It’s difficult to pick the best scene from the 1972 classic The Godfather—Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s masterpiece is filled with one iconic moment after another. But an argument can be made for the restaurant scene where young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kills rival gangster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and corrupt police captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Today, I’ll look at this scene and talk about why I think it works in my humble opinion, specifically focusing on the use of sound and music.
Here’s a quick rundown of the story up to that point: the Corleones, led by patriarch Vito (Marlon Brando), are a Mafia family. However, youngest son Michael is not a part of the family business. He is an Ivy League-educated, World War II hero and has a “legitmate” future. But after conflicts arise with rival gangsters that leads to an assassination attempt on Vito Corleone, Michael volunteers to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey during a meeting where the three are to talk about a truce. This is Michael’s first brush with the family business. He has never killed before and has now stepped forward to murder two men. This is a key moment for Michael and the film—he is willing to sacrifice everything for his family. There is no turning back after this.
In The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations, his book-length interview with famed film and sound editor Walter Murch (who served as post-production consultant on The Godfather), the two discuss Coppola’s approach to this scene and I’ll be quoting liberally from their insightful interview.
The scene opens at Louis’ Restaurant, a small Italian establishment in the Bronx. Michael has been brought here by Sollozzo and McCluskey because it is a safe, public place to meet. Previously, Michael has been told that a gun will be planted in the restroom behind the toilet and at some point, he should excuse himself, go to the restroom, find the gun and “come out shooting.”
As the three sit down, the tension is created by two questions—will the innocent Michael we’ve come to know really kill these two men? Will the gun really be in the restroom?
Coppola makes two main choices with the sound to create the tension he wants—he chooses not to score the scene with music (the music doesn’t come in until the very end, after the murders have been committed) and he exaggerates key sound effects to heighten and reflect Michael’s emotional state.
Which isn’t to say the same sort of tension can’t be created in a more traditional way. Check out this clip from Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1952 Western High Noon. Gary Cooper is the idealistic sheriff who refuses to back down from the film’s villain who is coming in on the noon train to kill him. When Cooper turns to his fellow citizens for help, he is rejected and is forced to stand alone. As the noon train is pulling into the station, the film cuts back and forth between Cooper, a clock and the other townspeople as they anxiously wait for the big confrontation.
Zinnemann employs a traditional structure to create this scene—the suspenseful music that builds as the images snake toward the climax, the cutting back and forth to show the faces of the various characters as they wait for the inevitable and the ever-present clock reminding us that time is running out. It’s an incredibly tense scene that uses all these traditional elements brilliantly. But Coppola is almost taking an opposite tact to create the level of tension his scene requires.
Coppola’s scene starts off very quietly. The first sound we really hear is the pop of the cork being twisted out of a wine bottle. It’s an exaggerated sound—much louder than anything else that we’d be hearing inside the restaurant, but it sets the tone of the scene—on a subconscious level, the audience is being told to listen carefully.
Then, as McCluskey eats, Sollozzo and Michael start conversing in Italian, but the film provides no subtitles for their lengthy dialogue so the audience has no idea what they’re saying (unless you know Italian).
Murch explained to Ondaatje why Coppola made this choice: “It is very bold, even today, to have an extended scene between two main characters in an English-language film speaking another language with no translation. As a result you’re paying much more attention to how things are said and the body language being used, and you’re perceiving things in a very different way. You’re listening to the sound of the language, not the meaning.”
The audience also already knows what this meeting is about—Michael and Sollozzo are trying to reach a truce. That’s not what matters. What’s important is Michael’s emotional and psychological state. Because the dialogue is in a foreign language and therefore “unimportant,” we can focus our full attention on Pacino’s amazing performance. Pacino has to pull off a very difficult feat here—he must convey to the audience his nervousness and doubt while simultaneously conveying to the characters in the scene that nothing is out of the ordinary. The way that Michael glances down, the way his shoulders slightly sag, the frustration in his eyes when his Italian fails him—Pacino creates a subtly physical performance that brilliantly captures the character’s state without giving anything away to the other characters.
When Michael excuses himself to go to the restroom and searches for the gun, we hear the sound of a subway train pass by. We don’t see the train but because this is the Bronx, we accept it as part of the natural soundscape. So far, the only two sounds Coppola has chosen to emphasize are the popping of the wine cork and subway train. Both effects will pay off in the next scene.
Michael returns to the table and sits down. Already, he has broken one of the rules he has been told to follow—to come out of the restroom shooting. But instead, he sits and we wonder if he’s really going to go through with it. As Sollozzo once again speaks in unsubtitled Italian, the camera stays on Michael and slowly tracks in on him. It’s a repeat of a camera move we saw a couple of scenes earlier when Michael first proposes that he should be the one to kill these two men. In both instances, it’s as if the camera is moving in closer and trying to peer into this man’s soul—who is he really? Is he really the man we thought he was?
As Sollozzo talks, once again we hear the sound of the train passing outside. The sound is very loud–almost drowning out everything else in the room (The scene from High Noon referenced above also climaxes with the sounds of an unrealistically loud train). Murch explained this choice: “It’s metaphorical, in that…the sound of the train is played so abnormally loud that it doesn’t match what we’re looking at, objectively. For a sound that loud, the camera should be lying on train tracks.”
That’s when Michael leaps to his feet and shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey—the pop of the gunshots recalling the pop of the earlier wine cork; almost suggesting the fate of these two men were decided at the moment they first sat in their seats.
The two men are dead. Michael freezes. He doesn’t know what to do next. Previously, he was instructed to drop the gun and casually walk out. There is a moment of tension when we are again unsure if he will go through with this. But he finally makes for the door and throws the gun away. That’s when the operatic music starts.
Murch explains why the music doesn’t come in until the very end of the scene: “It’s a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than the device that creates that emotion. Music in The Godfather is almost always used this way…Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There’s no question you can induce a certain emotion with music—just like steroids build up a muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.”
The other function the operatic music performs by coming in after Michael has committed the killings is that it comments on Michael himself. The music is telling us that this idealistic young man has now, out of his own free will, sacrificed his own innocence. Yes, he’s done this because he thinks it’s what will save his family, but as we will soon learn, he has taken the first step in ultimately destroying his family.
Here is the last section of the scene, starting from the point where Michael enters the restroom to retrieve the gun: