A movie executive, Jack Woltz, awakens in bed to find himself covered in blood, the severed head of his beloved horse tucked into the blanket, by his feet; the new boss of the Corleone crime family, Michael, holds his niece in his arms, in the sacred baptism ritual, even as he is currently performing a cleansing of a different sort, as hits on all of his major enemies are simultaneously being carried out, as per his orders; a nine-year-old mute Sicilian boy, Vito Andolini (Michael’s father, whose last name will be changed to “Corleone,” the town of his birth, at Ellis Island), watches as his mother, desperate to protect him, holds a knife to the throat of the local Mafia chieftain, Don Ciccio, and is then gunned down by the man’s subordinates; Michael, overcome with emotion, grabs his traitorous brother, Fredo, and kisses him on the lips, telling him, “You broke my heart!”: classic scenes such as these, from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, comprised of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, have become forever etched into the minds of modern film enthusiasts, becoming a seemingly ubiquitous presence in the American film canon. With the first two Godfather films, Coppola accomplishes the enormous feat of producing a work that functions both as cinema and literature, elevating the saga of the Corleone family above its origins, a bestselling but artistically undistinguished novel by Mario Puzo. Through the marriage of such literary techniques as symbolism, thematic paralleling, and foreshadowing and such cinematic techniques as cross-cutting, flashbacks, and misc en scene, Coppola creates a dense, enduring film that is specific in time period but timeless in its scope, and which, like all great works of literature, encourages the viewer to return to it numerous times, as more details and thematic connections draw into clearer focus on each reviewing.
The first film, in particular, is structured like a novel: Coppola divides the narrative into sequences or vignettes that, despite a lack of title cards on screen, could easily each be its own self-contained story, and the most brilliant thing about this technique is that each of these sections reveals a great deal about the characters contained in it, both the main and the tertiary ones, as well as illuminating the main themes of the work. The first sequence, the prologue, is Connie, Don Vito, the Godfather’s daughter’s, wedding, which sets up the dichotomy between the Family and the family, the shadowy, secret business that goes on behind closed doors in a dark, claustrophobic office versus the sunny, cheerful wedding happening outside. Ironically, this seemingly joyous event sets into motion all of the tragedies that befall the Corleone family throughout the saga. It is easy to miss many of the subtleties in this opening sequence on first viewing. As one reviews the film repeatedly and come to know the many characters and notice details (such as Sonny’s wife demonstrating the size of her husband’s penis to her giggling female friends), all of these tiny threads assemble themselves. One notes the irony in Michael and Kay’s relationship in the first scene as contrasted to what will become of them in the future, and how both of them, the young, in-love and out of college pair, will come to lose their innocence. Michael, an outsider to the family business, will not remain that way for long.
After the first sequence that sets up all of the characters and themes, the film moves to Hollywood for a brief while, as it details Tom Hagen’s efforts to “convince” a corrupt Hollywood producer to cast Johnny Fontaine in his picture, along with the now infamous (and still, to this day, disturbing) horse’s head scene. After hearing stories of how Don Corleone makes “offers [you] couldn’t refuse,” we see this in action, but also see the amiable facade of Tom Hagen’s visit, and the dinner he has with Woltz, contrasted with what occurs if the Corleones are not mollified. Again, though, this Hollywood sequence could be a standalone short story, with two characters matching wits and culminating in a gory shock ending.
The third sequence is longer than the first two, as it contains the Tattaglia family’s attempts to convince Don Corleone to join them in the narcotics business, Don Corleone being shot by members of the Tattaglia family, and Michael’s decision to avenge the attack on his father (Interestingly, though, even this sequence has a brief sidebar, in which Paulie, a traitor, is killed. Like the other examples, this could stand alone, along with the comedic and slice-of-life element of Clemenza’s wife asking him to bring home a cannoli, and his telling his associates, after the murder to “leave the gun, take the cannoli.”). In the hospital room, Michael says five words that set the future course of his life: “Papa…I’m with you now.” Ironically, though, Papa does not want Michael with him in this way. Michael was his pride and joy, and he had always wanted him to have a legitimate career. Michael’s sense of loyalty to his father, though, is what drives him to agree to murder Solozzo and the dirty cop, McClusky, who had tried to facilitate a second assassination attempt on the Don.
