Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Scene Of The Week: THE GODFATHER

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER has no shortage of great scenes, and this week we’re going to look at one of my favorites - Michael’s First Kill.

Irony and Contrast are two connected elements that make for a great scene. If a bad man has to do a bad thing, it’s not interesting. If a good man has to do a bad thing, *that’s* a scene! If a good man has to do something just plain evil for a good reason - that’s the stuff that makes a film memorable.

In THE GODFATHER we have three brothers vying for their father's love in order to inherit the family business - a Mafia crime family:

1) First born Sonny is strong, aggressive, combative... and won't take no for and answer. He's quick with his fists - again, we have traits that come to mind when we think of running a crime family.

2) Middle child Fredo loves drinking and gambling and women and will lie through his teeth to get what he wants. These are all traits that might be of value if he were running the criminal organization.

3) Then we come to Michael - he's studious, quiet, honorable, patriotic and could be the poster boy for traditional American family values. If you were to make a checklist of things that don't fit our image of mobster, you'd have Michael. He's completely at odds with the other characters in the film - he's NOT a criminal type at all. He's the least likely brother to be chosen to run the family... which why he is perfect for this scene.

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With Michael as the protagonist of this scene (and the film) we have a story that is constantly interesting because it has built in conflict - Michael is NOT as tough as Sonny was, he is not as duplicitous as Fredo... How can he possibly survive as head of the family? The original reason why he's eventually chosen by his father is that he is the kind of "straight-arrow" non-criminal type who can lead the family out of criminal enterprises into legitimate business. But that choice hasn’t been made yet...

Michael (Al Pacino) has returned from WW2 a hero, has a girlfriend from outside the mob world Kay (Diane Keaton) and is on course to become a legit business man. But problems begin when Sollozzo (the great Al Lettieri) wants the Corleones to finance his heroin business, and the Don (Marlon Brando) refuses to become involved in the drug trade. Sollozzo causes some very violent problems like having Don Corleone shot while buying oranges. Now *someone* needs to get revenge and stop the assault on the family once and for all. Should they send violent Sonny (James Caan) or liar Fredo (John Cazale) - people who could easily pull the trigger? Problem there is that Sollozzo and his pet cop McClusky (Sterling Hayden) *know* they can’t trust those two. But the straight arrow law abiding Michael? He’s the good son, the one even the villains can trust.

Which makes him the perfect assassin... and also the most dramatic choice. Can Michael do it? Can a good man do a bad thing? Will he break down?

These questions create lots of suspense in the scene. But the scene is *filled* with suspense. Some of that comes from the good man doing the bad thing, but there are great moments - when he can’t find the gun behind the flush tank, and then that pause at the bathroom door where he wonders if he can do this. Then, we get a whole damned conversation with Sollozzo. As the conversation goes on, we wonder if Michael will ever pull the gun and do it. Time is running out. What if they finish dinner and Sollozzo and McClusky are still alive?



Because there are no subtitles for the conversation in Sicilian (it’s kind of a silent moment with talking) here’s what they say:

SOLLOZZO: "I'm sorry..."

MICHAEL: "Leave it alone." ( or ) "Forget about it."

SOLLOZZO: "What happened to your father was business. I have much respect for your father. But your father, his thinking is old-fashioned. You must understand why I had to do that."

MICHAEL: "I understand those things..."

[Waiter brings McCluskey's veal, then exits.]

SOLLOZZO: "Now let's work through where we go from here."

MICHAEL: "How do you say... ?" [Then Michael returns to speaking English.]

[After Michael returns from the bathroom]

SOLLOZZO: "Everything all right? I respect myself, understand, and cannot allow another man to hold me back. What happened was unavoidable. I had the unspoken support of the other Family dons. If your father were in better health, without his eldest son running things, no disrespect intended, we wouldn't have this nonsense. We will stop fighting until your father is well and can resume bargaining. No vengeance will be taken. We will have peace, but your Family should interfere no longer."

The great thing about a great movie is that everything gets tied together in a single scene: this is a *plot scene*, it's also a violent scene (and this is a gangster flick), and a character scene, and a story scene. It serves many purposes in the film, and is the thing that pushes Michael to the head of the family (also, Sonny gets machine gunned to pieces, so he’s kind of out of the running). It’s a fantastic scene from two fantastic movies (there is no GODFATHER 3 in my book), and there’s a good chance we’ll look at another film from one of the films later in the series. By the way, in the First 10 Pages Blue Book expansion that I’m working on, I have articles on *both* films’ opening 10 minutes. These are great films with great beginnings... plus great scenes like this one.

As usual, scene discussion in the comments section

- Bill

4 comments:

Richard J. McKenzie said...

I particularly like the train sound effect starting about 3:50.
This symbolizes his increasingly agitated state of mind, the rush of blood, his train-wreck of thought building, building suspense.
Of course, it is in the bathroom, with outside windows, that he would hear a train, so the effect occurs naturally.

That sound occurs again as our anti-hero sits and fumes as the other guy continues to weasel out of responsibility for trying to off the guy's father by saying Italian things like "No harm, no foul, right?"

The sound was set up in a realistic manner, and then repeated when its inner meaning was understood, thus adding sound to the tics in Pacino's face indicating his bubbling volcanic (but semi-controlled) rage.
p.s. That guy is a dead shot.

Richard J. McKenzie said...

And so this scene becomes a character building opportunity for Pacino. While forces beyond his control caused a chain (or train) of events, these forces are now rushing him toward violence.

He remains in control of himself, and only needs 3 bullets to kill 2 grown males with centering forehead shots.

No clumsy spray weapon like a Tommy gun for our anti-hero.

He remains in control of himself, which is not how Sonny and Fredo behave, getting to the ultimate question of the film, why doesn't father love me best?

A mob needs control...um...because otherwise it's just a mob?

Ryan Mullaney said...

I love how Michael does the exact opposite of what he was told by Clemenza...he doesn't ask to go to the bathroom, he doesn't come out shooting, he doesn't let the gun slip to the floor unnoticed, he doesn't walk out of the restaurant...etc. This, along with his difficulty finding the gun in the bathroom, make for a very tense sequence.

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