Marx sometimes describes his own surprising secret as “so-called primitive accumulation” (emphasis added), for in some ways it is not really an accumulation at all, at least insofar as that term connotes a smooth, routine, essentially peaceful operation. Primitive accumulation is, on the contrary, a process of staggering disruption, fraud, theft, and violence, one that is, in Marx’s words, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (875). Within Europe, it was accomplished primarily by the forcible dispossession of the peasantry: the unilateral usurpation of their ancient feudal rights, the forcible seizure and privatization of their common lands, and, in addition, the forcible seizure and privatization of traditional state and church domains and of various kinds of feudal and clan property—all of which were transformed into modern, bourgeois private property. The peasant producers were left with nothing, that is, with no land and no rights save the right, as newly “free” wage-laborers, to sell their labor-power to the bosses of a newly capitalist agriculture (and, later, of course, of capitalist industry as well). The enclosure movement in sixteenth-century England, against which Thomas More, for one, protested so bitterly at the time, is today probably the best known example of this process. In leaving the discussion of primitive accumulation to the end of his book, Marx is, in a way, mimicking and satirizing the psychology of capitalism itself. For primitive accumulation remains, throughout the capitalist era, the secret that must be repressed, the thing that must not be spoken of. The system which holds the right of property and the right of “free” contract (paradigmatically the contract between worker and capitalist) to be sacred naturally tends to discourage memory of the fact that this very system is based on massive theft of property and wholesale violation of established rights by naked force. Capitalism inevitably disinclines us to recall that capital, as Marx puts it, comes into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (926).
Nor, indeed, was the foundational bloodiness of capitalism confined only, or even mainly, to Europe. Capital accumulation in the European metropolis could never have reached the level that made the “take-off” of the capitalist mode of production possible without the massive appropriation of non-European wealth: through the systematic thievery organized by Europe’s rising empires in East Asia and South Asia, through the genocidal “discovery” and exploitation of the New World, and through the large-scale and frequently lethal kidnapping of black Africans into slavery. In Marx’s own words:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. (915)
One of the most frequent mistakes made in discussions of capitalism today is the assumption that “globalization” is an entirely recent development. Throughout Capital, Marx makes clear that the world market has always been the most ultimately powerful determinant in capitalist production, circulation, and exchange. But in the discussion of primitive accumulation it is evident that capitalism has been a global enterprise not only from the beginning but even, so to speak, from before the beginning. The violent plunder which produced sufficient capital accumulation to allow for capitalist take-off in Europe spanned every inhabited continent of the globe (save Australia, whose murderous “discovery” came later). Taken together, the various foundational moments of primitive accumulation may well constitute the largest and most violent crime against humanity in all of history.
If accumulation, with its tranquil and mundane connotations, thus seems a potentially misleading term for such an enterprise, the force of “so-called” applies also to the other term in Marx’s phrase, “so-called primitive accumulation.” For primitive might be taken to suggest that the force and thievery of primitive accumulation, however appalling, exist decisively and exclusively in the past: that primitive accumulation is a fact about the history of capitalism but not about capitalism as an ongoing mode of production today. It is, indeed, true that primitive accumulation is heterogeneous to the deliberately simplified model of “pure” capitalism that Marx constructs from Part One through Part Seven of Volume One of Capital. Yet as this model is fleshed out and complicated in the succeeding parts of Marx’s multi-volume “critique of political economy”—and also in important work by such later scholars as Ernest Mandel and David Harvey—it becomes evident that primitive accumulation never really ends. If it is imagined as the series of explosions that started the motor of capitalist production, then, though these explosions may sometimes partially subside during the “normal” running of the engine, they are never completely extinguished. The model proposed in Volume One suggests that, in principle, capitalism could function without continuing theft and violence, just as it could, in principle, function without ever lowering wages below the true exchange-value of the workers’ labor-power, and without ever raising prices above the exchange-value of the commodities offered for sale. But the actual history of capitalism shows that the system does not, in fact, operate without these things.
Examples of the continuing of so-called primitive accumulation are various. Some, which take distinctively modern (or postmodern) forms, concern new kinds and degrees of intellectual property: for instance, the current tendency to extend copyright far beyond the lifetimes of the original authors, thus transforming elements of a commonly held cultural heritage into bourgeois private property. An even more striking instance of much the same process takes place when medical and pharmaceutical companies manage to patent knowledge of the active ingredients of herbal and other traditional medicines, or knowledge of single genes used in diagnostic procedures: thereby privatizing even humanity’s biological heritage. In other cases, primitive accumulation operates today in ways that have in fact existed for centuries but whose full significance has not been widely recognized until fairly recently. An example would be the environmental devastation caused by many capitalist enterprises. When rivers are poisoned by industrial waste, or when lethal gases escape into the atmosphere from a manufacturing plant, commonly held and indispensably vital resources—clean air, potable water, and the like—are being stolen by capitalists in order to generate greater profit from the surplus-value being produced; and the attendant physical violence, in the form (for instance) of cancers and other diseases induced in the surrounding population, can be massive. In still other cases, primitive accumulation functions today in forms that would have been immediately recognizable to the Marx of Part Eight of Volume One of Capital.The privatization of fishing rights today in what had for centuries been common fishing waters off parts of the coast of Africa is a precise parallel to the enclosure movement in Tudor England. But one need not go to the margins of the world capitalist system in order to find the fraud and force of primitive accumulation at their most unvarnished. One might go to New York City, the economic capital of the world’s dominant power, to find functioning sweatshops where—in absolute violation of the supposedly “free” contract between employer and employee—workers (usually undocumented immigrants speaking little or no English) are forcibly held in virtual slavery and subjected to super-exploitation that exhausts them to (or even beyond) their physical limits.
Primitive accumulation, then, far from existing as a one-off historical moment at the dawn of capitalism, might be understood as capitalism’s supplement in the sense given that term by Jacques Derrida. One of the key concepts of Derridean deconstruction, supplementarity appears in Derrida’s early work Of Grammatology (1967) as a process that has haunted Western thought almost from the beginning but that has rarely been understood clearly. Briefly put, a supplement, for Derrida, is something that appears to be secondary and heterogeneous to something else; and the latter is normally understood to be prior and more “natural.” Yet the supplement turns out, upon closer examination, not only to be far more important and complex than was initially supposed but even to be integral to that which it was initially supposed merely to “supplement” in the colloquial sense. The best known example is doubtless that “dangerous supplement,” masturbation. Masturbation is usually thought to be a degraded, secondary sexual practice, decisively inferior to sexual intercourse, and tolerable, if at all, only as a “supplement” (in the colloquial sense) to sexual intercourse when the latter is for one reason or another unavailable. In his analysis of Rousseau’s account of his own masturbatory practices in The Confessions, Derrida shows, however, that the matter is a good deal more complicated. As Rousseau admits, masturbation, with its attendant fantasies, possesses its own vast realm of sexual pleasure: for it allows Rousseau to enjoy, in imagination, a countless number of women, whose beauty and willingness are limited only by Rousseau’s own imaginative capacity—and all without the tiresome need for seduction. What is even more important, however, is that the processes of imagination and symbolic representation in masturbatory fantasy constitute an indispensable dimension of sexual intercourse itself, indeed of all sexual experience whatever:
“[I]t has never been possible to desire that [sexual] presence ‘in person’, before this play of substitution and this symbolic experience of auto-affection. The thing itself does not appear outside of the symbolic system that does not exist without the possibility of auto-affection.” 3 In this sense, auto-eroticism is integral to all erotic experience.
There are many other instances of supplementarity. One of the most crucial for Derrida is writing. Though written language may appear to be secondary and inferior to the spoken language that it seems to represent (as Plato emphatically maintains in the Phaedrus), it not only has immense richness and complexity of its own that are not simply derivative of speech, but, even beyond that, forms (in literate cultures) some of the conditions of possibility of speech itself. Furthermore, since the signs of spoken language are themselves supplemental of the referents for which they stand, it follows that “writing is the supplement par excellence since it marks the point where the supplement proposes itself as supplement of the supplement, sign of a sign, taking the place of a speech already significant” (281; emphasis in original).
Yet another example of supplementarity is the category of being itself, as Derrida analyzes it in one of his most important essays, “The Supplement of Copula: Philosophy before Linguistics” (in Margins of Philosophy ). The philosophic concept of being may appear to be--and has been argued to be--a mere derivative of the grammatical copula: that is, a supplement, in the ordinary sense, of the linguistic function of the linking or copulative verb. But Derrida maintains that the philosophic category is in certain ways prior to the linguistic one--that being is not wholly dependent on the verb to be--and supports his argument in part by reference to languages in which being is inscribed despite the grammatical lack of any copulative verb.
Masturbation, writing, being: I hope that the (admittedly very brief) presentation of these examples of supplementarity has been sufficient to give some concreteness to the fundamental theoretical premise of this paper: that primitive accumulation is usefully understood in Marxist economic theory as a supplement, in the Derridean sense, of “normal” capitalism. From the most widely shared and commonsense coigns of vantage, primitive accumulation appears to be as secondary to the normal functioning of generalized commodity production—to the routine capitalist processes of the production, extraction, and realization of surplus-value—as masturbation is to normal sexuality. Primitive accumulation is, it may first appear, a special case of value creation, sharply distinct from genuinely typical capitalist practices. Yet a more careful reading of the history of capitalism shows that primitive accumulation, with all its violence and fraud, is actually indispensable to the entire capitalist mode of production: and not only as a foundational moment during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but as the repressed yet continual “shadow,” so to speak, of the whole capitalist project, up to the current day. Pro-capitalist ideology may repress awareness of the importance of primitive accumulation to capitalism, just as many modes of understanding sexuality may prefer to exclude masturbation from the category of authentic or “legitimate” sexual practices. But such repression can never be completely successful (as Freud knew), and there will always be signs (if we bother to read them) by which primitive accumulation makes its reality known.
It is the central argument of this paper that such signs are abundant in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (1972-1990), which, if the three films are counted as parts of one magnum opus, seems to me to rank, at least arguably, as the richest and most ambitious masterwork in the entirety of Hollywood cinema. I propose to examine it, more specifically, as the most interesting and important cinematic presentation of primitive accumulation that the American film industry has produced. I do not mean to substitute primitive accumulation for all the more obvious and more frequently discussed themes of the trilogy: organized crime, family, religion, ethnicity, the American experience in general, the American immigrant experience in particular, and the relations between America and Europe—among others. I will rather argue that such undeniably crucial motifs can be understood more fully if we co-ordinate them with the supplementarity of primitive accumulation that haunts--in progressively less allegorical forms--the Godfather films from the first scene of The Godfather (1972) to the final scene of The Godfather, Part III (1990; hereafter referred to as The Godfather III). I have to consider—to indulge for a moment in the kind of word play that Marx enjoyed no less, perhaps, than Derrida—not the supplement of copula but the supplement of Coppola.
