey him. Because of her lack of insight, she aids this devil, and gets the two children to come upstairs before leaving.
There is a quick scene with Birdie, getting drunk, talking to the picture of his deceased wife, saying he saw the slit in Willa’s throat, looking like a second mouth. But, he knows that the supposedly upstanding preacher Powell knows how to play the game of persuading others by blinding them with his pious presentation. Birdie, although intoxicated, still realizes that Powell can spin the facts and make it look as if Birdie is the one who killed Willa.
Back at the house, Powell has a table full of food, and is again the tempter, trying to get Birdie to reveal the secret of where the money is. When she says John says not to tell, his pleasant manner gives way to yelling and pounding the table. He calls John a “meddler” and flashes his knife, saying he uses it to deal with “meddlers.” She reaches for the blade and Powell says he becomes very angry if anyone tries to touch his weapon, (his penis-substitute knife), almost as if he feels to do so is to violate him sexually. This whole scene is effectively disturbing, as Powell says that John doesn’t matter, and Powell is abusive toward Pearl, calling her a “disgusting little wretch.” Typical of an abusive male, he then follows that derogatory comment with how sorry he is, but still blames the young female for making him mad.
John says that he’ll tell him where the money is since he doesn’t want Powell bothering Pearl. He says that the cash is in the cellar under a rock. He is hoping Powell will go down there and they can escape. But Powell makes them go down the cellar with him. There is no stone floor, only concrete, and Pearl, almost echoing Powell, showing the bad preacher’s effect on her, says that John is a sinner for telling a lie. Crazy Powell says the Lord is talking to him now, and he grabs John and pushes his head down onto a barrel of apples (suggesting the apple in Eden?), and, in a reversal of the truth, says the Lord is calling John an “abomination.” He pulls his knife out and threatens to cut the boy’s throat. To save her brother, Pearl reveals that the money is in the doll. Powell laughs and says it’s the last place one would look, or at least him, because even though he fools others by appearing harmless, he can be fooled by what appears to be innocent because he sees evil everywhere.
John snuffs out the candle, and makes a shelf of preserves fall down, hitting Powell on the head, and causing him to slip on a jar. As the two children try to escape up the stairs, Powell climbs the stairs after them, his hands outstretched, making him look like Frankenstein’s monster. John slams the cellar door on Powell’s hand, and the man even growls like a predatory animal. He calls the children the “spawn of the devil,” demonstrating to such an extreme he has inverted what is right and wrong. The children go to Birdie for help, but he is passed out drunk. The children flee to the river and get on a boat as Powell, who has broken out of the locked cellar, pursues them. He is slowed down in the mud (mired in his own evil?) which prevents him from reaching their boat in time. He then screams like the maniac that he truly is.
The children’s ride seems surrealistic, almost dream-like, fitting a fairy-tale story. It is night, and the music mimics the twinkling of the stars, which we saw at the beginning of the film as it foreshadowed the later appearance of Cooper who warned about false prophets. Unlike the other women, she is aware of what a satanic force Powell is, and she represents the “love” written on Powell’s fingers. Pearl sings in a sweet voice, but her song in contrast deals with loss, as the words tell of a fly whose wife flew away, and that the children of the female fly also flew away. The lyrics reflect the loss in her own family. The boat drifts by a tree and the shot is filmed through a spider web, implying that the boy and girl are similar to the flies that may fly away to freedom but also may be caught in Powell’s lethal web.
A week has passed and Powell lies again, saying in a note that Walter reads that he took the children away for a while. Powell is riding a horse (a “pale” one, like some biblical apocalyptic figure) as he hunts John and Pearl. The throes of the Great Depression are depicted as hitting everyone, as John and Pearl are among the hungry children that Ben spoke of who wander the countryside begging for some food. They get potatoes from a sad looking woman who barely has enough to spare. The failure of society to care for its young thrusts the boys and girls out of their innocent world into a threatening one.
Powell gets a job picking fruit, and ironically lectures the other male workers about how the forces of evil are winning, he actually being one of their dark soldiers. They, like the other males in the tale, seem bored and uninterested, taking no comfort in Powell’s words. In the meantime, John and Pearl continue on their Huckleberry Finn type journey down the river, as we see several animals, including a frog, turtle, and some rabbits on the shoreline. They appear enlarged, being in the foreground, and look like giants in contrast to the children in the boat, suggesting the dangerous voyage of John and Pearl. They stop at a farm and John says they will sleep on land this time. The woman who lives there sings a loving lullaby as the two bed down in the barn with the cows during this brief respite from terror. But, John wakes to the warning sounds of a dog barking. He hears Powell’s ominous singing of “Leaning, leaning,” which contrasts with the comforting voice of the woman the night before. John asks doesn’t he ever sleep, which sounds as if he is asking does evil ever sleep?
They flee back to the river. As they sleep, their boat gets caught in bushes and comes to rest. They meet Mrs. Cooper, who is stern, but who has given sanctuary in her house to several young girls. She wants to wash Pearl and John, and talks about how she now has a couple more youngsters to take care of. She spanks John when he tries to run away from getting a bath, not a form of discipline we would recommend today. She probably believes it is her role to give them the parental guidance and care that they have been deprived of. That is why she calls herself a “strong tree” with room for many “birds.” When walking in town with the young children, a woman comes up to her daughter and says she is working to make things better for them. Cooper tells the mother to make sure she shows up at church service. Unlike Powell, she practices what she preaches. Cooper sounds like Icey in saying how women act foolish as they fall in love and have children. She smilingly, says, after observing a woman kissing a man, “She’ll be losing her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon, and like as not, I’ll be saddled with the consequences,” that is, another child to rescue. So, women, the film says, are immersed in and seduced by a patriarchal system which falsely promises a life of romance. Unfortunately, many of the females succumb to the fakery.
At night, Cooper takes a bible out and John, soured by Powell’s hypocrisy, goes outside. So, Cooper tells him how, like Pearl and John, Moses washed up on shore, and he turned out to be a king and savior, offering John the hope of a fulfilling life. She kindly asks John to get apples for the both of them. Here, instead of the apples being associated with a fallen Eve, they are linked in contrast to a holy woman not corrupted by temptation. John seems to warm up to the old lady, now becoming interested in the story of the pharaohs.
One of Cooper’s girls, the older Ruby, meets some boys in town, and is an example of females allowing themselves to be seduced by the attention and physical admiration of males. As one of the youths approaches Ruby, Powell intervenes, and buys the girl ice cream and tells her how pretty she is, almost like the grooming act of a pederast. He uses his compliments to get confirmation from Ruby that Cooper has Pearl and John with her, and that the doll with the money is there, too. As he walks away after getting what he needs, like a satisfied man leaving a woman after being sexually gratified, Ruby still wants more compliments about how pretty she is. Powell then has a mean look, with his left hand in his pocket, and the sound of the knife is heard as it clicks open, again suggesting his violent reaction to purge his guilt about being involved in a form of sexual encounter. But, he can’t hurt the girl in public, and leaves.
Ruby, realizing she has been “bad,” confesses (which takes on its religious connotation in this story) that she was in town, “out with men,” and that last word is delivered sounding as if males are the source of all corruption. Cooper is forgiving, saying how we all look for love, only Ruby looked for it “in the only foolish way you knew how,” with selfish men. Cooper says she lost the love of her son, but found it again with the children in her care. Cooper seems to be more of an embodiment of the New Testament’s call for forgiveness and love, and Powell appears like a deranged, vengeful religious emissary. Ruby tells of meeting Powell, and the suspicious Cooper wonders why he asked about the children.
