Other posts in this series:
The Godfather: 1. Coppola's Decline of a Family; 2. "I Believe in America"; 3. Enough Time / The Godfather Part II: 4. The Horizon of Time; 5. "Fruit of Thy Womb"; 6. Revolutions; 7. Between Brothers / 8. Intermezzo: "Time, Who Eats His Own Young" / The Godfather Part III: 9. "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"; 10. "The Body Cries Out" / 11. Coda: My Debt to The Godfather
Sollozzo and his contact, the corrupt police official Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), want to set a meeting with Michael to make the peace. As Santino and Tom discuss what they want to accomplish with the meeting – keeping business in the foreground before getting overwhelmed by what’s “personal” – the camera slowly moves in on the contemplative Michael. “Get our informers to find out where it’s going to be held. We insist that it’s a public place – a bar, a restaurant – someplace where there’s people so I feel safe. They’re going to search me when I first meet them, right? So I can’t have a weapon on me then. But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me…then I’ll kill them both.”
Michael’s plan creates a stir of laughter, given that he’s the “nice college boy” who is probably only bitter about McCluskey punching him in the face the night before. But the events at the hospital have altered Michael’s priorities. He understands that Sollozzo’s mode of operation rests on the endgame of “killing pop.” It’s anathema to gun down a police captain, an action that would make the Corleone family outcasts with their political alliances. But Michael is exhibiting a rationale that will stay with him in the future. Who says you can’t kill a particular person? Why not? Michael clarifies that McCluskey is a “dishonest cop” and his murder, framed in the court of public opinion given the Corleones’ contacts to newspapermen on their payroll, would be a “fantastic story” about a man “who got what was coming to him.” “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
The double assassination of Sollozzo and McCluskey is Michael Corleone’s baptism, graduating him into the family, the mist of blood behind Sollozzo’s head an unforgettable anointing. The outside world sonically evaporates amidst Michael’s priority of murder, a subway drowning out what he hears moments before carrying out his task (and something that is paralleled at the end of Godfather III, when Michael’s scream of despair is stolen by the music of Mascagni). Still uncertain of himself and fraught with anxiety, we notice how he doesn’t listen to Clemenza’s instructions for carrying out the deed. He sits back down after re-emerging from the restroom (where the gun has been planted behind a chain-box toilet), whereas he was instructed to come out of the restroom blasting, two shots in the head apiece, and then immediately letting the gun slip down his side. He lingers a little too long during the aftermath, then rushes out too quickly, his arms raised too highly when the gun drops, drawing more attention to him than necessary.
With Michael’s “baptism,” he undergoes another kind of sustained ritual of immersing himself in his family’s past, being exiled to Sicily and hidden by Vito’s old friend from Palermo, Don Tommisino. He will remain in hiding for more than a year as a mob war transpires in New York; he marries the beautiful daughter of a nobleman, Apollonia, and in a sense becomes more Sicilian than American, such a stark contrast to the character we met nearly 85 minutes before. Michael’s change of character disturbs the ailing Vito, who is despondent when Santino that it was Michael who shot Sollozzo and McCluskey. Though the godfather had plans for his youngest and most intelligent son that conflicted with Michael’s personal pursuits, criminality – the necessary evil that Vito made a profession as a means of protecting his family – was not what he envisioned. Vito’s sad face, looking out the window, dissolves into a wide shot of the Sicilian countryside, the landscape of his birth and original struggles, the historical stage that laid the causal groundwork for his family’s destination.
Michael’s Sicily of 1946 is a beautiful wasteland, where all the men “are dead from vendettas,” the locals longing to go abroad with the American armed forces patrolling the empty streets since the recent end of World War II. This episode of Michael’s exile displays one of the trilogy’s strengths: its sense of time’s weight, the erosion of a locale undergoing the process of history. Places in The Godfather films bear an authenticity precisely because how delicately Coppola handles history and its ornaments. Coppola’s cultural heritage as an Italian-American, the grandchild of immigrants, suffuses every frame of the films; the wedding sequence plays with the authenticity of an elaborate home movie. So good is Coppola at handling this aspect of The Godfather that he ruined the Romanticism of Italian mafia films that were to come, such as John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985). Only Scorsese’s anthropological street films and, strangely, British director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997) are so successful when dealing with the cultural sense of the mafia.
