This is the third and final part of a three-part “deep dive” on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1990 film The Godfather, Part III. The first installment is here. The second part is here. All of these articles contain spoilers.
So, I’ve spent the last two installments of this series more or less taking pot-shots at The Godfather, Part III. You can go back and read them, but my basic criticisms include that the characters aren’t written as well as they could, the film seems uneven, the basic emotional core of the film (Corleone’s guilt) is not adequately explained, and then we have the problems–overblown, but still real–with Sofia Coppola’s performance. This all might lead you to think that GF3 is a bad or lackluster film. It isn’t. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1990, losing to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, and made $136 million at the box office (on a $54 million budget). Many people have said–and I agree with this–that if it was a stand-alone film, not compared to the previous Godfather pictures, GF3 would be remembered as an excellent film in its own right. So, to finish up this series, let’s talk about what’s good about The Godfather, Part III.
The first thing that jumps out at me: the direction. GF3 is tightly, expertly and artfully directed. The pacing is excellent; performances are carefully controlled and coaxed out of the actors; there’s subtlety when it’s called for, bombast when it’s appropriate, and tenderness in unexpected moments. (Take, for example, the scene where Vincent, played by Andy Garcia, shaves Michael Corleone with a straight razor). Francis Ford Coppola works with his actors beautifully and curbs their worst impulses. By 1990 Al Pacino in particular had become something of a caricature of his previous self, and a lesser director probably would just have wound him up and set him loose on-set, resulting in uncontrolled shouting moments like we would see in later 1990s Pacino performances (Heat, for instance: “She’s got a…GREAT ASS! And you got your head…ALL THE WAY UP IT!”) Even Diane Keaton can go off the reservation at times; probably too much Woody Allen influence. But Coppola keeps tight control here and his steady hand is always in evidence.
This is one of the more tense and brutal scenes in The Godfather, Part III and it exhibits the tightness of Coppola’s direction. (Warning: bloody violence and NSFW language).
This makes sense. Nearly two decades separated the release of GF3 at the end of 1990 from the commencement of production of the first movie, and Coppola had grown tremendously as a director. As good as the first Godfather film was, there’s a sense that Coppola was a little unsteady and not sure how to handle the big-name personalities on the picture, especially Marlon Brando. Coppola was 32 when he started making The Godfather. By the third film his skills had grown tremendously, probably most as a result of Apocalypse Now, one of the most difficult-to-make films in movie history. Even Part II’s direction was a little wonky at times, but GF3 is even more well-crafted.
Another plus: the visual look of the film is stupendous. The original Godfather from 1972 had what I call an almost “burnished” quality to the visuals. There was a hint of red and gold in every shot, a visually rich almost sepia tone, especially in scenes with dim lighting; that was tremendously appropriate because the original Godfather was a period piece, taking place in the mid-1940s. GF3 takes place in 1979 and 1980, just ten years before it was made, yet Coppola manages that same “burnished” look, especially in the scenes taking place in Sicily and at the Vatican. The Vatican sets are jaw-dropping. Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donelly) is kind of a forgettable character, but every time he appears on screen he’s usually in some Rococo-decorated room dripping with gilt, velvet tapestries and Michelangelo frescoes. Contrast this with the gaudy flashiness of the Atlantic City boardroom scenes–the tastes of gangsters and nouveau riche tend toward kitsch and garishness when they come into money–and the film tells a story in itself through its visual look. In this sense GF3 is probably the best of the three films, and the most tantalizing to look at.
The “helicopter hit” in The Godfather, Part III is more like a battle scene than the kind of hits we’ve seen in the first two pictures. But increasingly in the 1970s and 1980s, when the film takes place, organized crime was becoming like military warfare.
The narrative arc of the Godfather pictures has always been punctuated by intense bursts of violence. From the horrific toll booth slaying of the James Caan character in Part I to the sad execution of Fredo at the end of Part II, the hits are an important backbone of the stories. GF3‘s hit scenes are arguably the best in the series, and the best of them is Vincent’s ballsy termination of rival gangster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) at an outdoor street festival in Little Italy. This sequence, in addition to being well-shot and edited, evokes Vito Corleone’s (Robert De Niro) murder of Fanucci in 1917 in one of the flashback sequences in Part II, which was the beginning of Vito’s life of crime. Another highlight is the over-the-top sequence of the helicopter attack against the New York City families in an Atlantic City high-rise. Some have criticized this sequence as being too over-the-top, but recall what organized crime was becoming in the late 1970s: a global high-tech business with military weapons and the cut-throat coldness of multinational corporations. The helicopter hit in GF3 shows just how much crime had progressed since Michael Corleone’s up-close-and-personal execution of Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) in a Bronx Italian eatery in the first film.
Despite all its faults, I have to say that I enjoy The Godfather, Part III. I enjoy it in a different way than I do the other two films, which are more epic in scope and which strike deeper in their emotional parries. But the third installment speaks with its own voice and I think it has something important to add to the quintessentially American story of the Corleones, their rise and fall. There’s a great deal to like about the picture. I even think there are possibilities for further Godfather films (I’ve heard rumblings that Paramount is working on one). This film is a guilty pleasure. After this analysis, perhaps not so guilty.