Bright Lights Film Journal

More Damned and More Heroic: The Enigma of Michael Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather

“There’s something curiously remote and cool at the center of it, something slightly out of focus that makes this melodrama rather ambiguous and hard to assemble.”

Particularly striking about Francis Ford Coppola’s great film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s potboiler The Godfather is that despite its length, nearly three hours, the film never quite manages to tell us a whole lot. In fact, it actually seems to sidestep the very questions it provokes, especially those concerning the motivations of Michael Corleone, unusually underplayed by Al Pacino, who has tended to live pretty much over the top for the better part of his career. And much of what the movie does say vanishes from memory almost as soon as it’s passed across the screen, such as Michael’s ill-fated romance with and marriage to the Simonetta Stefanelli character during his Sicily phase — about all I had retained from my first viewing was her rather amusing death by car-bomb. So from whence, we may wonder, does all Michael’s soul-eating corruption actually derive? What’s at stake with this guy? Because Coppola’s and Puzo’s script (with uncredited work by Robert Towne) doesn’t exactly structure scenes so they zero in on any one dramatic point, often leaving the emotional underpinnings of extremely violent events either partially or wholly unexpressed, it’s easy, for instance, to miss that the Godfather referred to in the title is not really Michael’s father Don Vito Corleone, as cartoonishly portrayed by Marlon Brando, but Michael himself. The movie shows us the process by which he will come to be crowned king of the Corleone Empire so to speak. Yet few people have ever wondered much about what it all means. Coppola, according to Jon Lewis’s nifty little BFI Film Classics monograph, thought he was showing us how Michael had become a monster.1 Most people have generally assumed it’s a story making the point more or less ironically, probably less, that blood is thicker than water and family loyalty is the only thing that lasts.

In the movie’s famous opening scene Salvatore Corsitto, playing the appropriately funereal undertaker Amerigo Bonasera, a relatively unimportant character, speaks directly to the camera. Slowly it pulls out and away from his face revealing Vito Corleone’s dark, comfortingly sinister den of iniquity. Bonasera says that he believes in America but that its institutions have let him down: two men, he explains, who had assaulted his daughter, were only given suspended sentences for the crime due to their connections. So he wants Don Vito, his connection, to get his daughter the justice the legitimate system couldn’t or wouldn’t, presumably their deaths. Before we’ve had time to evaluate the creepy ironic point to the monologue — that the immigrant’s dream of a classless New World has given way to the usual corruption, and that he easily shrugs off the law for old-world solutions — we are made to watch the unpleasant groveling obeisance Vito forces out of him before he consents, with a few casual qualms, to do the poor undertaker’s bidding — according to the movie it is a Sicilian custom that the father of the bride must fulfill any request made of him the day of her wedding, going on just outside his den. At some point, The Don says, like a debonair devil, he will require something from Bonasera in return for the favor he is granting.

Most movies probably would have wound up squeezing a set-piece out of Bonasera, maybe a nice body-switch or a fake funeral to throw off Vito’s rivals or the police, but the payoff, when it comes, is curiously poignant. Vito’s hotheaded eldest son Sonny (James Caan), whose crude toughness had seemed to make him the obvious choice to succeed Vito as head of the family business, is shot through like Swiss cheese beside a highway tollbooth in a set-up job that makes about as much sense as the crop-dusting shenanigans from North by Northwest. All Vito asks is that the undertaker clean up the boy’s corpse so his mother won’t have to see him in such a state at the funeral. Implied here, then, is that Vito has had Bonasera’s enemies killed. It’s not surprising, of course, but there’s something slightly odd in the way this bit of blood has been allowed to trickle between the lines nearly forgotten while so much else has been ladled over the screen. The first time you watch the movie you may only have a vaguely unpleasant feeling beneath the rather moving outpouring of Vito’s emotional loss over his son without registering the total warping of his moral compass, which has become a banal state of affairs in The Godfather, standard operating procedure for the Corelones. The whole movie works this way, wafts with a strange haunting sense of dislocation between the poles of good and bad in the Corelones. Perhaps this is why it seems believable Vito should at first be willing to put the death of Sonny behind him when he meets with the other families to announce Michael’s return from Sicily, where he had gone to escape retribution for his vengeance slaying of the men who had tried to assassinate Vito — is it a spiritual awakening? Or a doublecross to ferret out Sonny’s killer? After a couple viewings I’m still not sure.