The fourth sequence occurs in Italy, where Michael has fled, in order to protect his life from members of the other five families. There is a fairy tale-like quality to this section of the film, as Michael falls in love at first sight with the beautiful Apollonia, who does not speak a word of English. She is in many ways an object to him. His brief marriage to her informs his later marriage to Kay. He had once seen her as an equal, but as he becomes more immersed in the culture of the Mafia, he comes to view the wife as someone who has no business meddling in his business. Perhaps Apollonia’s death by car bomb also contributed to this. Since this film basically details Michael’s good intentions snowballing into worse and worse outcomes, perhaps he truly at first intended to protect Kay, as he had been unable to do for Apollonia. This sequence, incidentally, is interspersed with one detailing what is happening back at home, in which Sonny is killed, as the result of Connie’s husband, Carlo, setting him up.
The fifth sequence is after Michael has returned home and eventually becomes the Don of the family, after Vito’s death. This leads up to the epilogue/bookend baptism scene. The film begins with Connie’s wedding and ends with the baptism of her baby and the death of her husband. In the first scene, Don Corleone meets with people behind closed doors, which then cuts to Connie becoming a bride, and later, Michael telling Kay that he takes no part in his family’s business. The final sequence of the film is an exercise in de-evolution, as it winds down in the opposite direction. Now Connie becomes a widow, again Kay asks if Michael has followed in his family’s footsteps, to which he replies “No” (the last time, this was the truth, but this time, it is a lie), and then Michael’s metamorphosis into Don Corleone is complete. He talks with his associates behind closed doors. The door slams in Kay’s face, as much as in ours, as we are all shut out of his affairs in one of the most perfect and abrupt final shots in cinema history.
The second film is even more complex and non-linear than the first as it is, in essence, two films spliced together: one, the rise of young Vito Corleone, as he grows from a small, frightened, mute boy in Sicily to a powerful and successful Mafia boss in New York City, with a large, loving family; the other, the fall of Michael Corleone, as the pressures and demands of his job, as well as his own tragic flaws such as an unhealthy lust for vengeance, cause him to lose his family and all that his father had worked so hard to build. Coppola skillfully interweaves the two narratives—the Vito storyline based on a section from Puzo’s novel, the Michael storyline original to the film—repeatedly jumping back and forth from one timeline to the next, so that each story illuminates and adds resonance to the other. A certain melancholy pervades the earlier storyline, in particular, when one takes into account what will happen to the characters in the coming years: for example, one cannot help but feel a certain sadness in the scene where Vito, his wife, and Clemenza bounce the baby Santino on their new (stolen) rug, full of hope and joy for the future, knowing that they will one day have to bury this child, when he is gunned down at a tollbooth, and one cannot help but feel sympathy for poor Fredo, who we learn, even as a child, was a weakling, sick from pneumonia. As in all great tragedies, the rise of this family, supported by criminal means, also contains the seeds that will one day lead to its downfall. The link is brought into even deeper relief when, after Vito performs his first murder, of the evil Don Fanucci, the first action he performs upon leaving the scene of the crime and disposing of the evidence is to return to his family and hold the infant Michael in his arms.
Fittingly, the current storyline also comes about as a direct consequence of the events of the first film. Although Michael attempts to take a great deal of his father’s wisdom to heart—“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer”; “It’s business, not personal”—he fails due to his increasingly coldhearted nature and insistence on wiping out all of his enemies, rather than peacefully coexisting with them, as his father did; Vito, in fact, had gone so far as to relinquish his right for vengeance over Sonny’s death in order to make peace. Michael’s killing of all of his enemies at the end of the first film was, rather than a necessity, an act of revenge for their part in the attempted murder of his father and successful murder of his brother, Sonny. In this film, he suffers as a result of his actions, when a powerful Jewish mob boss, Hyman Roth, puts a hit out on Michael as revenge for his slaying of his good friend, Las Vegas bigwig Moe Green, in the first film. Roth also causes trouble for Michael in other areas, when a crime family he supports, the Rizzotto brothers, comes into conflict over territory with one of Michael’s men, Frank Pentangeli; Michael’s decision to remain loyal to Roth in order to secure his friendship and discover who within his own family was working with him, coupled with Roth’s double-crossing, leads Pentangeli to agree to work with the Feds in bringing down Michael’s reign. Although Michael is able to convince Pentangeli to not talk, the fact that the congressional hearings occurred in the first place points to the weakness in the Corleone family since Vito’s death and both foreshadows and is indicative of Michael’s impending downfall.
