The Godfather Trilogy
Motion pictures can be edited in two basic ways. Continuous action presents events in the sequence they occur. Time may lapse between scenes, but the story unfolds chronologically, so that the beginning, middle, and end of the film are also the beginning, middle, and end of the story that the film tells. Parallel action cuts back and forth between scenes or narratives. Sometimes parallel action is used to depict events that occur simultaneously, other times to relate multiple narratives, cutting back and forth between them. The primary difference between the first two Godfather films is that The Godfather employs mostly continuous action, whereas Part II uses parallel action. From the opening at Connie’s wedding to the final scene in which Michael arrives at Las Vegas, the scenes of The Godfather are related in chronological order. The major storylines of the film—the transfer of power from Vito to Michael and Michael’s development from youngest son to Godfather—are tales of development, linear in structure. As a result, the characters’ actions speak largely for themselves. We see Michael develop from someone who is unable to say “I love you” to Kay into someone who can. We see Vito change from a powerful Godfather into a playful old grandfather.
On the few occasions when The Godfather does employ parallel structure, it does so for very specific reasons. The first time is toward the beginning of the movie: as Tom, Sonny, and Vito debate doing business with Sollozzo, we see brief flashes of scenes that show a meeting being arranged. In this case, the parallel structure captures Sollozzo’s double dealing, as well as Vito’s discomfort about the deal. It should not come as a surprise that Vito rejects Sollozzo’s offer at the meeting, nor that shortly afterward Sollozzo tries to have Vito killed. The movie also uses parallel action to relate the Mafia war that directly follows Michael’s murder of Sollozzo. Cutting back and forth between shots that depict gangsters going about their daily lives and images of newspaper headlines that chronicle the violent Mafia war they are waging, the editing highlights the disruptive effect of violence on the lives of mafiosi. The most famous use of parallel action is in the baptism scene at the movie’s end, which introduces us to Michael’s duplicity and the double life he will lead as head of the family.
While The Godfather consists of a single narrative whose chronological exposition is interrupted a few times to highlight important moments, Part II alternates between two separate stories. Rather than being used sparsely and strategically, as in The Godfather, parallel action defines the entire structure of Part II. The Godfather opens with a scene that culminates in an initially disrespectful suppliant kissing Don Vito’s hand in a humble show of respect. Part II begins with a parallel shot of Michael, now Godfather, having his hand kissed by a suppliant. But then the movie cuts to an image of the rocky Sicilian countryside. Subtitles state, “The Godfather was born Vito Andolini, in the town of Corleone in Sicily.” With this opening, Part II announces that it will not simply move forward like The Godfather, but back and forth. It also establishes that the film’s parallel structure will function crucially, as the display of respect shown to Michael is immediately undermined by the narrator who calls Vito, not Michael, Godfather. Not only will the movie compare the two men, but it will complicate the transfer of power enacted in The Godfather. This opening scene shift suggests that Michael has failed to escape his father’s mythical shadow.
These questions of succession highlight the problem that Part II faces as the sequel to the tremendously popular, critically acclaimed The Godfather. The challenge for Part II was establishing its own ground. One way that the film resolves this dilemma is by acting as not only a sequel, but also a prequel. By cutting back and forth between a continuation of the narrative of Michael’s life, the sequel to his story in The Godfather, and the story of Vito’s youth, the prequel to his story in The Godfather, it solves the problem of succession by complicating it. Part II is both the son of The Godfather and its father.
Part II performs a critique of The Godfather by questioning the morality of the Corleones’ actions and by introducing further psychological depth to the family story. In the earliest Sicilian scenes, Vito’s father, brother, and mother—his entire family—are all killed over the course of a few days by Don Ciccio, a local Mafia boss. Even though he is only nine years old, Vito is also considered a threat, and so to survive, he runs away to America. As his tale proceeds we see him transform himself from a grocery clerk into a local Mafia don, a classic story of American upward social mobility. Meanwhile, Michael is forced to deal with continual violence, attempts on his life, and treachery within his family. He survives, but only by being more ruthless than his enemies. His survival comes at a cost: Michael winds up losing his family. Kay aborts a child and renounces her love for him, and Michael feels compelled to kill his brother, Fredo, who was involved tangentially in an attempt to kill him. Whereas Vito begins Part II alone and then builds a family, Michael moves in the opposite direction, in the end losing much of what his father built. The structure of the film forces us to compare the two men and include moral considerations in the equation. Michael seems less a hero than a villain. Not only does he strong-arm politicians, neglect his family, and murder business associates left and right, he kills his own brother in a vicious display of cruelty and vengeance. The only way for Michael to escape from his father’s shadow is to cross over moral and ethical boundaries that his father never would violate.
But more important than Part II’s critique of the violence of the Mafia life is its introduction of further psychological depth into its analysis of character. As the movie proceeds, we come to understand that the film’s journey backward in time, to Vito’s youth, is also a journey inward. The past affects the present, the parallel structure suggests. It explains, for instance, how the Corleones became mixed up in the Mafia and violence in the first place. This equation of backward- and inward-looking isn’t complete until the end of Part II, where parallel editing is used to take us into Michael’s mind as he experiences a memory.
