Part 1-Background, Foreground, and the Overview
When last we left, we were discussing Coppola's visual style. Up ahead there be more style, some sound, and...spoilers, so if you haven't seen this film and want to with some element of surprise, be warned. I have not fixed any errors (and there are far too many! *sob*) and the film professor's comments are in RED
(Coppola's) conversations, of which there are many in the film to explain away the plot's complexities, are also done simply: Coppola shoots over the shoulders of the two partcipants, and cuts back and forth between them, with maybe a shot of another participant, edited in, as whern Coppola cuts to Tom Hagen when Sollozzo compliments him on his fact-finding, as he negotiates with the Don about his heroin deal, or when Captain McCluskey is shown, because he is a threat to Michael, in the Michael-Sollozzo negotiation, where the young Corleone has been sent to kill. Coppola runs against a problem, though, when an exchange of looks and words are required between the Don, Sonny and Sollozzo, when Sonny interrupts the discussion (Sonny: "Ah, you tellin' me the Tattaglias guarantee our investment?" The Don: "Wait a minute...") something that would require rather messy and complicated editing. Instead to keep things consistent, Coppola has Marlon Brando change his position in relation to Sollozzo and Sonny so that he sits between the two, in order that, now, the two shots include one of Sollozzo and one of the Don with Sonny behind him. Not only was some possible sloppiness stopped, bu Brando and James Caan were able to play off each other more effectively.
Coppola's treatment of the story is also straightforward: he just shows the important facts and lays them out one-by-one in their proper sequence, and only a coiple of times does he fiddle around with time, besides the essential squeezing of a decade into three hours. Once, at the exact middle of the film, coppola presents the war between the Five Families in an 85 second montage. Overlaid by a rinky-tink piano accompaniment, Coppola overlaps and fades in and out on newspaper articles about the various murders, and headlines of McCluskey's involvement with the Mob (michael suggested that Hagen tell the reporters on the Mob payroll to play up the story, in order to soften Family retribution), of pictures of slain mobsters with policemen (who are seen smiling over the bodies, in some of them), of Tessio reading a paper next to an arsenal-filled table, of Clemenza shacking up in a bared rom, of the fellow playing the piano, while, in the background, a table full of men pass around a large bowl of spaghetti, and of the spaghetti being spooned out into a garbage can. This whole montage is sandwiched in-between Michael's killing of Sollozzo and McCluskey and of the Don's return home from the hospital. It is an essential part of the film, and Coppola's filming the war in this way insures not only that that part of the story is told, but also, that it is told economically, time-wise. The other instance of Coppola playing with time is seen soon after the Woltz incident has been finished, and the Don, Sonny and Hagen hold a small briefing before their initial meeting with Sollozzo. Hagen explains certain aspects of the Sollozzo character: his preference for the knife as a weapon, of his narcotics business and any other useful information. As Hagen ticks off these facts, Coppola shoots forward in time and cuts to a placement shot of the extreior of the Don's office building, with Sollozzo waiting out on the side-walk, then cuts to Sollozzo climbing up the stairs to the actual meeting. Coppola then shifts back in time as the Don asks for opinions which Hagen expreesses like a businessman ("Narcotics is the thing of the future"). while Sonny expresses it simply: "There's a lotta money in that white powdah...So, what's your decision gonna be, Pop?" Coppola then cuts forward again to the meeting with Sollozzo. This action not only saves viewing time, and keeps the film from getting stagnant by remaining for too long on a single scene, especially one which is mostly talk, as this one is, but, also, identifies Sollozzo by placing him on the screen, while Hagen describes him on the soundtrack.
