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Michael Corleone's Transformation
From Outsider to Leader:
An Examination Of Coppola's The Godfather

by Daniel "Dano" Algierz

In this paper I will argue that in his film, The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola orchestrates the filmic elements (especially: editing and mise-en-scÚne) to give the audience an intimate view of the complex world of a Mafia Don: Coppola's techniques sensitively portray the life and transformation of Michael Corleone; he leaves his status as a family outsider to become king of the underworld.

Michael is the son of Vito Corleone, Don of the Corleone Crime Family1. The story of The Godfather is the story of both Vito and Michael. Vito passes away and leaves his throne to Michael, who steps out of a seemingly innocent world ordinary American life to receive his father's crown and to assume control of the Corleone Family. As my thesis focuses on Michael, I will recount the events of The Godfather and then discuss Michael's role in the film. Thus, I will present a chronology of The Godfather which covers the events from the title scene until the final credits. After this chronology, I will explain how the film portrays Michael Corleone and his life. In my thesis, I claim that Michael changes from the beginning of the film to the end. Thus, I will examine the opening wedding scene as well as the final scene in which Michael is christened, Don Corleone. In addition, I will study two intermediate scenes, one in which Michael crosses the line and enters the Family, and another which is the baptism sequence, the apotheosis of Coppola's filmic depiction of Michael Corleone's life. The juxtaposition of these four scenes will show the changes in Michael's life as well as the filmic devices which Coppola employs to depict the subtleties of this transformation.

There are over 30 scenes in The Godfather, but here I group them into 13 segments whose titles correspond to significant events in the story:

  1. The Title Screen. A black screen and the song "Main Title," or "The Immigrant."
  2. Action at the Family Compound. Inside his office, Vito Corleone meets with Bonasera, Nazorine the baker, and Luca Brasi. The wedding of Vito's daughter takes place outside of the office and around the family estate. Vito's godson, Johnny Fontane, arrives, sings, and meets with his godfather in his office.
  3. Hollywood. Vito's consigliere2, Tom Hagan, goes to Hollywood to meet with producer Jack Woltz. He tries to get Johnny a part in a big movie, but Woltz refuses. This leads to the famous scene in which Woltz wakes up in bed with a bloody, severed horse head.
  4. The Sollozzo Business. Sollozzo, an associate of the Tattaglia Family, approaches the Corleone Family. He wishes to become partners in a drug operation. The Corleone's decline. The Tattaglia's and Sollozzo respond: they assassinate Luca and "put a hit on" Vito.3
  5. Michael Gets Pulled In. Michael rushes to the hospital to check on his pop, who survives despite being shot five times. Police Captain McCluskey punches Michael, who is protecting his father. Michael's brother, Tom Hagan, arrives with a crew to pick up Michael and protect Vito. Michael returns to the family estate to have a meeting. In the meeting, Michael decides that the Family's best response is to assassinate McCluskey and Sollozzo. Michael volunteers to do the hit himself.
  6. Consequences. A montage sequence in which the Family "goes to the mattresses."4 Vito returns home from the hospital. Michael goes to Sicily until the Family clears him of charges.
  7. While Michael is in Sicily. Abroad, Michael meets Apollonia and gets married. She is killed by men trying to assassinate Michael. At home, Sonny tries to protect his sister and he is gunned down on the causeway.
  8. Michael's Return. Vito arranges a meeting between the most powerful Mafia chiefs from around the country, from the Bronx to Kansas City to California. Here, Vito and Philip Tattaglia amend their bad relationship and Vito explains that he is going to bring Michael home. Home, Michael reaffirms his love for Kay. Vito explains to his capos5 and consigliere that Michael is now the head of the Family.
  9. Michael Prepares. Michael explains that the Family is moving to Nevada. Vito explains to Michael that one of their capos will betray them. Vito dies. At the funeral, Michael learns that Tessio is the one betraying him.
  10. Michael Takes Control. The famous baptism sequence: A montage in which Michael becomes godfather to his nephew while Michael's men assassinate the Don of every rival Family.
  11. Michael Resolves Internal Affairs. Michael has Tessio and Carlo6, the two men in his Family who betrayed him, killed. The Family moves to Nevada.
  12. The New Don. Kay asks Michael if he murdered Carlo. Michael swears that he did not. Kay sees his capos (Rocco, Clemenza, and Neri) enter his office, embrace Michael, kiss his hand and address him as "Don Corleone."
  13. The Ending Credits. The final image of Michael as the new Don fades out and the credits roll against a black background.