In any case, the movie’s opening, which sets all the dramatic lines in motion, will be subtly mirrored in the last scene. Michael’s sister, Connie (Talia Shire) — who had been dancing at her wedding party while Vito was granting Bonasera that interview — barrels into her father’s office where Michael has now enthroned himself and accuses him, correctly, of having had her husband Carlo (Gianni Russo) killed. After Carlo had beat Connie up badly, her brother Sonny, angered by this, had smacked Carlo down in the street. To get even, Carlo then sold Sonny out to a rival family, prompting Michael, in the flush of his final underworld triumph over all his enemies, to pronounce Carlo’s death sentence — Carlo is coldly strangled in the front seat of a car in a marvelously intense scene. After some fun melodramatics, Michael has a screaming Connie dragged away. Michael’s wife Kay, played by Diane Keaton, demands to know if he actually did have Carlo killed; he puts her off, assuring her he did not. Relieved, Kay leaves his office to make them both a drink. As she does so she looks at Michael in the depths of his father’s den and watches as clients and thugs, Vito’s henchmen who have now become Michael’s, appear from the office’s interior like cockroaches to kiss Michael’s hand in sickening obeisance. At that moment one of Michael’s lackeys moves toward the camera and pointedly closes the office door. The last shot of the movie therefore is Kay’s reaction to that closed door, a pensive expression.

The first time I saw The Godfather I had wondered why Kay, a fairly minor character in the mostly male universe of the movie, had been given this significant last shot. Since the whole thing had been about Michael’s losing his soul shouldn’t we have had a final close-up of his face subtly telling us he knows what he is? Why point out that Kay has been shut out of Michael’s world forever, that deep down she knows Michael lied to her? Why does the ultimate point seem to be that whether or not she’s quite willing to admit it to herself, she has now become one of the women in the Corelone family who enable the criminality of their men? But much more than this lies below the surface of the drama, at a structural level. By echoing the situation opening the movie so exactly (Connie had just been married in the first scene and she’s just been widowed in the last), it tells us how completely Michael has abandoned the legitimate world he had supposedly planned to enter, that he has really and truly sold his soul to become his father, his ideal of manhood. This of course had already been indicated by the previous sequence, the famous crosscutting between Michael attending the baptism of his sister’s son as he participates in the ritual to become the boy’s godfather, renouncing Satan and all his works at the exact moment his plans to kill each of the heads of the rival families are being enacted, literally anointing him The Godfather of all. By bringing both sides of the movie’s dramatic themes together here — the well-lit, respectable surface involving family honor and loyalty with cinematographer Gordon Willis’s dark brown tones of the rotted underworld of the Corleones’ criminal activities that fund its cheerful conservative appearance — Keaton’s look at the end of the movie is therefore meant to be that of the rule of law, the moral side of Michael’s nature finally and forever getting dismissed from class. He doesn’t get to see what he’s become because he’s become it so thoroughly it doesn’t represent a loss to him. The look coming from a woman shows it up in Godfatherian terms as essentially impotent. Fortunately, though, Kay would get hers back when she aborted Michael’s baby and divorced him in the sequel, which made me, for one, want to applaud.