The Godfather Begins
The first words uttered in The Godfather are, “I believe in America.” It is an audacious opening scene in several respects. The initial line is spoken over a completely dark screen. Then the light comes up to reveal, in extreme close-up, the speaker: a homely, nondescript middle-aged man who (as we will soon learn) is the undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto). As the camera gradually zooms out from close-up to middle distance, Bonasera continues to talk, though it remains unclear for a brief while to whom he is speaking. He tells the story of his beautiful daughter, who had acquired a boyfriend, one not, as Bonasera is careful to make clear, of Italian background. While out on a drive with the boyfriend and another male friend, she found that she was expected to provide sexual favors to both boys; and, when she refused, they beat her viciously, disfiguring her for life (“Now she will never be beautiful again,” sobs Bonasera). Her father, “like a good American,” duly reported the crime to the police, and the boys were arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted—but given a suspended sentence. “Suspended the sentence!” says the undertaker in incredulity and disgust that the judge could have punished such a vile crime so lightly. Now he has come to the local crime boss, Don Vito Corleone, for justice. After some preliminary conversation between Bonasera and Corleone during which the camera remains behind the Don’s right shoulder, the angle of the shot reverses, and reveals, in a sumptuously lit medium close-up, Marlon Brando in his greatest role. Don Corleone chides and humiliates Bonasera for never having sought his friendship before; but he does finally agree to see to it that the two boys will be made to suffer (though not killed, as he judges that too harsh a punishment, since the undertaker’s daughter is still alive). Throughout most of the scene, Brando has been gently caressing a small cat that is squirming and playing in his lap.
Given the centrality of Bonasera and his story to this opening scene, the first-time viewer might well suppose, at this point, that the undertaker is to be one of the principal characters of The Godfather and that the story of his daughter and her attackers is to become one of the film’s main narrative strands. Such is not the case. In the nearly three hours (actually 175 minutes) of the film, Bonasera makes only one more, quite brief appearance, and the daughter and the attackers are never heard of again. It is, nonetheless, a sound cinematic strategy that leads Coppola to begin The Godfather as he does: for it is part and parcel of the film’s epic sweep that some of its major concerns can be introduced with a scene that is, at most, tangential to the main action. Precisely because the scene is of little intrinsic narrative significance, it helps to highlight how omnipresent and thematically important are the motifs that it introduces.
The most foregrounded of these motifs, the one announced in the first line of dialogue, is the theme of America and, more narrowly, the ambiguities of the American immigrant’s lifeworld. In his second line, Bonasera (whose first name is never mentioned in the film but is significantly given as Amerigo in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, The Godfather, on which the film is based) adds, “America has made my fortune.” The bourgeois commercial society of the United States has enabled him to become an evidently prosperous small businessman (he is wearing a well-tailored suit), whereas he would, perhaps, have been doing well to avoid starvation back in Italy. His belief in America has led him to raise his daughter “in the American fashion,” allowing her more freedom than would have been considered appropriate in the old country, and trusting, at first, to the institutionalized American system of law and justice. When this system fails him, he must turn to a much older and more personal kind of authority, one that derives from the almost pre-capitalist regime of rural Sicily that will be explored in detail in The Godfather, Part II (1974; hereafter referred to as The Godfather II). When Don Corleone chastises the undertaker, he does so not only for Bonasera’s prior aloofness to him personally but also for the naïve overinvestment in his adopted land that has led Bonasera to trust the American police and the American courts in the first place. “You found paradise in America,” says the Don sarcastically.
Yet there is a certain unconscious irony in Don Corleone’s sarcasm. It is, after all, he himself who has more triumphantly “found paradise in America” (after rising from beginnings that one would guess, in this film, to be unpromising and that are clearly shown, in The Godfather II, to be, indeed, about as unpromising as can easily be imagined). Amerigo Bonasera is a relatively affluent petty-bourgeois, but Vito Corleone is a member of the real ruling class: a man of immense wealth and power, who famously keeps judges and politicians in his pocket, and who, as we will soon see, is capable of winning a battle of will against one of the richest, most influential, and most determined studio bosses in Hollywood. Nonetheless, as an Italian immigrant, Don Corleone remains, like Bonasera, only ambiguously American. One suspects that the non-Italian boyfriend of Bonasera’s daughter has walked free at least in part because of a more unequivocally American identity (and in Puzo’s novel the judge, indeed, explicitly says that he is extending lenience partly because of the defendants’ “fine families,”5 a phrase that in context almost certainly denotes a WASP background). Likewise, though Vito can afford to put on a spectacular wedding celebration for his daughter on the grounds of his luxurious mansion—several outdoor scenes of the wedding immediately follow the indoor scene with Bonasera in the Don’s study—he must submit to the presence of FBI agents who mar the festivities by snooping around and writing down the license-plate numbers of the guests’ cars. True enough, the FBI’s interest is due to Don Corleone’s being a crime boss rather than an Italian immigrant as such. But, of course, it was his ethnicity and impoverished immigrant status that led him, indeed nearly compelled him, to exercise his skills of leadership and entrepreneurialism in the Mafia rather than, say, in such (then) WASP near-monopolies and “legitimate” enterprises as Wall Street or the CIA.6
This ambiguity in the identity of the Italian Catholic immigrant—nominally American and yet not American in the strongest, most unqualified sense—interlocks with an even more important ambiguity concerning the nature of crime itself. What, really, is crime? Or, to put the question another way, what is the relation between the law and the justice that the law is meant to serve? Once again, the opening scene with the Don and Bonasera is exemplary. The judge who allows the attackers of Bonasera’s daughter to go free is almost certainly acting within the letter of the law; but the viewer must agree that the suspended sentence is far from just. Even more ironically, in order to seek the justice that the law has denied, the undertaker must go to a crime boss. Though Don Corleone’s power derives from illegal enterprises, his response to Bonasera—as he decides on corporal but not capital punishment for the two attackers—arguably displays not only a certain moral order but also quasi-judicial sobriety, restraint, and moderation.
The ambiguity that thus complicates any conventional axiological dichotomy between lawfulness and crime is intensified further after Don Corleone dismisses Bonasera and summons another supplicant into his study (there is quite a parade of them, all taking advantage of the Sicilian custom that prohibits one from refusing any favor on the day that one’s daughter is married). This is another successful petty-bourgeois, the baker Nazorine (Vito Scotti), who, like Bonasera, also has a daughter. The US immigration authorities are planning to deport his assistant Enzo (Gabriele Torrei), whom Nazorine wishes to stay in America so that he can marry Nazorine’s daughter and, presumably, eventually take over the family business. The Don promises to take care of things, and, after the baker and Enzo exit, tells Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), his consigliere and adoptive son, to turn the matter over to “a Jew congressman in another district,” evidently one of the numerous office-holders who do the Don’s bidding. This is the first of many references to the Godfather’s political connections; and it presents us with the irony of a professional lawbreaker who not only gives orders to a professional lawmaker but who at least sometimes, as in the case of Enzo, does so in order to accomplish the right and just, if perhaps not strictly legal, thing. In addition, the overt reference to the unnamed congressman’s Jewishness obliquely announces that the theme of ethnicity is not restricted exclusively to Italian immigrants. The Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) constitutes a minor Jewish presence in the film; and, in The Godfather II, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg)—a powerful Mafia financier based on Meyer Lansky, as Greene is based on Bugsy Siegel—constitutes a major one. Moreover, Tom Hagen’s Irish background is given some importance as well (though less than in Puzo’s novel). The comparative marginalization, in WASP-dominated America, of more recent arrivals of non-WASP ethnicity, is of course unjust according to the universalistic Jeffersonian principles on which the US is officially founded; and so the resulting uncertainty as to whether Italian and Jewish—and even Irish—immigrants are “truly” American is integral to the larger indeterminacy that renders hopelessly fuzzy the officially clear-cut categories of law, justice, and criminality.
It is, then, here, in the opening scenes of The Godfather in Vito’s study, that primitive accumulation makes its first and most deeply allegorical appearance. For primitive accumulation is, after all, the necessary basis of any deconstruction of the binary opposition between legality and criminality as understood in bourgeois society. Capitalist legality attempts to draw an absolutely clear iron line between itself and the criminality to which it opposes itself, so that the legitimacy of private property and the right of contract can be grounded as securely as possible. But the attempt never quite succeeds—the line is always, in fact, a permeable membrane—because capitalist legality is itself based (in its origins but also, as we have seen, to some degree as an ongoing enterprise) on massive crime, on the unilateral abrogation of property and contractual rights as well as on brute physical force. Such is the intrinsic instability—the potential moral, conceptual, and physical anarchy—that afflicts the fundamental presuppositions of capitalist society. And Don Corleone enacts this instability, this tissue of ambiguities, in the calm and shadowy luxury of his study, whose furnishings—the large wooden desk, the Persian carpet, the leather-lined chairs—all bespeak affluent bourgeois solidity even though, or rather precisely because, they are all the fruits of crime.
The complexity of the Don’s modus operandi—the variation in the multiple ways that the line between crime and law is being constantly blurred—is nicely illustrated by the difference between the case of the baker and that of the mortician, both of which we see him resolve in the film’s opening minutes. In the case of Nazorine and Enzo, Vito works, so to speak, “within the system.” He will instruct the congressman (through Tom Hagen) to intervene on Enzo’s behalf with the immigration authorities. Though the congressman’s solicitude to Don Corleone is doubtless based, at least in large part, on the latter’s generous campaign contributions, it is quite conceivable, even probable, that the provable facts of the matter would be insufficient to sustain a criminal prosecution for bribery: though of course the relationship between the Don and the congressman is one of bribery in any true sense. In the case of Bonasera, by contrast, the Don acts decisively outside the law, dispatching (through several layers of intermediaries) professional thugs to commit assault and battery, and thereby engaging in just the kind of naked physical violence that is the clearest mark of primitive accumulation. But the viewer will perhaps forgive Bonasera for thinking that Don Corleone has indeed provided him with justice and therefore represents a higher sort of law.