The film's first scene has two settings: the interior of Don Vito's office, and Connie Corleone's wedding reception outside the house. The juxtaposition of these first two settings is quite telling, and the start of my comparison. My initial premise is that Michael begins the movie outside of the Family. This is obvious when one looks into the office and examines Vito's persona and then observes the wedding reception and examines Michael's behavior.

Michael's outsider status is expressed by his noticeable distinctions from the family, such as the visual differences between himself and the family as represented by his father. Michael's face is young, and Vito's face is wrinkled and quite old. And their acting makes their physical differences even more marked. Marlon Brando's Vito speaks slowly from the back of his throat with a raspy, almost unintelligible, voice. He is fat and he moves slowly, though thoughtfully. In a distinct contrast, Al Pacino's Michael resembles a nervous and self-conscious prince. He sulks at the table. He speaks quickly in a high voice and emphasizes his words like an adolescent.

Though marked, their physical differences are not as important as the differences between their worlds, their settings. Vito appears in an almost pitch black room. The only things in the room which are lit are Vito's face, his desk, a lamp in the background and the face of any one of Vito's four suppliants. And the seclusion of the this world is depicted by the size and sounds of the office: though it is not claustrophobic, the room is quite small; and there are no background sounds, only the main conversation.

In sharp contrast, Michael appears with Kay as opposed to the entirely male world of his father. His father is inside a dark office, while Michael is outside at a lively Italian wedding reception. Children are running everywhere, men and women are dancing, eating, and drinking. The setting is bright, colorful, open, and full of music and laughter.

The distinctions between these two settings are polar, as are the characteristics of these two men who epitomize their respective worlds. Michael lives in traditional America; he attended an Ivy League school; he is a decorated war hero. Vito lives in the underworld; he is the Don of the most powerful Family in America. Coppola's mise-en-scÚne symbolizes these differences by use of costume and color. In the wedding reception scene, Michael wears a green GI Army uniform which is a bit baggy. In his office, Vito wears an elegant black and white tuxedo which fits him perfectly. Throughout The Godfather, Coppola drapes his mobsters in black and white, whether they are wearing tuxedos or black suspenders and a white ribbed tank-top.

Color itself has an enormous role in The Godfather. White tends to represent general America, while black tends to represent the underworld. Thus, the women and children running around in the wedding scene wear mostly white. White's connection to general America is epitomized by Johnny Fontane's7 all-white suit. In contrast, Vito and his men are draped in both black and white, because they live in both worlds. Thus, Michael is distinctively not a part of the Family as he sits outside of the office, wearing his olive green uniform.

Though Michael is not a part of the Family at this point, he soon gets pulled close to the action as Sollozzo and the Tattaglias try to assassinate his father. Because the Corleones decline a business proposition, the Tattaglias try to get what they want through violence: they ambush Vito as he strolls through Little Italy, buying oranges. They shoot him five times, and although they do not kill him, they do put him in critical condition.

Although Michael is not a part of the Family at this point, he is a devoted son whose first reaction is to protect his father. He runs to the hospital, hides his father, and waits for help to arrive. While Michael is waiting, Captain McCluskey punches him as Tom Hagen arrives with reinforcements. Tom and Michael return to the family estate to discuss the Family's options: Should they strike back? Should they wait for Vito to get better and let him decide? What happens if Vito dies?

For the first time in the film, Michael steps into the Family business. He decides the prudent action is to kill McCluskey and Sollozzo. And he volunteers to do the job himself. Yet at this point, he is still an outsider, as observed by Sonny:

What are you going to do? A nice college boy, en? Didn't want to get mixed up in the family business? . . . You think this is the army where you shoot'em a mile away? You gotta get up close like this, and BADA BING!!! you blow their brains all over you nice Ivy League suit.

Yet the family decides Michael is right. He is best suited for the job as he is unsuspected. They arrange for a meeting between Michael, McCluskey, and Sollozzo. This is the scene in which Michael will do the job: his first kill. The Mafia often regards one's first kill as the point at which one makes the irreversible leap from general America to the land of "goodfellas" and "wiseguys."8

Thus, the scene is of huge importance to Michael's transition. Coppola depicts this scene's importance filmically; as it is Michael's first step in the Family, Coppola employs a series of filmic firsts. This is the first point in which Michael meets with members of another Family in a small room such as Vito's office. Another important observation: this is the first point in which Michael wears a black and white suit.

