The Death of Michael Corleone


“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…”

Like almost every obsessive fan of The Godfather (1972) and its extraordinary sequel The Godfather Part II (1974), when I eventually came to watch The Godfather Part Three (1990) I was disappointed. Not only did it not include Robert Duvall as the Corleone family consigliere (director Francis Ford Coppola could not afford the wage the actor had asked for), but it was hamstrung by Sofia Coppola’s dreadful performance as Mary Corleone, Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay’s (Diane Keaton) daughter, who as a baby had appeared in the first film, being baptised (ironically) amidst a montage of Mafia assassinations. Despite Sofia Coppola’s later success as a film director, making such classics as The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003), for most of her early career she was really only known for one of the worst performances in Hollywood history.

Like he had done with his Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979), re-cutting and editing a new cut of the film, Apocalypse Now Redux (2019), Francis Ford Coppola was allowed by Paramount Studios to re-imagine his disappointing coda to The Godfather movies, an idea he became more obsessive about as he entered his eighties.

The original title (chosen by both Coppola and co-writer/creator Mario Puzo), was planned to be The Death of Michael Corleone, a decision made in order for the film to be seen not as a sequel to the first two films, but rather an epilogue. Paramount refused at the time, seeing it as deliberately anti-commercial not to trade on its famous name, and even though it received mostly positive reviews, box office, and a slew of Oscar Nominations, few people were pleased with the way the trilogy had resolved.

To tie in with the thirty year anniversary of the film, Coppola had a chance to re-cut the film, and to release the coda he had always wanted for his earlier masterpieces. I am pleased to write that he has absolutely succeeded in his new thesis on the mafia, able now to create a much tighter, more emotionally involving, and deeply tragic film made with a detail no longer possible or encouraged in today’s insipid film industry. With thirty years of hindsight, Coppola’s earlier, muddled version has been reimagined for fans of The Godfather into a quite brilliant conclusion for this most beloved of films. Restructured to focus on Michael Corleone’s attempt to redeem his soul, primarily for ordering the murder of his brother Fredo in part II, he is moving into charitable donations, philanthropy and paying the Vatican hundreds of millions to clear the sullied Corleone name. Sofia Coppola’s scenes are much shorter, meaning her terrible performance in 1990’s cut is no longer noticeable, and Al Pacino’s role has been edited to reveal the innate sensitivity and beauty of the actor, rather than the over the top shouting he is elsewhere known for. This time round, the plot, centring on two historical events, the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I and the Papal Banking Scandal of 1981-1982, carefully intertwined into Corleone family myth, now appears ingenious. The violent set-pieces that run through all of The Godfather movies are here very cleverly utilised, the ironic, elegant and bloody violence remains one of its enormous fanbase’s favourite thing. Another reason the films are so beloved is due to their ambiguous approach to both morality and religion, aside from The Exorcist (1973) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) The Godfather films remain the most deeply Catholic in cinema history.

Now we live in an age of enormous media consumption, meaning I was able to buy the box set (including its new Coda) cheaply online, and watch it on a digital quality Smart TV with in-built surround sound, now settled with my former disappointment with Part Three and having been seriously impressed with The Death of Michael Corleone. For anybody who had loved the first two (but felt let down by the 1990 release) it’s clear to see that this legacy cut of a former disappointment does in fact now work perfectly as a Coda. Not only a story of the Mafia but of a tragic American family, with this new epilogue its very clear that Coppola has done the decent thing, and preserved the legacy of the greatest series Hollywood has ever produced.