The Godfather has often been described as a kind of Shakespearean tragedy. Certainly all the elements are there. Yet it’s not really. There’s something curiously remote and cool at the center of it, something slightly out of focus that makes this melodrama rather ambiguous and hard to assemble. Even though the plot is actually quite simple: Don Vito Corelone is the aging head of a Mafioso family who knows that sometime soon he will have to give his kingdom, Lear-like, over to his sons — which of them, he and we wonder, is the right one for the job? The process of elimination is a bit like the fairy tale of Goldilocks. One of the brothers is too hard (Sonny), one is too soft (Fredo, twitchily played by John Cazale), and one, Al Pacino, turns out to be just right. Various situations crop up to show us what kind of stuff the brothers are made of. Sonny is so arrogantly aggressive he lets himself be fatally blindsided, in business and family affairs, both inextricably interlinked in this movie. Fredo is such a wimp that he gets used against the family in a casino deal by Moe Green, the Alex Rocco character. Only Al Pacino’s Michael knows how to keep his head in a dangerous situation, using his brains to prove his mettle, the way his father does.

But Coppola tries to drive this element of the story underground somewhat, suggesting the dark irony in Michael’s success. After Vito has been hospitalized by the assassination attempt, Michael realizes that his father is about to become the victim of yet another hit job and coolly outsmarts the would-be killers by moving his father to a different hospital room. He also pretends to be an armed bodyguard waiting out on the hospital’s steps. His helper in this scene, the baker Enzo (Gabriele Torrei, introduced on Connie’s wedding day at the opening of the movie), after the danger has passed tries to light a cigarette but is so shaky he can’t. Michael, however, calmly takes the lighter and after glancing at his own hand, which is quite steady, coolly ignites the man’s cigarette. Pacino’s face tells us little here — is he surprised by his own courage? Proud? Perhaps both. Early in the film, Michael says to his future wife Kay that the blood of his father’s business has to do with his family, not him. On re-watching the film, one sees that even while he’s saying this to her at the wedding, he doesn’t really mean it, and one supposes — based on his behavior at the hospital or in the Italian restaurant hit after this, in which he cold-bloodedly guns down the corrupt cop played by Sterling Hayden, along with the gangster who tried to kill his father — that he was probably just afraid he had been too coddled to get really down and dirty, to be the man his dad is.

Yet that’s not quite the way the film seems to be written. Pacino’s performance is so narcotized that you find you’re projecting just about everything onto what he does. This is perhaps most striking in the restaurant scene already mentioned. Michael is to meet with his father’s would-be killers supposedly to make a truce. In preparation, Michael is advised by his father’s right-hand man Clemenza (Richard Castellano) that he should at some point excuse himself to go to the restroom, retrieve a gun that’s been pre-hidden for him (which seemed like cheating to me), come out shooting, and then drop the gun on his way out. Only right off he has a hard time finding the gun; when he does, he doesn’t come out shooting, but returns to the table for a few moments. Why? The effect throughout, as in Hitchcock at his most perverse, was that I found myself sort of wanting him to find that gun, was relieved when he did; also, part of me wanted him to dispatch the men quickly and thought it was sort of annoying that he didn’t. Curiously, the way Coppola has put the scene together seems to go against the grain of the pivotal point it’s supposed to be making. As it’s been structured, and the way Michael’s character has been built up to this point, so far as it has been, the film seems meant to suggest that what the audience should be feeling is terribly troubled by Michael’s actions, hoping he won’t discover the gun, will think twice before shooting and walk out of the restaurant at the last second, resisting going over to the dark side. The story seems conceived to make us feel devastated when he gives in to his worst self by decisively shooting his rivals point-blank. There’s just no way of coming back from that, no way of returning to the idealistic innocent he was before. The action therefore puts him on the road first to Sicily, where he falls in love for a brief spell before his guilt catches up to him and ruins it, and then to a complete corruption whose full implications won’t be understood until the climax of the second film when he has his weak brother Fredo killed.