This Sicilian section of Part I is the most romantic period of Michael’s life. He is like a man drifting through a dream of his culture’s past, assuming a more detached identity removed from the American War Hero or Joe College idealism that served as enablers of a youthful rebellion. The dream is interrupted, though, with news from home of Santino’s murder, and then the killing of Apollonia, who dies from a car bomb intended for Michael, planted by the bodyguard Fabrizio. Had Michael not killed Sollozzo, would have Santino died? Would have Apollonia? People he loves are killed for his transgressions, a trait that will woefully follow him into the future. The death of Apollonia, whose name suggests a being born out of a myth or dream, crashes Michael to earth after his absorption in Timelessness. The realities of New York re-emerge. When he returns home, Michael is more cold, shrewd, and ruthless than his father perhaps ever was.
The differences between Vito and Michael can be analyzed in how the two godfathers deal with Santino’s death. Vito learns about Santino’s death from Tom, who has been cautiously prepping for the relay of bad news. Nino Rota’s score plays in low strings as the don approaches his stepson and consigliore. “They shot Sonny on the causeway,” Tom says. “He’s dead.” Vito slowly reflects, breathing deeply with great emotion. “I want no inquiries made,” he says. “I want no acts of vengeance…this war stops now.” Vito arranges a meeting with the other families and instead of looking for poetic justice he calls in Bonasera’s favor.
“I want you to use all your powers and other skills,” he tells the little undertaker. “I don’t want his mother to see him this way.” Vito reveals Santino’s bullet-strewn corpse. “Look how they massacred my boy.” He weeps during this ironic moment, as he talks to another parent whose child was “ruined” violently, but sought revenge instead of peace. Vito recognizes that there can never be any closure. During the mafia meeting, he proclaims that he will not seek revenge, as it won’t ever bring his boy back. He reasons for his position that resulted in the war’s beginning: “This drug business will destroy us in the years to come.” Narcotics, he understands, are chemicals that parasitically destroy people, making them dependent on them, which could be felt as being the more simple forms of decadent pleasure like “gambling, liquor, and even women,” things that people want but are “forbidden to them by the pezzenovante of the church.”
“Times have changed,” Don Barzini (Richard Conte) says, sitting at the table’s head, an orange visible in the fruit bowl before him (that ominous motif continues). All members of the commission want to get into narcotics makes it imperative to embrace, so Corleone must share his power. Vito’s grievance about narcotics as a parasite that will destroy the business is dismissed without much conversation. Barzini rashly nods away Vito’s argument, saying that “surely he can present a price for service” as after all, “we are not Communists.” In this system, capital exchange again trumps principles of conscience. Drugs will so then be permitted, but heavily regulated. As if against his will, Corleone is engaged in the drug business, one more necessary evil on top of his list of other evils. At the meeting’s conclusion, he fatefully swears “on the souls of my grandchildren that I will not be the one that breaks the peace we have made here today.” If a man is his family, which is the recurring idea here, then his oath does indeed doom his grandchildren when we think about the trilogy’s conclusion.
Vito’s attitude bespeaks a turns towards respectability and the retirement of violence. Michael has returned to America and molds for himself a portrait-ready life. He finds Kay, after not speaking to her for years, and proposes marriage and children. He has revised his stance on the family. “My father’s way of doing things is over, it’s finished. Even he knows that. In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. Trust me – that’s all I can tell you about my business.” This late statement is harrowing, meaning that there will be no transparency in this marriage; the smiling and amicable Michael asking Kay about her lasagna at the wedding has been replaced by the shrewd and private politician, separating home from work but not cognizant of how the two worlds go hand in hand. The family, meanwhile, exhibits American Manifest Destiny and the sentiment of “Go West, Young Man,” as Michael, heading the family, prepares moving out of New York and into the fertile terrain of Las Vegas.