As he sits in his Tahoe boathouse in 1959, Michael recalls December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day and his father’s birthday. All Vito’s children, Connie, Sonny, Fredo, Tom, and Michael, sit around the dining room table waiting for their father to come home so they can surprise him with a birthday cake. The bombing of Pearl Harbor comes up in their discussion, and Michael announces that he has enlisted to join the army. His brothers are furious. A debate ensues, but it is interrupted by the return of Vito. All the family members run to greet him, except for Michael, who remains alone at the table, deep in thought. This final scene reinforces Michael’s isolation from the rest of the family, but also reminds us that Michael fought in a war and knew violence before his killing of Sollozzo in The Godfather. He was, in fact, a decorated war hero. If we wonder where Vito learned to be violent, the opening of Part II tells us. If we wonder where Michael learned, this scene provides a clue. If violence breeds violence—and the Godfather trilogy suggests it does—only the first violent act needs explanation. All the rest follow. The early Sicilian scenes humanize Vito and make us more sympathetic to his violent ways. Michael’s flashback at the end of Part II suggests that he too may have undergone some sort of traumatic, formative event, but unlike his father’s, it will remain hidden to us. Whatever Michael saw in World War II, we will never know. Again, the contrast with his father is reinforced in this last scene, and his isolation and his violence are once again linked.
Montage, a rapid succession of images that links different scenes, is the most dramatic form of parallel editing. It is used many times in the Godfather trilogy, most famously in the baptism scene at the end of The Godfather. As Connie and Carlo’s son is baptized, the film cuts to images showing the murders of the heads of the five Mafia families, murders that Michael has ordered. The use of montage implies that the murders and the baptism occur simultaneously, and the juxtaposition of the calm, peaceful, and religious church ceremony and the frantic, violent murders gives each unexpected new meaning. The irony between these vastly different scenes is striking. During the baptism ceremony, the godparents must respond to questions such as “Do you reject the glamour of evil?” and “Do you reject Satan and all his works?” by saying “I do.” Michael’s sincere “I do’s” cement his position as godfather to Connie’s baby, but the murders he ordered form a ceremony of their own from which Michael emerges as a Godfather of an entirely different sort.
The duality highlighted by this particular montage captures the nature of Michael’s new life. As Godfather, he will be in charge of two very different families. But at the same time that the montage signals Michael’s full accession to the title of Godfather, it also shows how he will differ from his father. By carrying out such violence during his nephew’s baptism, just as he is declaring his belief in God and denouncing Satan, Michael desecrates the service and brings violence into the sphere of family. Michael’s duplicity, his ability to lie, and his ruthlessness are all highlighted by this dramatic sequence of images. But also apparent is his willingness to allow violence into the home, something Vito would have prevented. This distinction between father and son is picked up dramatically in Part II.
The Godfather opens with a shot of Bonasera, a suppliant to Don Vito Corleone. Because we look at Bonasera from Vito’s point of view, Vito himself is hidden to us. Only later does the camera pull back, revealing the back of Vito’s head and shoulders, then changing angles to show his face. As the movie proceeds, most action is revealed from a more universal, third-person perspective, and Vito becomes a character like any other. But from the opening shot, we know that the story is Vito’s and that his is the only perspective that matters. Gradually, as Michael becomes an increasingly important character, we see more and more through his eyes, and at a certain point, the story becomes his. This transfer of perspective occurs during the scene at the Bronx Italian restaurant where Michael kills Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. This action represents Michael’s Mafia initiation and prepares him to eventually succeed his father as the next Don Corleone. Therefore the change in perspective that occurs in this scene anticipates the later transfer of family power from Vito to Michael.
As the Bronx restaurant scene begins, we look at Sollozzo from over Michael’s shoulder. The camera stands behind him. We are looking from Michael’s vantage, but not from his eyes. As the scene progresses, we move closer to Sollozzo. When Michael’s shoulders disappear from the screen, we are seeing Sollozzo through Michael’s eyes, just as we saw Bonasera through Vito’s eyes in the film’s opening scene. Another key to the change in perspective is in the use of subtitles. When Sollozzo and Michael speak in Italian, there are no subtitles. Until this point, the dialogue in Italian has been translated, because Vito was born in Sicily and is fluent. Michael, on the other hand, can barely understand or speak the language. Toward the end of Sollozzo’s un-subtitled speech in Italian, Michael tries to respond in Italian, but he is unable and has to resort to English. After killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, Michael goes to Sicily and learns Italian. For this reason, all subsequent Italian dialogue in the trilogy, even when we are seeing things from Michael’s perspective, is subtitled.
As Michael retrieves the gun in the bathroom, we enter his head more fully. We hear a din from an elevated subway car passing by. The sound is much louder than that of a flushing toilet, and it is clearly not part of any objective reality. Instead we are in Michael’s head, hearing the sound of his anxiety. When Michael returns to the dining area, subtle sounds—a fork clanking against a plate, soft footsteps—are amplified, as Michael’s senses are on high alert. Sollozzo again tries to talk in Italian, still without subtitles, but soon the din returns, drowning out the words. The sound of the passing subway car grows and grows, its grating, scratching sound becoming increasingly deafening. At no other moment are we more in Michael’s head. Then Michael stands and fires, first shooting Sollozzo, then turning to McCluskey and firing twice. During the shooting and in the first moments afterward, the perspective returns to that of a removed third-person. Once again, we look on Michael and the rest of the restaurant from afar, then the dinner table draped with collapsed, bloody bodies. But the transfer of perspective has occurred. We have entered Michael’s head, and now the story is his.
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