Powell shows up at the Cooper farm and Ruby identifies him as the man from town. He calls the children “lambs” and “chicks” which seems affectionate, but in reality reveals how he sees them as a hunter’s prey. He tries to win Cooper over, as he did other women, with his religious spiel, talking about the words on his fingers. But, she brushes off his pitch with probing questions about where is the mother, and why did she take the children, and how the two came up the river in a boat. He says that his wife is “down river,” which, given that she is under the water, comes off as a dark joke. Powell says that the two children are his “own flesh and blood,” and that lie is exposed when John shows up looking upset and says that Powell is not his father. Cooper discerns Powell’s false religious facade and says, “and he ain’t no preacher, neither.” Powell then drops his fake pleasant face and replaces it with his true hateful one. John grabs the doll that sits at the foot of the steps and climbs under the porch. Powell starts to go after him with his knife exposed. But Cooper, sort of visually mocking the man for bringing a knife to a gunfight, points a shotgun at Powell and tells him to leave. Powell, calling the females “whores of Babylon,” resorting to his demonizing of women, says he will return at night, which is an appropriate time for his dark, nightmarish character. Although it is not too bright revealing when he will show up again, Powell thinks he has the almighty on his side, so he’s probably feeling secure in that belief.
And Powell shows up at night as he said he would, singing the “Leaning” song again that is supposed to be a religious comfort but becomes more and more menacing each time he sings it. Cooper, however, is on guard duty, looking like an armed “Whistler’s Mother,” as Roger Ebert pointed out, sitting with her rifle in a rocker. She is a frail woman compared to the muscular Powell, so we sort of have a David and Goliath contest, with true faith making her the stronger of the two. Cooper then sings along too, not giving Powell domination over the religious words, as they verbally duel over who has the right to represent the righteous way. Cooper looks at an owl moving its head, observing its victim, a rabbit, before it swoops down for the attack, mirroring the actions of the hunter, Powell. Cooper says, “It’s a hard world for little things,” and then there is a shot of the children, who, like the rabbit, are at risk in this dangerous environment.
Cooper, marching back and forth in the house next to the children like a sentry, tells the youngsters about how Herod tried to prevent Jesus from growing up, and asks how did Mary and Joseph deal with that danger. John says they ran away, and that is what Cooper tells them to do as Powell is seen only as a shadow, resembling a supernatural spirit, and only his threatening voice can be heard. He says he wants the children. When he appears out of the darkness, Cooper shoots, apparently wounding Powell, who runs and jumps while screaming out of the house toward the barn like an inhuman banshee. Cooper calls the police and tells them she has someone in her barn. The police come and arrest Powell for Willa’s murder. As they push Powell to the ground and handcuff him, John runs with the doll and yells, “No!” several times. The image reminds John of how his father, Ben, was arrested, and stresses how life has ripped his parents away from him. John hits Powell with the doll as the money flies out, as the boy says he doesn’t want the cash. For him, after all that he has been through, it truly is the root of all evil.
In the courtroom, the people call Powell “Bluebeard,” because of all of the widows he killed, and they want him executed. On the witness stand, only the prosecutor’s finger is seen pointing at Powell, which brings to mind that Satan is called the “accuser” who tries to undermine the beliefs of others with his accusations. John will not look at or identify Powell, being Christ-like in his mercy. Cooper takes him and the other children out to dinner, but Icey comes along with a mob yelling about how the children were Powell’s victims. However, they did not see Powell for what he was and take no responsibility for welcoming him into their town. The people turn into a lynch mob, and even in their righteous indignation, they still show an ugly side to people, and Cooper tries to remove the children from that aspect of the townspeople. These scenes take place at Christmas, which adds an irony to the mob’s actions. As the police take Powell out of the jail to protect him from the citizens, they see the executioner, Bart, who felt depressed about his job, but now says it will be a “privilege” to carry out his work on Powell. Merry Christmas, indeed.
The last scene of the movie has Cooper with her youngsters exchanging Christmas gifts. Cooper gives John a new watch, maybe suggesting that she is giving him time to be a child again. John gives Cooper an apple, which is what she gave him earlier. John is the only male at Cooper’s place, suggesting that maybe men, despite their wicked ways, can be saved. Again, the apple here is not the one of temptation that condemns women and whose biblical significance was used by Powell to unleash his vengeance against females. Instead, it is depicted here as a symbol of caring and nourishment, both physical and spiritual that springs from love.
After a week off, the next film is Wonder Boys.
Sunday, May 5, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
For this post, I used director Francis Ford Coppola’s Restoration version of the film, which is three hours and twenty-two minutes long. So, this analysis is quite lengthy.
Like The Godfather, this 1974 sequel (also winner of the Best Picture Oscar) further explores the contrasting elements within the lifestyle of the Italian Mafia. The lawbreaking with its accompanying violence exists while at the same time there is the impossible desire to keep the sanctity of the private family intact and separate from the business world. Coppola again uses organized crime as a metaphor for unscrupulous capitalist activity.
The first image echoes the last scene in The Godfather where there is the act of kissing the hand of the ironically named Godfather. The shot serves as the demonic version of the kissing of the Pope’s ring. The next image is the chair that Vito Corleone, the gangster boss of the first movie, sat in, which serves as a type of mobster throne, as opposed to the papal chair.
The story begins with narrative information about Vito Corleone, whose last name is Andolini, and who was born in the town of Corleone, Sicily. Where one comes from is important because of the emphasis in Italy on roots and family, so the fact that Vito’s last name is later transformed into the name of the place of his birth shows a close connection between the man and his origins. In 1901, his father was murdered because of an insult involving the local Mafia boss. There is a funeral procession for Vito’s father with nine-year-old Vito and his mother walking next to the coffin. This solemn ceremony is violated by the sound of gunfire, and as people scatter, someone shouts that they have killed Vito’s older brother, Paolo, who swore revenge, and had disappeared into the hills. Vendettas keep the violence going in this country, as is seen by the fact that there are so few men in Corleone by the time Michael visits in the first movie.
Young Vito (Oreste Baldini) and his mother (Maria Carta) visit the Mafia boss, Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato). She says her husband was killed because he would not give into Ciccio’s will. This information shows that the men in Vito’s family do not bow to others. Vito’s mother says that her son is “dumb-witted” and hardly speaks, (but we know later he is quite intelligent) so she argues he poses no threat to Don Ciccio. He says it’s not Vito’s words he is afraid of. In the gangster world, one must always be looking for attacks. Although the mother says Vito is weak, Ciccio says that he will grow up and be strong and seek revenge. Despite her begging, he refuses to spare her son. She has a contingency plan and pulls out a knife, holds it to the Ciccio’s throat, and tells Vito to run. Ciccio’s men overpower the mother and shoot her dead. Vito runs away. If Ciccio had spared his family, and not tried to kill Vito, is it possible that Vito would not have sought revenge later? Apparently compassion is not in the Mafia playbook.
Ciccio’s men go through the town warning anyone who protects Vito will be punished. Despite the threat, a family (not a criminal one) does show sympathy, and helps him escape. He is all alone in the world and travels by ship to New York, which passes by the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of freedom and hope to all those who arrive in America. That same statue is in the first movie in the “leave the gun, take the cannoli” murder scene, which shows how the American Dream can turn into a nightmare. Immigration officials make a mistake by substituting the town for Vito’s last name, revealing how negligence in processing the many people entering the country can shortchange a person’s individuality. The immigration workers place a chalk “X” on Vito’s clothes, indicating he may be mentally challenged, as his mother noted. It turns out that others underestimate his potential. The doctor who examines him says he has smallpox and must be quarantined for three months. Vito’s early life is thus a hard one. During this whole time he doesn’t speak, but as he looks through the window in his room on Ellis Island at the Statue of Liberty, he finally uses his words to sing, seeking some comfort in this lonely situation. Being alone becomes an important theme in the rest of the story.
