The 20 Best Moments From The Godfather Trilogy

Best Moments From The Godfather Trilogy

by Sophie Butcher, John Nugent, James Dyer, Nick de Semlyen, Alex Godfrey |
Published on

The horse's head. The kiss of death. That red cardigan. Where does one start, when trying to list the best, most iconic scenes and moments from one of the best, most iconic trilogies in cinematic history? To celebrate The Godfather turning 50 this year, and the release of our issue dedicated to Francis Ford Coppola's mob masterpiece (order online here), we wanted to know – which key sequences from the epic Corleone crime saga stand out for you? We asked, you responded in your droves, and now, here we have it – the top 20 moments from the Godfather trilogy. Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. Read the list. Enjoy.

20. Vito looking at the Statue of Liberty (Part III)

Is there an image more American than the Statue of Liberty? In The Godfather Part II, it is the first piece of America that a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) lays his eyes on; like millions of immigrants arriving through New York’s busy harbour, the statue is the greeting party, a symbol of optimism and opportunity. Coppola lets the symbolism do the talking here, his camera slowly tracking across the faces of tired poor huddled masses, their eyes full of hope as the statue’s copper torch comes into view, before the camera settles on Vito. Nino Rota’s majestic, sweeping score completes the effect. It is a wordless but extraordinarily affecting moment: the immigrant experience, encapsulated in a single elegant piece of filmmaking.

19. Apollonia's car exploding (Part I)

Moments after hearing of Sonny's death, an on-the-lam Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is dealt a second crippling blow, losing his new Sicilian wife to a failed assassination. Having announced that he'll be driving alone, Michael discovers too late that Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) plans to show off her newly-acquired driving skills. Realising with dawning horror what's about to unfold as turncoat bodyguard Fabrizio (Angelo Infanti) makes a hasty exit, Michael has time only to shout Apollonia's name before both car and bride are immolated in a concussive explosion. It's in this moment, losing everything, that the last vestiges of the war hero are stripped away, leaving only the gangster beneath.

18. "Look how they massacred my boy..." (Part I)

It’s crazy that the studio didn’t want Brando to play Vito Corleone. Especially when you see how powerful he is in the small moments – how emotionally wrought and openly vulnerable this imposing crime lord can be. Arriving at the morgue, an ashen Vito descends in the lift like he’s descending into hell – which, arguably, he is. Lifting up the rug to see his son’s bloodied face, he subtly breaks. “Look how they massacred my boy,” he says. Here we are reminded: this is a film about family. And this is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Brando sells it completely.

17. Kay telling Michael about the abortion (Part II)

In a genre that doesn’t always allow the most room for complex female characters, Diane Keaton as Kay Corleone is one to be grateful for. At this point, her relationship with Michael has come a long way – from sweet companionship with that gentle army boy saying “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me” to a fractured marriage with a man that has become cold, distant and abusive. The breakdown in their partnership comes in this roaring two-hander of a scene, with Kay confessing to having aborted Michael’s child, trying to leave him and to take their children with her. Michael’s violence at the loss of a Sicilian son is disturbing to watch, but Pacino and Keaton play it remarkably.

16. "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" (Part III)

An essential part of any self-respecting Al Pacino impersonator’s repertoire (don’t forget the red cardigan), this may be one of the hammier moments in the Godfather saga, but in context it’s less cheesy than you may remember. As thunder rumbles in the background — a fitting soundtrack for this different kind of movie monster — an older, greyer Michael Corleone, reading spectacles dangling from his neck, considers what must be done and snarls, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in!” Once a Mafioso kingpin, always a Mafioso kingpin, but this Michael is a shadow of the man he once was — the line is followed by him collapsing in the family kitchen.

15. Mary's death (Part III)

Appropriately enough, it is outside an opera house that The Godfather sees perhaps its most operatic, melodramatic moment. On the steps of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Michael’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) is gunned down by a hitman (dressed as a priest, no less), in full view of her stunned parents. The screams that Al Pacino and Diane Keaton let out are blood-curdling, but it’s Pacino’s silent scream that really chills, a truly shiver-inducing death rattle. The recent recut version of this film carried the new subtitle The Death Of Michael Corleone — a reminder, if one was needed, that this trilogy was really a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

14. The final shot (Part II)

One of the things that makes Coppola’s work so genius is his ability to say so much in a shot that seems so simple. In a film with multiple slaps, stabbings and shootings, the final frame still manages to be the most haunting – Michael sat at Lake Cuomo, hand to chin, staring off into the middle distance as the camera moves closer and shadows fall across half of his face. It comes in the wake of a flashback to the Corleone family around the dinner table, waiting to celebrate Vito’s birthday, all the dynamics of the siblings on display. Michael says he wants to join the army, and is left smoking in solitude. Cut to present day, and, after ordering more murders including that of brother Fredo (John Cazale), he is alone, again, driven by the notion of ‘family’ more than ever, but continuing to push his further and further away.