At this stage in the narrative, middle child Fredo finally becomes a key player. Fredo had been dispatched to Las Vegas to learn the casino business under the wing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), a character Puzo based on the Jewish gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the architect of Las Vegas. Michael’s arrival in Vegas to meet with Fredo and Greene is met with sleazy fanfare by Fredo who, in his white coat and sunglasses, has become a loud Leisure-Suit Larry, a used-car salesman gangster. “Anything you want, kid, anything!” he tells Michael, directing the younger brother’s attention to prostitutes in the room. But Michael orders them out. The tenuous fraternal relationship is established between Michael and Fredo, as the weaker and thick-brained older brother is put in his place by the younger and shrewd one. After Michael directly, though calmly, confronts Greene about buying him out, Fredo is nonplussed. “You do not talk to a man like Moe Greene like that!” Fredo yells. Michael quietly looks at Fredo and issues the portentous words: “Fredo, you’re my younger brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” This means that Michael’s territoriality and impulse to protect his family extends beyond outside forces, his threats applicable to his own relatives.
The most important scene in detailing the transfer of power between generations was not written by Coppola and Puzo, but by Robert Towne (Chinatown). Vito, weaker both physically and mentally, advises Michael about Barzini’s strategy to have Michael assassinate with the aid of someone within the Corleone family. It’s the one moment in the film when Vito reveals his motives and gives a key to his grand intentions. “I knew Santino was going to have to go through all this…And Fredo…Fred was…But I never wanted this for you. I worked my whole life – I don’t apologize – to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I don’t apologize, that’s my life. But I thought that…when it was your time that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.” Michael dismisses this, as then he would just be “another pezzanavonte,” or member of the ruling class exploiting the weak (part of a Marxist dialectic that is fleshed out more fully in Part II’s references to revolution, with Vito usurping Fanucci and Castro’s rebels toppling Batista). “There wasn’t enough time, Michael,” Vito laments, “wasn’t enough time.” The gravity of history has pulled the Corleones away too quickly down a causal path at such rate that Vito could not hold his bearings to perfect the endgame of his original dreams. “We’ll get there, pop,” Michael says, “we’ll get there.” But the final destination of peace, power, and legitimacy, always remains slightly out-of-reach for the Corleones.
Vito dies of a heart attack while playing with Michael’s three-year-old son, Anthony, an orange (the horrible and fruity motif!) in his mouth, a scene which is a masterpiece of an actor’s improvisation (Brando concocted things at the last minute in order to finish the scene with bashful and uncooperative child actor; the movie as a whole may have suffered without the audience experiencing the mystifying Vito Corleone finally dying; the scene also serves as a beautiful and sad contrastive parallel to Michael’s lonely death, orange in hand, in Part III). The godfather dies tending his garden, watching his family, while also ironically playing what mobsters really are, a monster. The grandchild shoots his spraying hose at the fallen don, still thinking they are playing, an image that anticipates the strife that will subsequently occur within the Corleone family as members turn on one another.
Family ritual melded with business continues at the funeral, as Tessio approaches Michael about a meeting Barzini wants to arrange to straighten out any problems between the families. Tessio is pinpointed as the traitor as we see the undertaker Bonasera one last time, standing over Vito’s coffin while Michael and Tom muse how they will deal with their enemies who are smiling and offering warm condolences. Is it business? If it’s at a funeral, over a coffin, it must be personal. All transactions are muddied by emotion.
So comes the baptism sequence, a masterful creation of cross-cutting with the religious and satanic brushing uncomfortably close against each other. Michael ritually becomes the godfather to Connie and Carlo’s son, renouncing Satan, just as the heads of the five families are brutally murdered, as is Moe Greene. The baby begins crying while the Bach organ music works to its heights and the bodies fall: Clemenza shoots a Mafioso in an elevator; Moe Greene is memorably shot in the eye; hitman Willi Cicci (Joe Spinell) traps Cuneo in a revolving door and shoots him through the glass, like the victim was a caged animal; two gunmen bust into a bedroom where the “pimp” Tattaglia is killed with a young lady; and finally Barzini and his bodyguards are killed by Michael’s favorite bodyguard, dressed as a police officer, Al Neri (Richard Bright). As the water falls over the baby’s head, and the priest intones the trinity, Coppola cuts to images of the Corleone enemies’ lifeless bodies. Though these murders are understandable, and we cannot help but root for them, there is a blaring evil to them given the ingenious cross-cutting between the sacred and the profane. And then Michael’s vengeance extends to Tessio, the family friend-turned-traitor, taken away to his execution, and at last to brother-in-law Carlo.
