The Godfather: Surprise, Suspense & Authorial Sensibility

Francis Ford Coppola's sprawling 1972 film The Godfather is a masterpiece of technique, both deeply rooted in the iconographical structures of classical American cinema and willing to embrace the more progressive European influences of the time. The film, which was recently digitally restored and re-released in UK cinemas, openly conforms to, and extends the discourse of, a number of different genres (the gangster film, epic, melodrama and thriller) and is unquestionably one of the finest examples of each category. In this article, I will analyse two sequences from the film with particular emphasis on Coppola's use of two structuring devices closely associated with the thriller genre: surprise and suspense. I will also examine how these devices directly affect Coppola's aesthetic choices for the film. The selected sequences are the infamous 'horse's head' episode and the double-murder at Louis' restaurant.

My primary aim is a close analysis of the Coppola text instead of providing an in depth discussion of surprise and suspense techniques in the cinema - about which there is much disagreement (Derry, 1988) - so in order to differentiate the two structuring devices as swiftly as possible I shall use Alfred Hitchcock's frequently repeated example of two men conversing in a café. Towards the end of their conversation, a bomb suddenly explodes, killing both men, thus creating a feeling of surprise in the audience. However, if the conversation was preceded by a scene showing a third person planting the bomb in the café, the audience's reading of the sequence would be significantly altered. Providing this extra piece of information changes the focus from the general question 'what will happen next?' to the more specific 'when will the bomb detonate?' and in so doing creates a feeling of suspense in the spectator.

The Hollywood sequence is built around the most notorious 'surprise' reveal in The Godfather. It is also one of the many times where the film switches narrative perspective to a supporting character. The sequence has very little bearing on the main plot of the film, but works to underline its 'epic' credentials by adding to the list of colourful secondary characters and subplots. It also creates a certain amount of tonal foreshadowing within the text. This is the Corleone family's first active demonstration of power in the film and Coppola chooses to reveal this at an unhurried pace.

Dispatched to persuade movie producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to allow Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) to star in his new high-profile war film, Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) appears small and solitary in a series of long shots as he quietly ghosts through the expansive Hollywood studio backlots. Hagen and Woltz inhabit contrasting business worlds; Hagen, unassuming and business-like, is both brother and son in the family, whereas the ostentatious, bigger-than-life Woltz is forever seen surrounded by his employees to whom he has no discernable emotional attachment. Throughout the sequence, Hagen, the most outwardly reserved of the Corleone inner circle, is placed in a position of weakness in relation to the belligerent Woltz. Coppola's patient build-up of the power dynamic is imperative for the reveal in the proceeding scene to work as a surprise, as it suddenly reverses the audience's reading of the entire sequence. Even when endeavouring to be welcoming after discovering that Hagen works for the Corleone family, Woltz abruptly ends their dinner with a torrent of verbal abuse. However, Woltz's supremacy is visually contradicted as he angrily jumps up out of his seat and glowers over Hagen, the position of the camera remaining at Hagen's level and at no point diminishing him by looking down upon him. This discreet foreshadowing is essential so that the audience believes the sudden power reversal to be entirely plausible.

The reveal scene begins with a wide establishing shot of Woltz's palatial mansion at dawn. The dreamy atmosphere is emphasized by the pan/zoom and tilt/zoom swirl of the camera as it climbs up to Woltz's bedroom and by the use of lengthy dissolves between each shot. These elaborate camera moves are conspicuous in a film with a resolutely 'classical' visual style where camera movement is limited. Entering the bedroom the camera dollies inexorably forward as Woltz begins to stir and the dream-like mood turns nightmarish. There is a fascinating, baffling moment as we see blood on the bed sheets and believe it could belong to Woltz, yet he shows no sign of suffering pain. This confusion does not last long. Unlike the book, which describes Woltz waking up and seeing the stallion's head at the end of the bed and would have seemed rather static on film, Coppola gradually, horrifically, shows Woltz peeling back the blood-soaked sheets to reveal the creamy dead eyes of the horse (Cowie, 1997: 31). The Oscar statue by Woltz's bed has now been joined by his other prized possession, Khartoum, who had earlier been subtly introduced into the sequence. The editing returns to straight cut transitions as Woltz finally awakens to the full Grand Guignol-style horror of what is facing him, his words from the end of the previous scene ("A man in my position cannot afford to be made to look ridiculous!") taking on an unmistakably ironic air. After this, we return to the wide shot of the mansion, but this time it is accompanied by screams of terror. This technique of returning to an established image is used repeatedly throughout The Godfather, showing the aftermath and effect of the violence. The original image -innocuous and tranquil- has been irrevocably altered by a shocking, obscene invasion.

