Seeing. Movies. One Door Opens and another Door Closes: Michael Corleone’s transformation in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather

January 14, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post: This essay is part of series by David Carl

One hour, one minute, and 39 seconds into The Godfather, Michael stands outside the hospital where his wounded father lies. Seven minutes and 6 seconds later he stands outside the same hospital and lights a cigarette for Enzo the baker. In the course of those 7 minutes everything has changed in the life of Michael Corleone.

I’d like to move slowly through the hospital scene, lingering on a few specific images that provide us with visual clues to this transformation, and say a few things about the techniques Coppola employs to create what I consider to be the scene of maximum dramatic tension and suspense in the movie. It is significant that this moment of maximum drama is also the moment of transformation for the movie’s main character.

Before examining the hospital scene in detail I should point out that, at one level, nothing really happens in the scene. Instead, the action is devoted to avoiding what could happen, or what will happen if Michael doesn’t take firm and decisive steps to prevent it. We might say that the action in the hospital scene is internal, rather than external. The action takes places within Michael, and within us, as viewers and interpreters of this internal action. For other than brief interactions with a nurse who remains virtually faceless throughout the scene, with his speechless father lying in bed, and with the civilian baker Enzo about whom we heard but who we did not meet in the scene in the Don’s office during Connie’s wedding, Michael plays the scene alone.

Throughout the hospital scene there is no actual violence, though the end of the scene is punctuated by the violent moment when Captain McKluskey, brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden (see Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar, Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, and Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye among others), breaks Michael’s jaw. Coppola creates the moment of greatest suspense in the movie through suggestion and possibility, rather than through direct action. In comparison, the scenes in which Luca Brasi is garroted, Don Vito is gunned down in the street, Michael shoots Sollozo and McKluskey, Carlo beats Connie and Sonny beats Carlo, and Michael’s hitmen eliminate the enemies of the Corleone family, are all more intense “action sequences”, but they lack the suspense and excitement of the hospital scene created by the tension of the possible as opposed to the actual.

As I said, the hospital scene begins at 1:01:39 and ends 7 minutes later at 1:08:45. It consists of a total of 72 cuts and shots. Walter Murch, who was a close friend of Coppola’s during the shooting of The Godfather and worked as the editor and sound editor on several of his movies said this about editing Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:

“. . . at the end of it all, when the film was safely in the theaters, I sat down and figured out the total number of days that we (the editors) had worked, divided that number by the number of cuts that were in the finished product, and came up with the rate of cuts per editor per day—which turned out to be . . . 1.47!” (Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye)

Granted, Murch’s example from Apocalypse Now is offered as one extreme of the editing process; but if Murch’s average did hold true for this particular scene in The Godfather it would mean that an experienced editor, working 8-hour days, would have needed 7 weeks to edit the hospital scene. That’s a minute of film per week. Averaged over the entire movie, that would mean it would have taken 3 and a half years to edit the entire three-hour movie. These numbers help us appreciate that each of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene is part of a carefully choreographed and well thought-out vision of the effects the scene is intended to achieve. Some cuts last nearly 30 seconds, others last an instant, but every one of them has been constructed to lend to the overall impact of the scene as a whole.

 The scene starts with the hospital entryway: the archway framed by feeble but colorful Christmas lights offers virtually the only bright colors in the movie for the next 7 minutes. This façade may remind literary viewers of the arch under which Dante passes as he enters Hell which bears the warning, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. And for Michael this scene does represent the end of one particular kind of hope.

Of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene, this initial view of the archway framed by twinkling Christmas lights is the longest at 28 seconds. The scene opens with a view of this archway, allows a taxi to pull into frame and deposit Michael into the scene without cutting, and ends with Michael moving toward the building he is about to enter. The camera angle makes Michael look small in comparison to the looming, ominous archway and staircase he is about the climb. Small and virtually lost in shadow, Michael approaches the staircase. Seven minutes later, when Michael is again on the stairs, the camera angle is shifted and medium close-up shots are used so that Michael looks larger and more significant.

