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Something’s Always Wrong: Re-Appreciating The Godfather Part III

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 29, 2007

“You people are all right. Godfather…I seen that movie 200 times. Godfather II was definitely the shit. The third one…a lot of people didn’t like it. But I think it was just…misunderstood.” -Massive Genius, The Sopranos

You’re not going to find too many people to disagree with the general statement that in the last few years, AMC has gone to shit. More than any other basic cable channel, with the possible exception of VH-1 and MTV, AMC has completely lost sight of what it was originally supposed to represent, adding in commercials, changing its playlist from golden-age classics to countless re-runing of US Marshalls, and essentially transforming from American Movie Classics to Another Movie Channel. It’s just a good thing the transition happened after I stopped watching Oscar-winners 24 hours a day, the heartbreak would’ve been unimaginable seven or eight years ago.

But there is one good thing about the new AMC: they’ll use any excuse they can come up with to have a Godfather marathon. Robert Duvall’s birthday? Time for a Godfather marathon. Sofia Coppola has a new movie coming out? Time for a Godfather marathon. 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veretans Day, or any other holiday where they can run a series of commercials using the “I believe in America” quote from I in a sardonic, semi-topical ad blitz? Time for a Godfather marathon. And most recently, a new TV show with loose connections to the idea of doing immoral business while wearing a flashy suit?

So, guess what I’ve been watching today. There aren’t many movies that simply don’t get unwatchable with repeated upon repeated viewings, but really, the Godfather trilogy is on an entirely different plane when it comes to that shit. With the constant re-running, I must watch each of the movies at least three or four times a year, and still, when one of them comes on (even w/ censoring and commercials), I know what I’m watching for the next three-four hours. My dream house would have a wall-wide TV that would just constantly be re-running these movies on a loop, and whenever I walked by it, I’d stop in for fifteen minutes or so, quoting along with the dialogue and whistling along to the score.

And as I’m sure you can notice by now, unlike most of the trilogy’s fans, I don’t make exceptions for The Godfather Part III. Doubtful you could find a single person in the world to argue it superior, or even equal, to the other two–like 99.9999% of movies, it’s imperfect, and it just so happens that the other two make up about half of the .00001% of movies that are. But I find it a more than worthy ending to the trilogy, and arguably the best Part III of any film trilogy I can think of (and yes, that includes Back to the Future Part III and Army of Darkness). But before defending this position, I will first get the movie’s gaping faults out of the way (FAIRLY MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS PROCEED HERE, SO STOP READING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE YET BECAUSE REGARDLESS OF WHAT ANYONE SAYS YOU REALLY REALLY SHOULD):

  1. Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen character is badly, badly missed, and the milquetoast lawyer dude they got to make up for it (B.J. Harrison, played by George Hamilton) is definitely no substitute.
  2. The major hit scene–in which the great majority of the Corleone family’s major players and important friends are wiped out by Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) by locking them in a hotel room meeting while a helicopter sprays the room with bullets–is wildly ridiculous and implausible, and is a travesty when compared to the innovatively nuanced direction with which Coppola handled the trilogy’s other hit scenes, including the subsequent one in which Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) takes Zasa out.
  3. Much of the immobiliare subplot, involving the corruption in the highest level of the catholic church, is underdeveloped and largely irrelevant. I get what Coppola was going for–even the most holiest of institutions does not offer the redemption Michael so desparately craves–but he bit off a bit more than he could chew on that one.
  4. I’m sorry, but no henchman in history has ever banked on stabbing a man with his own reading glasses as a reliable method of assassination. An unfortunately LOL-worthy moment in an otherwise brilliant montage.
  5. The final scene–in which a now-elderly, present-day Michael sitting on a bench merely keels over and dies–is possibly the worst final scene in any movie that could otherwise be considered great, or good, or even watchable. It’s pointless, gratuitous, and intelligence-insulting, and it’s a real fucking shame that it’s the scene that caps the greatest film series of all-time.