Demystifying Some Legends of a Fall
I have concentrated closely on the earliest scenes of The Godfather partly because I wish to contest—or at least severely to qualify—the conventional reading that sees the trilogy, and even the first film in itself, as narrating a fall, one that is most readily understood as the apparent moral decline from Vito Corleone to his successor and youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino). There is, to be sure, a striking change in Michael himself. At the beginning he is an affable Ivy Leaguer and returned Marine war hero, who attends his sister’s wedding in the company of his sweet, quintessentially WASP fiancée Kay Adams (Diane Keaton)--and who makes clear, to Kay and to the viewer, that he wants nothing to do with his family’s criminal empire. By the end of the film he is an intense steely-eyed murderer, and will remain one throughout The Godfather II (Michael in the final installment of the trilogy is more relaxed and affable, though not at heart less murderous). It is also true that Vito (to no small extent because of Brando’s staggeringly brilliant performance, which, it is said, directly influenced the personal styles of many real-life Mafia bosses) maintains a more aesthetically attractive persona than any of his sons can manage. He unfailingly projects gravitas and dignity, never, for instance, losing his temper as Don Michael frequently does. His dealings with Bonasera and Nazorine may seem to exude the protective paternal strength and beneficence implied by the appellation, “Godfather,” and in any case are unmatched by Michael, who, after he becomes the Godfather, is never seen attending to the needs of humble supplicants. Vito’s reliable concern for his family is, on some level, genuine enough: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” as he says in a rather ethnic and non-WASP expression of authentic masculinity. The contrast is clear with the way that Michael not only ultimately fails to hold his own marriage to Kay together, but also, more spectacularly, has his brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo) murdered at the end of the film (and after Vito’s death): an act that is, as it were, half way to the sin of Cain, and that is doubled at the end of The Godfather II, when Michael goes all the way and has his actual brother Fredo (John Cazale) killed too.
Admittedly, then, The Godfather does, to some degree, tempt us with a nostalgia for the traditional (almost pre-modern) paternalistic family values--in which the demand for absolute obedience to the father is coupled with the absolute guarantee by him of stability and security--that Vito so strikingly incarnates and that Michael, who tries to exact the demand while failing to provide the guarantee, so strikingly does not. But the film also ruthlessly demystifies such nostalgia, and the demystification begins with the film’s early scenes, where Vito is at his most impressive. Even, for example, if one chooses not to think about what the “justice” that the Don provides to Bonasera would look like when it is actually taking place, it is not possible to avert one’s eyes from the details of another of Vito’s favors to a dependent. A more prominent supplicant than Nazorine or Bonasera, and one whose problem requires more elaborate fixing, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino)--Vito’s actual godson and a popular singer and actor based on Frank Sinatra--needs help landing a part in a movie that could help revive his flagging career. After conventional negotiations fail, Don Corleone’s more strenuous methods of persuasion are imaged in what is perhaps the film’s single most widely remembered scene: the scene where the Hollywood studio boss Jack Woltz (John Marley) awakes alone in his immense mansion (which contains many tangible signs of wealth and luxury on which the camera lingers) to find, amid the silken bed sheets, the bleeding severed head of his prized, and extremely expensive, racehorse. True, Woltz is not a particularly sympathetic character, especially after he has admitted that Johnny would be perfect for the role but that he intends to withhold it anyway because of a personal grudge. Nonetheless, the image of a beautiful, innocent animal hideously slaughtered in order to make a negotiating point indelibly marks for the viewer the violence and deep evil on which Don Corleone’s benefactions are based. Of course, the Don is thousands of miles away when the deed is done. But his hands-off approach, like the impeccably courteous and soft-spoken way that his representative Tom Hagen speaks to Woltz (despite Woltz’s own insults and bluster), only highlights how repellant what the Godfather stands for truly is when you see it up close.
The grotesque image of the severed horse’s head is unforgettable not only because of its considerable intrinsic power but also because, as the first overt representation of physical violence in the film, it amounts to a stand-in, by synecdoche, for much that follows. Just as the violence of sixteenth-century primitive accumulation recurs as a “dangerous supplement” throughout the further development of capitalism, so the violence on which Vito Corleone’s success is based can never really end (the specific foundational act of violence will be dramatized in The Godfather II). Ultimately, it strikes even his own family, for whose safety and welfare his entire enterprise has been intended. The wedding of Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire) provides some brightly lit scenes of joy and celebration early in the film. But Vito’s role as a crime boss contributes in several complex ways to the quick degeneration of Connie’s marriage into a nightmare of physical and emotional abuse, setting her on the path to become the unhappily promiscuous playgirl of The Godfather II. Vito’s line of work leads even more directly to the machine-gunning of his beloved oldest son and heir apparent Santino (or “Sonny,” played by James Caan) in the deeply shocking scene at the toll plaza: one of the most graphically violent scenes in American cinematic history to that point (though the death scene at the end of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde  provided a precedent and almost certainly a direct influence). Vito himself is not immune to the violence on which his enterprise depends. Rejecting the advice of both Tom and Sonny, Vito decides against going into the heroin business with the narcotics pusher Sollozzo (Al Lettieri): not, as it is often misremembered, because of the slightest moral qualm but--as Vito himself goes out of his way to make clear--exclusively because of the prudential consideration that his all-important political connections might not survive the stigma of dealing in hard drugs. The result is that he is shot down by Sollozzo’s thugs. He survives the attack, barely, but never regains his old health and strength, and is forced by his weakened condition into retirement from his position as the Don. It is pure poetic justice, a textbook illustration of what proverbially happens to him who lives by the sword--or, in this case, the gun.
Despite, then, the strikingly different affects that Brando and Pacino project, it is difficult to see the passage from Don Vito to Don Michael as any sort of fundamental moral decline. The cycle of, and dependence on, violence begins with Vito; and Michael does nothing that Vito has not made possible. Beyond such strictly moral considerations, however, a more sophisticated way of reading the Godfather films as the narrative of a fall is suggested in the concluding pages of Fredric Jameson’s contribution to the inaugural issue of Social Text: pages that contain one of the earliest important treatments of the films and that have certainly been highly influential on much, perhaps most, serious Godfather criticism since.7 Jameson argues that the structure of The Godfather is essentially mythic: the film projects a myth of the Mafia that, according to Jameson, serves the ideological function of substituting ethical questions of individual criminal aberration for genuinely political (and economic) ones of capitalist depredation, while also, at the same time, expressing a Utopian longing for the collectivity imagined in the fantasy of the powerful and close-knit Mafia family. In The Godfather II, however, this mythic structure, says Jameson, “falls as it were into history itself, which submits it to a patient deconstruction that will in the end leave its ideological content undisguised and its displacements visible to the naked eye” (147). Only in the second film, according to this reading, do the contradictions of capitalism explode the mythic generic structure of the Mafia film that is designed to repress them.
Jameson provides valuable insights into The Godfather II, on which I will be drawing presently; and it is clear that, as a Marxist, he welcomes the “fall” that the historicizing tendency of the second film represents. Nonetheless, his opposition of history to myth oversimplifies the first film in a way somewhat similar to (though it is more intellectually complex than) the merely moral or aesthetic nostalgia for Brando-as-Vito that the viewer may feel after Pacino-as-Michael has taken over the role of protagonist and Godfather. As we have seen, the superficially attractive persona of Don Vito is demystified almost from the start, and certainly from the scene of the bloody horse’s head in Woltz’s bed (which comes only slightly more than half an hour into the film). In a parallel way, the pressure of history and the corresponding impossibility of distinguishing cleanly between the Mafia and “legitimate” capitalism do not, in fact, wait for The Godfather II to be registered, but are powerfully represented in the initial installment of the trilogy; so that the historicizing deconstruction that Jameson accurately identifies is at work much earlier than he allows. Primitive accumulation--the moment of violence and crime that is foundational to capitalism and untranscendable by it--is, as has already been discussed, inscribed in the film’s opening scenes in the Don’s study, though through the most profoundly allegorical kind of representation. After this point, the inscription of primitive accumulation becomes increasingly less allegorical, not only as the whole trilogy unfolds but even within the first film.
Of considerable importance here is the theme of Don Vito’s political connections, first sounded with regard to the case of Nazorine and Enzo and central to the near-fatal miscalculations that Vito makes in his dealings with Sollozzo. The elaborate network of influence that Vito has established with a variety of judges and politicians makes it impossible to sustain Jameson’s notion that the film sees the Mafia as aberrational or essentially heterogeneous to the normal and “legitimate” structures of American society. What Jameson describes is, indeed, the (strictly ideological) view taken by the much earlier films--Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931), The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), and Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)--that established the generic conventions of the Hollywood mob movie and that might reasonably be taken as the chief precursor-films to Coppola’s work. But not the least originality of The Godfather is Coppola’s deconstruction of the binary opposition, upheld by LeRoy, Wellman, and Hawks, between legitimate and illegitimate centers of American power: and not only through Don Corleone’s own political connections but also through those of some of his adversaries as well. For instance, the Corleone family is temporarily baffled, in its quest for revenge against Sollozzo after the shooting of Vito, by the fact that the heroin dealer has hired as his personal bodyguard a high-ranking police officer, Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). For Tom Hagen makes clear, in discussions with Michael and Sonny, that a New York police captain does not necessarily lose any of his respectability, power, or prestige merely by becoming an enforcer for the drug rackets.