Coppola engages in many ironies in this film, concentrating specifically on the contrasts of innocence and guilt in the Mafia lifestyle and the joy and sadness that these people face in their lives. The whole wedding sequence is just such an irony: while the ritual of a wedding, something steeped in the glorification of innocence (the emphasis on white, for example) goes on outside, in the sunlight, the Don is inside the house, in his office's darkness (broken by the venetian blind that reflects the Don's mood, such that, it is almost close when he berates Bonasera, but it is fully open when he sees Johnny Fontaine arrive at the wedding, and yes, I know Fritz Lang did it before and it's a good idea!) makes illegal deals. Coppola has one pair of shots, the first of which has Kay and Michael Christmas-shopping, while some properly idyllic snow falls around them and the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" booms over the New York shops. This contrasts deliciously with the next shot: Luca Brasi preparing for his meeting with Sollozzo, putting on a flak vest, and loading his revolver while the same damn song churns out over his radio. Of course, then there is the baptism-murder sequence where Coppola cuts between a baptism, a ritual for cleansing sin, while out in the city, all sorts of sins are being committed by the new Godfather. Coppola, in this sequence, goes as far as to match two of the shots with the same motion: a priest's arm swings from an urn of ashes to place some on a baby's chin, then in the next shot, a barber's arm swings from a lather dispenser to the cheek of one of Mike's gunmen. Clemenza, in one part of the film, teaches Mike how to cook spaghetti for a large group, then, a little later, he teaches him how to kill Sollozzo and McCluckey. When Carlo is beating his wife, Connie, over the soundtrack is heard hysterical crying, hers, which blends in with a baby crying in Mama Corleone's arms at the don'd home, where she is trying to calm the kid and also, an hysterical Connie on the phone. After the Don has shown undertaker Bonasera Sonny's bullet-ridden body, Coppola cuts from the Don silently grieving for his son, to the sound of Michael's Sicilian wife, Appolonia, laughing with delight as Michael tries to teach her how to drive. In one sequence, he cuts from michael's heavily-chaperoned, pre-marriage romance to Sonny's heavily-guarded (well, it's almost the same thing) tryst back home in New York. Coppola also cuts from Michael and Appolonia's wedding night to the girl Michael left behind, Kay, as she arrives at the Corleone house to try to contact him. These little touches of Coppola's tend to provide an added jolt to the audience, while it waits patiently for the next garrotting, or provide the many touches of black humor that he inserts into this film.
One of the best things about "The Godfather" is its use of sound, that, like the ironic cutting back and forth between two situations, enhances the film. It is these scenes, with their subliminal, audio trickery, that, personally, catch my attention. One of my favorite scenes in Welles' "Citizen Kane" is the picnic-tent fight between C.F.Kane and Susan, where the song "It Can't be Love" is sung and the frenzied screams of a woman outside coment on and enhance the confrontation inside. The only thing that interested me in Friedkin's "The Exorcist" was the liberal use of modern "concrete" music for the sounds of the natural world. There are .many minor uses of auditory trickery in "The Godfather," such as one of those ubiquitous babies crying when the Don slaps Johnny Fontaine around, or when the Don is shot down in the street. Of course, there's the previously mentioned "Have Yourself a merry little Christmas" as Brasi prepares for his Sollozzo meeting, and , as he walks through the office building to that meeting, a heavily-echoed, ominous-sounding whistling goes on through the halls. As Tom Hagen is kidnapped by Sollozzo, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," ("Gonna find out who's naughty and nice") plays over a speaker. The sound of thunder magically appears as Captain McCluskey and his police enter the scene, outside the hospital, where Mike is guarding his stricken father. In the sequence at the toll plaza, before Sonny's death there, a bell rings once the toll is paid. After Sonny has been throughly mavhine-gunned to death, and his killers drive off, Coppola edits in several scenes of the aftermath, with nothing but the wind on the soundtrack, until a single shard of glass, which we never see, falls and makes a sound, just like the toll bell, saying, in effect, "Yes, the toll has been paid."