13. Vito's death (Part I)

After all the blood and bullets, Vito’s death – just an old man dying silently of a heart attack – is perhaps the most affecting. There’s a particularly naturalistic feel to this gentle, tender sequence: this is not a great mob boss going out in a blaze of glory, it’s just life. Or, well, death. And as casting director Fred Roos told Empire for our The Godfather issue, some unplanned magic came courtesy of Brando, who improvised the orange peel fangs, getting a genuine reaction from the little boy playing Michael’s son – the fear was real. Here, said Roos, “we get a subtext about Marlon’s Don: a sweet old gentleman but at the same time, a monster.”

12. "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." (Part I)

In Mario Puzo’s book — and the original script — the line merely read, “Leave the gun.” But Richard Castellano, aka Corleone capo Clemenza, threw in an extra three words on set, “Take the cannoli”, creating one of the most quoted bits of dialogue in the history of Mob fiction. Legend has it that Ardell Sheridan, Castellano’s on-screen and real-life wife, suggested the addition, since an earlier scene had established that Clemenza was big on desserts. However it came about, it’s a perfect example of The Godfather’s knack for combining grand, mythic storytelling with tiny human details: a Mafia enforcer post-hit, the Statue of Liberty visible in the background, thinking about deep-fried pastry dough.

11. Vito kills Ciccio (Part II)

For The Godfather Part II’s opening scenes, we go back to Sicily, where it all began. A feud with mob boss Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato) leads to young Vito’s father, brother and mother all being murdered, with the boy barely managing to get away. Fast forward a few decades, and Don Corleone’s rise to power lets him seek revenge in the birthplace that ended up as his family name. Returning to Sicily under the ruse of olive oil-related business, he guts the much older, much frailer Ciccio like a fish (the kind he’ll presumably be sleeping with). It’s a visceral act of payback that demonstrates Vito’s penchant for vengeance – a trait he’s matured out of when we meet him as Brando’s Don, but the spirit of which lives on in Michael for much longer.

10. Michael and Vito's final conversation (Part I)

Sometimes, the quieter scenes have more impact than the shoot-outs. This remarkable tête-à-tête between the outgoing Don and the Don-in-waiting is tinged with sadness — note the offhand remarks peppered in between the business talk (“I like to drink wine more than I used to”) — and you quickly sense the regret felt by both men, in different shades and dimensions. It’s Vito whose regret is plainest, though: gripped with the realisation that his dreams for a son to go legit and become a successful politician have faded. He’s in the family business now. The cycle continues. Coppola ingeniously frames their faces looking towards different corners of the frame: one looking to the past, another to the future.

9. Fredo's death (Part II)

John Cazale's heartbreaking, soulful performance comes to an almost inevitable end in the closing minutes of Part II. At the same moment Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) is gunned down at the airport and Frankie Five Angels (Michael V. Gazzo) opens a vein in the bathtub, the death that hits hardest is the least showy of all. Poor, overlooked Fredo, sitting in a fishing boat, line over the side, quietly reciting a Hail Mary as he waits for the fish to bite. The camera closes in almost tenderly, allowing the barest glimpse of the gun barrel behind him. But we never see the fatal moment. Instead, we cut to Michael, staring out across the water, before dipping his head in regret just as the fatal shot rings out.

8. The door closes (Part I)

They don’t involve a bullet going into a skull, or wire garrotting a throat, or an animal being deprived of its noggin. Yet the final moments of The Godfather are, in their own way, as brutal as any of that. After standing patiently by Michael for the whole film, watching as he becomes more and more isolated, cold and unreadable, Kay can’t take it anymore. “Is it true?” she asks, of whether he’s responsible for a murder. “Don’t ask me about my business,” he snaps. Then he magnanimously allows her to ask the question “this one time”, before lying to her and clasping her in a serpent-like embrace. She laughs, relieved, before leaving the room and turning to see the door to his office being closed, blocking her view of her husband. Scored with Nino Roto’s theme, the moment is operatically haunting, a perfect visual metaphor for the final corruption of the man she loves.

