Sunday, July 20, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: The Godfather

The Story: Even as it's unspooling before your eyes the first time, you know this is a great scene. There are actually two such scenes between the Don and Michael talking over Family matters:* the first one—which was edited out of the theatrical version—is concerned with plot-points and specifics—the Don's vagueness being more pronounced, Michael's bringing up "Sicily and Sonny," the re-iteration that Michael would take the "hit" for the upcoming actions against the Five Families rather than having the Don go back on his pledge "on the souls of my Grandchildren," and ending with the Don saying "there's plenty of time to talk about that now."

This scene couldn't be more different. It's subtler, richer and puts in perspective the entire tragedy of Michael Corleone...and Don Vito. It spells out the main theme of The Godfather story—of its destroying what "might have been." It repeats specific plot-points the audience might miss from having been mentioned in passing some screen-time earlier and that would raise questions later. 

This scene also wasn't written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. The author is Robert Towne, one of the more gifted script-writers and "doctors" (and directors) Hollywood has known. That Towne was able to take so many threads—"strings," if you will—of this sprawling scenario and distill them into this rich, overarching short scene is something of a miracle of screen-writing craft. Towne gives us this transitional moment between father and son—ultimately, their last moments**—and neatly buttons up plot-points while advancing the story-line, provides information that the audience will need, gives us a deeper insight to the special bond between father and son and how their roles are reversing, and makes it so full of trivial conversational details that it feels real...and, in contrast to that "other" scene, ends it with the devastating reversal of that other unseen conversation with "This wasn't enough time, Michael."

Towne's brevity while allowing so much import belies that statement.

The Set-Up: Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), youngest and most promising of Don Vito Corleone's (Marlon Brando) male children is now "mixed up in the family business" of organized crime, now head of the Corleone Family empire.  The Don, suffering from advanced age and an earlier assassination attempt that changed everyone's lives, is now acting as advisor to his son in a time of explosive transition.



The Don, older looking now, sits with Michael.
VITO CORLEONE So Barzini will move against you first. He'll set up a meeting with someone that you absolutely trust... guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting, you'll be assassinated.
(as the Don drinks from a glass of wine as Michael watches him)
VITO CORLEONE I like to drink wine more than I used to.
VITO CORLEONE Anyway, I'm drinking more...
MICHAEL It's good for you, Pop.
(after a long pause)
VITO CORLEONE Your wife and children. Are you happy with them?
MICHAEL Very happy...
VITO CORLEONE That's good.
VITO CORLEONE I hope you don't mind the way I...I keep going over this Barzini business...
MICHAEL No, not at all...
VITO CORLEONE It's an old habit.
VITO CORLEONE I spent my life trying not to be careless.
VITO CORLEONE Women and children can be careless, but not men.
VITO CORLEONE How's your boy?
MICHAEL He's good.
VITO CORLEONE You know he looks more like you every day.
MICHAEL(smiling) He's smarter than I am. Three years old, he can read the funny papers
VITO CORLEONE (laughs) Read the funny papers.
VITO CORLEONE Oh...well...
VITO CORLEONE, I want you to arrange to have a telephone man check all the calls that go in and out of here because...
MICHAEL I did it already, Pop.
VITO CORLEONE Ya know, cuz it could be anyone...
MICHAEL Pop, I took care of that.
VITO CORLEONE Oh, that's right. I forgot.
MICHAEL (reaching over, touching his father) What's the matter? What's bothering you?
(after the Don doesn't answer)
MICHAEL I'll handle it. I told you I can handle it, I'll handle it.
VITO CORLEONE(as he stands) I knew that Santino was going to have to go through all this.
VITO CORLEONE And Fredo...well...
(after he sits besides Michael)
VITO CORLEONE Fredo was...well.
VITO CORLEONE But I never...I never wanted this for you.
VITO CORLEONE I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family.
VITO CORLEONE And I refused to be a fool...
VITO CORLEONE ...dancing on the string, held by all those...
VITO CORLEONE ...bigshots.
VITO CORLEONE I don't apologize, that's my life but I thought that...that when it was your time that...that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone, or something...
MICHAEL Another pezzonovante...***

VITO CORLEONE ...this wasn't enough time, Michael. Wasn't enough time...
MICHAEL We'll get there, Pop.
MICHAEL We'll get there...
(after kissing Michael on the cheek)
VITO CORLEONE Now listen. Whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting –
VITO CORLEONE - he's the traitor. Don't forget that.

The Don is with Michael's son, Anthony.
The Godfather 
Words by Robert Towne (and Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola)
Pictures by Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Video.

* Don't remember two?  Probably because the first was cut from the theatrical version. It aired as part of "The Godfather Saga" when Coppola edited I and II chronologically for airing on NBC decades ago.  It was an interesting experiment, and fascinating to see all the "bits" that had been edited for time, the "Novel for Television" mini-series concept having proved that people would watch an extended story over a series of days if it had some value, ala Rich Man, Poor Man and QBVII. But, the chronological presentation destroyed the intricate cross-cutting of Part II, which showed the parallel paths of Godfather and Son, as they made their business paths in the world of organized crime: the one, protecting and solidifying his family; the other, losing it in his bid to "protect."  Despite the fascinating pieces only previously rumored about—the hospital visit to The Don's old consigliere, a visit in old time New York by the Don to a gun-smith named Coppola, whose son Carmine (the director's father and music supervisor for the series) plays a flute in the background, Kay (Diane Keaton) lighting candles for Michael's soul, and Coppola's substituting Robert De Niro's voice for Marlon Brando's during the initial  zoom shot of undertaker Bonasera's request on the Don's wedding day—the shorter theatrical versions feel like more complete films.

** This scene will dissolve to the Don's death scene—itself, something of a miracle in film-making that almost didn't happen. The Don's death was vaguely scripted, not really worked out, and Coppola on the day of filming was running out of time, sun-light and being pressured by studio reps to just forget the scene, rather than risk going beyond Union mandates for the crew. Coppola held fast, and was able to shoot just enough footage to make the scene, one that was totally dependent on the improvisational skills of his star, Marlon Brando, in dealing with the child actor on-set. That scene is haunting, metaphoric, almost miraculous in what it conveys, while being created under pressure.  Astounding craftsmanship on both sides of the camera. 

*** What is Michael saying here? That's a bit controversial. Literally, what he's saying is "pezzo da novanta"—"Another piece of ninety," referring to a 90mm artillery cannon—a "big shot." But, given the context and Pacino's inflection, he's being charitably dismissive of the Don's hopes to attain legitimate power. "Senator Corleone? Governor Corleone?"  "Just another big-shot."

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