Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, cold and calculating Mafia boss
Havana, New Year’s Eve 1958
Film: The Godfather Part II
Release Date: December 12, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Theadora Van Runkle
Happy New Year’s Eve!
On this transitional #MafiaMonday, we transport back 60 years to New Year’s Eve 1958, a tumultuous night in world history as armed rebels connected to the vanguard 26th of July Movement overthrew Cuba’s incumbent president Fulgencio Batista, ending the five-year Cuban Revolution and establishing a communist government under the movement’s leader Fidel Castro.
“Gentlemen, to a night in Havana! Happy New Year… Feliz Año Nuevo!” toasts a gregarious Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) as he holds court in the Cuban capital with a bevy of politicians and his brother, taciturn and thoughtful mob boss Michael (Al Pacino).
Michael Corleone finds himself an unwitting spectator to this momentous occasion in history, but the most impactful happening in his life is the discovery of his brother Fredo’s betrayal. An innocent slip of the tongue while in the audience of a far-from-innocent live sex show reveals that Fredo lied about his previous contact with Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), right-hand man to Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), letting slip to Michael that his own brother was behind his attempted assassination earlier that year.
While not one to show emotion, even Michael can’t put on a poker face and buries his head in his hands as he processes the news… though he did quickly have the presence of mind to use the seconds after he found out to order his own assassin to eliminate both Roth and Ola.
The following sequence builds to one of the most powerful scenes in cinema. The revelry continues as the gangsters, the politicians, and their Cuban government hosts remain blissfully unaware of the rebels preparing for action. A party at the presidential palace finds a distressed Michael confronting his insecure little brother, grasping his face in both hands for a kiss of death, then declaring: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”
In a daze, Fredo backs away and just has enough time to disappear into the crowd before the president announces his resignation “to avoid further bloodshed” as slot machines and parking meters start hitting the pavement. Unhurried but with determination to get out, Michael is the first American to leave and get a jumpstart on the immediate exodus from Cuba in the wake of the revolution.
What’d He Wear?
Black suits are among the more controversial aspects of menswear. While few doubt the propriety of black suits at a funeral, many sartorial purists insist that black suits have no purpose that can’t be better served by a charcoal or dark navy suit, while many retailers – specifically American retailers – continue to market black suits as essentials for any gent’s wardrobe. (For proof, I would offer photos from my high school homecoming dances where at least three out of every four male students were outfitted in an ill-fitting black suit from Macy’s.)
The reality rests somewhere in the middle. While black suits are inordinately worn for occasions where they’re not appropriate, they can make a natty alternative to dinner jackets for an evening out on the town with no dress code requirements, particularly when the black suiting is of an interesting pattern, texture, or fabric.
It is perhaps worth noting that Michael Corleone never dons formal black tie in the first two entries of The Godfather canon, even when the men around him are appropriately attired in dinner jackets and tuxedoes. At his sister’s wedding in The Godfather (1972), the recently returned war hero Michael is still wearing his USMC service uniform. In The Godfather Part II (1974), many of his criminal and congressional cronies don dinner jackets and bow ties to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Havana but Michael opts for a solid, but shiny, black suit with a plain white shirt and black tie.
Michael’s black suit, white shirt, and black tie is a reversal of his brother Fredo’s white suit, black shirt, and white-dominant tie, indicating the polarity of the two brothers while also communicating the details of their personalities. Fredo is all flash, dressing the part of the extravagant gangster that he hasn’t the skills or moxie to be without the support of his family name. Michael, on the other hand, remains conservative and businesslike yet understatedly elegant. If someone – be they a policeman or hitman – entered the club looking for a gangster, their eyes would pass right over Michael and land on Fredo.
Though limited, Michael Corleone’s elegant wardrobe in The Godfather Part II is versatile enough to be as effective as a wardrobe twice its size. The black mohair three-piece suit that Michael wears for business – and a funeral – in the United States is perfect, sans waistcoat, for a New Year’s Eve celebration in the warmer tropical environment of Havana.