Music is also a very important element in the creation of atmosphere in the reveal scene. At first, creeping through the sounds of the early morning, we hear a distant echo of Nino Rota's slowly building main title theme. As we get closer to Woltz's bed, several variations on this theme are introduced and the music merges the elegiac, the playful and the sinister to create a disturbing and frenzied dissonance. As sound editor Walter Murch describes, the music begins to, "Grate against itself. There is now a disorientating madness to the music that builds and builds to the moment when Woltz finally pulls the sheet back" (Ondaatje, 2002: 101). The swell of the musical score comes to an abrupt end and is replaced with Woltz's piercing screams as he uncovers Khartoum. This striking use of music is somewhat different to the rest of the film where several key scenes are unaccompanied by a musical score, such as the restaurant murders or Carlo's (Gianni Russo) garrotting.

The sequence ends with an elegant dissolve to a close-up of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his indifference seeming to be both a reaction to Hagen's debriefing and a comment on the previous scene which still reverberates in the audience's mind. If Tom is the acceptable face of the Corleone family business, then Vito's cold impassivity is its real face exposed. For Vito, it is simply business. The sequence works as a wholly successful affirmation of Corleone power: not only is the Corleone family name known from east to west coasts of the country (allowing Hagen access into Woltz's home), if required, they can infiltrate and destroy the most intimate parts of one's life.

The sequence also hints at a previously unexpected ruthlessness to Tom Hagen, who has evidently been observing Woltz and looking for a weakness to exploit. The audience suddenly understands why he was able to remain cool and business-like in the face of Woltz's verbal bluster. This sequence could have easily been played for suspense if, as in the re-edited television version of the first two Godfather films, The Godfather: The Complete Novel for Television (1977) (1) we had seen Hagen return to New York and Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) sent to California to carry out the bloody deed. The scene may still have contained a visceral shock, but it undoubtedly would have been diminished by the addition of this information.

The visceral surprise stems both from the repulsive thought that Woltz has been sharing a bed with Khartoum and from the explicit rendering of the decapitated head (which was a genuine horse's head (2)). The explicitness of its violence is one of many ways in which The Godfather signals its progressive intent, though the gangster film has long exploited the appeal of violence in cinema in classics such as Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) (Prince, 2000: 3). In the late sixties, filmmakers like Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde (1967)) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch (1969)) took advantage of changing attitudes towards censorship by creating films whose representation of violence was unsurpassed in its savagery. They did this by daring to show the effect of bullets on the human body, as Prince notes, " (Filmmakers were able to) graphically visualize the impact of bullets on the human body, a detailing that is absent in film prior to 1967 and which helped give violence in these earlier periods an unreal and sanitized appearance" (Prince, 2000:10-11).

In keeping with The Godfather's claims of "authenticity" (Dika, 2000: 78), Coppola seeks to take this level of violent verisimilitude even further with his film; this is not the slow-motion violence of Penn and Peckinpah (often unimaginatively labelled as 'balletic'), instead the violence here is often quick, vicious and unexpectedly graphic as can be seen when Michael (Al Pacino) carries out the double-murder of mobster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Police Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) in Louis' restaurant.

The restaurant assassination sequence is an exemplary example of suspense. In his essay Toward a Theory of Film Suspense, Noel Carroll posits that suspense is created when a film frames specific narrative questions with a limited number of outcomes (Rubin, 1999: 32-36). This is key in identifying the restaurant sequence as a construction of suspense - thus differentiating it from the earlier 'surprise' episode set in Hollywood where narrative questions were rather more generalized. Here the audience asks, 'Will Michael be able to retrieve the gun? Will he complete the plan and kill the two men? Will he escape unharmed?' At this point in the film, Coppola has expertly positioned his audience to articulate such narrative questions and created neatly balanced potential outcomes. For example, with the shooting of Don Vito (in a knowing reference to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)) the film shows a willingness to remove its ostensible leading character and shift narrative perspective so that anyone can become a possible target, while conversely, Michael's confidence under pressure has also been established as he protects his father from Sollozzo's hoods at the hospital.

Another important element in the creation of suspense in this scene is that the audience is supplied with present-tense information that Michael has managed to smuggle a gun into the bathroom of the café – a version of Hitchcock's hypothetical bomb. Due to this shared information the audience is made complicit with Michael and approaches the scene from his perspective. This collusion is explored visually by repeatedly showing Michael in frame-filling close-ups early on in the scene in order to create audience identification, whereas Sollozzo and McCluskey remain at a relative distance in medium close-ups or over-the-shoulder shots (3). In a film rightly lauded for cinematographer Gordon Willis' experiments with underexposure and deep focus tableaux, the tense intimacy of this scene is accentuated by Willis' selection of a telephoto lens to significantly reduce the depth of field and isolate the characters -particularly Michael- from their backgrounds.

Suspense in narrative is also a deferment of information through the manipulation of time. This kind of psychologically reflective time means that the audience is, "Suspended between question and answer, between anticipation and resolution (and) between alternative answers to the question posed" (Rubin, 1999: 35). Accordingly, the pace of the editing in this sequence is cool and deliberate.

