Saturday, May 16, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola's reply to Hollywood: 11 notes on the horse head sequence in The Godfather

1) The Godfather is all about power--the difficulty of how to keep it, but more about how to lose it, and Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo use the various sons of the Corleone family as object lessons either way. Initially, Coppola needs to establish the nature of Don Vito Corleone's power after the opening scene of his daughter's wedding. We've already seen various men reduced to supplicants before Corleone behind the scenes at the wedding, but we still don't know much about his techniques. So when Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino) asks for the Don's help with a studio producer who refuses to let him have a starring role in a new picture, the Don sends his adopted son Tom (Robert Duvall) to Hollywood to "make him an offer he can't refuse."

2) How does Coppola make enduring art out of a slightly cheesy but popular gangster novel? He does it in part by saturating the movie with references to other classic movies--Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, untold gangster films, and in the case of this particular sequence, The Leopard and Citizen Kane. The first wedding sequence ends with the Don and his daughter Connie serenely dancing, which evokes the climactic dance of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963) where the aging Prince and the young Angelica waltz. That film depicts Sicilian aristocracy in decline in the 1860s, but part of the power of that moment lies in how the Prince does retain some dignity and a sense of superiority over the nouveau riche, as if the movie was both celebrating and mourning the loss of a more noble period. Perhaps Coppola meant for the viewer to associate Don Corleone with a declining aristocratic savoir faire of an earlier time.

3) After the screen fades to black, big band jazz music kicks in as a plane bearing Tom Haden lands in Los Angeles. The music is so leisurely as it brings on a montage of lacquered shots of 1940s Hollywood, one may not realize that it also makes a melodic reference to the bandleader whom the Don had to threaten to get Johnny out of a contract earlier in his career. Tom arrives at the gate of Woltz studios, where he has to negotiate entry. As the jazz music continues to play, Tom works his way into an increasingly claustrophobic interior of sound stages, including one shot where the vertical lines of two buildings seem to entrap him.

4) Tom enters the studio to find Jack Woltz (John Marley) kissing an ingenue amidst the flashbulbs of reporters and signing (his autograph?) for the press. He gives a good idea of his modest ego when he refers to himself in the third person: "Woltz is listening."
Tom replies, "You're going to have some union problems. My client can make them disappear. Also one of your top stars has just moved from marijuana to heroin."

"Are you trying to muscle me?"

"Absolutely not."

"Listen to me, you smooth talking son of a bitch. . . . Johnny Fontaine will never get that movie. I don't care how many dago wop guinea greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork."

"I'm German Irish."

"Well let me tell you something my Kraut Mick friend, I'm going to make so much trouble for you . . ."

"I'm a lawyer. I've not threatened."

"I know every big lawyer in New York. Who the hell are you?"

"I have a special practice. I handle one client. Now you have my number." In spite of Woltz's equal opportunity racist outburst, Tom still politely shakes his hand and ends with " I will wait for your call. By the way, I admire your pictures very much."

5) I like the way the scene emphasizes the difference in their techniques. The Don sends a lawyer representative who suggests "fixing" various underworld problems in exchange for a favor, but he is a model of restraint who retains his cool in the midst of his negotiations. Woltz, in contrast, comes off as a complete creep--powerful, vain, quick to anger, and very self-conscious of his public appearance (he looks at the reporter with a measure of paranoia when Tom mentions letting Fontaine have that part as a "favor.") On one level, Woltz needs to appear despicable quickly and efficiently so as to retain sympathy for the Don even after he arranges for the terrorist act yet to come. Also, as Woltz brags of himself, saying "Woltz is listening," the Don doesn't even want his name mentioned, so Tom receives his share of verbal abuse due to that wish for anonymity. Power, in this case, is partially defined by the Don's absence. Later, Coppola will underline this point when Tom tells Woltz that "I don't like to use his [the Don's] name unless it is really necessary." The Godfather starts to resemble Yahweh in his reluctance to have his name spoken aloud. His name is too sacred for use in casual conversation.

6) Behind the scenes of the production of The Godfather, Coppola received no end of grief from meddling studio heads at Paramount. Perhaps Coppola's frustration with this interference helped fuel the the virulent nastiness of Jack Woltz's characterization?