“You have to answer for Santino, Carlo,” Michael says, hours after he stood godfather to Carlo and Connie’s new son. “Mike, you got it all wrong,” Carlo is insistent of his innocence, swearing on his kids. Michael reminds Carlo that all of the family’s enemies are dead, all business being settled. “Admit what you did,” Michael continues. “You think I’d make my sister a widow? I’m godfather to your son, Carlo.” Yet that’s just what he does. Though to an audience, an abusive prick like Carlo surely deserves to be punished, there remains something terrible and unforgiveable about Michael ordering the death of his sister’s husband. His original sentence for “giving up Santino” – being shut out of the family business, in addition to his shame – may seem like punishment enough, but Michael has other plans. It’s cathartic – just as it is haunting – to watch Carlo die, his feet busting through the windshield as Clemenza garrotes him, but then it’s heartbreaking to see Connie so distressed afterward. “You waited until papa died so no one could stop you, and then you killed him!” We can’t help but wonder if Connie is right. We can never know if Vito would have done the same thing, or if Michael only went through with it – not only this murder, but all of the murders – because his father, who swore on the souls of his grandchildren that he wouldn’t break the peace, is now dead. Within the family, the philosophy of Vito was expressed by Carmella “Mama” Corleone (Morgana King) during a dinner table episode when Santino threatened Carlo. She says to him, “Don’t interfere.”
The moral cloudiness becomes more unnerving when Kay questions Michael about Carlo’s death. “Is it true?” she asks, to which he angrily responds that she not ask him about his business. After her insistence, he allows her to question just this one time. He lies. Though reassured and happy to play the role of a good wife, Kay turns and sees her husband through a doorway that holds the contents of a universe removed from her domestic dreams. Michael’s hand is kissed by the Corleone lieutenants, and Al Neri closes the door, shutting her out. This moment demonstrates how the values of business are estranged from the values of family and love. The consequent despair can only be tragic, for a family or for a country.
The Godfather was an accidental masterpiece. It was a venture for a studio only interested in whatever it could gain financially, and the original plans for the film’s production was that it be shot as a low-budget contemporary film in Kansas City. The novel on which it is based is not necessarily impeccable literature, being itself written for money by an author afflicted with gambling debts, and whose two prior novels were failures. But in its pages are the seeds for a great film with timeless themes. The novel is the screenplay’s first draft. The director was abused by studio heads who did not want to cast his acting choices, though his tenacity resulted in him almost always getting his way (to the extent that his sister was cast in a major role and his father composed the diagetic music). The Godfather was supposed to be no longer than two hours, and ended up being three. Budgeted as a gritty modern drama, it became an impeccably detailed period piece.
It’s remained the bane of Francis Ford Coppola’s career, often derided by him as an overrated for-hire experience that was awful to make, done mainly for the money and the freedom it could possibly afford him. As we will see, The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola demonstrates how art reflects life reflects art, as his entanglement with the Corleones represents a bid for the fulfillment of his dreams similar to how Vito and Michael are engaged in criminal activity as a means for attaining goals that remain out of reach. It was never meant to be a film put on the same pedestal as the films that influenced Coppola, like The Conformist or La Strada; but Coppola still managed to create something that is artistically equal to the likes of Bertolucci, Fellini, and Bergman. The filmmaker took advantage of accidents (such as Lenny Montana not being able to memorize his lines) to create something with great verisimilitude while simultaneously being Opera and Romance. It’s Coppola’s skill with actors and also his skill with detail (like the sound effects of Luca Brasi’s footsteps squeaking in the mall, or a bottle of wine being opened) that elevates nearly every moment.