We linger for a full 28 seconds on this shot to build suspense, which the music in the soundtrack emphasizes, and because it is beautifully composed. The use of light, shadow, color and camera angle create a beautiful image of a threatening façade that Michael must penetrate as a first step in his own journey toward replacing his father and becoming the Godfather. This archway serves as a frame through which Michael will pass and, in the course of a few minutes, be transformed, entering into a stage of his life that his status as a “war hero” and his relationship with non-Italian Kay suggested he had been able to escape. But his passage through this eerily lit archway into the hospital is also a passage into a life that neither he nor his father had ever wanted or expected him to take.

The first cut is to an empty hospital hallway. Throughout the hospital scene empty hallways are used to create tension and suspense. Some of these shots only last a few seconds, but they have a significant dramatic effect. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia about how George Lucas helped Coppola add these empty hallway shots in after the scene had been shot to build dramatic tension. This footage was found among originally discarded strips of film.)

As with the shot of the entryway, this shot starts with a fixed view of a stationary location into which motion is introduced by means of a side entrance. In the first shot an arriving taxi; here, Michael who is now inside the hospital. The taxi’s entrance is from the left of the screen; Michael’s entrance balances this motion by coming from the right. These establishing shots first introduce the audience to the setting, and then allow action to move into the frame that has already been established by the stationary camera.

Hallway

There is something beautiful about the nauseous hospital green of the cramped corridors through which Michael walks and through which he and the nurse maneuver the bed bearing his helpless father. The camera work is confined to these narrow passageways, which restrict our view, leaving us with the impression of the ominously unseen. This sense of the ominous is further increased by the eerie music of the soundtrack and the bizarrely repeated word “tonight” that echoes through the building, though whether as part of the external soundtrack or an inexplicable part of the ambient sounds of the hospital I can’t say. It is one of the strangest phonic devices in the entire movie. Although there is no dialogue in the movie for several minutes, these sounds are accompanied by the ambient noises of an empty building with its eerie creeks, slams and footsteps.

When I watch movies I am particularly interested in walls and doorways. Doorways, of course, are obviously important: they are both passageways for the entry and exit of characters in a scene, and they are also excellent frames for action. Just as the movie screen itself is a frame that allows the director to establish a specific shot for the audience’s contemplation, so too are doorways frames within frames. They serve to further highlight a specific image or action that appears on the screen. The most famous example of this in the Godfather, and one of the most famous in the history of cinema, is the final image in the film, during which the door slowly closes between Kay and Michael as he is receiving the loyalty of his new mafia retainers who kiss his hand and address him for the first time as “Don Corleone.” We see here most explicitly, if we did not realize it before, that the Godfather of the film’s title is not the character of Vito played by Marlon Brando, but the new Godfather played by Al Pacino.

Kay hiding

This closing door in the final scene of the movie is more than just a symbol—it is also a physical portrayal of one of the main themes of the film: the gulf between the personal and “business” that grows wider and wider over the course of the film as the old way of doing business is gradually overwhelmed by a new way which threatens the family values that underlay the criminal empire under Vito’s control. Michael speaks of “my business” when talking to Kay, whereas Vito always spoke of “the family business.” This is characterized in the film by the never shown but often alluded to drug business, which is the precipitating crisis in the Corleone family’s fall under the old Don and rise under Michael.

Because doors are on hinges, they are not stationary frames, but swinging ones, which open (as in the scene in the hospital when Michael opens the door to his father’s room) or close (as in the final scene with Michael and Kay) in order to build tension and suspense or introduce a sense of possibility or finality. One might say that the door Michael opens in the hospital, to reveal his father whom he must first help and eventually replace, finally closes in the final scene of the movie when Michael’s transformation from “civilian” to “Godfather” is complete.

Once Michael enters the hospital we have a series of shots, some stationary, such as the medium close-up of the half-eaten sandwich, suggesting a hasty departure, and some tracking shots, such as of Michael’s movement through the hallways, that start to build up a sense of dramatic tension. A realization is dawning on Michael, as it is on us the audience, that all is not right here. What started out as a routine visit to the hospital has transformed into a crucial moment for Michael.

Sandwich

The realization is marked first by the close-up of Michael’s face, in which Pacino’s eyes and mouth express the first signs of concern. This is immediately followed by a shot of Michael running. In all of these shots, the camera remains stationary, which means that characters move towards or away from it, coming in and out of focus and obscuring the camera’s line of vision with parts of their bodies.