There is a jump forward to 1958 to the first Holy Communion ceremony of Anthony Vito Corleone (James Gounaris), Vito’s grandson, Michael’s boy, at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Religion and family continue to dominate the Corleones after Michael has made his move to Nevada as he proposed in the first movie. There is an opulent reception on the lake following the ceremony, which contrasts with the poverty of Vito’s young life, and shows how the Corleones have prospered monetarily. Connie (Talia Shire) shows up with her latest lover, Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue, whose real name is the same as that of his character). She has been in revolt against Michael after he killed her abusive and traitorous husband right after the baptism of her son. Mama Corleone (Morgana King) says that she was supposed to show up a week earlier, noting her daughter’s carefree ways. She lectures Connie about seeing her children more often, which is a violation of the family code of behavior that is ethically strict, as opposed to the lawbreaking inherent in the family business.
Nevada Senator Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin) is there with his wife, who we later learn he cheats on repeatedly, cheapening his public show of decency. The senator thanks the Corleone family for their contribution to the state through a college endowment in the name of young Anthony. Geary mispronounces “Vito” and “Corleone” which is a form of disrespect, but also shows how he still distances himself from the Mafia family, presenting himself as a ceremonial acquaintance only. Later, he pronounces the name with the correct Italian version, showing his phoniness in this scene. There is then a photo opportunity with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), his wife Kay (Diane Keaton), and the senator and his wife, showing how Geary is used to the public display of insincerity. Michael, however, has spent most of his life in the shadows, and now wants to fulfill his father’s wish that the family move into legitimacy. He is in denial about how it is impossible to achieve his goal given the Corleone past.
In contrast to the brightness of the outside public festivities, we have a dark scene in Michael’s private office, with adopted brother, lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). This juxtaposition is similar to the opposing settings at the onset of the first film that takes place during another religious ceremony, the outside wedding of Connie and Carlo, with Vito granting nefarious favors in the office in his New York home. (The Holy Communion event, which sounds like a gathering of righteous people gives way to a sort of satanic conclave inside). The humanitarian display at the ceremony is followed by the corruption evident in a government figure in the person of Senator Geary. He points out that Michael already owns three hotel/casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, but for the fourth he needs a gaming license that was not grandfathered in. The senator wants upfront money and a cut of the revenues of all the casinos. Geary reveals he is exploiting the situation not only for the cash, but out of bigotry. He says he doesn’t like Michael’s “kind,” meaning Italian, dirtying up “this clean country” with “oily hair” trying to present themselves “as decent Americans.” Obviously he is not one to talk, since he is not fighting against organized crime here, but instead is using it for his own gain. Geary says he despises the Corleone “masquerade” of looking presentable while acting dishonestly. Michael keeps his cool, but accurately tells Geary that “we are both part of the same hypocrisy,” as the senator also portrays himself as an upstanding citizen while hiding his corrupt nature. Michael feels he can make the distinction that Geary does not, which is that Michael’s dirty business activities do not desecrate the members of his family. Geary wants to keep his facade of respectability by not dealing directly with Michael, and only wants to use an intermediary. Michael tells Geary that he won’t give him anything, and expects the senator to put up the twenty-five grand for the gaming license. The senator just smirks at Michael dismissively, and then walks out of the room. Geary puts on his genial facade as he is hypocritically cordial to Kay, who is with his wife.
Michael has his hands full with his family and business associates. One of his mob lieutenants, Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) is drunk and unruly. He wants to see Michael about the death of Clemenza, one of the friends of Vito Corleone, Michael's father. The death may not have been by a heart attack according to Willi Cicci (Joe Spinell), Pentangeli’s associate. Pentangeli is not thrilled to have to wait so long to see Michael, which hints at how that anger will be used later to try to frame Michael.
Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), who works for Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a gangster who was Vito’s business partner, makes an appearance. Al Neri (Richard Bright), one of Michael’s bodyguards, greets Johnny and ushers him into a meeting with Michael and Tom. (Ola brings an orange from Florida as a gift from Roth. Oranges were used in the first film and are employed here, too, as ominous symbols of approaching death. They have been used since the Godfather in other movies as deadly forecasters, such as Children of Men and Identity). Michael dismisses Tom saying he is only involved in certain aspects of the business. This slight obviously hurts Tom’s feeling, and shows how the criminal life requires Mike to be paranoid in his carefulness to the point that his slights to his own family members can come back to hurt him, at least in the case of Fredo later. Ola says that Roth will back Michael in taking over the casino he wants. Ola says that they are losing a number of organized crime’s members by death, “natural or not,” prison, and deportation. His words emphasize the business’s hazards. He says Roth has survived because “he always made money for his partners,” stressing the need to spread the wealth and not foster anger and mistakes because of greediness. His statement may be a veiled threat that Michael should not try to gain too much individual power.
Connie meets with Michael and says she wants to book passage on a cruise to Europe since she and Merle are to be married. Michael is upset since she was just divorced and he sees her as out of control, hooking up with a gigolo. He lectures her about a lack of concern for her children, since she sees them only on weekends. He tells his sister that her son was picked up in Reno for stealing. Again, he feels his big crime dealings should remain separate from the lives of family members, who should conform to ethical rules. Such is the duality in the Italian American criminal world, which is used as an allegory here for the political-economic sector in America. Connie admits that she needs money and that is why she has come to Michael. He says that she can live within the confines of the family estate with her children and be deprived of nothing. But, there is a price to pay, because she must do what Michael dictates, which is to not marry Merle, who Michael talks about dismissively as if he isn’t there. Michael is right that Connie is at sea before she even sails, but he acts like a controlling parent dealing with a child. He says that if she doesn’t do what he says, “you’ll disappoint me.” In any other family that would not be so ominous.
As the Holy Communion celebration goes into the night, Michael and the family, which includes Deanna (Marianna Hill), Fredo’s wife, have dinner together. She is obviously not Italian, since she doesn't know the toast “Cent’anni,” which means they should live for a hundred years, which Connie says might happen if their father were still alive, implying Michael is not a worthy successor. The back-and-forth in time format of the film is set up to compare Vito’s life and actions as he went from Italy to New York with Michael’s further westward movement to Nevada in a compromised type of immigrant journey westward to search for the new Eden in America. Michael’s plans meet numerous hurdles, which include Geary and Pentangeli, and Deanna’s drunken spectacle of herself on the dance floor. She questions Fredo’s masculinity when he tries to intervene, and Fredo admits to being incapable of dealing with his wife, since the men here seem to be required to control the females. Again, the public display of unruliness, such as Pentangeli’s spilling wine and Deanna’s actions, spoil the appearance of respectability. Even though Michael tells his brother that he has nothing to apologize for, Fredo’s feelings that Michael is ashamed of him leads to his betrayal later.
Pentangeli finally meets in private with Michael, and is angry that he must give the gangster Rosato brothers territory to run in New York. He tells Michael that Clemenza did not promise the brothers anything and hated them. Michael wants him to cooperate because the Rosato brothers are pals of Hyman Roth, and he doesn’t want to hinder his dealings with Roth. Pentangeli feels that Michael has lost touch with what’s really happening because he is now out of New York and living in luxury in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an image suggesting Michael has elevated himself too high above his workers. Pentangeli says that the brothers are disrespectful, doing “violence in their grandmothers’ neighborhoods.” The thrust here is that you can be violent in the proper course of gangster business, but not if it spills over into the lives of the civilian family members. What these men don’t want to face is that it is impossible to prevent the overflow of violence from one world into the other. Pentangeli reflects the bigotry of his times, and uses ethnic slurs to criticize the Rosato brothers for hiring Hispanic and African Americans. He says that the Rosato brothers make money off of whores and selling drugs, leaving gambling, a lesser vice, as the least important source of income. Thus, in the gradation of criminal activity, Frankie lives up to the “-angeli” part of his name, since he is more noble than the newer types of criminals. He wants the Rosato brothers dead, but Michael insists that he can’t allow that. He reminds Pentangeli that Vito worked with Roth and respected the man. But Pentangeli says that Vito never trusted Roth. Pentangeli makes an exaggerated display of loyalty saying that there won’t be any trouble from him, but his manner of announcing his compliance shows his unhappiness with the decision.
Michael asks how the baby inside of Kay is doing. He asks if she thinks it’s a boy, and she gives him the macho answer he wants, saying yes. But, she has a troubled look on her face. She reminds him that he said (in the first film) that the Corleone family would be completely legitimate in five years, but seven years have passed, and he is still a mobster. He says, “I’m trying,” but his task is insurmountable. He later goes to a place of supposed safety, his bedroom, with his wife in bed. His son has drawn a picture of his dad wearing a black hat and riding in a limo. It is interesting that he sees his dad as a big shot in a long car, not as a person who is at the family dinner table or other place with his wife and children, despite Michael’s adulation of the idea of family. The picture shows him away, on business, in a car, but the child is too naive to see things critically, and only looks at things literally. Kay is awake and asks, “why are the drapes open?” Michael is attuned to the possibilities of treachery, so he immediately drops to the floor and pulls Kay there as bullets riddle the bedroom. Michael still won’t concede that he can’t keep the danger inherent in his criminal world from bleeding into his private life.
Michael knows this attack must be an inside job since the curtains were drawn open, allowing for clear shots. Michael tells his henchman, Rocco, to use the many guards to keep the shooters alive so he can find out who is behind the attempted murder. Inside the house, Kay is with her children and gives Michael an accusing look, and this violent assault may be what eventually leads her to break with her husband.
Michael tells Tom that he kept things from him, but it’s not because he doesn’t love him. He says he admires Tom, and he may have been trying to keep him untouched by the dirty business Michael was involved in. Michael says to Tom that he knows he is the only one he can trust following the shooting. What he is saying is the withholding of information turned out to be a test of Tom’s loyalty, since without knowledge of certain operations Tom had no reason to betray Michael. He says Fredo, although having a “good heart,” is “weak” and “stupid,” so he can’t rely on him in matters of “life and death.” As it turns out the continual slighting of Fredo becomes a flaw in Michael’s strategy. Tom, almost in tears, says he always wanted to be considered a real brother to Michael, since his non-Italian background and being adopted, has, despite always being valued, made him feel somewhat like an outsider. Michael tells Tom he will take over and be the Don. Michael knows that the shooters are already dead, killed by a traitor who wants to shut down any chance of being found out. When Tom finds it difficult to believe that men such as Neri and Rocco could be involved, Michael says that those around them are “businessmen,” and “their loyalty is based on that,” which means when money is involved, connections to people are secondary. However, Michael believes that loyalty can be found within the family, which turns out to be incorrect, but this miscalculation turns out to be due to Michael’s own actions. He says that their father said think like people around you think, and on that basis, “Anything is possible.” Given that suspicious belief system, which derives from existing in a selfish environment, one has to be constantly on guard against individual agendas.
The bodies of the two shooters are found, as Michael suspected. Michael goes inside to comfort his son, Anthony, but he really is denying the danger he puts his son in by diverting him from the dark side of Michael’s livelihood. He tells his son everything will be okay, which is not true, and asks him if he liked his party, which is a weird thing to say to a child after his father was almost shot to death. The boy says that there were a lot of presents from people he didn’t know, whom Michael calls “friends,” but who were really there out of obligation, to make money, or afraid not to attend. Michael tells him he has to leave the next day because of “business,” which is used a great deal here, as in the first film, to emphasize that the word encompasses all sorts of sins. Anthony wants to go with his father and says, “I could help you,” which is what a boy wants to do for his dad. But he must be denied, not only because of his age, but because Michael’s “business” precludes innocence in any form. Michael’s response of, “Someday you will,” is ominous, given how unscrupulous behavior is carried down through the generations of lawbreaking families.
There is a shift back in time to the adult Vito Corleone in New York City in 1917, where Vito comforts his young child, as did Michael. (The sepia coloring provides a sense that we are looking at a moving photograph album containing old pictures). Vito’s friend takes him to an Italian theater where his girlfriend has a role. The show portrays a longing for Italy and an Italian man’s attachment to his mother. The son has undermined his love for his “Mama” by coming to America, which symbolically means that the immigrant has lost maternal protection by leaving his native country to be an orphan in another land. The girlfriend’s character is considered a tramp by the man since she lured him away from his love for his mother. America symbolically is a dangerous seductress here. The show is a bit Oedipal, and does not present women as love interests in a positive light. Vito’s friend talks about how beautiful the actress is, but Vito believes in rules and proper conduct when it comes to the family, saying the woman may be beautiful, but, “for me, there’s only my wife and son.” The family is what is supposed to be most important, so the desire to separate the criminal activities from one’s home life is an old tradition.
Here is where Vito encounters the Mafia, or The Black Hand, in the form of Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), who stands up, blocking the girl from Vito’s friend’s view. He first calls the man a bum and tells him to sit. When Fanucci turns around, and Vito’s friend sees who it is, he is afraid and apologetic. When Fanucci walks out he passes the camera like a looming, dark presence, eclipsing others. Vito and his pal go around the back of the theater to see the actress, but Fanucci is threatening the owner of the theater and the actress, who is his daughter. Vito’s friend cowers, not willing to try to rescue the woman, and says they must leave. Vito holds his ground, seemingly not afraid, which foreshadows how he will be able to deal with the Mafia in the future. Vito says he doesn’t understand why Fanucci intimidates other Italians. But, his friend says that everybody pays Fanucci in the neighborhood for protection, supposedly since immigrants were discriminated against and did not always find equal treatment under the law. But, in the end, they paid so they wouldn’t be harmed by their so-called protectors.
Vito is preoccupied with what he saw at the theater, but will not discuss his feelings with his wife, which sets a pattern of keeping wives in the dark about their husband’s thoughts. As the couple eats, the young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) calls into Vito’s window from another apartment. He gives Vito a package to hide. Vito takes it, and finds guns inside. Later, when Clemenza asks if he peeked at the contents, Vito says he is not interested in things that don’t concern him. He is being deceptive, a tactic needed later when he is part of the criminal world. Also, he wants to show that he can be trusted with a secret. Vito does not seek the gangster life, but seems to be drawn into it by what occurs around him. When Clemenza acts like a friend of his is giving Vito a beautiful rug, it is obvious that they are breaking into a private home of a prosperous person to get the “gift.” The lesson learned here by Vito is that if playing by society’s rules gets one nowhere, laws must be broken in order to get ahead. Also, Clemenza says he knows how to repay a favor, which binds people to each other, and is a tenet in the criminal world, and, for that matter, in business and politics.
Vito works at the store owned by the father of the friend who took him to the theater. Fanucci visits the store where Vito works, and his friend says the Mafia man is now exploiting the citizens more, asking for twice as much in protection money. Fanucci gets Vito fired because he wants Vito’s boss to hire his nephew, which means that he must let Vito go. The owner tries to give Vito food, but Vito realizes that it is not the shop owner’s fault, and refuses the gift. He tells the man that he always treated Vito well, and he will remember that. Later, as is shown in the first film, the exchange of favors, but outside the confines of the law, is the foundation on which the gangster families became powerful.
