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'S GARDEN
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.
MICHAEL Very happy...
VITO CORLEONE (laughs) Read the funny papers.
(after the Don doesn't answer)
The Don is with Michael's son, Anthony.
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 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.