One of the most effective scenes of this type is the one of Michael as he enters the deserted hospital to visit his father. In the distance, echoing through the hall, there is something low repeating over and over. When Michael gets nearer to the source, it becomes clearer and he and the audience hears what it is: a record of some singer that has become stuck and keeps repeating the same word-"tonight...tonight...tonight..." Its effect is absolutely eerie: it is a kind of supernatural warning and threat, and it gives Michael the fear that someone will kill his father, as the record says, tonight. This thing with the repeating record has all the earmarks of a man named Walter Murch. Murch has worked on most of the films coming out of Coppola's American Zoetrope Company and his work is, by now, identifiable. He engineered, with George Lucas, those wierd "sound montages" in Lucas' "THX-1138" which contributed so greatly to the mood of that film, especially the way in which human voices were distorted until they were so mechanical-sounding, it was hard to say if they had ever been human. He worked on Coppola's "The Conversation," where he did such things as turn the sound of a television program and muffled conversation from the next room into a paranoid audio nightmare. Also, in this film, he made the inconspicuous whirr of an elevator into a gigantic roar as Gene Hackman shares it with the "marked" Cindy Williams. Murch's work on Lucas' "American Graffiti," in my opinion, topped all of his previous work when he filled the Southern California air with reverberating "boss sounds" from the myriad cruising automobiles' radioes. The high-point of his work in that film was when he took the sounds of the night--a passing train, screeching brakes, a police squawk box, the sounds of a stationary and a moving radio, whose music approach, coincide and break-off--that made Richard Dreyfuss' crawl to attach the steel cable to the rear axle of Officer Holstein's squad car, such a nerve wracking ordeal to live through. Murch applies some typical technique in the sequence when Michael meets with Sollozzo and McCluskey. On the drive out to the restaurant-meeting place where they are to confer, Murch inserts two of his audio comments: the first when as McCluskey searches Michael for hidden weapons ("I guess I'm getting too old for my job, too grouchy," he says, referring to the hospital incident when he broke Michael's jaw. "Just can't stand the aggravation." And inreply to this hollow explanation, Coppola and Murch insert a passing car horn that sounds like a horse laugh); the second, when the car passes over the bridge to New Jersey, and Michael begins to fear that the meeting will not be held in the required place for the set-up to kill Sollozzo. This moment of fear is expressed when the car passes over a grating and the sound it emits resembles a heavenly choir or the shrieks emitted from Kubrick's monolith in "2001." More noticeable than these are the two "moments of truth." that Michael has before the two killings. Clemenza has told him to come out of the restaurant bathroom, shooting, and as Michael prepares to exit the bathroom, the sound of a truck comes through the wall,* like a roaring in his ears, as the fateful moment arrives. But he waits, and as he talks again to Sollozzo, the sound of another roaring truck grows on the soundtrack, but this time, it is followed by the squal of air brakes. That squeal is like a signal that triggers Michael to do what he must, and he stands and kills Sollozzo and McCluskey.
Coppola not only uses Walter Murch's ideas to create suspense, but uses many of his own. The first of these occurs in the Jack Woltz episode, when Woltz awakens to find the head of his prized race horse inside his bed for a warning. Coppola begins the sequence with a pleasant shot of Woltz's mansion, at sunrise. On the soundtrack, only the chirping of crickets is heard, then, as the first set-up fades into a shot of the mansion, the camera, rising, to the right. The sound of "The Godfather teme," that sad, funereal, horn music that started the film, echoes over the scene, only now its a little faster. That rightward moving shot fades into a leftward-moving shot, still rising, zigzagging over the mansion and its opulence, until it centers on some grillwork on the side of the house. This fades to a shot overlooking the grillwork into Woltz's bedroom, and the camera approaches Woltz's sleeping form. Now the music becomes almost pixieish as piccolos pick up the tune. The camera pulls alongside the bed, as Woltz stirs, and we see,for the first time, that there is blood on his covers. The msuic now becomes more complicated as different instruments play the tune at different speeds, and at different times until it becomes dizzying. Woltz is now hurriedly unravelling his covers, more and more blood showing up, until the head, itself, is uncovered and the music abruptly stops. On Woltz's first scream, Coppola shock-cuts to a view of the grisly-head holds on it for the second scream, then, as Woltz screams again and again, on each scream, Coppola cuts farther away. Back to the shot looking into the room over the grillwork, back to the grill on the side of the house,, and back to the placement shot, which fades to the aforementioned "signature" shot of the Don's face. Coppola takes us in, and shows us out the same way, but in deference to our feelings, takes us out faster than we went in.
Tomorrow: We reach some conclusions....finally...and they will, no doubt, be punctuated, by far too many comma's, probably!
* It's actually an elevated train.