As the story returns to the 1950’s, Michael goes to Florida to meet with Hyman Roth, who lives in a modest home. He tells people he lives on a pension, which again is a deceptive front. Roth, like the older Vito in the initial movie, looks like a harmless old man, but is quite the opposite. Roth has the TV on, watching sports. He says he likes baseball, which sounds mainstream American, but then he follows by saying he’s liked baseball “Ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919,” referring to the Black Sox scandal. His last name is Roth which resembles the famous gangster’s name, and shows how there is an underbelly of corruption that operates below the clean-cut surface of American competition. Roth says that he is glad Michael survived the attack, because good health is more important that success, money, and power. But, it is just a line, and Roth wants all of the above. Michael tells Roth that Pentangeli tried to have him killed for refusing to get rid of the Rosato brothers. He wants Roth to know nothing is more important than their plans for the future, which Roth agrees, and says they will be making history together. Michael asks if it is okay that Pentangeli is “a dead man.” Roth’s cold response is “He’s small potatoes.” The two compliment each other, with Michael telling Roth he is a “great man,” and that he can learn much from him. As we discover, this is all posturing, as these two are out to get each other.
The sunshine of Florida which pretends to reflect the warmth between friends is now exchanged for the snowy cold of New York, which accurately mirrors the harsh reality of what Michael knows about Roth. He waits for Pentangeli at his home, which is where Michael grew up, and to which he still feels attached. He says he was glad the house was not sold to “strangers,” so important are close relationships to Michael, but which, ironically, given his dealings, keep deteriorating. He shows his real anger when he yells how disgusted he is that he was attacked in his home, “In my bedroom where my wife sleeps! Where my children come to play.” It was a violation of keeping business and family life separate. He tells Pentangeli that he knows it was Roth who tried to kill him. He wants Pentangeli to settle his differences with the Rosato brothers instead of starting a war. He says his father taught him, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” It’s pretty sad when you must place your friends further from you than your enemies. He wants Roth to see that he helped him with the Rosato brothers, which will make him confident that their friendship is strong. Michael says he wants time to find out who is the traitor in his family that set him up. Michael practices the art of deception to discover deception, but all of this dissembling just leads to more lies.
The next scene shows us who betrayed Michael. Fredo gets a call in the middle of the night from Johnny Ola, Roth’s man. He says he needs more help, and wants to know if Pentangeli is really trying to make a deal with the Rosato brothers, or is it a double-cross. Fredo has obviously been feeding Ola information, and Fredo tells him that they involved him in something that he did not bargain for. Did Fredo not know that there would be an attempt on Michael’s life? If so, who opened the drapes in the bedroom? And who killed the two gunmen? Was it Fredo? It seems unlikely he would be up to that task. If he wasn’t the killer, then that leaves someone else in the Corleone camp. We are never given a complete explanation. Perhaps the audience is left with the idea that in this world one never can know all of the conspirators. When Fredo’s half-asleep wife asks who called, he says it was a “wrong number.” Boy, is that right.
Carmine Rosato (Carmine Caridi) meets with Pentangeli at a bar where they are supposed to close their deal over sharing the territories. But, the other Rosato brother, Tony (Danny Aiello, who will go on to do many memorable roles), tries to strangle Pentangeli, saying, “Michael Corleone says hello.” (Apparently, Aiello improvised his line, but it plays well in the story line). They drag Pentangeli to the back. A cop comes in wondering why the bar looks dark and closed, but people are in there. The Rosato brothers leave Pentangeli on the floor as a shootout takes place outside. Were the Rosato brothers not planning to kill Pentangeli, but just wanted to make him think Michael double-crossed him so he would become Michael’s enemy? Probably not, but since Pentangeli survived the attempt on his life, Roth later uses Pentangeli to try and bring down Michael.
We then move to a bordello operated by Fredo. Tom Hagen appears and goes into a room where Senator Geary is with the bloody body of a dead hooker. She is handcuffed to the bed. Geary remembers nothing, only that he woke up on the floor and says that he would never hurt the woman. Tom exchanges looks with Neri, Michael’s henchman. It is implied here that they set the senator up so as to manipulate him. The deceiving continues to multiply, along with the dead bodies. Tom says that it was lucky that Fredo runs the place and Tom can now clean up the incident. Tom says that Geary’s alibi is that he stayed as Michael’s guest at the Lake Tahoe residence. Tom informs Geary that the woman has no family, and it will be like “she never existed,” and he waves his hands, like a magician making someone disappear. He says to Geary, “All that remains is our friendship.” They preyed on the senator’s weakness for sex, made it look like they did him a huge favor, and allowed him to still appear to be wholesome. The Corleones will ask for payback concerning the gaming license, and whatever else the mobster family needs. As Michael told Geary, the politician and the gangster are part of the same hypocrisy.
Kay wants to take the children to New England, but Tom says she can’t leave the Lake Tahoe compound for her own safety. She views her confinement as a type of imprisonment. She has compromised her life to the point where because of her marriage to Michael, there is a threat to her life and that of her children no matter where she is. The quality of her life has become diminished because of her husband’s criminal activities.
Michael is in Havana to meet with Roth at a gathering hosted by the government of people investing in Cuba. Michael and Roth sit at a table with corporate heads, so the movie links criminals with corporations when it comes to trying to make a profit. They pass around a gift to the President of a solid gold telephone from United Telephone and Telegraph, a symbol of how businessmen try to imitate King Midas, who, of course didn’t turn out well in the story, since acquiring material wealth at the exclusion of all else is self-destructive.
Michael and Roth meet with other crime bosses as they gather to divide up the spoils (with the film using the obvious metaphor of cutting up a cake with the island of Cuba decorated on it) derived from having a government that they can control for their own profit. Roth implies that they are like any other corporations that make contracts with nations when he says, “This kind of government knows how to help business, to encourage it.” Cuba is contributing money along with the Teamsters Union and the crime bosses in a type of unholy alliance to turn Havana into a casino town with hopes of being more profitable than Las Vegas. Again we have the equating of illegal organizations with supposedly upstanding entities as they all work together for personal gain. Roth drives home the point when he says that they have what they always wanted, “real partnership with government.” But Michael questions the soundness of investing in Cuba since he saw a rebel explode a grenade, killing himself and policemen rather than being arrested. Roth is not happy about Michael casting doubt on their enterprise, and asks what that incident meant to Michael. He says the rebels are fighting the country’s government for a cause, not money, and are willing to make ultimate sacrifices that may allow them to win their fight. Roth tries to downplay the significance of the event, his greed blinding him from considering Michael’s keen insight.
Later in his hotel room, Roth points out to Michael that he didn’t want the fact that the Corleone upfront two-million-dollar investment not arriving yet reflected Michael’s worrying about the rebels. The old man keeps acting like he is ready to die, and he wants to ensure that he hands off his wealth to those he cares about. It is a pretense, since Roth is making himself appear more fragile than he is to hold off enemies who feel they can just wait for his death to rise to his place of power. Roth appeals to Michael’s desire to go legitimate by saying that there will be enough cash derived from their deal to fund someone who wants to run for the United States presidency. This suggestion is pretty scary, since it implies that a dangerous, unscrupulous person, by reason of wealth, can ascend to the highest office in the country. Roth says to Michael, “We’re bigger than U. S. Steel,” the story continually drawing similarities between criminal behavior and capitalism.
Fredo arrives with the money, saying he doesn’t know what the cash is for. Michael tells him about the investment in Cuba and that the two million dollars is a gift for the President of Cuba. Fredo says that Havana is a great town and asks if anybody they know is there. Michael says that Johnny Ola and Roth are there, but then Fredo lies when he says he doesn’t know them and never met the two men. They hang out together and Fredo says he wishes he would have married someone like Kay, instead of his erratic wife, revealing how he is envious of his brother. Fredo says he also wishes he could be more like their father. He notes that their mom said he was left on the doorstep by gypsies. These statements point to Fredo’s insecurities and how his family treated him as a failure. Michael tries to be positive, telling him he’s no gypsy. Fredo confesses that he was mad at Michael, probably for shutting him out of any real responsibility, and therefore not respecting him, which does coincide with what Michael told Tom about how he felt Fredo lacked intelligence and was weak. Fredo wishes he could go back into the past and “spend time” like they are doing now, so they could have been closer.