Interestingly enough, though, Vito himself does feel a sentimental yearning for respectability that logically seems to imply the kind of sharp distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power that his own career exposes as untenable. In a memorably poignant scene after Vito has been permanently weakened by Sollozzo’s bullets and Michael has become his successor, he gives explicit voice to what has long been evident: that he did not wish Michael, always his favorite child, to follow in his own footsteps. “I never wanted this for you,” he tells Michael. Instead, he envisioned his son as “Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.” But the poignancy of such longing for legitimacy--which becomes one of the overarching motifs of the trilogy until it is pretty much abandoned altogether toward the end of The Godfather III--derives, of course, from its plain impossibility. Michael, though himself capable, like his father, of feeling such longing, also sees the true situation quite clearly almost from the beginning. Not long after his own path as a crime boss has become irrevocable, he responds to Kay’s disappointment that he has, after all, and against his own earlier intentions, become a man like his father, by insisting, “My father’s no different than any other powerful man. Any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.” This is offensive to Kay’s New England WASP sensibilities, and she replies, “Do you know how naïve you sound?. . . .Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” Michael’s response is decisive: “Who’s being naïve, Kay?” It is worth recalling that, as the film was being made, the President of the United States, with the support of most United States Senators, was having hundreds of thousands of people killed in a criminal war that would provide the raw material for Coppola’s most considerable cinematic achievement outside the Godfather trilogy. 8
Moreover, the first film’s dismantling of the dichotomy between legitimacy and illegitimacy obtains on the level of the American economy as well as on that of the American polity. Though the point is considerably elaborated in its sequels, The Godfather itself makes sufficiently clear that what is essentially at stake in the workings of organized crime is nothing more nor less than capitalism itself. Indeed, Mafia capitalism, precisely because of its illegality and its corresponding relative autonomy from the ordinary systems of government regulation, might be considered to be capitalism at its freest and thus capitalism as most strongly and thoroughly--and violently--itself. This is one reason that organized crime can so conveniently figure the persistence of primitive accumulation, that “dangerous supplement” integral and even fundamental to “normal” capitalism that the latter vainly strives to disavow. The matter is neatly encapsulated in a remark that Sollozzo makes to Tom Hagen shortly after the shooting of Vito, when Sollozzo is attempting to make a peace with the Corleone family and head off full-scale retaliation: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” Sollozzo (whose relative frankness is in general one of his most distinctive characteristics) is telling the truth. He is a businessman, a capitalist, and neither better nor worse than that description should imply. His interest is in generating fabulous superprofits from the sale of heroin (the superprofits that led Tom and Sonny to urge their father to accept Sollozzo’s deal in the first place), and he has no special fondness for gun play: just as capitalism can sometimes operate happily enough through the “normal” production and extraction of surplus-value. But the overt violence of primitive accumulation is sometimes called for in any capitalist system, just as Sollozzo does not hesitate to have Don Vito shot down when the Don’s stubborn refusal to accept his offer threatens the serious business of profit-making. Gun violence amounts to a dangerous supplement indeed to Sollozo’s business, more dangerous, even, than Sollozzo himself appreciates.
A more elaborate and even less allegorical representation of the fundamental congruence between organized crime and capitalism in general is provided later, in the extraordinary scene of the conference between Don Vito and the heads of the other Mafia families. The intra-Mafia war touched off by the near-fatal shooting of Vito has been intensified by Michael’s execution-style murder of Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey in a sleepy Bronx restaurant, and has most recently reached a climax with the machine-gunning of Santino at the toll plaza; and Vito determines to forego vengeance for his oldest son and to bring hostilities to an end (in large part so that his especially beloved Michael can safely return home from the Sicilian exile in which he has been hiding). As Don Corleone opens the meeting by naming some of the fellow crime bosses with whom he sits--some of whom are, like him, based in New York, but others of whom have come from as far away as Missouri and California--we realize that we are witnessing sober corporate negotiations. Like a board of company directors, a group of somber middle-aged white men wearing expensive suits sit around a luxurious conference table and discuss business. The pros and cons of the trade in heroin are examined, and it soon becomes evident--even to those, like Vito, who had resisted the move into narcotics--that the pure capitalist logic of profit-making (“There’s a lot of money in that white powder,” as the late Santino had said to his father) is in this case simply too great to be withstood, whatever the risks; and so ways are agreed upon to organize the sale of heroin as prudently as possible. The political connections that are Vito’s special resource will be crucial in the effort; and Don Barzini (Richard Conte)--who appears to function as the chairman of the board, so to speak--states flatly that Vito must share this resource with his colleagues. Don Barzini adds: “Certainly, he can present a bill for such services. After all, we are not communists.”
Indeed they are not. The remark, which receives an appreciative chuckle of agreement around the table, may at first seem a bit surprising, since communism was not, of course, a live political option in the America of the 1950s, in which the action is taking place. But it is fair to assume that all the men around the table remain close to their Italian roots. They would all know not only that Italy, at this time, boasted a Communist Party of major electoral strength, but also that, only a few years previous, in the late 1940s, the Italian CP came reasonably close to winning state power, and was thwarted only by a massive right-wing coalition that included (in addition to the US government, the Italian Christian Democratic Party, and the Roman Catholic Church) the Italian branch of their own organization.9They would thus have a good appreciation that, as Don Barzini implies, capitalism and communism remain the two real, and mutually exclusive, alternatives in any developed society. And they have no doubt whatsoever as to which side they are on. At the conference over which Don Barzini presides, perhaps more profoundly than at any other point in the film, we see the “new tragic realism” that Pauline Kael famously--and shrewdly--detected in The Godfather.10
From Sicily to America
The Godfather is, then, itself a film of such keen historical awareness that its sequel presents us with no definable “fall” into history. But The Godfather II certainly does extend and deepen the historicizing project of its predecessor in ways that may seem inevitable when we consider the two films together but that could not have been predicted in advance. As we begin to examine in detail the second film of the trilogy--often claimed as the only sequel in movie history to be as good as, or maybe even better than, its original--it may be useful to consider briefly the category of the cinematic sequel.
There had, of course, been sequels of a sort for almost the entirety of the history of film; James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) provide a noteworthy and relatively early example. But perhaps no Hollywood director before Coppola had ever explicitly and formally designated a film as being the second part of an earlier film. Whether or not such a designation was completely unprecedented, there is no question that the title of The Godfather, Part II, when it first appeared on theatre marquees in 1974, had considerable force of novelty: and not only because of the unfamiliarity, at that time, of the general formulation but also because of the particular terms involved. If we consider it simply in and of itself (something that is a bit difficult to do at this point in history), The Godfather is as skillfully and satisfyingly finished a work of art as Hollywood has produced. The famed cross-cutting toward the end--in which scenes of Michael in church, standing as godfather to Connie’s infant son, are interspersed with scenes of his hired killers, wiping out his important rivals within the Mafia--brilliantly dramatizes the path he has taken, irretrievably, as a crime boss. And much the same point is reinforced, in a minor key as it were, in the film’s final scene, where a forlorn-looking Kay Adams (now Kay Corleone) is literally shut out of the study where Michael’s subordinates are abasing themselves around him and addressing him by the title, “Don Corleone,” that had been reserved for his late father. Today we are accustomed to movies that end in ways that seem designed to stimulate curiosity about a possible sequel. But it would be hard to name a movie of which this is less true than The Godfather.
Yet the very title of the second film clearly proclaims that the first film was not finished after all.The Godfather II does not, however, aim primarily to satisfy simple curiosity about “what happened next” in the story--though it does indeed serve this now conventional function of the sequel. Instead, the second film retroactively reconfigures the structure of its predecessor, so that what had been a complete and self-contained narrative becomes, through a kind of cinematic Nachträglichkeit or back-illumination, the middle term of a three-part account of capitalist development. As if to emphasize that its ambitions are considerably larger and more complex than what might normally be expected of a sequel, The Godfather II begins with several scenes that tell us nothing about what happened next, vis-à-vis the first film, but a great deal about what happened before--that is, about the origins of the situation on which all the post-Second-World-War action of The Godfather depends.
After a brief shot (just before the main title) of Michael’s hand being kissed by a subordinate--a direct reference back to Michael’s consolidation of his position as Godfather at the end of the earlier film--the movie proper opens in Sicily: and a Sicily rather different, in function as well as in time period, from the Sicily that appears in the earlier film. In The Godfather, Sicily is the location of Michael’s exile from America after his assassination of Sollozzo and McCluskey. Though this segment of the first film is fairly eventful (Michael marries a beautiful local girl, who, thanks to the treachery of one of his bodyguards, is blown up by a bomb intended for him), it is nonetheless clearly an interlude in the structure of the film as a whole; the action that takes place in Sicily is distinct from and relatively heterogeneous to the film’s main action. In The Godfather II, by contrast, Sicily is primary and foundational. The year is 1901: a nice touch indicating the dawn of the twentieth century (and, perhaps, an inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s somewhat parallel cinematic narrative of capitalist history, Novocento , which also begins in 1901 and also stars Robert De Niro).11Vito (the child actor Oreste Baldini) is nine years old. As the film begins, the local Mafia head has murdered Vito’s father and, fearing familial retaliation, proceeds to murder his older brother and his mother as well. He tries to murder Vito too, who, by a stroke of extraordinary luck, escapes to an immigrant ship bound for America. Once in New York, he is diagnosed with smallpox and sentenced to a quarantine of three months.
This ill, friendless, penniless, utterly isolated orphan, who cannot speak a word of English, will grow up to be the fabulously wealthy Godfather who keeps judges and politicians in his pocket like (as Sollozzo will put it) so many nickels and dimes. The final shot of the opening sequence offers an image of what might appear to be all but hopeless misery: we see the young Vito alone in his tiny, bleak, prison-like cell on Ellis Island. Yet the boy does not seem particularly downcast. As if confident that, despite all apparent probability, life has much better things in store for him, he sings a little song to himself; and that classic American symbol of hope, the Statue of Liberty, is clearly visible through his cell’s small window. What needs to be stressed, though, is that the remarkable story of Vito’s rise is not merely the story of an individual. Though it does, indeed, amount to a (highly revisionist) version of the familiar rags-to-riches tale of immigrant success in the land of opportunity, it is also the story of the movement from one social system to another. The Sicily from which Vito springs is shown as a terribly impoverished and overwhelmingly rural land. Though it cannot quite be considered pre-capitalist in the strictest sense--since by 1901 Italy as a whole (and not only its northern cities) was integrated into the world capitalist system--it is pre-capitalist in the sense of still displaying many late-feudal survivals. Not only is there no developed industry in sight, but neither, also, is there any properly bourgeois structure of legality. Whereas in the America of Vito-as-Godfather organized crime is complexly interlinked with the regular administrative system of law and justice, in the Sicily of Vito’s birth any such “legitimate” system appears to be absent altogether. The Mafia chieftain Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato) rules almost like a feudal baron, with personal authority backed by naked armed force. When he has it announced to all and sundry that rewards await anyone who turns in the young Vito--and that terrible retribution awaits anyone who assists or hides him--it seems clear that his control of his domain is unshared. Unlike the later Vito, he has no need for judges or politicians.