Another filmic first is the change in Coppola's narration. This is the first time Coppola directs a scene subjectively: the filmic elements in this scene portray Michael's point of view. One example of this subjectivity is Coppola's use of subtitles, or rather, the lack of subtitles. This is the first scene in The Godfather in which a principal character has a conversation in Italian and there are no subtitles. Coppola omits the subtitles because this scene is presented from Michael's point of view and Michael does not understand Italian. Thus it makes sense for the majority of the viewing audience, who do not speak Italian either, not to understand what is going on.

Another filmic device which Coppola uses differently for the first time is sound: this is the first point in which Coppola employs a nondiegetic sound. Just before Michael shoots McCluskey and Sollozzo, he goes through obvious mental anguish. He scrunches his face as Sollozzo speaks. He does not understand what Sollozzo is saying. There are no subtitles. Here Coppola inserts the sound of a train coming to a halt. The sound starts slowly and quietly and gets faster and louder until the trains screeches it sounds as if it is about to burst through the screen! BAM! Michael leaps up and shoots McCluskey and Sollozzo.

Michael has "made his bones." He is now in the Family. He has murdered for the Family and thus proven his dedication and worth. He can now rightfully abandon his green GI uniform in exchange for the black and white garments which the rest of the Family wears. He can now leave behind his high voice and his adolescent speech patterns which he used only a few moments ago.9 He can mature and use a slow, careful manner of speech as done by Vito. Michael has crossed over.

From this point on, Michael's life is different. When he speaks Italian, there are subtitles, thus showing that Michael understands now. He speaks slowly and with a lower, calmer voice, as shown in the scene in which Michael speaks to Vitelli, Apollonia's father. Though Vitelli is agitated and angry, Michael addresses him calmly:

I apologize if I offended you. I am a stranger in this country. And I meant no disrespect to you, or your daughter. I am an American hiding in Sicily. My name is Michael Corleone. There are people who would pay a lot money for that information. But then your daughter would lose a father, instead of gaining a husband.

Here Michael has the most dignified and mature intentions -- a far cry from the Michael who yelps when testing the pistol in the scene with Clemenza just before Michael whacks Sollozzo. This new life of Michael's brings with it an onslaught of violence to individuals Michael loves: assassins kill both Apollonia and Sonny. Just as Michael used violence to enter this world, this new world strikes back at him with violence.

When Michael returns from Sicily, he organizes his life. He reaffirms his love for Kay. Vito establishes Michael's role in the Family and explains to their capos and consigliere that Michael is now their acting Don. This situation shows the two-sided world in which Michael lives: half of his life is devoted to his family, his children, and Kay the New Hampshire girl who represents general America; the other half of his life is spent with his Mafia Family, his capos and consigliere.

Coppola recognizes this complicated dual life and represents it brilliantly in the baptism sequence in the tenth segment of the movie. The plot determines much of the movie up until this point. As director, Coppola used lighting, costumes, and sound effectively yet all his previous uses of the filmic elements cower before the baptism's montage sequence. Here Coppola's direction reaches its apex.

The baptism sequence is a dialectical montage which breaks out of the clutches of traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Coppola edits between the baptism with holy water of a newborn child and the bloody slayings of several Mafia Dons. Coppola's editing cuts produce a level of art which is film at its highest level. Soviet director Sergei Eistenstein would have agreed that within this scene, Coppola creates a dynamic conception of objects: being as a constant evolution from the interaction between two contradictory opposites.10

The scene begins within the dark heights of a Catholic Cathedral in which Michael becomes godfather to Connie's son. As the priest prepares the ceremony, Michael's capos check their weapons and get into position. As the priest anoints the baby with holy water, a barber daubs shaving creme on an unsuspecting Don. As the priest begins the benediction, the Dons walk toward their assassins. As the priest asks Michael if he believes in the Lord, Jesus Christ, and all of his works, Michael's soldiers aim and fire at the rival Dons. As Michael answers yes, he does believe in Jesus and renounce Satan, one sees the rival Dons' bloody bodies scattered across the cement.

Thus Coppola presents the inherent contradictions in Michael's new dual life. While he speaks in one way in one world (with the blessing of the child and his affirmation before Christ), he acts in a completely contradictory way in another world (by ordering the murder of the Don of every rival Family). In this montage, Coppola edits two worlds together in a dialectical fashion:

The superimposition of [these] two [worlds, through the baptism and the slaughters] gives rise to a completely new higher dimension.11

Such a powerful piece of film leaves the audience breathless and mind-boggled. One struggles to understand the complete implications of the montage, and has little energy left to devote to the rest of the film. Thus the following denouement is concise.