7) After Jack Woltz has Tom "checked out," the big band song kicks in again as the scene shifts to Tom getting chauffered to Woltz's swank estate. As Tom and Jack walk past a fountain, Tom says "This is really beautiful." Woltz answers, "Well, look at this [as he gestures to something offscreen], used to decorate the palace of a king." At this point, Coppola makes explicit the way Woltz's estate suggests Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu because the latter is described as a "palace" made up of bits and pieces of architecture shipped in from all around the world. I find it amusing how Woltz, like Kane, assembles an ersatz American sense of aristocracy that he is eager to show off. The centerpiece is his prize racehorse Khartoum, that Woltz describes in this way:

"I wanna show you something really beautiful. You do appreciate beauty, don't you? There we are. $600,000 for a show horse. I bet Russian czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse. Khartoum. Khartoum. I'm not gonna race him though. I'm gonna put him out to stud."

Again, the mention of Russian czars provides another way for Woltz to associate himself with royalty, and I like the way Woltz mentions both "beauty," as if beauty can be owned, as well as his intention to use Khartoum solely for breeding. In this respect, the horse comes to represent potency to an aging, insecure man, thus setting up the symbolic castration to come.

8) The following dinner scene's establishing shot reminds me a bit of the vertical lines closing in on Tom between the sound stages. We see Tom and Woltz eating at a distance and above, as if to again emphasize the size of the estate, but also their extreme enclosure inside a doorway that's also cut off by a banister. This composition traps Tom on all sides. Tom again requests that Johnny get that part in the movie because of the Don's "religious, sacred, close relationship" with his Godson. Woltz tells Tom that Johnny won't get that part, and then Tom counters with "He never asks a second favor once he's been refused the first." How absolute the Godfather is! Everything is a matter of "never" and "religious, sacred." Woltz goes on to explain that he can't grant the Don the favor because one of his ingenues fell in love with Johnny's "olive oil voice and guinea charm" and therefore made him [Woltz] "look ridiculous." It's amusing to see Tom try to eat his meal underneath this verbal barrage that once again stresses how Woltz is chiefly motivated by sexual jealousy of Johnny Fontaine. Woltz ends by kicking Tom out, saying "I ain't no bandleader," once again reminding the viewer of the original Johnny Fontaine story back at the wedding party. Before Tom politely leaves, Coppola frames Woltz's head at a curiously vulnerable angle:

His position reminds me of a similarly odd shot of Norman Bates in Psycho when he realizes that Arbogast has just figured out that Marion Crane stayed at the Bates Hotel under an assumed name.
Is this a Psycho reference or not? Certainly, there are others in The Godfather.

9) At any rate, the scene cuts to dawn outside of the Woltz estate. As we hear crickets, the camera pans over cupid figures. Then there's a sequence of dissolves that are very reminiscent of the opening sequence of Citizen Kane that gradually takes in the Xanadu estate, and eventually moves into Kane's bedroom where he says "Rosebud" and dies. In The Godfather's abbreviated version, we hear the Godfather's signature melody, as the moving camera enters Woltz's bedroom where we find him under the covers with an Oscar prominently displayed on a table to the left. The Godfather went on to win 3 Oscars, including Best Picture. Was this one reason why?

10) As the Godfather melody gets more mischievous and distorted, Woltz wakes to find himself coated with blood. Is he hurt? He then gradually pulls back the covers to reveal Khartoum's head. He screams. Then the scene rapidly cuts back to an establishing shot, and then a shot of the estate outside, where we can still hear his screams in the distance.

11) And then, for me, the most brilliant moment in the entire film. The scene of the estate very slowly dissolves to Marlon Brando as the Don, wearing suspenders. As the scream recedes, Brando raises his eyebrows in an utterly casual, nonchalant gesture and then looks down. We then know that he is responsible for that brilliant bit of symbolic castration and intimidation. He arranged for someone to bribe the guards, execute the horse, behead it, and then carry the head dripping upstairs to Woltz's room fast enough so that the still-warm blood would not disturb him in his sleep. And Coppola constructs the sequence in such a way so that we are happy that the Don orchestrated this payback for all of Woltz's slimy, exploitative, lecherous, racist, arrogant displays of power. Thanks to that one dissolve and that one shrugging bemused gesture, Coppola has our full attention for the rest of the film.


James Walsh said...

Thank you for this scene by scene analysis. It crystalized a lot of the film and my own thoughts for me.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Mr. Walsh. I plan on further developing this line of thought to other sequences in The Godfather. Somewhat like Psycho, this film keeps rewarding closer and closer analysis. I didn't mention that Tom carries a sled soon after the Don gets shot, yet another reference to Citizen Kane, and I have still to work out exactly why Coppola makes so many references to that classic work.

James Walsh said...

Look forward to it.