There is, of course, considerable irony in the fact that Vito (played by De Niro throughout all of The Godfather II after the opening sequence that ends in Ellis Island) should ultimately go into the same line of work as the man who slaughtered his family. Indeed, it is his success as a New York Mafia boss that enables him later to return to Sicily from a position of strength and there to kill Don Ciccio in precisely the kind of vengeance that Don Ciccio had feared. But the deeper irony--the deeper significance--is, again, less individual than social. The almost pre-capitalist Sicilian Mafia may enjoy more unshared power, within a fairly narrow geographical compass, than its American counterpart. But the resources of America’s commercial capitalist society, which are incomparably vaster than anything to be found in Sicily, enable the American Mafia--led in part by Don Vito Corleone and later by Don Michael Corleone--to acquire far greater wealth and wider influence than anything that Don Ciccio could even imagine.
It is important to notice the exact path that leads Vito to fortune and power, for what Coppola shows is sharply distinct from, and even opposed to, the usual sentimental tale of immigrant success, in which honesty and patient hard work lead to a gradual rise from working-class poverty to middle-class comfort. Such, conceivably, has been the case with the undertaker Bonasera or the baker Nazorine, but Vito’s story is very different. When we first see him as a young adult, he is indeed honest and hard-working, but such virtues are conspicuously failing to yield any great rewards. He works as an assistant in a small grocery store, and lives with his family in a miserable slum apartment. When he first (and accidentally) encounters a representative of organized crime--the Black Hand boss Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin)--he is shocked by the man’s cruelty (Don Fanucci threatens to cut up a young girl’s face if her father gets behind in his payments of protection money) and wonders, with naïve feelings of ethnic solidarity, “If he’s Italian, why does he bother other Italians?” (the line itself is spoken in Italian). Soon thereafter, Vito himself is “bothered” by Don Fanucci, who demands that the grocer employing Vito give his job to Fanucci’s own nephew. Despite his genuine fondness for Vito, the grocer feels he has no choice but to comply: so that Vito, through no fault of his own, and despite all his honesty, good will, and industriousness, is now out of work. It is unclear how he will be able to provide even minimal sustenance for his family or the rent on the wretched flat where they live. America’s claim to be the land of opportunity for those willing to work hard and play by the rules has proved false in Vito’s case. We understand more fully now why the middle-aged Vito in the earlier film should be so scornful of Bonasera’s uncritical trust in their common adoptive homeland.
After losing his job, Vito drifts into petty crime--at first, almost without really meaning to--and becomes a partner in a small stolen-goods operation that keeps him afloat economically but that is not visibly generating a great deal more income than his old position as a grocery clerk did. The real turning point in his fortunes occurs after his business comes to Fanucci’s attention and Fanucci demands to “wet his beak,” i.e., to collect a share of the take. On his own initiative, and without fully consulting his partners, Vito decides to refuse Fanucci’s demand and instead to murder Fanucci and take over his position as the neighborhood crime boss. The killing takes place during the festival of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples) in Little Italy; and the cameras alternate between shots of the street festival itself (including a priest’s recital of Latin prayers) and shots of Vito as he stalks and then guns down Fanucci. The viewer is irresistibly reminded of the cross-cutting near the end of the earlier film between Michael in church and Michael’s professional killers as they blast away at his enemies. The comparison is important, for the murder of Fanucci establishes the Corleone criminal empire that Michael, years later, will consolidate and expand.
It is also important to notice that Vito’s decision to take the plunge into major, violent crime seems at least partly motivated by the bout of pneumonia from which his son Fredo is suffering. That his family is still forced to live in a cold, draughty tenement painfully illustrates for Vito the continuing vulnerability of the Corleones. After establishing himself as a crime boss, Vito, always the family man, will be able to give his family the best of everything. But, years after Fredo survives his childhood illness, the criminal empire Vito founds will also result, at the end of this film, in Fredo’s being murdered by Vito’s youngest and dearest son, Michael. After shooting Fanucci, Vito returns home to hold the infant in his arms and to murmur (in Italian), “Michael, your father loves you very much.”
When we next see Vito, he is a man of wealth and influence, though not yet on the scale that he will one day command. But we see him already dispensing favors to humble dependents, just as he does in the opening scenes of The Godfather. The path by which De Niro’s character will become Brando’s is clearly implicit, and the film has no need to detail it further. We can sum up the story of Vito in The Godfather II by saying that it shows explicitly and in detail what is only suggested in the earlier film: that “behind every great fortune there is a crime,” to quote the aphorism that Mario Puzo attributes to Balzac and uses as the epigraph to his novel. The term “great fortune” should, of course, be understood to mean not only this or that particular private holding but all the immense riches of capitalism itself. Vito’s passage from Sicily to America cannot be understood simply as a journey from less to more opportunity. In fact, though his ocean-crossing does put Vito beyond Don Ciccio’s murderous reach (in a nice illustration of Ciccio’s provincial limitations), Vito in New York, as long as he confines himself to lawful activity, can attain a standard of material consumption only marginally, if at all, superior to that of a Sicilian peasant. What the shift from Sicily to America really signifies is the passage from a remote backwards region of Europe--where the crimes of primitive accumulation, however vicious, have been unable to command sufficiently massive resources to allow for full-scale and thoroughgoing capitalist take-off--to the increasingly powerful economy of North America, where primitive accumulation, both foundational and ongoing, has produced very great capitalist fortunes indeed. Vito’s murder of Fannuci is more an instance than an allegory of primitive accumulation, and founds his own particular great fortune, which is completely at one with the stupendous dynamism of US capitalism as a whole. It is worth noting that Puzo’s epigraph represents a slight misquotation, or paraphrase (though a common one). What Balzac (who was Marx’s favorite novelist) actually wrote in La Père Goriot (1835) is, “The secret of a great success [Le secret des grandes fortunes] for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out [un crime oublié], because it was properly executed.” This version is perhaps even more pertinent to the discussion at hand. The murder of Fanncui is never found out, and Vito goes on to enjoy great success; and the Godfather trilogy as a whole displays the largely forgotten (or repressed) crimes of American capitalism that have been very properly executed (proprement fait, in Balzac’s French) indeed.
From America to Cuba and Back Again
The scenes of The Godfather II devoted to Vito--despite their vital importance in supplying the pre-history of The Godfather--comprise, however, only a minority of the film: roughly an hour out of the entire running time of three hours and twenty minutes (or nine out of thirty “chapters” in the DVD format). They are interspersed with scenes that focus on Don Michael and that, in the usual manner of a sequel, continue the action beyond the point where it ended in the first film. The transitions between the early-twentieth-century scenes and the later ones are managed by an especially artful series of fades and dissolves, and it is worth attending to Coppola’s technique here; for it amounts to a good deal more than a mere film-school tour de force. The point is that the past always lives within the present, indeed that (as Faulkner famously insisted) the past, far from being dead, is not even really past: as when, for example, the shot of the child Vito in his Ellis Island cell dissolves into one of his grandson, Michael’s boy Anthony Vito Corleone (James Gounaris), as he prepares to make his first communion. The scenes are separated by 58 years, and the material circumstances are about as different as could easily be imagined. In contrast to the extreme bleakness and poverty of Vito’s situation, Anthony’s big day is celebrated with an expensive open-air party, complete with a live band and a guest list that includes a United States Senator. The scene recalls that of Connie’s wedding in the first film, but this occasion is even grander. Michael has become a public philanthropist, donating a large sum to the local university; and, whereas elected officials had avoided being seen with the Corleones at Connie’s wedding, Senator Geary (G. D. Spradlin) eagerly speaks at her nephew’s party. FBI agents had brazenly walked among the guests’ cars at the wedding, snooping around and casting a slight pall over the festivities; but here uniformed police officers work as Corleone servants. Despite the huge difference in situation, however, the boy Vito and the boy Anthony physically resemble each other; and Vito’s past lives in Anthony’s present and future. The criminal career that lifts Vito out of poverty has a major impact on Anthony’s life, in this film, and, even more, in The Godfather III
Indeed, so brilliantly wrought is The Godfather II that one can almost imagine it as a stand-alone film, with all the action of The Godfather merely implied. In actuality, though, the scenes that focus on Michael amount to the third part of a narrative that chronologically begins with Vito’s rise from impoverished orphan to wealthy crime boss and continues with his retirement and his succession by Michael.
In The Godfather, Michael saves the family business from attack by Sollozzo and his associates when he kills Sollozzo and McCluskey; and then, towards the end of the film, as we have seen, he eliminates most of the family’s remaining rivals in a quick series of murders. At the beginning of the Michael-centered portion of The Godfather II, the Corleone empire is thus stronger than ever. Michael has moved the family from New York to Nevada, where it is becoming heavily involved in the Las Vegas casino and hotel business. Michael appears to be perhaps the most important crime boss in America, with the financier Hyman Roth his only real equal. Roth--who is developed as a character to a far greater extent than is any of Vito’s peers in the earlier film--is, in fact, crucial to the story. For one thing, organized crime, considered as a kind of parallel capitalist system to normal or “legitimate”--and WASP-dominated--free enterprise, is, as we have seen, defined partly by its ethnic character; and Roth’s Jewishness, as noted earlier, makes clear that it is marginality vis-à-vis the “truly” American WASPs, rather than Italian heritage as such, that is most fundamentally at issue here. Roth is known within the Mafia as “the Jew in Miami,” a remarkable appellation when one considers the size of Miami’s Jewish population; and Roth, like Michael, appears to have a healthy share of ethnic pride without, however, being irrationally preoccupied with it. Roth’s real-life model Lansky (who was still alive when the film was released, and is said to have admired Strasberg’s performance) was often called “the banker to the mob,” a phrase not actually used in the film but one that describes Roth’s apparent function pretty well. There is, of course, a stereotypically Jewish note here, in view of the historic prominence of Jews in the banking and money-lending business.