Kay asks Michael if he murdered Carlo. He reinstates her faith in him by answering no, he did not kill Carlo. Faith reassured, she walks away from him. Yet, she turns as if to ask him another question. At which point Michael's capos and consigliere close the door to Michael's office, as if to shut Kay out. Yet, just before the door closes, she sees his men embrace him and kiss his hand as they christen him with his new title, Don Corleone.

Thus, Michael has metamorphasized. He has transformed and left behind the innocent weddings in which one first sees him as a young GI. He has made his bones. He is now living in a two-sided world in which he devotes half of his life to his family; and in the other half he orders assassinations and runs the Family business. And through brilliant mise-en-scÚne (such as costumes, editing, uses of subtitles, sound, acting, etc.), Coppola portrays the developments in Michael Corleone's life. Thus, in the last scene in which Clemenza utters the words, "Don Corleone," one owes much of his understanding to Coppola's subtle, precise, powerful, and almost sublime orchestration of the filmic elements.

Post Script

The Godfather is my favorite film. I own a copy of it on Laserdisc and watch it once a month. It is also the subject of an Internet site, music, critical books, and articles. The film received 10 Academy Award® Nominations and its director, Francis Ford Coppola, is without a doubt one of the greatest directors Hollywood has known.12

All other gangster flicks are judged by its standards. Thus, a Jewish gangster movie such as Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America, is honored with the subtitle, The Jewish Godfather. The same is true of gangster films of every ethnicity and variety. The Godfather redefined and revitalized the gangster genre. It is truly the definitive gangster film by which all standards are set.

© 1996 Daniel Algierz. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with permission

I'd like to thank Dano for sending this to me!
Feel free to write to him directly with any comments about his well-written essay!




The Mafia is made up of several major "Families." The Family's head is its Don who decides which actions the Family will take. The Family also goes by other names such as: la famiglia, and La Cosa Nostra ("this thing of ours"). In this paper, I distinguish between the Mafia's use of "Family" and a general use by means of capitalization. When capitalized, family is used in the Mafioso sense; when not capitalized, family is used in the traditional sense. One complication inherent in this topic are the times when family is used for both of its meanings--cases in which I continue to capitalize it.


A consigliere is the counselor in a Crime Family. As the Don's right hand man, he advises his boss and handles internal disputes.


To "put a hit" is to attempt a murder. Synonyms for murder in the Mafioso lexicon: "burn," "break an egg," "clip," "do a piece of work on," "ice," "pop," "put out a contract on," and "whack."


"Going to the mattresses" means secret location while in war with another Family. The term is derived from the temporary war-time hideouts in which the Family's soldiers sleep on mattresses en masse.


A capo, short for caporegime, is a high ranking member of the Family. He is the head of his own particular crew--separate factions within the Family. In this instance, Vito's capos (really capi in Italian) are Tessio and Clemenza. Capo can also be short for capodecina who are the family's Lieutenants.


Carlo is Connie's husband, Michael's brother in-law, and father to Michael's godson, Michael Francis Rizzi.


Johnny Fontane is a famous singer similar to Frank Sinatra. Everyone in America knows who he is. Thus, he is not just an "individual American," -- he is a huge part of American popular culture.


The Mafia term for one's first kill is to "make one's bones." "Goodfellas" and "wiseguys" are one's close associates in the underworld; synonyms include "goombah" and "compare."


A perfect example of Michael's high voice before the shooting is the scene in which Michael is in Clemenza's basement. Michael practices firing the gun which Clemenza has prepared for the job. Michael pulls the trigger: BAM! The gun is loud and Michael yelps: "Ow! My ears!" In contrast, the hardened Mafioso, Clemenza, is not even fazed by the piercing blast. Clemenza himself comments on Michael's kid/outsider status: "We were proud of you, kid." Using the word kid, Clemenza addresses Michael's status, and by stressing were, Clemenza puts Michael's actions as a decorated GI in the past, hinting that something different is soon to come. This quote points toward the transition which Michael makes in the following scene.


Eisenstein, The Dramaturgy of Film Form, p. 161. Eisenstein and his soviet contemporaries are the directors who established montage as the high level of film which it is regarded as today. In films such as Strike and Potemkin, Eisenstein juxtaposed seemingly unrelated shots to produce a greater, or more visceral, understanding of complicated ideas. Eisenstein's juxtaposition of a slaughterhouse and a mass killing is similar to Coppola's juxtaposition in the baptism sequence.


Ibid., p. 164


David Breskin's book, Inner Views: Filmmakers In Conversation, calls Coppola "the heir apparent to Orson Welles." (p.3)


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