Not unlike many of the auteurs of the New Hollywood of the 1970s and beyond, Francis Ford Coppola’s moviemaking mantra often came down to “What would Hitchcock do?”
The way in which Coppola shot the sequence detailing Virgil Sollozzo’s (Al Lettieri) death in The Godfather bears no exception to this rule. In this illustrative video analysis by Glass Distortion, “The Godfather: Sollozzo’s Death – Script to Screen Analysis,” Coppola’s voice-over narration of the scene explains: “Hitchcock was such a master about manipulating information for the audience—usually telling you things so that you were equipped to enjoy what you were seeing. Rather than withholding information, he would give you information.”
Watching the text from Coppola and Mario Puzo’s screenplay pop up over each shot, the function of the information given on-screen in this scene—particularly Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) abrupt, emphatic shift from speaking Italian to speaking English, and his ignoring of his associate Peter Clemenza’s (Richard S. Castellano) instructions on what to do to whack Sollozzo—is made clear.
The scene’s awkward missteps, jarring sound mix and sense of frozen time and space, Coppola explains, all serve the film’s character development, defining Michael’s cool, calm execution of the duties his newly adopted mob lifestyle has thrusted upon him. After all, this scene depicts not only the death of two of Michael’s adversaries, but also the death of his innocence as a civilian. The tension between the former self that Michael is shedding and the new self that he is transforming into in this violent baptism of sorts is the emotional core around which Coppola’s shot and script design is structured.
As the scene starts, Coppola stresses that “Rushing this would ruin it. Otherwise, the scene can’t be ruined.” The director’s statement doesn’t simply demonstrate his confidence in both his performers and the aforementioned formal elements. Rather, his assertion reminds moviemakers of the peace of mind that’s achieved when a scene’s moving parts are designed to work in synchronicity. By designing the scene’s intensity to be dependent upon well-executed pacing, Coppola was able to cast its final, bloody conclusion against the off-kilter presence of his extras in the background. This approach creates a dissonance between the relaxed, oblivious restaurant patrons and the mile-a-minute heart rate of Michael’s character as he kills Sollozzo and Captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden).
Watch the video and decide for yourself how you might be able to use this Hitchcockian method to design a pivotal moment of your film. MM