Though hard to believe, it has been 40 years since the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film The Godfather. To celebrate this anniversary, AMC dedicated an entire week to series by alternating airings of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II nightly. (On a side note: It is really no mystery why Part III was left out of the schedule, since virtually everyone would agree that, while well-produced, it was nowhere near as artistically or commercially successful as the previous entries.) Though I have viewed Parts I and II dozens of times over the years, I just could not help but get lured back in during AMC’s marathon.

I have always felt that the word “masterpiece” is thrown around too liberally among critics and film historians, particularly in the way that they slobber over those films produced during the supposed “Golden Age of Hollywood” from the 20’s to the 50’s. Over the years The Godfather series has been subjected to the same kind of scrutiny of those highly-acclaimed films, but if there is one case of a product living up to the hype, this is it. In the first two Godfather films, all the elements, including direction, writing, casting, and cinematography, came together seamlessly, so much so that  their significance extends beyond their own medium. They are not just movies, they are works of art.

As one would expect, given their immense legacy, the first two Godfather films have generated a tremendous amount of discussion over the years, but none so prominent as the debate over which one is the stronger film. Unfortunately, the vast majority of fans say they look at both films as a single story, which is a complete cop out.  These films were not shot back to back with the exact same cast and crew. In fact,  The Godfather Part II was not even the germ of an idea during the filming of Part I when studio executives and director Francis Ford Coppola were at each other’s throats over casting, the quality of the dailies, and editing. Needless to say, Paramount executives changed their tunes after The Godfather opened to rave reviews and enormous box-office.

With that, a sequel was almost required. The only problem was that Francis Ford Coppola wanted nothing to do with the project. Still reeling from the stressful experience of making The Godfather, Coppola made it clear that if he was to helm a sequel, he was going to do it his way. The studio executives agreed. In addition a hefty salary, Coppola was given a significantly larger budget and, every director’s dream, final cut. Given that kind of artistic freedom, Coppola was able to craft a sequel that was darker, richer, and more emotionally complex.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were brilliant films characterized by powerful acting, razor-sharp dialogue, lush cinematography, and detailed set design. Both films would be of equal artistic if it were not for two things, story structure and characterization. Adapting the novel The Godfather was a herculean task for Francis Ford Coppola and author Mario Puzo. In addition to fleshing out a complex narrative which spanned over several years, they also had to introduce the large Corleone family, including patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his sons Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), and Michael (Al Pacino). In having to cover so much territory, it was almost inevitable that certain characters and events were going to be shortchanged, and they were. The characters of Sonny and Fredo were pretty cut and dry, both bordering on stereotypes. Sonny was hot-tempered, impulsive, and passionate, while his brother Fredo was weak, sincere, and dim-witted. Coppola filmed scenes which added dimensions to Sonny, including an emotional dialogue between he and his mother after Vito is shot. These scenes were cut for time constraint. Fortunately,  Coppola had two fantastic actors in James Caan and John Cazale who were able to breathe life into Sonny and Fredo even though their screen time was limited. Their performances are, without question, iconic.

The Godfather also suffered from some erratic pacing. In the film’s methodical first half, we see the young, respectable Michael Corleone slowly assert himself into the family business, culminating with the brutal murders of crime boss Virgil Sollozzo and police Captain McCluskey. However, after Michael returns from his exile in Sicily, the narrative speeds up considerably. In the span of about 15 minutes, Michael is appointed head of the family, decides to move their operations to Nevada, reestablishes his relationship with his old girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), gets married, and has two children. These were significant events in Michael’s personal and professional life and they seemed to get glossed over. However, in the long scheme of things, my quibbles with The Godfather‘s narrative are not only minor, but relatively common. With most origin stories the author must make sacrifices to firmly lay the groundwork. That is exactly what Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo did.

In the past, when embarking on a sequel to a successful film, some directors took the easy way out and remade their first film on a larger scale.  Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo had no intention of doing this when making their follow-up to The Godfather. The ambitious film was both a prequel and a sequel, telling the stories of Michael and Vito Corleone’s rise to power. Despite featuring two parallel storylines over several different locations, The Godfather Part II had a cleaner and more emotionally resonant narrative. While the first film gave us a sense of who the Corleone’s were, The Godfather Part II really delved into their psyches. This was particularly the case with the character of Fredo. In The Godfather, Fredo was the frail, ignorant middle son of Vito Corleone, who  was passed over as head of the family and sent to Las Vegas to build ties. Other than that, we did not know much about him and he seemed to be something of a throwaway character.

However, in Part II it became clear that there was much more to Fredo after Michael discovered he was working with rival gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). In a wrenching scene where Michael confronts him, Fredo breaks down and expresses how hurt he was after being passed over as head of the family. Fredo went to work with Roth so he could finally be part of something and earn the respect he so desperately wanted. With this revelation, Fredo became possibly the most tragic character of The Godfather series. He was a man who had to betray his brother in order to prove his own self-worth. It’s the stuff of great drama. Fredo was not the only compelling character in the film. Though he was only in a third of the film’s three-plus hour run-time, Robert De Niro was riveting as the young Vito Corleone. Despite having precious few lines (all in Sicilian), De Niro was able to craft a cunning, dangerous, yet dignified, figure with his facial expressions and body language.  As brilliant as Marlon Brando’s interpretation of Don Corleone was, De Niro matched him toe-to-toe. No one would have predicted that going into to the film.

In rewatching The Godfather Part II on AMC, I was stunned by how bold Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s vision was. Everyone, including longtime friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas, told Coppola that having two disconnected stories would not work. In the end, Coppola went with his heart and took the gamble. That is something very few director’s seem to do these days. Despite being involved in such classic  productions as Patton, The Godfather, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now throughout the 1970’s, The Godfather Part II will forever be Francis Ford Coppola’s crowning achievement in my opinion. The film is simply a knockout.