Concerning Fredo: A tribute to the forgotten Godson

Geordie Rivett-Carnac examines the role of the screw up brother in the classic gangster series.

Geordie Rivett-Carnac
15th April 2020
Image:IMDB
A phenomenon ubiquitous in the film industry is the perennial desire to rank films against each other. There are countless polls orchestrated each year which purportedly supply us with the definitive answer to what really is the best picture if such a thing is even possible.

Whilst there are often deviations in thought between the magazines, blogs or institutions conducting these lists, one of the true constants amongst the indecision, are the placements of The Godfather Part I (1972) & Part II (1974), with the former routinely occupying the top spot. It has become increasingly fashionable in recent years, however, to argue that the second instalment is more worthy of adulation, but why exactly is this?

Fredo & Michael; brothers in arms. Al Pacino (top) held Calzale in high regard as both an actor & a friend. Image:IMDB

Often, Robert De Niro’s enigmatic portrayal of the fledgling crime boss Vito Corleone is credited for elevating the picture. The duel narratives are weaved together so seamlessly that the inclusion of Vito is welcome throughout and offers respite from the turmoil that Michael (Al Pacino) is enduring, whilst allowing an insight into the origins of the Corleone family. Or perhaps the erosion of patriarchy that felt so inherent in the first instalment gives the second a refreshing breadth of characters that richly enhances the story.

Whilst Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) represented a wasted opportunity in The Godfather Part I – her character never made a discernible impact and drifted to the periphery- she is pivotal in the devasting scene (which you can see below) in which she reveals to Michael that she had aborted their child. Time moves slower in this moment. Years of resentment and bitterness has been unleashed upon Michael, it’s as if her words are poison seeping into his bloodstream, corroding away at his very being, at the very man he pretends to be but isn’t. Image is critical. He projects himself to be a respectable businessman, operating within the law and upholding family values, but all this tumble’s down in a raucous cacophony at the culmination of the scene. It’s a powerful moment and shows strength previously unseen from Kay. Keaton is superb, and she’s finally given the chance to excel in her role, something not possible in the first feature.

Source: YouTube

Whilst these two explanations certainly contribute to the ever-growing consensus forming around Part II, they don’t go the full distance. The reason the film hits harder, leaving the audience feeling as if they’ve taken a punch to the gut, is the total disintegration of Michael and Fredo’s relationship. This is an epic, sweeping tale that leaves one gasping at its audacity, but at the very heart of it, lies a broken bond between two brothers, Michael and Fredo. He’s a character that’s routinely overlooked – by his family as well as the audience – and oft-ridiculed, with the latter bearing some credence. Yet, despite this, and the lack of screen time he receives, his relationship with Michael is the most important storyline in the film. Without him, we’re left with a lot of people that Michael doesn’t really care for. There’s Kay, who he wants to be with, but doesn’t love, then Connie (Talia Shire), who has already broken his trust, leaving the loyal but maltreated half-brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), and the rarely scene elderly mother, who later dies. It’s a film that’s as much about family as it is a dissection of power and criminality.

In the breath-taking final scene, in which the narrative jumps back once more to Vito’s birthday, Michael has declared that he wishes to leave college and enlist in the marines. He’s bombarded with grief for his decision, by everyone except Fredo, and this is staggeringly poignant. Only a few moments earlier, Fredo has been assassinated at the hands of his brother for his betrayal. Their love represented Michael’s last link to the past, to his old self, before his corruption, and it’s crushing to see this broken because it represents the final descent into unhinged paranoia and alienation.

Left to right - Michael (Al Pacino), Vito (Marlon Brando), Sonny (James Caan) & Fredo (John Calzale) are the first family of crime in The Godfather. Image:IMDB

The elegiac tone of Coppola’s final act, and the depth that Fredo adds, would not be possible without John Cazale. It’s a deceptively complex role, gradually shifting from comedy to tragedy, with graceful subtlety. Perhaps, in the hands of a lesser actor, the despair and inner turmoil of the character would have been drowned out by the jovial nature of his earlier scenes, but Cazale deals with this masterfully. He’s often credited as being the greatest actor you’ve never heard of, and for good reason. Sidney Lumet, who directed him in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), noted that there was an intrinsic sadness to him which made him such an intriguing object for the camera’s delectation.

Cazale died shortly after filming only his fifth movie, The Deer Hunter (1978), aged 42, yet he was never better as the tortured elder brother, Fredo. His definitive scene, where Michael tries to unearth any last morsels of information out regarding Hyman Roth, is sheer brilliance, despite the unquenchable despair that engulfs the room. The indignation Fredo feels is piercing, and each line possesses a Shakespearean quality to it. The entirety of the monologue remains lodged in one’s mind well after the final credits, and that’s a testament to Cazale. The Godfather: Part II is an uncompromising, behemoth of a picture, and when dissecting the reasons for this, Fredo mustn’t be stepped over.

SPOILER WARNING: Below is a scene from The Godfather Part II showcasing both Fredo's frustrations & John Calzale's stunning acting talents.

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