For whatever reason, though, Coppola’s direction of the script, and especially Pacino’s performance of it, never hits dramatic notes on the nose so you’ll understand what’s really at stake for Michael — his soul — leaving you free to see the scene however you want. Most audiences probably wind up thinking of this not as Michael’s fall from grace but as his first truly courageous act. It’s interesting to look at how two different critics saw it. “When Michael, warned that at a certain point he must come out shooting, delays,” Pauline Kael wrote in her review of the movie, “we are left to sense his mixed feelings. As his calculations will always win out, we can see that he will never be at peace.”2 For Jon Lewis the scene works this way:

We get anxious because he’s not following the script, which calls for him to kill the two men as soon as he returns to the table. This little ad-lib perhaps reveals Michael’s intent here (he really hates these two men) as well as his growing confidence, his cool, his control. When Michael sits down, we worry for a moment that he might not have the courage to pull the trigger.3

Two completely different readings of the character’s motivations depending on little save Pacino’s affectlessness. Surely the story and structure support both ways of seeing it, though, which may explain why it’s possible for people as different as, say, Sarah Vowell (liberal author and regular contributor to the NPR show This American Life) and the late Saddam Hussein to list The Godfather as their favorite film.

Doubtless Coppola wanted us to be drawn into seeing things from the Corelones’ point of view, hoping we’d half condone what they did and half feel that Michael’s act was that of a good dedicated son, only really sensing what had been lost when Don Vito, directly after being brought home from the hospital, found out it was Michael who had done the murders, a fact that makes him cry. But it doesn’t work out that way somehow. Coppola was so successful with his offbeat mixture of operatic and muted tones that audiences generally seem to have bought wholesale into this family romance. Meaning there’s nothing especially tragic about the story of Michael’s ascent to head of the family; it’s merely the chronicle of a man who comes into his own, because in the moral terms of the Corleone family, which is all we are shown, he doesn’t have any tragic flaws. Ultimately the audience feels he did what he had to do, since the bad guys (a term whose absurd relativity is never quite made clear) were trying to kill his dad.

To understand what I mean, let’s compare it with the plot mechanics of the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). While the two movies couldn’t seem more different in terms of mood and intent, they have a lot in common: both deal with sons (Jimmy Stewart and Al Pacino, eldest and youngest respectively) called upon to become the heads of their families; both assume responsibilities they are extremely ambivalent about, to say the least. Stewart’s character intends to go to college, travel, have some interesting career, until his dad, who ran a two-bit savings and loan in Depression-era Hollywood USA, dies, forcing him to put those plans off in order to keep the family’s business afloat. He thinks/hopes that when his brother finishes school he’ll finally be able to get away himself. But when the brother comes back, he’s got a rich wife in tow, who has plans to shunt him off into her dad’s company. Then Stewart marries, has kids, acquires Hollywood’s version of a shoddy house; before he knows it, he’s trapped and there’s a run on the bank. Godfather pretty much has the same thing going on. After World War II Michael had planned to go to college, become a legitimate politician, and get out of his father’s crooked business. Then when his father is shot by rivals who threaten the business, Michael, being the only one of the family the rivals think won ‘t be a threat because he’s “straight” in the sense of being honest, or better “soft,” has to step up and eliminate them. Soon after, his oldest brother gets killed. Because his father’s now too broken down and his other brother’s too weak, and the love of his life in Sicily (that first wife he never mentions again, not even in the sequel) has been killed by his rivals who were actually trying to do him in, he suddenly finds he’s the head of the family business with a new wife and kids etc. The real difference is not in the sentimentality of the one and the cynicism of the other but in the clear-cut way Frank Capra had Stewart say exactly what he wanted at each phase of the film and then cut in close for reaction shots showing us how disappointed he was each time those hopes and dreams were frustrated by circumstance.

