Like everyone else in the world, I was hopelessly hooked by The Godfather and marveled at its master craftsmanship. There's very little that can be said now that hasn't already been said before about the film, particularly with the many ways it can be viewed, i.e., a critique of America and American capitalism, a multi-generational immigrant saga about making it in the New World, or a story about the corruption of power, etc. I think most people just get swept away by the themes inside its grand-opera framework, which could be found in many 19th century Italian operas: honor, loyalty, betrayal, and revenge. Almost all Italian operas involve honor and revenge – think of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor; think of the curse, the father’s honor, and revenge in Rigoletto; think of Amneri’s thirst for revenge in Aida; or think of Iago’s treachery in undoing his enemies in Otello. And, of course, the third act climax of Part III literally presents an opera about Sicilian folk justice in Cavelleria Rusticana.
Personally, though, I've always been fascinated by its openly symbolic contrasts: personal vs. business, façade vs. reality, the bright exterior of the family wedding vs. the dark interior of the Don’s office where bad men discuss evil deeds, and ritual vs. chaos, which were of course, the murders that were intercut with scenes of normalcy, i.e., the baby’s baptism (I), Michael in his boathouse (II), and the performance of the opera (III). Not only that, I loved the contrasts found within the characters, especially Michael Corleone.
Not long ago, friends and I conducted a study on Character Depth and we viewed characters through two specific angles:
- A believable contradiction in the character’s personality
- Depth through Cast Design
And with this view in mind, here’s what I wrote of Michael Corleone:
“He was the best and the brightest of the Corleone brothers. He was the family hero, the most respectable son of Don Vito Corleone, who had the highest hopes for Michael in the 'legitimate world.' But when his father was shot, Michael could not keep himself from getting mixed-up in the family business. Inevitably, he took over. What followed was his freefall into a bottomless corruption. While he once distanced himself to Kay from the ways of his family, Michael eventually grew to embody the worst of everything his family represented. He loved his family dearly. Family was the most important thing in the world to him. Yet, he was so vengeful, he would kill his own brother, Fredo. He was sane and mad, kind and cruel, powerful and weak. He was a masterful, strategic thinker blinded by vengeance. He would publicly renounce Satan and all of his works at the baptism of his godson and promise that he would protect that child from the wickedness of the world while outside his men murdered all of his enemies. To Kay he was loving and tender, then callous and even sadistic. He could negotiate with anyone, but yet he could not talk to Kay. In that one crucial moment when he agreed to be honest with Kay and tell her about his business, he lied. He used corrupt methods to muscle his family into a legitimate life, thereby sealing his family in a permanent state of corruption. He made so much money he could invest in a multi-national conglomeration like Mobiliare, but yet, he brought his own family to ruin. He lost his marriage, lost his daughter, lost all of his brothers, tried to escape that life, could not find redemption, and in the end, death followed him everywhere. And he died alone.”
The first time I was given the opportunity to read the now famous March 29, 1971,
For example, following Johnny Fontane’s arrival at the wedding, he sings his first song. Then we read:
JOHNNY finishes the song and the CROWD screams with delight. They call out for another when DON CORLEONE appears.
My Godson has come three thousand
miles to do us honor and no one
thinks to wet his throat.
At once a dozen wine glasses are offered to JOHNNY, who takes a sip from each as he moves to embrace his GODFATHER.
I kept trying to call you after my
divorce and Tom always said you
were busy. When I got the Wedding
invitation I knew you weren't sore
at me anymore, Godfather.
Can I do something for you still?
You're not too rich, or too famous
that I can't help you?
I'm not rich anymore, Godfather,
and...my career, I'm almost washed
He's very disturbed. The GODFATHER indicates that he come with him to the office so no one will notice. He turns to HAGEN.
Tell Santino to come in with us.
He should hear some things.
They go, leaving HAGEN scanning the party looking for SONNY.
In the movie, we see this very briefly without any dialogue. (MOS as it is sometimes called in the biz, meaning “without sound,” which originated from Eric von Stroheim who would tell his crew, “Ve’ll shoot dis mid out sound.”) In any case, it was a good cut. Did we need to hear any of those words? Absolutely not. The fact that Johnny had probably returned because he was “in trouble” was already set up by an off-hand comment from Tom Hagen and then paid off immediately with the cut to Johnny slouched on Don Corleone’s desk.
Let me ask a question - what’s the Inciting Incident of The Godfather?
As we all know, the Inciting Incident is that event that propels the story forward, that sends the protagonist on his or her journey; it’s the incident that as McKee writes, “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” Most of the screenwriting books will stress to newbie writers to place the Inciting Incident as early as possible, and preferably within the first ten pages, and then you take the story quickly into an Act One climax by about page 25-30. I believe Blake Snyder places the Inciting Incident on his Beat Sheet at page 12.