By the end of the film, Michael loses his entire family, in quick succession. Kay reveals that she has had an abortion, effectively killing the second son Michael was so eager to have, because of the unloving and even dangerous man she had watched him become. “An abortion, Michael,” she says. “Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil. I didn’t want your son, Michael. I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world. It was an abortion, Michael. It was a son. A son. And I had it killed,” a powerful and lasting act of vengeance against the man who had performed so many vengeful acts throughout his life, and from his wife of all people, whom he had shut out and suppressed for so long. As a result, he throws her out of his life. Soon after, his mother dies, and then, finally, he has his brother, Fredo—poor, helpless Fredo—killed, as an act of revenge for his part in providing information to Hyman Roth, despite the fact that he was fully aware that Fredo had no idea that Roth had been manipulating him and had intended to kill Michael, and how much Fredo loved and needed him. Besides his mother, each loss Michael suffers at the end of the film is a result of his own cruelty and/or lack of foresight.
In the final moments of The Godfather, Part II, Coppola places the film’s first proper flashback. Rather than, as before, revealing scenes to the audience, of Vito’s youth and young adulthood, that the present characters could not possibly remember and of which they are unaware, we clearly see Michael reflecting on his own past and the monster he has become, after Fredo’s death, in a scene that occurs a few years before the opening of the first film. In it, all of the Corleone children assemble for their father, Vito’s, birthday. On the surface, they are loving and happy, yet a sign of their impending doom appears, in the form of Carlo, a friend Sonny brings home to introduce to Connie, an act that will eventually lead to Sonny’s death. We also see that Michael has always been isolated from the family: he declares his intention to join the army, which greatly angers Sonny and bothers Tom, both of whom know how his father would disapprove. Vito never wanted Michael to be a part of the family business and had always imagined a great future for him, one that did not entail putting his life in danger for the United States. Michael wants to be his own man, rather than follow the course his father had laid out for him, particularly ironic since he ends up following not what his father had wanted of him but in his exact footsteps, and resents the fact that Tom has spoken to Vito about Michael’s future. Even his adopted brother seems more a part of the family than he does (which is perhaps the reason Michael will continually exclude Tom from aspects of the family business once he becomes Don)! The only person in the family who supports and wishes Michael well is Fredo, the other outcast of the family. In one respect, both are polar opposites—Michael is strong and brilliant, Fredo weak and unintelligent—yet each of these attributes contribute to both being considered as Others by the rest of the family. Although there is no dialogue to indicate it, from Coppola’s final shot of Michael pensively sitting outside in a chair, looking weathered and beaten down, we know that Michael realizes that he has killed the only family member who ever fully supported and loved him for who he was and who did not judge him.
Although one could make an argument for why Michael’s killings of his enemies at the end of the first film are justified (any of those people could have potentially become dangerous to Michael at some point in the future), none of the deaths he causes at the end of the second can be: Hyman Roth is old, has lost his power to hurt Michael, and is expected to die within the next six months from a fatal disease; Pentangeli (whom Michael has Tom Hagen convince to commit suicide) is in state’s custody for perjury; Fredo is completely harmless, has no connections, and had never intended to harm Michael in the first place. As the screen fades to black, the last image we see is the glare off of Michael’s ring, which all of his underlings habitually kiss, as a sign of respect to the symbol of the Don’s power, a power that has now shriveled up and died.∗
Throughout the films, Coppola employs a variety of literary and cinematic techniques to tell his story, one of the most important being symbolism. Arguably the most prominent recurring theme in the series is the dichotomy between the Godfather’s business and family life, symbolized through the visual motif of a door or window blocking people out, usually the women in the family, who are not allowed to know of the illegal affairs that go on behind closed doors. From the first scene of the film, when we see the Godfather’s aforementioned darkened office, the divide between the interior and exterior lives of Don Corleone is established, both through the symbol of the closed door, as well as the shuttered window, through which Vito spies Michael arriving at the wedding.