In The Godfather, all of it goes pretty much unstated. Everything’s held back, left for the viewers to feel out. It is Vito who cries for Michael and who says during the Robert Towne-scripted garden scene — as he sinks into retirement giving Michael advice he’ll need to be a good Machiavellian mob boss — that he hadn’t wanted this kind of life for Michael (though the pathos is slightly undercut by the faint suggestion on Brando’s part that he had wanted him to be a legitimate politician mostly to cleanse the family’s name and assure them legal advantages). For his part, Michael seems to shrug it off; no shots of Pacino’s face to tell us how he really feels. Even when he does get a tight shot, such as after his wife is blown to bits in Sicily, he just looks disoriented. This approach defuses the cliché elements of the plot about his being forced to do all the things he had promised himself he never would, but it also allows viewers to see in Michael a hero without questioning how the whole thing’s been rigged. The movie in general comes to seem a perverse homage to conservative family values. This must be part of the purpose of the plot, despite Coppola’s suggestion that the movie was meant as a critique of capitalism; then again, maybe it’s the same thing. While it’s true that subplots such as the infamous one involving the horse’s head being left in the bed of a film director so that Sinatra-like Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) can get a part in a film show us the thug-like bottom line of how the Godfather’s system of patronage works, the film slides and slips around these issues, suggests first a difference between Vito and Michael (modern versus traditional, all business verses noble, clean versus dirty), and further a kind of distance between Vito and the violence done in his name, so that he ultimately comes across as a kind of wise and cuddly mobster whose death, while pathetic, is also about the best way anyone could hope to go out. He is playing with his grandchild one sunny afternoon and just keels over.

And even if Michael represents a new, sterile corporate-style Mafiosi, a cliché beautifully muffled up by Coppola, he is never shown to be wrong about anything. While the justice he metes out is harsh, it’s not misplaced. He never has innocent people killed; casual bystanders are not caught in the crossfire. He doesn’t order whores beaten up to get more money out of them or gloat as he extorts protection money from helpless shop owners. Michael never lords his growing power over his underlings despite the obeisance he gets; tries to be sensitive to his simpleton brother Fredo, who is jealous of having been passed over for head the family. Despite the way critics have tried to suggest that everything in this and the second film show Michael up as soulless and dissolute, really his power never seems to have gotten to him absolutely in the usual and obvious movie ways. Just in his presumptuousness about his wife Kay and his brother Fredo and a few others who betray him. When in the second movie he has Fredo killed, this is probably supposed to mean that family isn’t really important to him, just business and his own sense of himself, but it’s undercut since Fredo had participated, if inadvertently, in a plot to assassinate Michael and his family, therefore mitigating Michael’s extreme judgment. In movie terms, this means he’s not corrupt but strong and hard.

Also, what of the multiple deaths of the other crime lords he orders? Since they had tried to kill his dad and him too, and had killed his first wife — all because they had wanted to push dope and were being thwarted by Vito (though as a modern crime boss Michael eventually does this himself) — they in general seem much, much sleazier than he does. They, for instance, gamble and aren’t faithful husbands. Therefore the deaths don’t seem like such a loss. Yes, we see that violence begets violence and know that it all pretty much comes down to heads equaling business and bucks, but the knowledge comes at us wrapped as a solemnly muted, classy, and somber valentine to the strength of the values of fathers and sons. There’s irony in this, true, but also an uneasy sense that the old ways are really the best and most beautiful ones. To see what I mean, just compare The Godfather to Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), which replaced all Gordon Willis’s quiet browns and shading with DP John Alonso’s bright tacky reds, blues, and oranges; Pacino’s Tony Montana is a gaudy parody of his Michael. With its droolingly unfocused scenes the entire movie plays against Coppola’s unstressed melodrama as a kind of anti-epic without a trace of romance or poetry, all of it boiling down to bling, blood, and cocaine. So in other words it is a vacillating tone, a morphing of perspectives between hypocritical evil and the golden-goodness of family ties — along with a testicularized sense of control over great matters of life and death — that allows the Corelones to go on seeming endlessly fascinating to generation after generation of viewers, telling what them what they didn’t quite know they wanted to hear.

  1. Lewis, Jon, The Godfather. London/New York: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 34. []
  2. Kael, Pauline, For Keeps.New York: Plume, 1994, p. 437. Interestingly Kael says that none of the characters’ actions in the movie are courageous and that there’s no one for the viewer to identify with, which seems patently wrong. []
  3. Lewis, p. 20. []