Michael tells Fredo that Senator Geary and other government officials will be flying in and he wants Fredo to show them a good time so as to pave the way to get government favors. He confides to Fredo that on the way back to his hotel from a New Year’s Eve party at the Presidential Palace (in a military vehicle, so he will feel safe, deception always employed in these schemes to throw the victim off), he will be assassinated. He says it’s Roth who is out to get him, and echoing his father in the first film about the hoodlum Barzini, Michael says, “It was Roth all along.” He says Roth has been lying about making Michael his successor, and really wants to live forever. So, he wants a powerful person like Michael out of the way so he can keep the profits to himself. Michael says that he has already made a plan to thwart the attack, and that “Hyman Roth will never see the New Year.”
Michael meets again with Roth, who knows Fredo came with the money. Michael wants time to think about investing, but he’s just stalling to carry out his assassination plot. He also wants to know who gave the order to kill Pentangeli, since he didn’t. The unspoken accusation is that Roth did. Roth counters with the story of Moe Green (who was in the first film) who was Roth’s partner a long time ago (and was modeled after gangster Bugsy Siegel, who helped create Las Vegas). Roth calls Green a great man of vision, and Roth loved him. But, he defied Michael and as Roth says, “somebody put a bullet through his eye.” Roth says he didn’t question who gave the order, “because it had nothing to do with business.” Here we have the acceptance of murder committed in the course of conducting business, so important is making a profit that a person’s life is secondary. As was noted in the initial movie, cruelty in the moneymaking world is “not personal,” the “person” part of that word being negated when business is transacted. Roth doesn’t give Michael any more time, saying they will be partners if the money is on the table when he wakes up from his nap; otherwise, their relationship will be terminated.
Fredo and Michael entertain some senators and a judge at a club, showing how gangsters and politicians intermingle well. Geary, not having learned from his overindulgence in his sexual appetites, tells Fredo he’s interested in hooking up with one of the local beautiful women. Johnny Ola is there and again Fredo acts like they have never met before. They go to a sex club, and Fredo has consumed a great deal of alcohol at this point. Geary asks Fredo where did he find this club, and Fredo lets slip, “Johnny Ola brought me here.” He goes on to say that Roth won’t go to these places, but Ola knows them well. Michael’s eyes shift toward his brother, realizing Fredo lied to him about knowing Roth’s henchman, and now sees his own brother as a traitor. This betrayal is especially painful coming from his immediate family, the place where he put all his trust. Now, Michael feels he can’t believe anyone who pretends to be his ally, suggesting that the lying that goes around comes back around to harm the deceiver.
Later, Michael’s silent bodyguard/assassin (Amerigo Tot), dressed in black, looking like the angel of death, sneaks into Roth’s hotel room and kills Ola. But he must get out before murdering Roth since doctors are there preparing to send the old man to the hospital. The killer goes to the hospital, tries to smother Roth, but is killed by military guards. So, Michael has failed despite his intelligent plotting to stop his powerful nemesis.
Michael and Fredo are at the Presidential Place for the New Year’s celebration. But as Michael predicted, the rebels have the government on the run. Soldiers march in and the President announces his capitulation. The irony here is that Roth’s dream of welding together government and criminality into a type of capitalistic heaven is defeated by the communist forces of Fidel Castro. Michael aggressively hugs Fredo, telling him there is a plane waiting to take them to Miami, since Michael knew he would need to get away quickly if Roth was killed. He fiercely kisses Fredo on the lips, a combination of love and violence resulting from the realization of treachery. Michael tells his brother he knows that it was Fredo who is the traitor, and says, “You broke my heart.” Michael here acknowledges that his reliance on the love for his family is shattered. Fredo slinks off, afraid of his own sibling’s wrath. In the mobs of people trying to flee the revolutionary forces, Michael sees Fredo and tells him to come in his car to escape. But Fredo, who knows about his brother’s past acts of vengeance, runs off in fear. As Michael heads to the airport, the revolutionary forces yell “Fidel” which drives home the defeat of the “Gangsta’s Paradise” dream. (My apologies to Coolio for the reference).
Back in the states Michael meets with Tom, asking him what he bought Michael’s son for Christmas, so it will seem like he knew about the gift. Michael, the family man, has let his business take precedence over his connecting with his family on the most family-oriented holiday. But, of course, appearances must be maintained, so he will lie about previously knowing what was bought. Tom says that Roth used a private boat to get out of Cuba. He had a stroke, but recovered, the man seemingly having cat-like nine lives. He is in Miami. Fredo apparently made it to New York. Michael says he wants Tom to get in touch with his brother and tell him he knows Roth misled him and didn’t know they were plotting to kill Michael. What Michael says may be what he believes, but it really doesn’t matter to him. The fact that Fredo did something behind Michael’s back with a rival is enough to condemn him. Tom reluctantly tells Michael that Kay had a miscarriage, which strikes another blow against Michael’s need for a strong family foundation. He is angry that Tom can’t tell him if it would have been a boy, which is what he had hoped for to help carry on the manly Sicilian legacy.
There is then a shift to Vito, who is concerned about baby Fredo having pneumonia, indicating a time when the vitality of the family was paramount (no pun intended as to the studio that released the film). (The superimposing of images at the beginning of these time shifts into the past as Michael contemplates his situation could mean that he is actually thinking about his father’s early life, and is nostalgic about it. However, Coppola presented the two movies in sequential order for television, which would argue against these flashbacks just being in Michael’s mind). Fanucci, always wearing a white suit, presenting a fake benevolent impression since his intentions are always sinister, jumps onto Vito’s truck and informs him that he knows that he and his partners are stealing goods. He tells Vito that he needs to give Fanucci a cut of the action to be allowed to continue, since it is Fanucci’s neighborhood. If Vito doesn’t comply, the cops will be called to go after Vito, and he will be ruined. In another false appearance, instead of protecting his countrymen, Fanucci is actually exploiting them.
Vito tells his partners, Clemenza and the younger Tessio (John Aprea), about Fanucci’s demands. Clemenza says they have to pay since Fanucci works for a higher-level Mafia boss who has connections with the police. Thus, the illicit connections between gangsters and law enforcement officers go way back, since money has always been used as a tool for corruption. Before eating his pasta Clemenza makes the Catholic Sign of the Cross, another example of how these hoods compartmentalize their ethical religious beliefs and their criminal actions. Vito declares that it is unfair having the fruits of their labor taken away from them. He could be sounding like any worker in the capitalist system who slaves away as big shots reap the gains of his labor. Vito says that they should each only give him fifty dollars for Fanucci. Vito says, “I guarantee he’ll accept what I give him.” He wants them to not have knowledge of his lethal plan, to protect them, maybe, but also because they would try to stop him from carrying it out. In English, Vito says, “I’ll take care of everything,” which shows how he is on his way to becoming an Italian American Mafia boss. He tells them that they should remember that he did them a favor, and so, he will expect reciprocity, which is, as was noted before, how alliances are formed in any business situation.
The Godfather movies use religious ceremonies as contrasting ironic backdrops during which violence occurs. In the first film, the ending has the assassinations of the heads of the warring Mafia organizations occurring at the same time as the baptism of Michael’s godson. Here, there is a religious procession in the streets. Traditional music mixes with the “Star Spangled Banner,” demonstrating the allegiances to both the old and new countries. After giving Vito the small amount of money, Clemenza asks Vito if Fanucci will go for the reduced offer. Vito responds with what may be the first occurrence chronologically of a version of the famous line when he says, “I’ll make an offer he don’t refuse,” a statement that carries a lethal underside to its falsely benevolent surface.
