The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone can’t rejig its way to distinction

Francis Ford Coppola takes another fiddle at The Godfather Part III, 1990’s less-loved denouement of his mafiosi trilogy, but the results are more textual confusion than redemption.

The Godfather Part III (1990)

▶︎ The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is in select cinemas and on digital platforms, and on Blu-ray from Monday 7 December.

Some brands of bighorn cinema won’t go away by virtue of sheer epochal impact; others aren’t allowed for various reasons to fade with history. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga appears to be both – at least two-thirds of it are as timeless and universally revered as American movies get, while at the same time Coppola can’t seem to keep his mitts off the casserole, reediting it and rereleasing it in one form or another at least five times over nearly a half-century.

It’s a vexing sort of approach to a cultural legacy – imagine if Tolstoy had tinkered Anna Karenina into five separate published editions over decades, or if Mozart had had multiple fits of oeuvre overhaul. One can argue critically about this or that Godfather version ‘working’ better or worse as storytelling, but by now it’s apparent that the practice is something like an auteurist anxiety disorder – Coppola, the mode’s most spectacular case, cannot seem to ever leave well enough alone or, probably more to the point, abandon original desires and ambitions that were left unrealised by budget, circumstance or studio interference.

If The Godfather made a certain kind of auteurist statement in 1972, the subsequent fever of remoulding it over and over again suggests another altogether – a fraught narcissism perhaps, a neurotic distrust of the past. Coppola’s creative reasoning has probably been entirely sound with each iteration, but in the bleachers where we sit, we could hardly be blamed for wondering if all this restructuring and scene juggling is worth it, or if a kind of Heisenberg principle has been introduced into the mix – which version is the real one?

Then we come to that last third, 1990’s Part III, now rejiggered into the ‘coda’ Coppola says he wanted all along. Is it merely a ‘director’s cut’, and if not, why not? More like Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time Redux than Coppola’s own Apocalypse Now Redux – more of a shortened reshuffle than a major restoration of sequences initially cut out – the ‘new’ film is actually not entirely fresh, insofar as several of its changes were featured in the last big surgery Coppola and Walter Murch performed, in 1992.

Andy Garcia as Vincent Mancini and Sophia Coppola as Mary Corleone

Of course, the compromises built into the film, mostly casting, remain, and they probably still haunt Coppola – entirely a project conjured by Paramount, the film was hobbled at the outset by having to write Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen out because the studio wouldn’t pay the actor properly, while the last-minute casting of the poignant but inexperienced Sofia Coppola, in the pivotal next-gen role after Winona Ryder dropped out, provided the film with a big critics’ bull’s-eye it has never quite overcome.

The versions’ differences at first are stark – after this many years passing, Coppola seems far less impassioned about his hero’s psychic poisoning by the assassination of Fredo in Part II, removing Part III’s original opening, a rueful tour of the abandoned Lake Tahoe mansion, and flashbacks to the earlier film’s chilly sequence on the lake. (In 1990, with 16 years intervening, it seemed salient.)

Thankfully, the urge to trim carried through to the ending, eliding the near-Pythonesque ‘death’ of Al Pacino’s Michael, falling out of his chair, and settling – ironically enough, for a retitled ‘The Death of’ – for merely a looming close-up and fade to black.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

In between, the plot remains hectically fuzzy, as Andy Garcia’s hotheaded heir to the nearly-legal throne awkwardly courts Sophia’s Mary; Joe Mantegna’s New Jersey boss threatens war; Michael’s attempts to gain control over the Vatican-invested Internationale Immobliare construction conglomerate crisscross with Pope John Paul I’s rise and sudden death as well as the Vatican banking scandal of the early 1980s; and ageing mob boss Eli Wallach conspires behind the scenes to gain a slice of the Vatican deal, prompting assassinations (attempted and successful) that push Michael back into dirty mob business.

And more – the screenplay, credited to Coppola and Mario Puzo, is a thick, dense pudding, scaffolding plot intricacies between even more ceremonies and rituals, until the climactic sequence affirms the whole saga’s operatic esprit, by montaging around a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. (Which is not the only Scorsese indexer – Catherine Scorsese pops in for a bit role.)

Though George Hamilton, in his meatiest role since the 1960s, is hardly recompense for Duvall’s absence, and Sofia’s shortcomings are only emphasised by Garcia’s irresistible star power, the movie still has Gordon Willis, wizardly reincarnating the franchise’s golden-shadow palate, and enough of Coppola’s grand grace with details – the shoe dangling off the foot of the Swiss banker lynched off a Roman bridge – to sustain it, whatever shape it takes.

Al Pacino with George Hamilton as B.J. Harrison

The film’s lack of flow compares woefully with the earlier entries (but not necessarily with the various rechronologicalised reedits, which always seem to jerk along fitfully), but the true nagging problem with Part III, or Coda, or whatever we’ll call it, is fundamentally unchanged – that is, it’s obvious to any Godfather-seasoned viewer that Coppola and Puzo’s screenplay is modelled, almost sequence by sequence, on the first film’s script. Virtually every major Godfather set piece, from the opening meetings in the dark office and Connie’s wedding to the attempted hit on Michael and the climactic montage of violence, are all repurposed into the newer story, with expository spackle patched in between. Once you become aware of the parallel lines, Part III/Coda starts to feel desperate as well as cramped, as though it’s a kind of helpless, pale remake, and the filmmakers didn’t know how to structure it otherwise. You keep thinking, damn, the first Godfather was great, I wish I were watching that.

It’s also a simple fact that the first film, with its four disparate brothers confronting the dire, ritualised world their conflicted father had made, still has an urgency and patient inevitability to it that belongs to its moment, and trying to recapture it – or exploit its structure – is and was folly. Part III/Coda was always the afterthought, conjuring memories of its more profound progenitors, and futzing with it 30 years later feels like a hobbyist’s dalliance.