The black suit was custom-made for the production by the venerable Western Costume Co., which has been dressing Hollywood’s finest for more than a century. Based on the suiting’s distinctive sheen and its varying degrees of reflecting different light, the material is likely a mohair and wool blend. Mohair was a common element of 1950s and 1960s suits, popular for its lustrous properties and practical comfort in warm weather, and it adds more depth to Michael’s suit than a standard black wool suit.
Michael’s black mohair suit jacket is single-breasted with notch lapels that roll to the top of a three-button front. The scenes are either too dark or the shots are too close on Michael to show much of the details on screen, but the jacket’s strongly roped sleeveheads and padded shoulders are silhouetted throughout Michael’s time in Havana.
The jacket is shaped by darts and gently suppressed through the waist. It has a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets in line with the lowest button, and three-button cuffs. It has been auctioned several times throughout the decades, and this online listing from Nate D. Sanders’s 2012 auction offers additional description.
The suit trousers have double forward pleats on each side of the fly with side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottom. Michael likely wears the same black leather belt that he wears when he wears the full three-piece suit with waistcoat.
Even with a white shirt and black tie, Michael’s unique suit fabric says reserved party guest rather than reservoir dog. He wears a solid black tie, knotted in a four-in-hand, ostensibly the same black tie that he would later wear to his mother’s funeral. The white cotton poplin shirt has a long point collar, front placket, and single-button cuffs.
The yellow gold watch Michael wears in The Godfather Part II has been speculatively identified as a vintage Omega Constellation from the 1950s with a white dial and shining gold bracelet. His only other piece of jewelry is the plain gold wedding ring on his left hand.
Black footwear is the only way to go with a solid black suit. Michael wears black calf derby shoes and black socks.
What to Imbibe
Though he never vocally confirms it, the tall, dark highball with a lime slice that Michael raises to Fredo’s toast is most likely a Cuba Libre, one of the two “local drinks” made with rum that Fredo mentioned in his pitch to the gangsters and the senators:
Okay, gentlemen, it’s refill time here. You might try some of those local drinks, you know, Cuba Libre, piña colada…
The agreed origin story of the simple and refreshing Cuba Libre dates back to the turn of the 20th century when bottled Coca-Cola was first imported into Cuba from the U.S. after the Spanish-American War.
In the 1960s, Bacardi advertising executive Fausto Rodriguez recalled witnessing the creation of the first Cuba Libre when he was a 14-year-old U.S. Army Signal Corps messenger in the summer of 1900. The apocryphal story goes that the teenage Rodriguez joined his employer in a bar, where the man requested Bacardi rum mixed with Coca-Cola, impressing a nearby group of American soldiers with the order. The new drink was christened with the slogan of the Cuban independence movement: Cuba Libre, which translates to “Free Cuba”.
So, uh, just a rum and Coke, right?
Technically, yes, but there’s a difference between your buddy splashing a couple shots of Captain Morgan into a tall glass of RC Cola. Some say that the lime makes all the difference for a Cuba Libre. Others go further, advising that it be light rum topped off with cola in addition to the lime, an essential ingredient that takes a simple rum-and-Coke order to the Cuba Libre level. In fact, Coca-Cola ceased importation into Cuba after the U.S. embargo of 1960, so a true Cuban-made Cuba Libre is now often prepared with the domestic product tuKola.
If you’re following International Bartenders’ Association (IBA) guidelines, fill a highball glass with ice then pour in 5 centiliters of light rum, 12 centiliters of cola, and a centiliter of fresh lime juice. Garnish with a lime wedge and serve with a song that will set you in the right mood…
How to Get the Look
An evening out on the town provides a gentleman the rare appropriate opportunity to wear an all-black suit, particularly one made from an interesting suiting like Michael Corleone’s shiny mohair or silk.
- Black mohair-blend suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton poplin shirt with point collar, front placket, and 1-button rounded cuffs
- Black tie
- Black leather belt with rounded gold-toned single-prong buckle
- Black calf leather derby shoes
- Black silk socks
- Omega Constellation yellow gold wristwatch with round white dial on gold bracelet
- Gold wedding band, left ring finger
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the series… and have a very healthy, safe, and happy new year!
I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!