Written assignments 2.: The Godfather scene-dissection

Now this one will be very, very long, so don’t be surprised. For the module Communicating in Film we had to dissect any movie scene we felt we wanted to do, shot by shot. We had to give our ideas about what the filmmakers did in orded to create certain effects in the sequences. Some people have written very detailed technical analysis of scenes, I’ve had a more “emotional” approach to it: I’ve concentrated on the emotions the filmmakers wanted us to feel, and what they did in order to create these emotions. I hope you enjoy it despite its length!


The Godfather – Restaurant scene

(beginning with the shot where Michael enters the restroom)

Shot   Shot Type Duration Editing
1  Image Medium shot 17 s Cut
2  Image Long shot 3 s Cut
3  Image Medium shot 13 s Cut
4  Image Long shot 5 s Cut
5  Image Medium shot 17 s Cut
6  Image Long shot (over the shoulders) 5 s Cut
7  Image Medium shot 2 s Cut
8  Image Long shot 9 s Cut
9  Image From a medium shot to a close-up by means of a slow tracking movement towards Al Pacino 31 s Cut
10  Image Medium shot (Solozzo is shot) 3 s Cut
11  Image Medium shot 1 s Cut
12  Image Medium shot 0.5 s Cut
13  Image Long shot 1 s Cut
14  Image Medium shot 1 s Cut
15  Image Medium shot 3 s Cut
16  Image Medium shot 1 s Cut
17  Image Medium shot 1 s Cut
18  Image Long shot 10 s Cut
19  Image Long shot 5 s Cut
20  Image Long shot 9 s Dissolve

(At the end of the sequence, the final shot dissolves into the first shot of the next scene.)

Analysis of the Restaurant sequence from The Godfather

The above mentioned sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is one of the most powerful scenes from the movie, at least in my opinion. The movie itself is about the Corleone crime family and the unexpected but necessary involvement of the youngest Corleone, Michael in the deeds of his family. At first no one wants Michael to have anything to do with the illegal doings of the family, especially not his father, the head of the family, Don Vito Corleone. But as the movie goes on, certain things lead to one end: Michael has to step up in order to save his father, and to prevent the family from any future harm. This scene in the restaurant is the first scene where we can see Michael act on behalf of his family as a Mafioso, and this is the first scene where Michael “turns to the dark side”. The plan is simple: they have to get rid of Police Captain McCluskey and rival gangster Solozzo. As a complete outsider, Michael gains quite easily the trust of the two. At least more easily than any of his brothers would do. Solozzo invites Michael and McCluskey to a dinner where they can settle things. Despite Solozzo being very cautious, Michael manages to murder him and the Captain.

One of the most important achievements in this sequence is the extreme tension that goes on. The scene wants to capture the honest feelings of Michael. This is his very first murder in his life, his very first illegal act, to say it neatly. Despite being an Army man, pure murder is a thing that even he cannot bear with calmness. The tension we can feel throughout this sequence is the real anxiety that Michael feels at the moment. There are some key elements in creating tension in this scene, and these are – in my opinion – the following:

1. The scene where Michael is looking for the hidden gun in the toilet dragged on for too long

2. The really long shot where the only thing we can see is Michael’s nervous face

3. Annoying background noises

4. The performance of Al Pacino

Although the fourth point is quite obvious, I couldn’t leave it out from the list. But first, let’s talk about the first point. Dragging on scenes for too long is a solution often recurring in a lot of genres (most notably in horror movies), but here it works in a very good way. It gives a very realistic feeling and memory to the audience – I’m sure most of us have already faced a situation where we had to find something under a really short period of time. This urge, this anxiety is very familiar to most of us, so the audience can easily sympathize with Michael’s nervous, anxious feelings. The scene cuts from the restroom to the restaurant table where the antagonists are sitting, and back to the restroom again, and so forth. But the restroom shots always have more screen time. As we can see in the tables above, the duration of shots go like: 17 s – 3 s – 13 s – 5 s – 17 s, where the really long shots are the ones in the restroom. These short cuts to the restaurant interior really awaken a fear in the audience that Michael is in the toilet for too long, and Solozzo and McCluskey will notice this. Also, the way the doors in the restroom stand in the way of seeing Michael from the camera’s point of view, it gives the whole scene a claustrophobic sense.

One of the most memorable shots in the scene is the more than half a minute long shot of Michael’s close-up, just before he commits the murders. The really slow tracking movement that goes closer and closer to Michael, and the really loud and annoying sound of the train in the background (Point 3) build up an extremely tense scene. This train could be heard, too, when Michael left the toilet with the gun in his pockets. Both times it signaled huge anxiety, fear and nervousness. The second time it’s even louder and goes on for a longer time. And I’d really like to connect the fourth point with this scene, too, because Al Pacino’s performance is truly amazing here. As one of my favorite movie performances, this scene captures the true goal of every film actor: acting with your eyes and with the tiniest movements of your face. In a theatre, the audience couldn’t see anything from his performance. But film lets Pacino do a wonderful job with this scene. His look on his face and his eyes really add up to the nearly unbearable tension of the whole sequence.

I would also like to point out the naturalism of this scene. Obviously this goes for the whole movie, too, but the really naturalistic depiction of the death of the antagonists is really striking. Coppola (and his DOP, Gordon Willis) don’t hide anything from the viewer. As a realistic approach to the life of Mafiosos, the film shows us a lot of “nasty” and ugly death scenes – but truly they are as realistic as they can get. The final shot of the dead bodies really reminds me of original police photos from the 1920s-1930s about dead gangsters and crime scenes.

I really like this scene because here you can honestly feel the same things as the protagonist feels. It’s really movie magic, and it truly puts you in the place of the main character. It’s almost as you were there in the scene. Francis Ford Coppola manages to capture the extreme tension of this situation by showing us the slow passing of time, creating silence and then interrupting it with short but loud noises, and by focusing on the main character with medium shots and close-ups.


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