In another interesting use of the symbol, when Michael first learns that his father has been shot and is near death, he shuts Kay out of his life for the first of what will be many times. Walking together with her on the street after seeing a film—a religious film, in fact, The Bells of St. Mary—Kay points to a newspaper headline about Vito, and Michael immediately steps inside a phone booth, shutting the door behind him. Kay stands outside, asking Michael what is going on, but we do not hear her, as she does not hear Michael’s conversation with Sonny. Interestingly, Coppola sets up the frame (or misc en scene) so that her face is partially obscured by the crossed lines drawn on the phone booth’s window, making the scene reminiscent of a confessional booth, at church. This speaks not only to the recurring religious themes of the film, which I will deal with again shortly, but also establishes Kay as a symbol for Michael’s moral center and conscience (her position in the frame is that of the priest), which he blocks out the moment he first decides to avenge the assassination attempt on his father. She is the one who encourages Michael to turn towards the light, to make the family business legitimate, and she is the one who takes him to task in the second film when he does not. Throughout the films, Kay will find herself literally and symbolically on the other side of Michael’s door on numerous occasions, most famously in the aforementioned final shot of the first film, but also early in the second film when the racist Senator Geary hurls anti-Italian slurs against Michael, while in the darkness of his office, but is all smiles and joviality moments later to Kay, who sits outside the office, entertaining the senator’s wife, and then, of course, the last time we see her in the second film, when Michael, after having banished Kay from his life since finding out the truth about her abortion, discovers her visiting their children, and again slams the door in her face. This time, however, the split is permanent; whereas before, he could justify blocking out his wife, and symbolically suppressing his conscience, by saying that it was for the good of his family, now he severs and divorces his connection to his moral compass all together. Mere moments of screen time later, he will have the hit on Fredo carried out, in the last act of destruction he will have wrought on his family: again, the divide is represented by a window, through which Michael watches his brother being shot in the back.
Whereas in most instances in the Godfather films, a door or window denies a woman access to a certain, private world, early on in the second film, Vito, as a young boy, is temporarily denied access to a new world, as well, a world that, in a nice twist, is symbolically represented by a woman: the Statue of Liberty. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, Vito, sick with smallpox he must have caught on the boat, is forced to go into three months of quarantine before he can cross the border into America, the promised land. In an emotionally stirring scene, we watch the nine-year-old, sitting on a hard, wooden chair in a dingy, dark room empty of all but the chair, a worn-out bed and the boy, singing an Italian folk song and staring out the window at the Statue. The image of the Statue of Liberty is an important one in The Godfather, which recurs numerous times throughout the films, which have often been called immigrant tales, as they detail both the successful and unsuccessful ways immigrants have been able to integrate into American society. The major irony is that, although the Corleones love their newly adopted country, the only way they can sustain financial security is through illegal means; many times, the American Dream is denied to those who do not learn how to break the rules, as Vito does throughout the course of the second film. This cynical truth is beautifully illustrated in the classic scene in the first film in which Clemenza and his men drive off the highway to kill Paulie, onto a side road, surrounded on both sides by a field of tall weeds; the only visible landmark as Paulie is shot is the Statue of Liberty, far off in the distance, floating above the weeds like a reminder. She remains complicit in their actions but silent, like so many governmental figures “owned” by the Mafia. In another reference to the cost of liberty, when Vito returns to Sicily with his family late in the second film, he gives the gift of a small Statue of Liberty-shaped paperweight to an old lady—perhaps an aunt—as a gift; in the next scene, he slays the old and frail Don Ciccio, as revenge for his murder of his mother, father, and older brother so many years ago. Again, the symbol of America is juxtaposed with death and revenge.
Just as the American Dream—typically considered to be pure and ideal—stands as an ironic counterpoint to the bloody deeds of the Corleone family, so does religion, as has been displayed a number of times throughout this essay. The central gap between what the Corleones practice and what they preach is one of the most fascinating aspects of Mafia life, as it is displayed in The Godfather: on the surface, they are reverent, religious people, as we see in the numerous religious ceremonies that occur throughout the work, but at the same time, they are murderers and criminals who are able to compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives (again, like the division between the Don’s office and Connie’s wedding in the first scene) to such a degree that Michael, without a hint of irony, can renounce Satan in church, holding his infant niece in his arms, even as he is having a number of people murdered and is planning on murdering her father later that very day. Interestingly, murders will occur during religious events two other times in the first two films: Vito’s murder of Don Fanucci (his first killing) occurs as a priest is reading a mass outside, and Fredo’s demise, intercut with the deaths of Hyman Roth and Frank Pentangeli, in a deliberate echo of the baptism scene of the first film, occurs as he is saying the “Hail, Mary,” hoping to catch a fish, a symbol also related to Jesus, according to Christian symbolism. The Corleones exist in a state of purgatory between the sacred and the profane, neither side ever able to fully reconcile the other.