Despite their shared ethnic marginality, however, neither Roth nor Michael is content to be a boss in a merely alternative capitalist system parallel to the “legitimate” one run mainly by WASPs. This is the great leap forward that Michael makes from the position he inherited from his father. Vito becomes a rich, powerful capitalist who at many points resembles the bosses of “normal” capitalism. But with the expanded and “improved” version of organized crime run by Michael Corleone and by Hyman Roth (the latter of whom, we learn, had worked closely with Vito for decades), there is no longer a question of mere resemblance. Instead, the distinctions between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” capitalism dwindle almost to the vanishing point. Perhaps the most illuminating scene in this regard is the business conference in the presidential offices of the Cuban dictator Batista (Tito Alba). The president welcomes and thanks “this distinguished group of American industrialists” that includes Michael (“representing our associates in tourism and leisure activities”) and Roth (“my old friend and associate from Florida”) alongside representatives of companies with names that not only sound perfectly respectable but that are designed to suggest real-life American corporations once powerful (and nefarious) in Batista’s Cuba: for instance, “the General Food Company” (probably United Fruit, with its massive human-rights violations) and “the United Telegraph & Telephone Company” (an obvious stand-in for what an investigative journalist once called the sovereign state of International Telephone & Telegraph). The president is particularly proud of a solid-gold telephone presented to him as a personal gift by the telephone company, and he passes it around for all his guests to admire. This gaudy and virtually obscene signifier of wealth is reminiscent of one of the earliest forms of primitive accumulation, the large-scale theft of New World gold in the early modern period by Spain and other European powers. The phone itself is of course thoroughly postmodern in style; and it is a reminder of the ongoing (and, if you like, “postmodern”) crimes of capitalism such as those perpetrated by the men around the conference table.
The conference cinematically “rhymes” with the one presided over by Don Barzini in the earlier film. But again, whereas Vito takes part in a conference that is a good deal like an ordinary business meeting, the conference in the second film is an ordinary business meeting: Michael sits as equal to, and a full partner with--and, indeed, is finally almost indistinguishable from--the “normal” capitalists in Batista’s conference room. Under Michael’s leadership, the Corleone family’s empire has not only expanded in wealth and scope but has effectively merged with the respectable capitalism that in Vito’s heyday it had only resembled. As Roth explicitly stresses, an important part of this development is the increasingly close co-operation between the mob and the apparatuses of the bourgeois state itself. Vito’s political connections are extensive and indispensable to his great success; but it is a safe bet that even Vito never sat with any nation’s president to plan joint business operations, as Michael does. It is altogether appropriate that, in one of his most memorable lines, Roth should reach for the name of one of the (then) most iconic institutions of American industrial capitalism to celebrate the unprecedented success that he and Michael are enjoying: “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel!”.
Such grandeur cannot, however, conjure away the always underlying violence and instability of capitalism: a point the film illustrates in many ways. Some of the violence in The Godfather II takes specifically Mafia forms and is closely allied to the violence in The Godfather. One especially disturbing scene, for instance, directly corresponds and alludes to the scene of the horse’s head in the first film. When Sen. Geary gives Michael some trouble about his business holdings in Las Vegas--and, to make matters worse, gratuitously insults him, his family, and Italian-Americans in general--he creates a problem parallel to that which the studio head Woltz creates for Johnny Fontane. Once again, Tom Hagen is the unfailingly polite and soft-voiced fixer on the scene. He arranges for Geary (after apparently being drugged) to wake up with a prostitute whom the senator knows well and who has been tied to the bedframe and gruesomely cut to death. Understandably frantic and unable to remember exactly what happened, the Senator realizes that he has no choice but to align himself with the Corleones and to accept their offer of help in covering up the crime that would otherwise ruin his career and his life utterly. More chilling, even, than the image of the beautiful young woman lying naked and lifeless on the bed, partially covered with a blood-soaked sheet, is Tom’s impeccably calm manner as he explains how he can make Geary’s problems go away: “This girl has no family. Nobody knows that she worked here [i.e., in what appears to be an expensive brothel operated by Fredo Corleone]. It’ll be as though she never existed. All that’s left is our friendship.” The woman is a mere pawn in the Corleones’ intricate chess game, killed without even the courtesy of being named or blamed. As with all the most typical crimes of capitalism, murder is purely instrumental--as instrumental as the “friendship” with Geary--and with no harsh feelings whatsoever. (“Never hate your enemies,” as the older Michael says in The Godfather III. “It affects your judgment.”)
Violence also underlies the most important personal relationship of the film, that between Michael and Hyman Roth. The two are technically partners, and each makes a considerable show of regarding the other as a good deal more than that too. Roth, Vito’s old friend and colleague, appears to regard Michael as a son-figure, a bright and respectful young man whom he can nurture and teach. Michael, in turn, professes to revere Roth as a wise and brilliantly accomplished elder from whom he has much to learn. Nonetheless--and despite the fact that the apparent feelings of personal fondness that the two have for one another may well be at least partially genuine--the logic of free, unregulated profit-making dictates that the two are fundamentally rivals, each aspiring to unshared dominance of their joint enterprise. Roth, accordingly, has the master bedroom of the Corleone lakefront mansion in Tahoe machine-gunned as Michael and Kay are retiring for the night; the two barely escape with their lives. The scene comes fairly early in the film, just a bit more than half an hour in; but it is only later that the viewer realizes the shooting to be Roth’s work. Michael, however--who in the course of the film is revealed to be the sharpest of all the Mafiosi, more clever even than Roth or Vito--grasps the truth all along, and, near the end of the film, manages to have Roth shot to death at the Miami airport, even though the aged financier is surrounded by federal agents in the process of taking him into custody.
Where The Godfather II makes a major conceptual advance over its predecessor--particularly in the representation of violence--is in its treatment of a conflict very different from Michael’s lethal rivalry with Roth or the Corleones’ murderous blackmail of Sen. Geary. The deeply political nature of Coppola’s filmmaking makes itself most explicit in his decision--virtually unprecedented in the history of the mob movie--to incorporate into his saga no less a political event than the Cuban Revolution. Though it is not at first obvious during the film’s Cuban scenes, it turns out that we are seeing the country during the very last days of the Batista dictatorship. Indeed, the climax of the Cuban portion of The Godfather II comes with a lavish New Year’s Eve party in the presidential palace on December 31st, 1959--that is, just as Fidel Castro and his rebel soldiers of the 26th of July Movement are marching victoriously into Havana to proclaim the triumph of the revolution the following day. The party is interrupted by the humiliated dictator’s announcement of his resignation and flight. Up until this point, though, the veteran Cuban hands--most prominently Roth and Batista himself--are unconcerned about the rebels, who they expect to be as ineffective as their predecessors have been for decades. But Michael--always more penetrating than those around him--suspects otherwise. As he is being driven through the Havana streets, he sees a rebel being arrested by Batista’s military; rather than be taken alive, the man shouts “Viva Fidel!” and explodes a grenade, killing himself but taking a high-ranking officer with him. Michael is struck by the fact that, as he says, the soldiers are paid to fight, whereas the rebels are not. “What does that tell you?” asks Roth. Michael replies: “They could win.”
And so they do. Michael, of course, has no sympathy for the Fidelistas; like Don Barzini and the rest of the Mafiosi, he is not a communist. His prescience about the potential imminence of revolution merely leads him to decline to invest as much money in Cuban gambling operations as Roth, Batista, and their associates had expected. But, for the film itself, the point is more properly political. In films as violent as the Godfather trilogy, the act of exploding a grenade is, in and of itself, a fairly routine kind of occurrence. Yet the difference between this and the other acts of violence we have witnessed is fundamental. The rebel soldier willing to kill and to die for the revolutionary cause does not act for the instrumentality of profit-making (nor for a merely personal grudge, as Vito does when he murders Don Ciccio). For him, violence is, on the contrary, a means to bring about a new society, one dedicated to the abolition of the profit motive and thus of capitalism itself. The whole incident shows that capitalism is unstable not only in the sense of proceeding by fits and starts of violence, by the persistence of primitive accumulation. It is unstable also, at least potentially, in the sense of being capable of being overthrown. The scene of the rebel soldier therefore amounts to a novum (in Ernst Bloch’s term), a genuine revolutionary novelty. Of course, to portray the actual building of a revolutionary socialist society in Cuba lies far beyond the film’s ambitions (huge though the latter are). Yet, just as Don Ciccio’s regime in Sicily shows an almost pre-capitalist alternative to America’s bourgeois status quo, so the heroic joy of Fidel’s soldiers as they march through the Havana streets on New Year’s Eve shows an almost post-capitalist one. Michael, naturally, returns to the US and to business as usual, and takes the action of the film with him. But, as The Godfather II traces a progress from the agrarian Sicilian backwardness in which Vito is born to the advanced monopoly capitalism in which his son Michael is a major player, the Cuban interlude suggests that history need not halt its progress with capitalism. Primitive accumulation, perhaps, will not have the final word after all.
The Global Horizons of Michael Corleone
Or will it? This is, in a sense, the question that haunts the entirety of The Godfather III. Not the least important thing to happen in the sixteen years that separate the second and third films of the trilogy is the change in the significance of the Cuban Revolution. To be sure, the widespread hopes (and fears) during the 1960s that the Fidelista victory might herald a global wave of revolutionary liberation had already begun to fade considerably by 1974, when The Godfather II came out. But such hopes were by no means dead, and the heroic period of the 26th of July Movement’s triumph was still a vivid memory. The doomed rebel’s cry of “Viva Fidel!” still had the capacity to thrill. The political climate was very different by 1990, when the third film was released. Bureaucratic ossification in Cuba had become increasingly rigid and evident, and the European Stalinist states with which Castro was allied were in (or beyond) an advanced state of collapse. US-dominated capitalism seemed decisively victorious. The Godfather III is very much a product of this moment--a moment of global capitalist triumphalism--even though the film’s actual setting is more than a decade earlier, in the 1970s.
Before examining the film in detail, it is, however, necessary to address the widespread complaints that The Godfather III is inferior to its predecessors, so much inferior, as some have maintained, as even to render problematic the whole notion of a trilogy. It is true that, if one insists on treating the three films as separate works, the third one does fail, in some ways, to meet the (almost impossibly high) standards of the first two. The story-line of The Godfather III is somewhat episodic, not quite matching either the finished narrative perfection of The Godfather or the extraordinary historical agility and incisiveness of The Godfather II. There is also a decline in the quality of the acting, though here again the standards of comparison are stratospheric. The main burden of acting in the first film is carried by Brando and Pacino together, and in the second film by Pacino and De Niro--i.e., at least arguably, the finest Hollywood actor of one generation and the two finest of the succeeding generation, all at their very best. In the third film, Pacino carries the main burden alone (a metaphor, perhaps, for the way that increasing success brings increasing isolation for Michael), and, though his performance is never less than thoroughly competent, it lacks (as does most of Pacino’s later work) the special intensity and power he brought to playing the younger Michael. Furthermore, whereas in the earlier films all the supporting performances are strong (with Robert Duvall, James Caan, Lee Strasberg, and Diane Keaton turning in especially fine work), the abysmal job that Sofia Coppola (the director’s daughter) does as Michael’s daughter Mary is a serious flaw in the third film. Even Coppola himself has seemed to regard The Godfather III as of less than equal stature to its predecessors. His strongly preferred title for the film was “The Death of Michael Corleone”--which was rejected by Paramount for box-office reasons--and the implication is presumably that the third film is to be seen more as a coda to the first two than as the final third of a genuinely three-part structure.13
Nonetheless, I will argue that The Godfather III is indeed a worthy conclusion to a great trilogy. In strictly formal terms, the elaborate parallelism of images and motifs established between the first two films continues here, and makes it hard to consider the third film as a mere coda. Even more important, the fundamental thematic concerns of the earlier films reach a culmination in the third film so logical as to seem, in retrospect, inevitable. The third film, in this way, recapitulates the success of the second in making the earlier material, so wonderfully finished in itself, turn out to be not yet complete after all. Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the more quirky Godfather critics but not one of the least perceptive, has actually argued that the final film is “conceptually and morally” superior to the other two.14 Though my reading of The Godfather III will be very different from his, I maintain that this judgment is a little less hyperbolic than it may seem.
