Monday, April 30, 2012

"If I Wanted to Kill You, You'd Be Dead Already": Godfather Analysis Part VI

Go to Part V: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."

I have argued that Pulp Fiction, despite what most people believe, is not actually a very violent film. I stick strongly to that belief. I don’t want to say the same thing about The Godfather because I believe it is rife with violence, but it is worth noting that the first violent scene (the garroting of Luca Brasi) comes 42 minutes into the film. This suggests that violence exists in the film only when necessary. It places the focus on family (the subject of the opening wedding celebration), on loyalty (the subject of the meetings Don Corleone has, as well as the help he provides Johnny Fontane), and it is about business (the subject of the meeting with Virgil Sollozzo).

The fade out from the scene in Corleone’s office to the fade in of the next section indicates a passage of time. Coppola opens with an establishing shot of a department store and a New York street scene decorated for Christmas. The music cue is the popular tune, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Next we see Kay and Michael exiting a store carrying gifts and discussing what they’ve bought for the members of Michael’s family. These two shots set up two important points: 1) it is now December, about three months have passed since the meeting with Sollozzo; 2) Kay and Michael are separate from the world we’ve seen up to this point and separate from the violence that is about to take place.

We then go to shots of Luca preparing himself in his apartment. We still hear the Christmas tune playing on a radio in Luca’s apartment, tying this scene chronologically to the last. This is happening at the same time that Michael and Kay are shopping. Then we get a third establishing shot, this time of Vito exiting his office and telling Fredo to have Paulie get the car. Fredo tells him that Paulie called out sick so he, Fredo, will have to get the car himself. This sets up the assassination attempt on Vito and the reason for his lack of a real bodyguard as he leaves his office.

Outside looking in as Luca meets with Bruno Tattaglia
Luca goes to meet with Bruno Tattaglia and Virgil Sollozzo. Sollozzo offers him a deal to join the Tattaglia family and offers his hand to seal it. Luca won’t shake Sollozzo’s hand so as not to betray his loyalty to Don Corleone. Notice here how Bruno’s and Sollozzo’s expressions change, indicating they know it’s a set up. Luca simply takes out a cigarette and then Bruno, smiling, leans in to light it for him. In a brief moment we see Bruno’s eye line shift to look past Luca. He’s looking at the assassin who will garrote Luca in a moment. There is nearly 20 seconds of complete silence (the only exceptions being the sounds of the lighter and a mumbled Italian word from Luca after his cigarette is lit). There is a palpable sense of danger in the silence coupled with the way the shots are arranged. In a moment, there is a rapid-fire succession of cuts as Luca’s left hand is held down, Sollozzo brings a knife down, Luca’s right hand is pierced to the bar, and a man with a garrote begins strangling Luca from behind. The scene symmetrically closes as it began – with an outsider’s perspective looking through the glass wall into the bar at the action taking place inside.
The symmetric close to Luca's death scene.
 From the murder of Luca we go immediately to Tom exiting a store and being confronted by Sollozzo and asked to join him for a talk. Sollozzo won’t let Tom leave, but reassures him that he has nothing to worry about because he could have killed him already if he’d wanted to. In the next shot we go back to Vito, now walking out onto the street and telling Fredo to wait because he wants to buy some fruit. By this point, the audience should be expecting something will happen to Vito. We’ve just seen his loyal bodyguard murdered and Tom Hagen taken ‘prisoner’ and we know that Vito’s usual driver is out sick. The following sequence of cuts is a great example of how to build suspense using editing and sound – similar to the sequence leading to Luca’s murder. First there is a long shot of Vito buying fruit. We are reminded that Fredo is already in the car and Vito is unprotected in the open. Cut to a shot of two men stepping off the sidewalk, their hands in their pockets. Cut to a close up of Vito glancing up. Cut to a close up of the gunmen’s feet beginning to run accompanied by only the sound of footsteps. Cut back to a close up of Vito, who bolts from the frame as the sound of footsteps continues. Cut back to a close up of the running feet with sound of footsteps, then the reveal – a close up of the two guns drawn – still with the sounds of running footsteps. Cut to a long shot from the fruit stand as Vito trips and stumbles into the street yelling for Fredo. Cut to an extreme high angle shot looking down as Vito falls against the hood of the car and the two gunmen open fire on him. In the end, Fredo fumbles his gun and fails to protect his father, who falls into the street apparently dead. The gunmen run off and Fredo falls to the sidewalk crying.

Prior to this sequence the average shot length through the film had been about 9.5 seconds. This segment has an average shot length of about 5.7 seconds – far faster. Of course it’s common practice that action sequences use fast cuts, very often to conceal special effects and methods for simulating violence, but also to create a sense of excitement by quickening the pace. All those things are true here, but it is not only the action sequences that have a quickened pace. The sequence contains 63 shots in total. The 9 longest of those range from 14 to 32 seconds in length and 6 of those are establishing shots of some sort: Kay and Michael walking together (14 seconds); Luca preparing in his apartment (23 seconds); Vito asking Fredo to have Paulie get the car (20 seconds); Luca walking down the hallway of the hotel where he will meet Sollozzo (17 seconds); Luca continuing in the hallway and entering the bar (19 seconds); Tom exiting a store and being confronted by Sollozzo (32 seconds). The other three are the opening dialogue between Luca and Bruno (15 seconds); Vito buying fruit (15 seconds); Vito sliding off the car to the ground (14.5 seconds). The remainder of the shots clock in at 10 seconds or less and about 80% of those are 5 seconds or less. Overall the sequence moves at a much faster pace providing more tension, more excitement and signaling a complete change in pace for the film. The plot, which was set up in the previous sequence, is now beginning to roll.


  1. Arguably the horse's head in Woltz's bed is the first violent scene, earlier than Luca Brasi's murder (certainly it is a bloody scene), but this doesn't conflict with your point.
    It is probably significant that the singer whose voice we hear on the radio singing about a merry little Xmas is none other than Johnny Fontane, the Don's godson. Presumably, exactly as both Fontane and Woltz had predicted, Fontane's career has been revived--with thanks to Don Corleone's offer that Woltz couldn't refuse.

  2. The horse head scene is graphic, not violent.

  3. By the way, Nathan, thanks for reading and thanks for your useful comments.

  4. That's interesting about the song. I thought it was a real life crooner's version. IMDb lists it as Bing Crosby, but I can't find any evidence that Crosby recorded that song in the forties. Sinatra did, but I just listened again and it doesn't sound like Sinatra. It does sound a bit like Crosby, but much more like Al Martino. So you might be right.

  5. You're welcome, Jason. I'm enjoying reading your scene-by-scene analyses of my favorite movie.
    I feel quite confident that the crooner singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas" is none other than Al Martino, in his role as Fontane, enough to bet my house on it. (It sure ain't Crosby or Sinatra--I'm a fan of both.) The TV mini-series "Saga," which includes several additional scenes, includes the entire song. Compare it also with Martino's Xmas album (which, btw, doesn't include this particular song). The radio crooner in the film is definitely Martino.