There’s not much left to be said about The Godfather. It’s one of cinema’s timeless masterpieces that will surely outlive us all. It’s hard to pick a favourite moment from a movie so rife with memorable sequences but the one I’m about to talk about is perhaps the most important, not only for the movie itself but for the people involved in making it.
Shot during the first week of principal photography, tensions were high on The Godfather set during the making of the Sollozzo sequence. Whispers were circulating the crew that Coppola was to be fired and/or his lead actor, a then unknown Al Pacino, would be replaced. All Coppola could do was hold tight and carry on. Thankfully, once the execs saw the dailies, all those whispers disappeared and Coppola and Pacino had 100% support. From the finished scene it’s not hard to see why.
One of the most breathtaking things about the Sollozzo murder sequence is how Coppola is always ratcheting up the tension. He sacrifices music for silence, puts emphasis on sound effects and is constantly testing the audience’s stamina with tiny gasp-inducing beats and flourishes. There’s the unnerving way Sollozzo and Michael simply sit and stare at each other as the waiter pours the wine. Michael’s eyes darting around desperately while trying to sustain a cool exterior. The great moment when our heart jumps into our throat as Michael cannot find the gun, then it returns to our chest as he gets his hands on it a second later. Rules laid out in a previous scene are casually broken one at a time. Michael is supposed to come out of the bathroom blazing, but instead he returns to his seat. WHY? Even the way Coppola chose to keep all the speech between Michael and Sollozzo in UNSUBTITLED sicilian is an audacious display of filmmaking confidence. At first glance it all looks very simple and straight-forward but it’s constructed with an unbelievable amount of care. Coppola’s greatest tool though, is Pacino himself.
In terms of screen acting, nothing really comes close to Al Pacino in the first two Godfather movies. At this point in his career I honestly feel that he was the greatest actor in the world. There is a fire in his eyes I have never seen in any another performance. An electric intensity captured within a human face. Watching both movies back to back you can genuinely see an innocent young man being corrupted into an evil and soulless tyrant. Pacino’s work in this scene (and also in Part II as Kay reveals what happened to his child) is screen-acting at it’s most chilling and simplistic. It looks like he’s doing nothing at all but somehow you can see the cogs frantically pumping into overdrive behind his eyes. I’m not sure that he ever blinks once or Pacino was even acting at all. Maybe he just projects a killer blank canvas for the audience to paint on. Either way, it’s mesmerizing and hypnotic and the birth of a movie star. Powerhouse performing at it’s most powerful and cinema at it’s most exhilarating. Utter perfection.