We can begin to explore how the film continues the saga of primitive accumulation initiated and continued in its predecessors by considering the role of the Roman Catholic Church. In the first two films, it is noteworthy not only that the Church plays a fairly prominent role--unsurprisingly for a story about a family of Italian Catholic background--but that specifically religious ceremonies appear at key narrative points. The Godfather begins by highlighting the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, as Connie’s wedding celebration and Vito’s concomitant granting of favors dominate the opening action. The movie’s conclusion gets underway with the sacrament of Baptism, when Michael serves as godfather to his infant nephew. The first scene of the Michael-centered plot of The Godfather II features the sacrament of the Eucharist, as young Anthony Corleone makes his first communion. The other, Vito-centered narrative line of the film reaches its climax with the murder of Fanucci, which, as we have seen, takes place during the festival of San Gennaro: not one of the seven actual sacraments of the Church but still (as the scene makes clear) an event of deeply Catholic religious significance. The third film continues this pattern. After an initial panning shot of the Corleones’ abandoned Tahoe estate (which shows, among other things, a statue of the Madonna), the action proper begins with a ceremony in which Michael is being awarded a solemn Papal honor, induction as a Commander of the Order of Saint Sebastian--“one of the highest honors the Catholic Church can bestow upon a layman,” as we are informed by one of Michael’s publicists. Not counting some voice-over by Michael, the first words in the film are spoken in Church Latin, by an archbishop.
Yet the Church not only has a presence in this film far more prominent than in The Godfather or The Godfather II; its presence is also very different in kind from anything in the earlier installments of the trilogy. In the first two films we see the American Catholic Church, a church mainly of immigrants; and Catholicism (like Hyman Roth’s Judaism) is significant not so much for properly religious reasons as because of its inseparability from the ethnic marginality of non-WASPs. Even at Connie’s grand wedding party, Vito, as we have seen, must endure the impertinence of the FBI; even at Anthony’s still grander first-communion celebration, Michael must listen to the obnoxious anti-Italian bigotry of Sen. Geary. Though Michael’s party celebrating his Papal honor takes place in New York (where he has returned to live after leaving Nevada), we quickly see that the ecclesiastical--and other--horizons of the Corelones now extend far beyond the American shores to which Vito came as an impoverished refugee. At Michael’s party, private talk between his attorney B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton) and Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), who presided over the induction ceremony, soon turns to the Vatican and its vast network of financial holdings. It is clear that we are dealing here not with an immigrant church marginalized within a predominantly Anglo-Protestant nation, but with the Holy See itself: one of the historic centers of European political and economic power.
Michael’s involvement with his church is revealed to be a matter of higher and higher--and more and more corrupt--finance as the film progresses. At his party he has his daughter Mary, on behalf of a philanthropic foundation named after his father, present Archbishop Gilday with a check in the amount of $100 million for Catholic charitable efforts to aid the poor of Sicily, the Corleones’ ancestral homeland; and it is natural to assume, at this point, that this generosity has a great deal to do with the Papal honor he has just received. Before long, however, we learn that the story is much more complex, and much less innocuous, than this apparently simple quid pro quo between a huge charitable donation and being made a Commander of the Order of Saint Sebastian. In an important scene a bit later, in which Michael and Gilday speak privately, it transpires that the archbishop has been running the Vatican Bank, and that, owing to unspecified shenanigans involving him and certain unnamed “friends,” he has managed to lose $769 million of the bank’s money. Gilday asks Michael to make good most of the deficit, and Michael is willing to do so--but not simply for the sake of charity. He is interested in taking over a multinational holding company called Immobiliare--the “largest landlord on earth, real estate all over the world worth $6 billion,” as B. J. Harrison helpfully explains--in which the Vatican holds a crucial 25% of the voting stock. If the Vatican votes to support the Corleone bid, giving Michael control of Immobiliare, then, he says, he will save the archbishop from the embarrassment (or worse) that otherwise awaits him. The deal is struck. Michael intends to turn the company into a new kind of European and international conglomerate, a move that, as the archbishop points out, should make Michael (who must already be a billionaire) one of the very richest men in the world. As the two men talk, huge maps of the world on the walls behind them signify the global scope of their dealings.
As the film unfolds, the plot thickens yet further. While pretending to be allied with Michael, Gilday turns out to be secretly working with a rival faction within (and beyond) the Vatican, one that is determined to block the Corleone takeover of Immobiliare. “We’re back with the Borgias!” complains Michael after a meeting in Rome in which it becomes apparent that his bid for the company may not be proceeding as smoothly as he had assumed it would. His reference to the famously corrupt and murderous Spanish-Italian noble family, which at one point controlled the Papacy, is even more appropriate than Michael himself, for all his acuteness, may yet grasp. For by film’s end it is clear that Gilday’s co-conspirators include important sections of the Italian Mafia, who do not shy away from homicide in pursuit of their aims. Their targets include not only Michael himself but even the new Pope, John Paul I (Raf Vallone), who is determined to clean up the financial corruption in the Holy See that he inherited from his predecessor.
Except for the sincerely pious John Paul I--who, while still Cardinal Lamberto, hears Michael’s confession in the only scene in the entire trilogy in which actual religious faith is registered--the Church in The Godfather III appears, indeed, as a political and financial rather than a spiritual and theological institution. Its high officials participate in the global financial and political elite that includes ruling-class types from Swiss bankers to Italian Mafia dons. The ultimate ringleader of the anti-Corleone conspiracy with which Archbishop Gilday works is one Don Licio Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), an Italian politician obviously based on Giulio Andreotti--who was not only a power within the Italian Mafia (and who at one point was actually convicted of murder in the death of an anti-Mafia journalist) but who was also one of the most important figures in the history of the Italian Christian Democratic Party, serving in many high governmental posts, including three terms as Italy’s Prime Minister. “Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger,” says Don Lucchesi; and this aphorism sums up much of what the film demonstrates about the unity of power elites “legitimate” and “illegitimate”. Bankers, politicians, archbishops, and crime bosses are all, finally, in pretty much the same business.
In The Godfather III, then, the Corleone family business is more advanced than its earlier incarnations in two major ways. The most obvious advance is in sheer scale. The rise is not just from Vito’s relatively humble position as a neighborhood boss in the Little Italy section of New York City, but even from the position that Michael himself occupies by the end of The Godfather II. After the death of Roth, Michael is the wealthiest crime boss in the country, and he controls economic interests that extend far beyond such traditional Mafia activities as bootlegging and illegal gambling, in which his father made his fortune. At a hearing of a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime, Michael points out that he owns stock in utterly respectable corporations. Still, Michael in the second film is only a national power, with influence that does not appear to extend beyond the US and its semi-colonial dependencies. In the final installment of the series, however, the increasing globalization of capital is a mighty tide that has lifted the Corleone boat to a multinational level; Michael’s allies and adversaries are now among the most influential political and economic powers on the planet. The Godfather saga is, as we have seen, always a deeply American narrative; and the rise of the Corleones recapitulates the larger intercontinental processes by which the New World, once a mere dependent outgrowth of the Old, returns to confront its former masters on (at least) equal terms. Vito flees Europe as a young boy, because, even within one of Europe’s most impoverished regions, he is so powerless that he must run for his life. Vito’s son returns to Europe to deal, as a peer, with men who are orders of magnitude more powerful than Don Ciccio could ever hope to be.
Concomitant with the expansion of the Corleone empire is its increasing respectability. Though Michael sees from the beginning that the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” capitalism is largely a matter of hypocrisy, he nonetheless yearns to transcend the Mafia environment in which he has been raised. In the first film, he vows to Kay that within a few years the Corleones will be involved only in legal businesses; and their marriage breaks up in the second film in large part because of his inability (or unwillingness) to keep this promise. True, he may sit (as his father never did) in a presidential conference room alongside executives of food, communications, and other “normal” companies. But, after all, the president in question (who is about to be overthrown anyway) rules only a small tropical island; and Michael’s core business interests are still criminal in the technical, legal as well as in the moral sense. In the final film, however--with Kay now happily remarried but still ardently desired by him--Michael has finally succeeded in keeping his old pledge. As he carefully explains to Archbishop Gilday, the Corleone businesses are now strictly legal; and Michael operates as a billionaire international businessman among other international businessmen. When his ambitious nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia)--a young Mafia operative and Santino’s out-of-wedlock son by his mistress Lucy Mancini, with whom we see Santino having sex during Connie’s wedding celebration near the beginning of the first film--asks Michael for a job, Michael replies, “As what? Tough guy? I don’t need tough guys. I need more lawyers.” In The Godfather, Vito appears in the newspapers only in sensational tabloid stories about organized crime. In The Godfather III, we see stories about Michael in the business pages of The New York Times, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal: the most sober and respected of papers among the global elite.