Besides symbolism, the other major literary techniques which Coppola uses to their full advantage are foreshadowing and thematic paralleling. The films are filled with scenes that either foretell later events or intentionally echo earlier events, in order to add more resonance and psychological depth to the story; at times, the parallel narrative of Part II makes this even more interesting, when an event “foreshadows” a chronologically later one, even though as it is placed in the film, it occurs first. For example, before Michael assassinates Solozzo and McClusky—his first murder—he goes into the restaurant’s bathroom to find a gun taped on the back of one of the old-fashioned toilets for him, and before Vito assassinates Fanucci—his first murder, years before—he retrieves his gun, which is taped to the back of a chimney; such a moment comments on the narrative trajectories of both father and son’s stories, and how the son will come to resemble the father, in action and deed. Another fascinating moment of paralleling between Michael and his father: one of Vito’s defining character traits is his speech impediment; having been nearly mute as a child, he speaks in a quiet, raspy sort of mumble. When Michael makes his first step towards following in his father’s footsteps, namely declaring his intention to kill Solozzo and McClusky to avenge their attempted hit on Vito, it is the night after McClusky had punched him hard in the jaw, and he speaks in a similar mumble due to the pain; symbolically, he is metamorphosing into his father before our eyes.
Other examples include the aforementioned instances of a door slamming in Kay’s face: the time at the end of the first film, which Michael does in order to preserve his family, as strange as that may seem, both foreshadows and parallels the time at the end of the second film, which heralds the final nail in the coffin of his marriage. The scene of the nine-year-old Vito watching Don Ciccio tell his mother that one day Vito will grow up to avenge his father and brother’s murder, before having her killed, foreshadows and parallels the scene when Vito, a grown man, does indeed return to the same spot to exact his revenge. After the hitman Luca Brazi is murdered in the first film, his killers place a dead fish in his bulletproof vest and leave it on the Corleones’ front door, as a message that they have executed him, which foreshadows Fredo’s death at the end of the second film, as he is fishing. Earlier in the film, Michael meets with Fredo, after discovering his betrayal, and tells him that he is dead to him; this scene occurs in a room with a large window, outside of which we see the lake in which Fredo will be killed, another brilliant example of foreshadowing.
All of the numerous and intricate techniques Coppola uses in The Godfather, Parts I and II, contribute to the extremely high regard with which they are held today—a few years ago, in fact, The American Film Institute placed both on their list of 100 greatest films of the twentieth century. Coppola draws from vast cinematic influences but structures and plots his film with the complexity of an epic novel, surpassing the quality, scope, and thematic resonance of the actual novel that inspired it (for example, some of the arguably greatest moments in the series occur in Michael’s storyline in Part II, which, as I mentioned before, was not in the original book). It is fitting that The Godfather begins with a wedding, as the entire production represents a perfect marriage of film and literature; despite the fact that he is working in a visual medium, rather than a text-based one, Coppola creates the cinematic equivalent of a dense tome, resonating with the same depth of theme and character today as when it was first produced, just as the works of the greatest authors continue to inspire long after their initial publications. The Godfather was released in 1972, its sequel in 1974; 33 years later, the Corleone family still matters.
*Although the third Godfather film is not nearly as distinguished or flawless a film as the first two, it does work as a satisfying conclusion to Michael’s tale. In it, we learn that Fredo’s death does have a profound effect on Michael and, as a result of being constantly haunted by his terrible action, Michael does finally make the Corleone family legitimate. Ironically, the murder of his brother, which in many ways signifies what at that moment amounts to the loss of Michael’s soul, eventually leads him to reform. As is fitting for such a tragic tale, though, Michael’s attempts to escape his past seal his doom, backfiring and leading to the death of his daughter, Mary. Fittingly, Fredo was reciting the “Hail Mary” right before being shot by Rocco.