Coppola chooses the unusual and unsettling device of not subtitling the lengthy Italian duologue - instead, the audience is left only with the cadences and body language of the actors to convey meaning. The duologue is seemingly unimportant because we know that Michael is not there to negotiate. Pacino, restricting his performance almost entirely to the movement of his eyes, shows enormous trust in the camera to observe every nuance of his performance. Coppola even employs a second distanciation technique of cutting to two wide shots showing the muted activity of the restaurant as Sollozzo is speaking.

It is clear that the film's main focus here is the question of whether Michael will choose to follow the life of crime he thought he had rejected. With the exception of Michael initially not being able to find the pistol, the sequence is surprisingly free of escalating complications until Michael returns from the bathroom and deviates from the plan, which was, in the words of Clemenza (Richard Castellano), "Two shots a piece in the head as soon as you come out the door." Regardless of the moral considerations of the act, the audience is willing Michael to carry out the plan (4). There are only four cuts between the moment Michael returns from the bathroom and the shootings. During this time, Sollozzo and McCluskey are only ever seen at distance, their faces bathed in darkness. The excruciatingly drawn-out pace makes the moment when Michael finally rises and starts firing seem even more sudden and violent. As before, the violence is depicted as both realistic in its presentation and theatrical in its detail; the red mist of blood as the bullet exits Sollozzo's head, Michael's cold gaze as he watches McCluskey attempt to chew his food with a bullet lodged in his throat before blasting a second bullet through McCluskey's head and smashing the window behind him.

The tense atmosphere in this scene is emphasized by the daringly expressionistic use of sound. Contrary to the flamboyant musical cues in the earlier 'surprise' scene, the restaurant sequence dispenses with music until the very end when Michael finally drops the gun and exits. The tone of the music is far from celebratory and instead seeks to underline the implications of Michael's choice and his loss of innocence to save his family.

Without musical accompaniment, what would usually be considered minor sounds such as a cork being unscrewed, become loaded with psychological and metaphorical meaning. Silence in cinema is never entirely silent and each individual sound becomes distinct and relevant. This technique is most noticeable in the use of the train which is established audibly, but never visually. Though the sound does not match the images, the audience, familiar with a certain type of urban environment, simply accepts it as part of the general ambience. As the scene progresses and the tension mounts, the external diegetic sound of the train becomes an almost unbearable scream as Michael jumps up and executes the two men. This kind of audio correlative, that is, a sound with symbolic or metaphorical values, is seldom explored in American genre cinema, but is used a number of times throughout The Godfather- most notably when Carlo is murdered and an imperious Michael is seen wandering along a garden path to the sound of shrieking crows, signifying Michael's newly established position as a harbinger of death. Coppola and Murch would subsequently explore this technique in films such as The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Examining the use of conventional structuring devices such as surprise and suspense is fundamental in understanding how Coppola's personal sensibilities influenced The Godfather. The interplay between these established generic elements, which are used in order to satisfy the narrative expectations of the audience, and the film's progressive European cinema-infused approach created an endlessly fascinating hybrid that signalled the maturation of a new post-classical cinema in America.


(1) The Godfather: The Complete Novel for Television (1977) consisted of the first two films re-edited into chronological order with the addition of scenes that did not make it into the theatrical cuts. The mini-series ran in four parts and was first broadcast on American television in November 1977 (Cowie, 1997: 103).

(2) See Cowie 1997: 49

(3) Also important in establishing this complicity and increasing suspense is that the restaurant is an unfamiliar environment for both Michael and the audience.

(4) This is perhaps indicative of the film's broader amorality.


Apocalypse Now . 1979. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Zoetrope Studios
Bonnie and Clyde . 1967. Dir. Arthur Penn. Warner Bros
The Conversation . 1974. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount Pictures
The Godfather . 1972. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount Pictures
The Godfather: The Complete Novel for Television. 1977. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount Pictures
The Godfather Part II. 1974. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount Pictures
Little Caesar . 1931. Dir. Mervyn LeRoy. Warner Bros
Psycho, 1960. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Studios
The Public Enemy . 1931. Dir. William A. Wellman. Warner Bros
Scarface . 1932. Dirs. Howard Hawks/Richard Rosson. United Artists
The Wild Bunch . 1969. Dir. Sam Peckinpah. Warner Bros


Cowie, Peter (1997) The Godfather Book, London: Faber and Faber Ltd

Derry, Charles (1988) The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, McFarland & Company, North Carolina: Inc., Publishers

Dika, Vera (2000) The Representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Trilogy (Cambridge Film Handbooks), Edited by Nick Browne, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp76-108

Ondaatje, Michael (2002) The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Prince, Stephen (2000) Screening Violence, London: The Athlone Press

Rubin, Martin (1999) Thrillers: Genres in American Cinema, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press