The problem, of course, is that, as Don Lucchesi illustrates more precisely than any other single character in the film, the distinctions between the global elite and the Mafia are mainly illusory. As the film progresses, it seems that the extent to which this is true comes as a bit of a surprise even to Michael, for all his insight and experience. “All my life,” as he says to his sister Connie, “I kept trying to go up in society, where everything higher up was legal, straight. But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. Where the hell does it end?” The remark may express a moment of sentimental self-indulgence on Michael’s part, for, taken literally, it could hardly represent the considered opinion of the man who, decades earlier, could already see through Kay Adams’s naïve assumption that senators and presidents don’t have men killed. His concluding question is surely rhetorical, for Michael knows that “it” (the pronoun here recalls the Freudian Es, or, in Latin, “id,” or, in English, “it,” the dark, surging, transpersonal force that cannot be completely transcended or repressed) never ends. Moreover, “it” is represented, for Michael, not only by the fact that, after arriving in Europe, he finds himself the target of Lucchesi’s conspiracy, which includes elements of the same organization (the Italian Mafia) that forced Vito to flee Europe, and which manages to recruit even the old Corleone family friend Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) to its cause. In neatly quasi-Freudian fashion, “it” is to be found also in those parts of Michael’s own past that he has tried so hard to repress--which, however, themselves turn out to be inseparable from the future to which he aspires.
The return of the Corleone repressed is seen most spectacularly in the most graphically violent scene of the film, the scene of the Atlantic City massacre. Michael has long been regarded as the ultimate authority within the American Mafia, especially in the New York area; Vincent compares him, in this regard, to the Supreme Court. Though Michael, throughout the film, tries to cut his ties to his old associates, they are not happy about foregoing the leadership and economic opportunities that he had always provided. In particular, they are eager (as Don Altobello tells Michael) to take part in the Immobiliare deal, with its promise of vast profits. But Michael cannot allow that, since he intends the Immobiliare takeover to complete his separation from the Mafia and his integration into the world of “legitimate” capitalism once and for all. Especially disappointed by Michael’s refusal--because he had also been shut out of earlier deals that Michael had intended to be his final connections with organized crime--is Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), a cocky up-and-coming don who now controls what was once Vito’s neighborhood crime ring. At a conference of crime bosses on the top floor of a luxurious Atlantic City hotel, Joey denounces Michael and the others, leaves, and then, having chained shut the doors of the large banquet room, executes an extraordinary attack: machine-gunners in a helicopter outside fire thousands of rounds of ammunition through the room’s big windows. Michael survives (with Vincent’s help), to deliver perhaps his single most memorable line in the film (one repeatedly recalled and parodied in The Sopranos [1999-2007], David Chase’s great television drama about the mob): “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Of course, the fundamental reason that Michael can never get out is that there is no “out.” Michael sees at once that Joey Zasa is basically just a small-time enforcer, lacking both the intelligence and the ambition required to initiate or plan anything as grand as the Atlantic City massacre; and that someone else must therefore be the real brains behind the operation. What he does not learn until later is that the massacre was the brainchild of Lucchesi himself, one of the masters of that world of global finance and politics that Michael is in process of joining. Michael cannot use the Immobiliare takeover to escape his violent past: not only because his past always catches up with him, but also because equal or greater violence will always be ahead of him, so to speak, waiting for him. In a way, the shrewdest commentator on these realities within the film is Kay, no longer the naïve New England maiden. Well before the violence in Atlantic City, and without any particular knowledge of the Immobiliare deal or the machinations of Lucchesi, Kay says to her ex-husband at the party celebrating his honor from the Pope, “You know, Michael, now that you’re so respectable I think you’re more dangerous than you ever were. In fact, I preferred you when you were just a common Mafia hood.”
The personal relationship in the film that most vividly shows Michael’s inability to separate himself from criminal violence is that between him and Vincent Mancini. When he tells Vincent that he needs lawyers, not tough guys, Michael is expressing the perennial, and perennially vain, dream of capitalism: the dream that the system might someday work by entirely peaceful, lawful methods, without the continuing need for the murder and thievery of primitive accumulation. But capitalism cannot, in fact, do without these things, and Michael cannot do without Vincent. Just as he cannot deny the (“illegitimate”) blood tie that connects him to his older brother’s son, so he cannot deny his need for Vincent’s consummate mastery of the violent arts. After all, Michael would probably never have left the Atlantic City hotel alive had it not been for the bodyguarding skills of Vincent, the tough guy. Not only does Michael give Vincent the job he at first refuses, but he then proceeds to instruct him on how to be a crime boss. Vincent shares many of his father’s qualities (even though Sonny was shot to death before Vincent was born): physical prowess, a brash and outgoing manner, a hot temper, sexual charisma, and a taste for violence. Michael teaches Vincent to combine such characteristics with cool thinking and careful planning, and to avoid being undone by his own impulsiveness. Vincent’s rise is strongly supported by Connie, who in this film has matured from a giddy playgirl to Michael’s effective second-in-command and informal consigliere, and who, as Michael ails with diabetes, tells her nephew, “You’re the only one left in this family with my father’s strength.” Michael agrees. He legitimizes Vincent--“Nephew, from this moment on call yourself Vincent Corleone”--and anoints him as his successor as Godfather. In a late scene, several Corleone subordinates gather around Vincent to kiss his hand and address him by Vito’s old title, Don Corleone.
Vincent does a good job, justifying Michael’s and Connie’s confidence. He infiltrates the conspiracy against Michael, even outwitting the mighty Lucchesi himself in a face-to-face meeting, and gathers vital intelligence. He recruits the best hired guns available, and carefully plans the defense of his uncle against the attack they know is coming as well as a series of preemptive strikes against the attackers. Thanks mainly to Vincent, the film, like its predecessors, ends with the destruction of Michael’s enemies. In The Godfather, Moe Green and the heads of the Five Families of New York are gunned down while Michael attends the baptism of Connie’s baby boy. The Godfather II concludes with the deaths of Hyman Roth, of the disloyal Corleone brother Fredo, and of the informer Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo). As The Godfather III ends, Archbishop Gilday is shot down, Don Altobello is poisoned, and Don Lucchesi is stabbed to death in an especially grisly fashion. Though Michael is wounded in the attack on him, he survives, and dies years later, of natural causes like his father before him. It may seem that he has won.
But of course he has not. Violence can never be perfectly or precisely scripted, not even by one as talented in such things as Don Vincent. The main setting of the film’s conclusion is the Sicilian opera house where Michael’s son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), now a professional singer, is making his triumphant operatic debut in a starring role. After the show ends, and the audience is descending the stone steps of the theatre, a bullet intended for Michael hits his daughter Mary, horribly bathing the front of her evening gown with blood. Looking at her father, she falls to her knees, manages to squeeze out the single word, “Dad,” and then drops down dead.
So for Michael it has all, ultimately, come to nothing. In the voice-over at the beginning of the film, Michael addresses Anthony and Mary in a letter he is writing to them: “The only wealth in this world is children. More than all the money, power on earth, you are my treasure.” This note is consistent with Michael’s character as it has been developed throughout the trilogy. He has always been a family man, if less successfully so than his father before him. (It is noteworthy that, like Vito, and unlike Santino, Fredo, and even, in his discreet way, Tom Hagen, Michael consistently foregoes extramarital dalliances; after Kay, the mother of his children, leaves him, he does not even remarry, but instead installs Connie as the lady of his household. It is also noteworthy that, of all the murders for which he is responsible, Fredo’s is the only one that seems to cause him anything like remorse.) “I would burn in Hell to keep you safe,” he says at one point as he hugs and kisses Mary, his favorite of his two children, as he was his own father’s favorite; and the sentiment is, in merely psychological terms, perfectly sincere. But the notion that he could actually keep Mary, his favorite treasure, safe from the fall-out of his business operations is as vain as the notion that the business itself could be conducted without benefit of tough guys, without violence.
The death of Mary Corleone is one of the great cinematic representations of hot, raw, unmitigated grief. Kay, Connie, Anthony, and Vincent (who had loved his cousin) are all devastated, but the main emphasis is on Michael, who ignores his own gunshot wounds and desperately holds and hugs Mary’s still warm corpse, as if his touch could somehow bring her back to life. A few moments later he throws back his head and screams in agony, though for the viewer the scream is silent until its last few seconds; in what is perhaps Pacino’s finest bit of acting in the film, Michael’s face is a mask of unspeakably terrible, unalloyed pain.16Mary’s death is a loss compared to which the hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars that deals like the takeover of Immobiliare might bring him are absolutely trivial.
There immediately follows a series of brief flashbacks: Michael dancing with Mary at the party celebrating his Papal honor, Michael dancing with his Sicilian wife Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) at their wedding, Michael dancing with Kay at Anthony’s first-communion party. These are the three women whom Michael has loved unconditionally, and in each part of the trilogy he loses one of them because of his business: Apollonia when she is killed by a car bomb meant for him in The Godfather, Kay when she divorces him in The Godfather II, and now Mary in The Godfather III. The scene then dissolves to one of Michael as an old man, sitting on a chair and then falling over, evidently dead from a heart attack. Though Michael’s death somewhat “rhymes” with Vito’s own death by apparent heart attack, the differences are rather more compelling than the similarities. Vito dies at the home where his family lives, in the lush green garden where he spends much of his retirement time, surrounded by good food and drink; and, despite the losses that he himself has suffered (most notably the loss of his oldest son), he dies while playing happily with a grandchild, the young Anthony. Michael, by contrast, dies in an unidentified (though probably Sicilian) place of sun and rock; and, except for two small dogs who (in contrast to Vito’s cat at the beginning of the first film) are pretty much ignoring him, he dies alone. Before he collapses, his face wears the gaunt, empty expression of a broken man who has long ago lost anything to live for. After his collapse, the screen fades to black, and the credits come up; the trilogy is done.
But there is, of course, no reason to suppose that the violence integral to the Corleone empire established by Vito’s murder of Don Fanucci has--or can, or ever will--come to an end. Mary is only the most recent victim that the viewer of the trilogy happens to see. The crime and violence of primitive accumulation are inseparable from capitalism: and, as the capitalism of the Corelones becomes richer and grander and more respectable--as it becomes more and more like “normal” capitalism until it is completely indistinguishable from it--the violence only gets worse, finally resulting in what is, from Michael’s viewpoint, the worst imaginable outcome in the world, the violent death of his beloved daughter. Not for nothing is she named after the most precious of all women--of all mortal creatures--in the Roman Catholic faith that Michael, as the confession scene with Cardinal Lamberto suggests, has never quite given up. When Michael tells Connie that the higher up in society he goes, the more crooked everything gets, he still has no inkling of just how cruelly crooked his own existence is yet to become. All his life, Michael has in effect hoped that primitive accumulation might be a supplement to capitalism in the colloquial rather than the dangerous, Derridean sense: that is, something essentially incidental, dispensable, something that can ultimately be left behind. As a withered old man who falls over in his chair to die alone, Michael has finally, at terrible cost, learned better.