Vito meets with Fanucci and gives him the money, which the man is not happy about. But Vito smiles, acts congenial, and says he’s a little short for right now. Fanucci admires Vito’s “guts,” and actually offers Vito the opportunity to work for him. He even tells Vito that there are “no hard feelings,” and says, “If I can help you, let me know.” Vito could let it go at that, and join up with Fanucci, but he most likely feels he must honor his partnership with Clemenza and Tessio, and he no longer wants to be somebody’s puppet. Also, Fanucci still expects the rest of his payment.
Fanucci struts around the neighborhood like he owns it, accepting greetings from the intimidated inhabitants. He passes by a marionette show, which symbolizes how those in power manipulate others. But, he is carrying one of those ominous oranges, an indication that death is imminent. The religious statue that men carry through the streets has lots of donated money attached to it. The strange image combining the worship of the spiritual and the material at the same time is an appropriate image that reflects the attitudes of these Catholic gangsters. Vito stalks Fanucci from the rooftops, symbolically showing how he places himself above the laws of man and God. Vito has hidden a gun, wrapped in a towel, a disguise masking its lethal intent, similar to how Vito presented himself in his meeting with Fanucci. Vito waits outside Fanucci’s apartment and then shoots him as fireworks go off, drowning out the shots. As has been noted, the film is loaded with acts of deception. Even after the man is dead, Vito brutally desecrates the body by shooting Fanucci through the mouth to stress that who killed this scary man must be feared even more. After performing this homicidal act, which criminals would excuse as necessary to conduct “business,” Vito then assumes his other persona as a caring family man, telling the infant Michael, “your father loves you very much.”
In Michael’s adult world, there is a U. S. Senate investigation into organized crime where the senators question mobster Willi Cicci. The committee chairman asks if he is a member of the Corleone crime syndicate, but Cicci corrects the senator, saying he belonged to the “family.” His response shows that even though mobsters tried to keep their private family separate from their criminal affairs, they still built their “business” on a family model, expecting obedience to rules and the maintenance of loyalty. But, as Michael said earlier, money can’t buy true fidelity. Cicci admits that he was an assassin for the Corleone family, but says he never received a kill order from Michael personally. In an inappropriate manner, Cicci jokingly picks up on Senator Geary’s phrase by saying that there were a number of “buffers” between him and Michael. Cicci was Pentangeli’s associate, and since the Rosato brothers implied that Michael ordered Pentangeli’s death, Cicci may be testifying to get back at Michael.
Back at the family home in Lake Tahoe, Michael looks dejected and doesn’t let Kay know he is home. He is not even there to comfort her after the supposed miscarriage, almost as if he blames her for depriving him of another son, which turns out, in fact, to be the case. Later, Michael goes to his mother asking her if being strong to protect the family can cause one to lose it. He is talking metaphorically, weighing whether his actions have distanced himself from the family members, and exposed them to harmful forces. She says that he can’t lose his family, but she is being literal. He says times are changing and he means for the worse, moving away from the time when his father gained prominence.
The story moves, appropriately, to Vito’s time, before the changes that Michael bemoans. Vito is now known in the neighborhood as a man of power, and he appreciates others showing him respect. So, when a man offers him free fruit, he is willing to grant a favor in return for the act of goodwill. Vito’s wife wants her husband to help a neighbor, Signora Colombo (Saveria Mazzola), who was evicted by her landlord for keeping a dog that her son loves, but that neighbors complained about. The landlord is Signor Roberto (Leopoldo Trieste), known as a slumlord, and Vito confronts the man very politely, asking him to reconsider his actions. Vito shows his generosity by willing to pay the rent six months in advance. Roberto is belligerent, and dismisses Vito’s request to show compassion for a woman who is poor and has no family to help her. Vito tells Roberto to ask around about him, and he will find that Vito knows how to return a favor. Once the landlord discovers that Vito has mob connections, he comes to Vito looking worried and ready to apologize. The landlord now calls him Don Vito, showing how Vito has replaced Fanucci as the new, more compassionate crime boss of the neighborhood. After a few stern, wordless looks from Vito, Roberto not only allows Signora Colombo to stay with her dog, but agrees to reduce the rent substantially. He is afraid to stay any longer and comically has trouble opening the door to leave (the lock was rigged without the actor knowing about it, and he improvises wonderfully). Such is the power that fear can generate, but, when used nobly, as here, it can be a force for justice when legitimate channels are unresponsive to the pleas of the disadvantaged. Vito then raises the sign on his imports store, the legitimate front for his illegitimate business operations.
Back at the Senate hearings, Michael now testifies. Geary utters platitudes about his Italian American constituency, and makes the statement about how some of his “best friends are Italian American.” It has become a joke that when a person announces that members of an ethnic group are among his friends, those “friends” probably do not exist. Geary then starts to figuratively distance himself from Michael and the Mafia, saying that there should be no defaming of all Italian Americans because of “a few rotten apples,” Michael being one of the “rotten” ones apparently. Then he departs the committee to work on another one, literally disconnecting himself from the people who did him favors, but who now are politically dangerous to be associated with. Michael perjures himself, denying his mobster associations. Kay is there and has to publicly hear her husband accused of the murders he committed or ordered in the first story. Michael reads a statement to clear his “family name,” hoping to have his children live their lives “without a blemish on their name and background.” We again have Michael trying to accomplish the impossible task of trying to keep his family untainted by the poison of his unlawful life, and can only attempt to do so by being even more dishonest by pretending to be a law-abiding citizen.
The Senate committee chairperson announces at the end of the session that there will be a witness to corroborate the accusations against Michael. The next scene is a good segue since it shows Pentangeli in the custody of U. S. Marshalls. He has made a deal to inform on Michael, and lives in a comfortable, protected residence on an army base. But, he is dejected, probably because he has forfeited his freedom, feels guilty about betraying a fellow criminal, and feels that he will be marked for death after he testifies.
Michael’s people have found out that Pentangeli is still alive, and Roth was the one who engineered the attempt on Pentangeli’s life. Fredo is now at the Tahoe home, and Michael talks to him to see if he can learn anything from him. Fredo looks defeated as he appears collapsed in a chair. He says he didn’t know much about Roth. He confirms that Roth made it look like Michael was Pentangeli’s enemy. Fredo becomes angry when Michael says he always took care of him. He says he was the older brother and Michael disrespected him, giving him menial jobs. Fredo says that Johnny Ola had approached him and said if Fredo could make the deal between Roth and Michael go quicker there would be “something in it” for Fredo. Because Michael’s harsh business ways belittled his brother, Fredo sought empowerment from a man who turned out to be Michael’s enemy. Fredo reveals the corruption in the U. S. Government itself, because the Senate lawyer is Roth’s man. Michael makes no attempt to understand his brother’s pain. He tells him he is nothing to him now, not a brother or a friend. He tells him “I don’t want to know you, or what you do.” He doesn’t want him in his house and when Fredo visits their mother, he wants notice so Michael doesn’t have to be there to see him. Secretly, he tells his henchman Neri that he doesn’t want anything to happen to Fredo while their mother is still alive. Michael may want to spare his mother that grief, but he conveys that he will eventually order the execution of his brother.
At the Senate hearings, Pentangeli sees that Michael has brought his brother, Vincenzo Pentangeli (Salvatore Po), who, according to what Tom tells the senators, came at his own expense from Sicily to be there for his brother. Pentangeli’s subsequent testimony contradicts his sworn affidavit. He says he just made up stuff about the Corleones to make a deal. He admits he only was in the olive oil business with them. It is not made clear whether the brother’s presence was meant to convince Pentangeli that Michael was not his enemy, or whether Vincenzo would be harmed if Pentangeli testified against Michael. In any event, without his testimony, Michael is off the hook.