After his hurried motion through the hallways Michael slows to a walk as he approaches the fateful door to his father’s room. Here we have the cautious opening of a door onto a new world which I have suggested is the compliment to the closing door between Michael and Kay at the end of the movie.

Until this point, the hospital scene has been silent except for the soundtrack and ambient noises. The first spoken lines, by a minor character in the film, are a question and a statement: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here,” the nurse says. Her comment is more right than she realizes. Michael is not supposed to be here. He has tried to stay free of the “family business,” but the pull of family, and perhaps of business as well, is more powerful than he knew. In response to the nurse’s question he must assert an identity which his military uniform during the wedding scene and his relationship with Kay, obviously strained in the scene immediately preceding the hospital scene, has tried to deny, “I am Michael Corleone,” he says, as if acknowledging it for the first time. “This is my father.”

As Michael and the nurse are moving Vito’s bed, the soundtrack introduces the sound of Enzo’s footsteps. Waiting for the person who these footsteps precede, we see the striking close-up of Michael’s face, the right side obscured by another doorframe, as if to suggest the dual nature of the character who is being faced with a life-changing decision—a decision which will gradually lead to the eclipse of the “right” side of his character, as the left, “sinister” side comes forward; in literature the left side is the side of “Satan and all his works” which Michael claims to denounce during the baptism scene at the end of the movie—at the very moment when it is most apparent.

Michael hiding

This shot of the left half of Michael’s face is followed by the gorgeously composed shot of an empty hospital corridor we first saw as the second shot of the scene. There is nothing unusual about this shot, which is precisely what makes it so striking. There is an exit sign, a bulletin board visible at the far end of the hallway, a fire extinguisher, a pair of benches and a hospital cart for wheeling patients. The shot is lit by hospital lighting that gives an eerie glow to the sickly green but immaculately clean walls and floor. At the end of the hall is a staircase, from which we expect, given the expectant tension on Michael’s face, to see some unknown figure emerge at any moment. But the hallway remains empty. Again, nothing happens, but it is precisely this “nothing” that carries the tension and suspense of the scene.

Perhaps this shot feels so real because it is not a set, but an actual hospital. But now seen with the added intensity created by this scene in the movie, it is a hospital corridor as we have never seen it before. It has become, due to the dramatic tension of the film, almost hyper-real, and we as viewers have been brought to a heightened sense of observational awareness. We are looking at the corridor of a hospital we might never bother to notice if we actually found ourselves waiting there for a doctor or a sick friend. As an object of dramatic and aesthetic contemplation the film doesn’t merely ask us to look at this hallway, but educates us in the art of seeing as well, training us to become more observant and better seers of what we are watching and by extension, of the world around us.

Now the cuts come more quickly, building dramatic tension, and culminating in the shadowing figure of Enzo’s back as it emerges from the staircase, his arm cocked and hand concealed as if holding a weapon. He is dressed in the long black coat and hat we’ve come to think of as the gangster’s uniform in the movie (as opposed, for example, to the military uniform worn by Michael earlier in the film, or the tasteless civilian garb of characters like Freddo, Carlo, and Mo Green). But with the next cut we see the innocent face of Enzo, carrying not a gun, but a bouquet of flowers for the injured Don. Enzo has come to show his respect, and to express his gratitude for the Don’s help in resolving his emigration problems. And here Michael repeats the nurse’s question from a minute ago, “Who are you?” It seems that the hospital scene is intent on confronting Michael with this central question of identity: who is Michael, and how will he come to realize who he really is? Enzo’s offer to stay and help if there is going to be trouble, “for your father, for your father” he repeats, is the first sign of loyalty to Michael that we will see symbolized by the kissing of his hand at the end of the film. This gesture too is mirrored by Michael, who kisses his father’s hand after telling him, “I’m with you now.” Only Michael’s kiss is quite different from the kisses of deferential respect he will receive at the end of film, or that Vito receives from Bonasera the undertaker at its beginning.

