They pulled me back in: The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

A while back, one of my colleagues on this site wrote a nice retrospective about the three movies that comprise the Godfather series. The Godfather, released in 1972, is rightfully regarded as a classic that made stars out of basically everyone who appeared in it, gave Marlon Brando probably his most famous role as the title character Vito Corleone, and put its director Francis Ford Coppola on the A-list. On an especially sweet note, Coppola’s father, Carmine, would become famous thanks to the music he and Nino Rota did for the first two films; they even won Oscars for their score for The Godfather Part II.

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The first film is a violent but well-acted look at a family who manages to gain the audience’s sympathy despite being entrenched in a lifestyle of crime. Coppola’s struggles with Paramount Pictures during production, such as the casting of Brando and Al Pacino as his son Michael, along with making the film a bona fide epic while the studio was going for something lower budgeted, have only made the movie that much more of a triumph. The film redefined the gangster genre, leading to the classic TV series The Sopranos, among other things. It also managed to actually be superior to the 1969 Mario Puzo novel it was adapted from. This coup of a movie being better than the book would be repeated just three years later when Coppola’s pal Steven Spielberg put out his classic movie Jaws.

The Godfather Part II came out two years after the first film and Coppola took advantage of the carte blanche that Paramount had promised him as incentive to make it. What made the second film unique was the way it told two stories: One of Michael as he continues to preside over his family, and the other of his father at the same age (Robert De Niro). The movie nicely shows the parallels of how Vito begins his rise to power, while Michael continues to gain power but lose his humanity. Coppola and Puzo’s script took the themes of the previous film even further. The movie’s final shot of Michael sitting alone after wiping out or alienating most everyone has always been one of the best final shots in any film for me. The result was a sequel that many say is even better than the first, and personally, the only other sequels I felt achieved that goal have been The Bride of Frankenstein and Aliens.

Both films, along with The Conversation (which came in between the two Godfather movies) and Coppola’s follow up to Part II, Apocalypse Now, ensured that he would be praised as a genius as well as one of the heads of what critics have called the American New Wave of cinema during the 1970s, which included Coppola’s pals Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. Not surprisingly, Paramount Pictures, which distributed the Godfather films, offered Coppola a chance to direct a third if he wished. Coppola originally declined, but changed his mind by the end of the 1980s. Because of massive debt he had accumulated (for among other things, what he spent on making Apocalypse Now), Coppola decided to accept Paramount’s long-standing offer of a third Godfather film.

Alas, despite massive hype, The Godfather Part III premiered on Christmas Day 1990 and overall failed to be the classic drama that its two predecessors were. Coppola himself would state that Paramount rushed him in order to complete both the script and the shooting of the film in order to make that illustrious release date. There’s also the well-known fact that he drafted his daughter Sofia to play the pivotal role of Mary, Michael Corleone’s daughter, after his original choice Winona Ryder backed out due to exhaustion. This has all led to Part III being relegated to a punch line, while the previous two films can be found on most everyone’s list of classic movies.

As it turns out, Coppola has elected to issue a revised version of the third entry on the 30th anniversary of its release. He even changed the title to the one he and Puzo had originally wanted: The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. Overall, this new version is basically the same as the original, although there are some differences.

First of all, the original film states that it takes place in the year 1979, while the newer one doesn’t state a year. This actually takes care of a nit with the film because it depicts the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and his successor John Paul I, both of whom died in 1978.

The original film begins with Michael writing a letter to his children, but in Coda it begins with his meeting with Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly). That meeting was past the forty-minute mark in the original film, but it sets the story into motion faster. The next scene is Michael dictating his letter, before jumping right into the celebration for him where we meet his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), the son of Michael’s late eldest brother Sonny (James Caan). The original version has Michael getting a medal at a church before the party.

Most of the other changes are simply slight trimmings of moments, such as the hit on the meeting room in New Jersey, although I was a tad disappointed to see that Coppola took out the moment of one of the dying dons calls Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), the perpetrator of the massacre, an SOB.

The only other big change is the final scene. In the original, Michael, having been saddened by the loss of Mary, is sitting alone in a villa before dropping to the ground dead. Coda, however, has him sitting in the villa, but the scene fades to black with these words on the screen: “When the Sicilians wish you ‘Cent’anni’… it means ‘for long life’… and a Sicilian never forgets.”

After that, we get the ending credits. This certainly struck me as bizarre, considering that the film was retitled The Death of Michael Corleone and now ends without Michael actually dying. I’ve read some reviews, though, which interpret this change as Michael living with what he’s done, including killing his brother Fredo (John Cazale) at the end of Part II, and how it all culminated with the death of his child. In other words, a living death.

While Coppola welcomed the chance to revisit this film (hey, he’s already redone Apocalypse Now twice by now, so why not?), I still can’t rank Coda as highly as the first two Godfather movies. This is because the Vatican/Immobiliare plot of the film is still convoluted. Especially disappointing for me, though, is that Bridget Fonda’s journalist character just disappears from the film in both versions after her romp in the hay with Vincent.

This brings me to probably the most criticized element of Part III: Sofia Coppola’s performance. I can’t say the performance itself bothered me, and truthfully, it wouldn’t have mattered if Winona Ryder played her because the performance was always overshadowed by the god-awful romance Mary embarks on with her first cousin Vincent. To this day, I still don’t know what possessed Coppola to think such a plot element would be compelling. Perhaps he was attempting to evoke Greek dramas, but all it succeeded in doing was making audiences go “Ew!” On an equally bizarre note, Michael tells both of them to end their affair, saying it’s “dangerous”, when the word “sick” would be more appropriate. The only good thing about all this is Sofia would follow in her father’s footsteps and become an Oscar-winning filmmaker herself.

On the plus side, the film is nicely shot by its cinematographer Gordon Willis, who lensed the previous two films as well. The climactic scene at the opera house has a nice atmosphere to it and it’s also appropriate, as the first two films have always been described as operatic. Pacino certainly gives it his all, as do both Diane Keaton and Coppola’s sister Talia Shire reprising their roles as Michael’s former spouse and sister, respectively. Yes, it would’ve been nice to see Robert Duvall play Michael’s remaining brother again, but it wouldn’t have made the script any better. This is probably evident in how wasted George Hamilton is as Michael’s attorney. Eli Wallach is nicely cast as a don who was an old friend of Michael’s father (even if he isn’t given much to do), and Garcia’s Vincent, despite his yucky affair with his cousin, makes a nice addition to the Corleone family.

While Part III remains not as loved as its two predecessors, there has been the occasional inquiry over the years as to whether there will be a fourth Godfather movie. Coppola continues to doubt there will be, and with his father’s passing in 1991 and Puzo’s passing in 1999, I don’t see that changing.

In fairness, this isn’t the first time Coppola has done some tinkering with the Godfather films. In 1977, he rearranged the footage of the first two films into The Godfather Saga, which aired as a miniseries on TV, and had extra scenes not seen in the original versions. Coppola would later add Part III to that to create The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980, which made its debut on home video in 1992, when the original film turned 20.

Overall, Coppola deserves credit for at least trying to make The Godfather Part III a better film, considering both what he had and that it’s now been three decades after the fact. Considering the note Part II ends on, I think anyone would’ve been hard pressed to find some way to continue this storyline. Nonetheless, in the case of both versions, there are nice moments and great potential, but it falls short compared to what came before.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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