So now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the good stuff. First and most obviously, Andy Garcia more than deserved the Best Supporting Actor nomination he received for his role as Vincent, the illegitimate kid of I’s Sonny Corleone. He’s the next generation, pure and simple, and you can see how he’s the inevitable successor to Michael–more impulsive, less thoughtful, but capable of the action that Michael can no longer bring himself to make. My favorite Vincent scene, and one of my favorites in the whole movie, is after he finishes screwing the thrillseeking reporter played by Bridget Fonda, and two of Zasa’s thugs break in to wipe him out. He disarms one, kills him in front of the other and promises the other that he’ll live if he releases Fonda and tells Vincent what he knows, then shoots him in the head after getting the necessary information. “C’mon sweetheart, that’s gambling,” he tells a horrified Fonda. “You wanted gambling, that’s gambling.”

And like the first two movies, there are some great villains–not exactly of the James Bond variety, but probably more unsettling. There’s Don Altobello, played by Eli Wallach (yes, the guy who played Tuco in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, and let me tell you how that blew my mind when I found out), Michael’s kindly old mentor, always shown smiling, who is nonetheless orchestrating much of the plot against the Corleone family (old guys really don’t like being displaced in the Godfather trilogy). There’s Joe Mantegna–young, arrogant, amoral and Altobello’s very opposite, who nonetheless is similarly hungry for a taste of the Family’s action. And then there’s Mosca, the nearly mute but eerily proficient old-school assassin sent to take out Michael–watching the incredibly suspenseful final scene at the opera, a finale more than worthy of the climactic scenes of I & II, it’s the only time in the series you believe his life to be legitimately in danger.

You might have noticed that while listing the film’s faults, I did not mention the Sofia Coppola’s infamous last-minute replacement performance as Michael’s daughter Mary. That’s because while I think Coppola’s performance clearly shows her acting inexperience, and while I find her character more than a little grating, I don’t find her performance entirely inapporpriate for the role. Mary should’ve been annoying, and a little bit simpering, because that’s the way spoiled, inarticulate teenage girls generally are, and I didn’t find her character any less compelling for it. She’s a believable daughter to Michael, and that’s all the role really required.

But really, this is Pacino’s movie, through and through. His amount of classic lines is equal to the first two–“Our true enemy has not yet shown his face,” “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” and my personal favorite, his reaction to the news of Joey Zasa’s murder–“It…was not…WHAT I WANTED!!! And it’s just an all-around powerhouse performance–in every action he makes in GIII, in every word and every facial expression, you can see the effect of two decades of cruel business, familial alienation and horrible, horrible deeds. You know that try as he might to find redemption–in his kids, in his ex-wife, and in the church–the man is doomed. Another of my favorite scenes in the movie has Michael confessing his sins to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), including his murder of brother Fredo, breaking into tears for the first time in three movies. “Your sins are indeed terrible,” the Cardinal tells him. “It is just that you suffer.”

And then there’s Michael’s final silent scream, pictured above, when he sees that Mosca’s assassination attempt on him has left him wounded but alive, while fatally catching daughter Mary in the crossfire. Some said this shot was cheesy and excessive, but I think it’s one of the most powerful moments in the entire trilogy–considering Michael has now officially lost his one possibile shot at redemption, in addition to the only thing he really loves in the world, I’d say it was a fair enough reaction. What’s more, if a sign of a true tragic hero is that he needs to have knowledge of how his actions led to his downfall, then the death of Mary as an inevitable result of his decades of misdoings was necessary for such an epiphany.

More importantly, there needed to be a Godfather III. Brilliant as it was, II just didn’t feel like the end to a story, it felt like an epic middle act. But all great stories need a great ending, and even if it was a flawed one, I still believe Godfather fans should feel blessed to get one as inspired as Part III was.