Michael’s “I’m with you now; I’m with you” brings a tear to his father’s eye, which in the context of this scene looks like a tear of paternal love for a son he thought had grown away from him, but by the end of the film, especially in light of the scene in which Vito confesses his aspirations for Michael, that he might have become a judge or a senator, may be read as a tear of sorrow that his favorite son was unable to resist the pull of the “family business” and make a new life for himself in America, just as the dreams of Bonasera the undertaker in the possibilities of America are dashed by the assault on his daughter and the impotence of the American justice system in the face of this crime.

Michael flowers

At 1:07 we have the beautiful shot of Enzo’s face, waiting on the steps outside the hospital for Michael. Now Michael will exit through the archway he passed under only 6 minutes earlier. Six minutes which, whether he knows it or not, have completely changed his entire life. Now the colors of the Christmas lights are complimented by the color of the flowers Enzo carries. Flowers of gratitude for the Godfather’s favors and protection, but also flowers which may remind us, because of the link between Enzo and Bonasera in the first scene of the movie, of something ominous and funeral. Significantly, Michael will briskly toss them away when he comes out of the hospital to prepare Enzo for the illusion of being a mafia bodyguard. Flowers have no place in this new world he is preparing to take up residency in.

This transformation is given visible expression in the famous scene of Michael lighting Enzo’s cigarette and noticing, without surprise or elation, but rather with a kind of detached observational objectivity, the steadiness of his hands. It is as if Michael is realizing, despite years of attempting to deny it to both himself and those around him, who and what he is. The steady hands are a sign of this internal identity, brought forth by the crisis threatening his father’s life that he has just faced and overcome.

Perhaps Enzo is framed so beautifully because he is the final image of the life Michael could have had and rejects, partially out of love for his father, and partially to fulfill a destiny he was born to and could not avoid. Earlier I referred to Enzo as a civilian. This is how other characters refer to Michael, despite the fact that he first appears in the movie in a military uniform, when they are preparing him for the meeting with Sollozo and McKluskey. But they are wrong and the uniform is right: by the end of the hospital scene, Michael is no longer a civilian, if he ever really was one in his heart. He is “with his father”, and forever separated from the world of bakers and undertakers represented by the beautifully shot Enzo standing alone on the hospital steps. Enzo now represents the world that Michael can protect or exploit, do or extract “favors” for or from, but it is not the world he will occupy. Enzo is an image of the Michael who could have been.

Finally we have the dramatic climax of the hospital scene, where Michael and Enzo stand on the stairway outside the hospital and Michael reaches into his coat for a gun that isn’t there in order to scare off the hitmen who have come to kill his father. Here too we have a moment of suggestion rather than actual action. Michael scares off the men with his confidence—with the threat of violence rather than the act of violence.

Michael smoke

At 1:08:45 the hospital scene ends, with the smoke from Enzo’s cigarette partially obscuring Michael’s face, as if to again emphasize the internal transformation with external visual cues.

In many ways The Godfather is a violent movie and also a movie about violence. But is there not another kind of violence, done to the movie itself, by the viewer who engages in the type of analysis I’ve been doing here? What about the hermeneutic violence performed on the film by the critic? We have lingered over details that would be almost invisible to an audience watching the movie as it was intended to be experienced, in a theatre, without the luxury of a “pause” button and the high resolution of dvd and Blu-ray technology. There is a sense in which this kind of analysis performs an act of violence on the film, tearing apart and looking in isolation at images which were intended to be seen as part of a smoothly flowing whole. But there is another sense in which this kind of artificial viewing attempts to recreate, in order to more deeply understand and appreciate, the acts of creation that gave birth to the film as a work of art in the first place.

When we recall what Walter Murch said about averaging 1.47 cuts a day while editing Apocalypse Now, and then think about the 72 cuts that comprise the hospital scene, we can appreciate the painstaking care and attention that goes into creating each scene in a great movie, a care and attention that both warrants and demands our own thoughtfulness and reflection at their most attentive. When we watch a movie we discover the same truth we encounter when we read a great work of literature or philosophy: there is great pleasure in the having of an idea. And it is in the service of this pleasure of ideas that we perform such acts of analysis and interpretation.

David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for Curious Oyster Seminars, and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Forecasts and Predictions, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.

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