Whenever I rewatched The Godfather Part III over the years, which I’ve done fairly often, I was always sorry that its strengths have been largely overshadowed by its flaws.
The initial mixed response swiftly settled into a consensus that it was an abomination, those who had initially praised it falling into that line. I felt it was basically good, let down somewhat—but not fatally—by some clunky moments and unfortunate lapses of judgement. Lapses that might have been forgiven if it wasn’t attached to such a flawless pedigree. (I used to enjoy opining to people that if you just changed all the names, everyone would’ve called it the the best gangster film since The Godfather.)
What worried me about this new version, restyled as The Godfather Coda: “The Death of Michael Corleone”, was that it would fail to convince sceptics, despite having been billed as the official improvement. This is as good as this film is going to get. And since everyone has permission to see it afresh, if they still think it’s rubbish… well, that about wraps it up for The Godfather part III.
Some of the reviews were glowing, but not all. Most stressed how little had been changed in the middle section. That didn’t help my trepidation. I’d just have knuckle down and watch it.
So I did, and here’s what I thought:
I think it’s much, much better, and the reasons are threefold.
First is the simple removal of some of the aforementioned clunky moments. Two that spring to mind are Sofia Coppola’s unconvincing bolt from Al Pacino when he beseeches her to end her romance with Andy Garcia (now a fairly awkward cut before she flees, but still much better); and the on-the-nose soliloquy where Pacino asks, “When did my head betray my heart?” Now he just begs, impotently, for a chance to redeem himself, and who hasn’t done that?
Then there’s the restructure, particularly of the beginning. Basically, it gets into the plot straight away, where originally it dithered. It makes the story much easier to follow, and ironically allows us to concentrate better on Michael Corleone’s attempt at redemption, now that we’ve lost superfluous attempts to direct our attention to it.
I also got a clearer sense that he allowed himself to sink so deep into cold-hearted evil because the pain of growing a conscience would have been too great, which makes his eventual full-on confession to the Cardinal—”I killed my father’s son”—all the more powerful.
Stripping away the film’s flab also let the subsequent exchange between Michael and Connie stand out more. Previously, I felt it kind of got lost, and I even believed for a while that the film hadn’t revealed what Connie made of her brother’s fratricide at all. She was the one in Part II, after all, who begged Michael to forgive Fredo. Perhaps feeling better for his meeting with the Cardinal, he might be on the verge of confessing to Connie, too. She seems to assume so, anyway, because she stops him short, restating her wilful delusion that Fredo died in “tragic accident” that was “God’s will”, before breaking down in tears. This is the lie she depends on, and she won’t let Michael take it away from her.
I do wish, though, that Diane Keaton’s Kay had pushed back more when Michael asks for her forgiveness. In his “apology” he claims he didn’t have a choice in all his evil deeds, which is such bullshit. If that was true he wouldn’t be asking for forgiveness. (I can’t be too hard on the scene, though, because he goes from accepting her forgiveness to full-on Sicilian revenge mode without batting an eye, and we realise, we and Kay, that there’s no hope for him.)
Finally, there’s its new status as “coda”, rather than the third part of a trilogy. This takes the pressure off—it no longer pretends to stand shoulder to shoulder with its predecessors; we’re instead primed to greet it as a more modest affair, with smaller ambitions. You could argue that this is simply expectation-management, but the new structure backs up its new role. It’s less fussy, simpler. Sure, like the previous instalments, there is the search for an elusive enemy, but there is no simultaneous machination on Michael’s part: he just wants to finalise this legitimate deal with the Vatican, and no one will let him.
It’s also far clearer now that the Corleone family finally has the right don at the right time. De Niro’s Vito was perfect for the 20s—a genius—but Brando’s was out of touch by the end of the 40s (unwilling to descend into drug trafficking). James Caan’s Sonny had no self-control and no sense of the big picture; Pacino’s Michael was the smartest of all, but because he never relished it (“I had another destiny in mind” he laments to Kay), he resorted to an ever-deepening ruthlessness. Andy Garcia’s Vincent starts out as a hot-headed clone of Sonny, but during the running time learns sufficiently from Michael to temper himself and think big. When Michael warns him, “All my life I’ve wanted out,” he responds, “I don’t want out; I want the strength to protect the family.” Michael immediately passes him the reigns, making him the new don. He’s both worthy of it, and comfortable with it.
So the whole story begins with the quintessential mafia don failing to move with the times. We then get successive poor fits until Vincent fills the role perfectly. Another irony, then: this “coda” emerges as a more fitting final part to the trilogy than the official Part III ever was.