Kay tells Michael she and the children are leaving him. She no longer wants anything to do with him and his business. His power has corrupted him and he ruptures the wall that he erected to separate his criminal behavior from how he acts with his family. He now treats his wife the same way he does those in his world of crime. He orders her around, and will not tolerate opposition. She sadly admits that she feels no love for him at all. He says that he will change and that they will have another child. To make sure that he will want nothing to do with her, she tells him the truth about having an abortion, not a miscarriage. She says their marriage is an abortion, “Something that’s unholy and evil,” the opposite of what Michael’s religion teaches, and whose laws he only pretends to follow. She says that she didn’t want to bring another one of his sons into his demonic world. Her actions strike at the very core of Michael’s reverence for family and children, and his desire to have descendants carry on the Corleone legacy. It adds to his feeling that he is being betrayed on all fronts, and that he no longer can trust anyone, which is the risk of choosing the life he leads. He responds by striking Kay. Just like he told his brother, he no longer wants to see her. As he feared when he spoke to his mother, he is losing his family.
There is a return to Vito’s time, as he takes a trip to Sicily with his wife and children to visit relatives, which contrasts with Michael’s deteriorating family situation. But, Vito also has darker motives. He goes to the house of Don Ciccio, the man who murdered his family. Vito, as he did with Fanucci, throws his enemy off guard by pretending to be a respectful and congenial businessman, even kissing Ciccio’s hand, in the manner one greets a gangster boss. When the old man asks his father’s name he tells him it was Antonio Andolini. And then, Vito cuts him, killing the man who ordered the deaths of his father, mother, and brother. Ciccio was right to fear an older Vito. The Sicilians always follow through with their vendettas, so important is their commitment to avenge wrongs, and in so doing, perpetuating the state of violence.
Michael’s mother has now passed away. Fredo cries at the wake held at the Tahoe estate, and is comforted by his sister, Connie. Tom tells Fredo that Michael will not see him even on this day of grief when family members usually comfort each other. This fact shows how emotionally hardened Michael has become, his isolation deepened with the loss of his mother. Michael has his children there, and he told Kay that he would use all of his power so she would not take them. He has succeeded in his threat, but at what cost to their well-being. Connie tells Michael she would like to stay close to home now. She admits that she hated him, and acted in self-destructive ways so she could hurt him. But, now she realizes that he was just being strong, like their father. She says she forgives him, but hopes that he can forgive Fredo. She says he needs her now, and wants to take care of him. She is right, since she is the one family member who actually wants to be closer to Michael. However, they do not embrace, but instead she kisses his hand, which is more the act of a Mafia subordinate than that of a sister, stressing the impossibility of separating the worlds of criminality and family. This point is further made when Michael goes to Fredo and embraces him, as a brother should. But it is a false show of affection, as Michael gives Neri a cold look, reminding his henchman what Michael said about Fredo’s fate after Michael’s mother died.
Michael then plots the death of Roth, who has tried and failed to be allowed to live in several countries. His passport is only valid for a return to the United States, and he will be arriving in Miami. Tom sees no point in going after the man, since he is supposed to be terminally ill. Michael does not buy that the man’s death is imminent. Tom says it’s impossible to get at him, since Roth will be met at the airport by the IRS, Customs, and the FBI. Michael (while significantly eating one of those ominous oranges) says it’s not impossible to kill Roth. Michael’s dark, cynical view is that if it’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that “you can kill anyone.” Tom says that Roth and the Rosato brothers are “on the run,” and he asks if it’s worth going after them. Tom says that Michael has won, and asks him, “Do you want to wipe everybody out?” Michael replies that he just wants to get rid of his enemies, but violence and greed seem to create new ones seeking revenge or power. Michael now even doubts Tom’s loyalty, wondering if he will leave to pursue an offer to be a vice president of a casino in Las Vegas. Tom says he turned down the offer, but just because he didn’t mention the job possibility, in Michael’s paranoid mind, it causes him to suspect Tom. Michael says that if Tom isn’t going along with the program, Tom can take his wife, family, and his mistress and move them all to Vegas. Tom is very hurt by the way Michael is now treating him, threatening exile from the family he has loyally served, especially after Michael earlier on told Tom he was the only person he could trust.
Fredo is very sweet with his nephew, Anthony. Near the lake, he says that he used to go fishing with his father and brothers, and he caught a fish every time he said a Hail Mary prayer. His nostalgia, mixed with spirituality, speaks of a close family time that no longer exists. Fredo’s feeling of safety and love is really a cruel distraction, perpetrated by Michael, to prevent Fredo from seeing what is to come. Tom meets with Pentangeli and assures him that his brother has returned home safely. They, like Fredo, talk of times past, even going back to the ancient Roman period, which the Mafia modeled themselves after, using the same military terms, such as “regimes,” “capos,” and “soldiers.” Pentangeli compares the Corleone family to the rule of the Roman Empire, as he tries to elevate criminality to a level of greatness. During those times, men who failed to overthrow the Emperor were allowed to take their lives by slitting their veins in a bath, knowing that their families would be taken care of. This practice seems civilized to Pentangeli, and he takes comfort from the talk with Tom, which has communicated to Pentangeli what he should now do. Tom translates his name, calling him, “Frankie Five-Angels,” adding an ironic religious feel to their conversation that offers suicide as a way to seal the deal to protect one’s loved ones.
Kay is visiting with the children, but Connie warns her to leave soon since Michael is approaching, and if she doesn’t go she will face his anger. She makes it to the back door, as she is reduced to having to sneak about to see her son and daughter. She pleads for their son to kiss him before she goes. She had hinted earlier that Anthony was damaged by the terrible events that the family experienced. Michael appears and closes the door on Kay repeating what happened at the end of the first film, symbolizing how she has been shut off from the love and emotional connection she once hoped for.
Fredo is preparing to take Anthony fishing, but Connie says that the boy will be going to Reno with his father. This is another deception in order to isolate Fredo so he can be killed by Neri in the boat. It is heartbreaking to hear Fredo tell his nephew that they will go fishing together the next day, since there will be no tomorrow for Fredo. The movie reaches its climax like the first one, with several deaths. Roth is shot at the airport, and Pentangeli commits suicide. We see autumn leaves blow across the lawn, signifying the end of life. Fredo is killed on the lake, the murder following his reciting the Hail Mary prayer, containing words that, appropriately, make a plea to pray for sinners, and there are many of them here.
Michael sits alone in a dark room at the house. There is a flashback, this time probably a memory of Michael’s, to when the whole family was together around a dinner table, a fitting place for Italians to gather. Michael, along with his brothers, Fredo, Sonny (James Caan), and Tom, as well as Connie and her future husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), are there, as well as Vito’s associate, the older Tessio (Abe Vigoda). It is right around the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and Sonny says that those enlisting to fight are “saps,” because they “risk their lives for strangers.” Michael says that is what their father would say. Sonny, like Vito, puts the family even above country, so tribal is the feeling perpetuated through the generations of Italian American mobsters. Sonny says one’s countrymen “are not your blood.” At this time, in contrast to what he later believes, Michael says he doesn’t feel that way. He announces that he has quit college and enlisted. Sonny is very angry, mostly because he fears losing his brother pointlessly as a soldier fighting a war that he sees as having nothing to do with the family. Tom says that their father had to “pull a lot of strings” to get Michael his deferment (the “strings” reference fits the marketing image for these films, with the crime boss being the puppet master who manipulates others). Tom says that he and their dad talked about Michael’s future, which Michael finds strange, since he wasn’t consulted about his own life. He says he has his own plans, but as we know, those plans never take place. Michael’s independence here seems at odds with his future immersing of himself in all things tied to his family.
Michael is left alone at the table as the rest go to greet their father on his birthday. Then there is a shot of Vito holding Michael waving goodbye on the train in Sicily. The final shot is of a solitary Michael at Lake Tahoe. The cumulative effect is a vision of a lonely man bereft of the family he treasured due to a combination of the life he inherited and the path he chose to follow.
The next film is The Night of the Hunter.