So what’s the Inciting Incident and when does it occur?
Is it Connie’s wedding in the beginning? No. That’s a subplot designed to introduce us to all those many characters. How about the arrival of Michael Corleone? No, because it didn’t really upset the balance of things in the family. Unquestionably, the Inciting Incident is when Don Vito Corleone gets gunned down in a street and that would not occur until 45 minutes into the film. We aren’t even made aware of Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo and his drug business until 33 minutes into the film. The meeting (and the Don’s rejection) ends at 40 minutes, and then the Godfather is gunned down at 45 minutes.
Because Coppola followed a more operatic structure, all of the subplots are introduced first and the Inciting Incident IS the Act One climax. What follows in Act II is the cinematic equivalent of a “real page turner” with such evenly paced plot turns that I still marvel at its disciplined writing.
The Godfather taught me some great lessons in exposition. This particular aspect of dialogue is one that, next to subtext, writers experience the most difficulty. Do you remember the scene at the wedding early in the film in which Michael told Kay the story about his father and Luca Brasi and the offer that couldn’t be refused?
Here’s an earlier version:
Once upon a time, about fifteen
years ago some people wanted to
take over my father's olive oil
business. They had Al Capone send
some men in from Chicago to kill my
father, and they almost did.
My Father sent Luca Brasi after
them. He tied the two Capone men
hand and foot, and stuffed small
bath towels into their mouths.
Then he took an ax, and chopped one
man's feet off...
Then the legs at the knees...
Michael you're trying to scare me...
Then the thighs where they joined
Michael, I don't want to hear
Then Luca turned to the other man...
Michael, I love you.
...who out of sheer terror had
swallowed the bath towel in his
mouth and suffocated.
The smile on his face seems to indicate that he is telling a tall story.
I never know when you're telling me
I told you you wouldn't like him.
This version serves one and only one function – to establish that Luca Brasi is a very scary guy. This had to be set up so that we can feel the Corleones' vulnerability after Luca Brasi’s been killed by Sollozzo’s men. Here, though, Coppola and Puzo tried to be cute by trying to make a connection with real world mobster Al Capone. For one thing, a real world connection like that betrays the operatic style of mythology they were trying to create. Second, the version in the film that I’m sure you know well in which Michael tells Kay how his father and Luca helped Johnny's career by putting a gun to that band leader’s head and telling him that either his brains or his signature would wind up on the contract, served MULTIPLE PURPOSES. It not only set up how scary Luca Brasi is but it integrates Johnny more into the story. It also defines how scary Don Vito Corleone really is, despite his charisma, and it introduces the phrase “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” which has a huge payoff with Brando a couple of scenes later.
It also served one other function - it created a crucial moment in the relationship between Michael and Kay, because he tells her, "That's my family, Kay, that's not me."
And so, what I took away from that lesson was that exposition must be absolutely integral to the story in a variety of ways and hopefully, setup multiple payoffs.
A few other random thoughts:
* For a time, I used to obsess over the various motifs that ran through the film, particularly the use of oranges, which were symbols of death. Don Vito Corleone tried to buy some oranges just before he was gunned down. He also put an orange in his mouth just before he died. In Part II, I think you could see oranges when Johnny Ola visited Michael near the beginning of the film. Michael also sucked on an orange when he had a serious discussion with Hagen and company about killing Hyman Roth. And of course, Michael was holding an orange when he died in that final scene of Part III. There were quite a few other motifs involving fish, automobiles, wine, water, and thunder. Thanks to The Godfather, it’s a habit of mine to incorporate rich symbolism into my own stories.
* A lot of writers would try fancy schticks to convey the idea that a particular character is powerful, especially through excessive talk or a huge office. But in the opening shot, I am still moved by the simplicity of how easily Coppola conveyed to the world that Don Corleone is a powerful man. He was not in a huge office, and the Don didn’t have to say anything special to prove how powerful he was. We knew it from the way Amerigo Bonasera poured his heart out to the man in front of him and begged for justice and with the way the camera would pan back, and we would look at Bonasera over Brando’s shoulder.
* The dialogue has a poetic quality that elevates it above realism. It’s like they were able to take ethnic dialect and elevate it to this syntax of opera librettos. In other words, the dialogue and mannered phrases operate at a theatrical level and display a kind of operatic loftiness, which no one else has been able to achieve at that level. And that poetry in words is reinforced all the more when they speak Italian.
* The ending is a montage, is it not? Wouldn’t the montage be formatted differently in a contemporary spec? Does this not make you wonder if the montage is by definition the very height of cinema? Because this was high emotion, rich visual contradictions, surprising action, superb payoffs, and it’s done almost wordlessly through music.
While The Godfather is one of my favorite scripts, I'm going to post another article tomorrow about another Coppola script I return to again and again because it failed - The Godfather Part III.