I think you should watch the scene first! (Though if you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, move along, there’s nothing to see here.)  In this famous scene, to protect his family, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who is a squeaky-clean war hero turned civilian, is to murder his dinner-mates and enemies – Sollozzo and the bastard Captain McCluskey – which will doom him to a life working with “the family.”

The gun to do it with has been planted in the restroom…

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I’m obsessed with 70’s Coppola right now.  And what’s not to be obsessed with; this scene from The Godfather is a piece of perfection (as I consider the whole movie), down to the tiniest detail.  Today’s post continues the theme established in The Elephant Man post – ie, a brilliantly calculated close up coupled with amazing sound work.

I’ve been reading Walter Murch a lot lately.  Murch did the sound design on this film (and the groundbreaking sound work on Apocalypse Now, to name just a few of his more famous jobs) and this scene is a revelation of what inventive, imaginative design can do.

Coppola & Murch make no beautiful music together

To point – the absence of music (Coppola’s idea) and the screeching subway train (Murch’s idea).  It’s amazing to think about the fact that the train was a complete fabrication by Murch in post.  There is no train established nearby, no mention of it, and not one bit of visual proof.  And, what’s more, it sounds like it’s ON TOP of us when the murder’s going down. But no matter – it’s emotionally exactly right.  In fact, I don’t know how many times I watched this scene before I consciously noticed it.

And now the shot, which slowly pushes in on Michael Corleone (Pacino) seconds before he builds his nerve.  No suspense music, no cut-aways – just a slow push in on a brilliant actor after all the minutia of character and situation have been meticulously set up in the scenes & moments preceding.  And the fact that Italian is being spoken and is not being translated — because at this point, we know, words don’t mean a thing — THAT’S. SO. BRILLIANT.

This incredible shot, coupled with the lack of music and the exquisite use of sound create an indelible, gripping moment in an equally amazing sequence. Here’s a favorite quote of mine by Murch on the use of music, which he brings up in the book The Conversations, when discussing how they held off the music till after the emotional punch, especially in this sequence, but also throughout the whole film:

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[This scene] is a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates emotion…Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids.  There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music — just like steroids build up muscle.  It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

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I love that — after all our emotion is built and spent with no artificial aid from music — the score kicks in with full-blown operatic grandeur once the deed is finally done and Michael’s fate is sealed.  At that point, we not only believe it, but we’ve actually experienced it with him.  That’s so rare in film.

Al-Pacino-The-Godfather

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