Who needs film school? Here's what we can learn from one of cinema's most famous scenes.
It's one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Michael Corleone, the son of a Mafia don, commits his first act of bravery as a gangster hopeful by killing two men who present a threat to his family's stability. The scene? An Italian restaurant in the Bronx. The location of the gun? Behind the toilet. The film? Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Godfather,' one of the most popular movies ever made.
A young filmmaker might be tempted to ignore this film in favor of more recent gems, but bearing down on the internal structure of this scene, taking a close look at what makes it tick, can be the equivalent of either many hours of film school or many more hours spent watching the movies that came in its substantial wake. The scene has a number of building blocks that, given Coppola's masterful deployment, make the restaurant scene an unforgettable and withering sequence about character growth, survival, and the dread that lies beneath each phenomenon; Patryk Czekalski takes us through the scene in this excellently plotted video essay.
1. Edit for blood
The editing here is designed to build apprehension. As Walter Murch is quoted as saying, "editing is 70% about rhythm." The early part of the scene alternates short takes with long takes at its outset, then playing Michael's search for the gun in the bathroom against the two victims' staring at the restroom door and then back at each other. Once Michael is back at the table, the camera moves closer and closer to Michael as he ponders at which moment to whack his two dining companions. And then, the cuts in which Michael does the deed are short and sharp, somewhat surprising but also appropriate for the blunt violence of the action being performed. The scene can be studied as a demonstration of how to make viewers' hearts beat faster, as an example of the different ways lingering on a character's face might be powerful, as opposed to the way cutting from face to face in a conversation might have a different, but equally powerful, effect.
2. Sound intensifies sense
The scene is an odd one, sound-wise. It uses almost no background music until the end. The two loudest sounds, and markedly so, are the popping of a wine bottle cork and the screech of an elevated train. Both increase viewer tension, naturally, since they're unusual sounds, and Coppola cranks them up for that very reason. Symbolically, though, they give weight to the scene; the cork is all-too-similar to the popping of a bullet, while the squeal of the train wheels is all-too-close to the sound of a human scream. Sudden sounds, when juxtaposed against silence, can be quite startling, as we've known since the days of the earliest horror films. Knowing how to use this juxtaposition could potentially help you create memorable tension in a scene or across the span of an entire film.
You should always be thinking of ways to draw an audience's attention to the substance of the story.
3. Don't underestimate the power of body language
There's a point, early in the scene, where Corleone and one of the men he has come to kill have a conversation in Italian. Walter Murch has theorized that the use of Italian here is meant to force us to look at body language, to look at what is being said with gestures and with vocal inflections rather than with words. That language speaks loudly about the two men's relationship without ever addressing it directly. As a filmmaker, you should always be thinking of ways to draw an audience's attention to the substance of the story, and much of this can be accomplished without dialogue (or at least not dialogue in an accessible language). An interesting test would be to ask yourself if scenes in your project would work without dialogue, if a viewer could ascertain a story without soundtrack or words, simply watching physical expression. If the answer is no, perhaps that would be an indication of areas where your script or premise needs strengthening.
4. Use music as a stimulant
In this scene, music works with the story rather than dominating it. Murch describes the music here as "a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than the device that creates that emotion." The scene has no musical soundtrack until the murders, at which point operatic music swells, telling you a number of things, among them that we have just watched Michael cross a significant threshold between his peaceful private life and the chaos of the gangsters' world. Music should be calculated carefully—If used properly, it can be a boon to a film; if used lavishly or without restraint, it can significantly hinder the viewer's experience.
As one watches this scene, many other elements arise which shed a light on the film as a whole, providing lessons for any of us trying to build complex, nuanced and engaging stories. Share some of these in the comments.