On Christmas Day, 1990, my father and I tried to see The Godfather: Part III. It was opening day, and the previous summer he had rented me the first two films so I could get a taste of the Corleone family saga. Sadly, opening day was a bust. The theatre in Hamilton, Ontario where Dad lived was unsurprisingly sold out. There was a huge line-up of people waiting to get in, and I remember being bummed out; that we’d driven to the theatre too late; that there were no tickets; that I wasn’t going to be among the first to see the movie. Luckily, we went back the next day, Boxing Day here in Canada, and we were able to get tickets and watch the story unfold.
I don’t recall all that much about the experience. I think our seats were off to the side; and I remember being shocked at the ending, when Michael Corleone’s daughter, Mary, takes a bullet in the chest that was meant for her father. I also remember being disappointed that The Godfather Part III could only manage a second place debut at the box office, held off from the top spot by, of all films, the first Home Alone.
At the time, I didn’t know about the battles that director Francis Ford Coppola endured to bring the picture to life; how his financial situation was a motivator in making The Godfather Part III. I didn’t know that Coppola’s original title was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (a title Paramount wouldn’t allow) and that he and writer Mario Puzo envisioned the movie as less a continuation of their enduring saga and more a summation of the themes of the first two films.
Over the years, my love for The Godfather trilogy has only grown, and I’ve often had an internal dialogue about which film I think is the superior. Of the course, the competition has always been about the original and its sequel. Part III never comes into the discussion. That doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects of it that I think are remarkable – Al Pacino’s world weary Michael Corleone; Andy Garcia’s brash Vincent Mancini, who starts off as a next generation Sonny Corleone, before taking the family business and last name. Talia Shire gives her best performance as Connie ever in The Godfather Part III, while Joe Mantegna gives us a great Mafia bad guy with Joey Zaza. There’s also Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone; my opinion on her performance often changes depending on the mood I’m in during any given rewatch, though aesthetically I’ve always believed her as Al Pacino’s daughter.
At the time of its release, The Godfather Part III wasn’t seen as anywhere near the equal of the others in the series and really, how could it have been? The movie came sixteen years after Part II, which in turn was only two years removed from Part I. Capturing that artistic spirit between 1972-1974 was an amazing achievement then; to try and get it back nearly two decades later, well, that was never going to be easy, even with so many pieces still in place.
However, nearly thirty years to the very day my dad and I sat down in a theatre to watch The Godfather Part III, Francis Ford Coppola has released a new version of the film that somehow seems closer to the greatness many thought the original lacked. With its preferred title now made official, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone plays like the summation of Puzo and Coppola’s story that they had always envisioned. The director has changed the beginning of the film to essentially clarify the story – rather than beginning with the traditional family event and party from the first two films, Coppola immediately starts with Michael Corleone making a deal with the Vatican Bank to purchase Internazionale Immobiliare, clearing his way to a legitimate world outside of the family business. Michael’s decisions throughout the entire story all come back to this essential plot point, and moving this scene from its original placement forty minutes in to the start of the film lends it a weight and clarity that was missing from the original. It’s the most significant change in this new edit, and it works well.
There are other changes throughout Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, additions and subtractions of dialogue, some edits here and there. Because I know The Godfather Part III so well, sometimes I found those changes a bit jarring, but they all seem to serve the purpose of keeping the story going, while giving us an even more rounded Michael Corleone. A great movie was always there; Coppola has simply managed to shape and hone that greatness so that it’s more visible. By the time Mary drops to her knees on the steps of the Sicilian Opera House in front of Michael, the final victim of her father’s choices, I had tears in my eyes. Maybe it’s because I’m a father of my own daughter now that the scene feels even more devastating; it’s heartbreaking to watch a parent’s worst nightmare play out on the screen, and Coppola makes us feel the screams of anguish from both Pacino’s Michael and Diane Keaton’s Kay.
I feel old writing about this film. I was thirteen when I sat with my dad in the theatre. Thirty years later, I’m weeks away from turning forty-four. I don’t know where the time has gone or how that boy who watched The Godfather Part III somehow grew up into a man writing about Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. And while none of us can go back and edit or reshape our lives, we’re lucky that many of our artists can do it with their work, should they feel inclined. Francis Ford Coppola has made the most of the opportunity he’s had to revisit his art.
Mind you, while Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone may be the version I return to, like a Sicilian, I’ll never forget the first time I experienced The Godfather Part III.