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8 Responses to “Something’s Always Wrong: Re-Appreciating The Godfather Part III”

  1. Tal said

    Are you kidding? Pacino has none, and I mean none, of the nuance that he possesses in the first two Godfathers. Moving from a silent, contemplative, strategic general to a semi-coked out spazzoid warlord makes no sense. I would expect him to be a reserved old-school hood and instead he betrays that role for a cocky blabbermouth! Godfather III primarily fails, aside from Coppola the female’s sham of a performance (which is, frankly, inexcusable and merely a display of shoddy acting), because Pacino has none of the verve, intellect, or calculatory or predatory instincts that are part of his NATURE in the first two Godfathers. This is the man who has the SMARTS of Vito, not the gangsterisms, but he transforms them INTO gangsterisms. Godfather III is a sham because it belies those origins, and thereby cheapens his character.

    • Respondent said

      The decision of Michael’s portrayal was Coppola’s vision (and to a lesser extent Puzo’s). Pacino wasn’t sure about the direction Coppola wanted to take the character, citing his concerns during the early talks, but Coppola was meticulous and determined about where he wanted Michael to be at this stage in his life. Pacino didn’t just mysteriously forget how he played his most distinguish and iconic role. Michael is supposed to be different in this film, that’s the whole point. The aged-30’s Michael’s demeanor of dead-eyed intensity and stone heartedness gave him a life of internal misery over the decades, breaking his spirit and deteriorating him very badly physically. Michael is very aged and tired by the time of the third film. He’s gravely sick with diabetes. The reason he got involved with the mafia was to protect his family, and his heart was darkened by Apollonia’s death. But this direction of life cost him his family anyway, something he’s been reflective of for decades. He’s an old man now in the last stage of his life, and just wants to wash his hands clean of the criminal world he never wanted to be apart of to begin with, set things straight with his broken family and resented memory, set a good legacy for his children’s generation, and fulfill his shared dream with Vito that he would make the family a legitimate business. He’s now reformed his self-concept as a public servant – a humanitarian and speechmaker, rather than a ghastly and icy kingpin, and is equally as intelligent in pulling it off successfully. Michael is smart enough to know that he has to be more personable, talkative. (It’s even specifically noted in Coppola and Puzo’s script that Michael’s demeanor “has new warmth and humor”, though this is obviously intentional from just viewing the film without having to read it confirmed in the script.) Al Pacino portrayed the evolved nuances of the aged, broken, and reforming Michael, perfectly. He’s not supposed to convey the same demeanor he did in the second film, physically, nor psychologically, nor socially. He actually does carry a lot of the same mannerisms unique to how he played the younger Michael and not his other roles (like, for example, the way he quietly presses his hand to his forehead under stress, or carries/holds his hands in general, or observes people thoughtfully through his eyes.) It just seems different because the first two films made Michael more enigmatic and Coppola directed Pacino to convey things more subtly in those films, whereas the third film’s script and direction is deliberately openly confessional of Michael’s humanity and more utilizing of exposition for a more personal story. The third film was intended to be more of a reflective epilogue, not an actual “Volume III” continuing directly from the second volume. Coppola and Puzo’s intended title for the film was “The Death of Michael Corleone”, but Paramount rejected the proper artistic title.

  2. Undercooked Sausage said

    I made it like halfway through part III before i was like “yeah alright”

    then the dvd froze up, fuckin netflix.

  3. Undercooked Sausage said

    also everyone knows the best part III is Last Crusade and if you honestly disagree then fuckin lol @ you asshole

  4. Andrew Unterberger said

    Seriously? It makes perfect sense to me, Tal. The entire movie is about how Michael got old and weak after 20 years of doing unforgivable things to the people that he loves. Without even Tom Hagen to rely on now, almost all of his old confidantes are gone, and all he has left is his children and his societal reputation, so yeah, of course he turns from a silent mercenary into a boring old chatterbox. His character’s over as a gangster, and he knows it from the beginning of the movie.

    And Last Crusade is by far the worst of the Indiana Jones movies.

  5. Victor said

    I thought Three Colors: Red was a more than worthy ending to the trilogy…although it could have used some explosive car chases and a jewel heist subplot.

  6. Rkye said

    A dig at Vh1? Specifically a dig about how they air programs besides music? Biting the hand that feeds, aren’t you? But you got moxie, and i like it.

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