7. Sonny's death at the tollbooth (Part I)

Nobody wants to die at a tollbooth. Certainly not like this: pepper-sprayed to bits by a gazillion bullets. Rushing home, Sonny (James Caan) is ambushed, rival gangsters ensuring that he never goes home again. It is a shocking, brutal attack, and Coppola covers all angles, just to make sure we feel every single bit of pain as Sonny, writhing and wriggling in agony, dies horribly in front of us. The shooting goes on for a merciless 25 seconds, and our own heart all but stops too throughout. And then, even after he’s well and truly dead, he still gets kicked in the head. Christ alive.

Read James Caan breaking down this scene in the latest issue of Empire.

6. "I believe in America..." (Part I)

Wreathed in shadow and intimately shot, The Godfather's opening scene, in which hand-wringing undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) petitions Don Corleone for justice, is a near-perfect introduction to the title character. As he absently strokes his loudly-purring cat (a moggy from the Paramount lot, dropped in at the last second), the Don not only demonstrates the extent of his power, but emphasises the code of honour by which he operates ("We're not murderers"), and how it is respect, not money, upon which he has built the foundation of his empire.

5. Vito stalks and kills Fanucci (Part II)

After suffering at the hands of local gangster Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) and his power moves, Vito decides it’s time to make a move. The hit that kick-starts the young Don’s ascension to crime boss status sees him stalking Fanucci from the rooftops during a crowded street festival, watching him glide through the masses – an easy task, thanks to his prey’s Colonel Sanders-esque all-white garms – before hiding out in a stairwell, taking the shot as Fanucci enters his apartment. The wait for the kill is unbearable, and Vito’s clever deconstruction and dissemination of the gun parts afterwards hints at the icy mob genius that is being pulled forth.

4. The horse's head (Part I)

In a film full of iconography, this is as indelible as it gets: to this day you might still find yourself threatening to send a horse’s head to anyone that crosses you. Only me? Okay. With Vito’s consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) having failed to convince studio boss Jack Woltz (John Marley) to give lousy actor Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) a part in a film, Woltz awakes to find the decapitated head of his equine pal under his blood-drenched sheets, while Nino Rota’s score ratchets up to a terrifying, operatic crescendo. Waltz’s response? “AAAAAARGGHHHH!!” – x10. We hear the final few howls from outside his mansion, as Woltz’s blood-curdling screams look set to wake up the neighbourhood. The message is clear: don’t fuck with the Corleones.

Read Robert Duvall breaking down this scene in the latest issue of Empire.

3. The baptism (Part I)

In the bloody climax of the trilogy’s first film, Michael’s devastating descent into darkness is fully realised. Bathed in the golden light of a big beautiful church, the baptism of Connie’s baby boy is intercut with images of men getting ready, preparing for something – climbing the stairs; putting on a police uniform. As the sounds of the baby’s wails and the dischord of the piano organ grow to a crescendo, we realise something terrible is about to happen. As Michael renounces Satan again and again, the stone-cold ruthlessness of his orders are enacted, and the heads of the mob families that dared to cross him are dispatched with. The formerly good-hearted Corleone boy has not only officially taken on the ‘Godfather’ mantle, he has become what his father always feared, in an unforgettable sequence that has spawned many a tribute since.

2. "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart." (Part II)

It is a raucous New Year’s Eve party in Havana — set to to the chirpy Cuban standard ‘Guantanamera’ — that provides the backdrop for one of The Godfather’s biggest emotional confrontations. As revellers dance around them obliviously, Michael Corleone approaches his wayward brother Fredo, and, with confetti still on their shoulders, plants a smacker right on his brother’s lips: a Mafioso kiss of death. “I know it was you, Fredo,” Michael says, trembling with rage. “You broke my heart. You broke my heart.” Fredo, stunned, can only vainly attempt to prise him off, saying nothing. Like so many other moments in The Godfather, the power and fame of this scene has since permeated popular culture; ‘Fredo’ is now as synonymous a name as Judas Iscariot or Lando Calrissian for kick-you-in-the-teeth betrayals.

1. Michael shoots Solozzo (Part I)

It begins with a Godfather version of a TripAdvisor review. Louis Restaurant, a humble eatery located in The Bronx, is, according to Corleone lieutenant Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda), “A small family place, good food. Everyone minds his business. Perfect. They’ve got an old-fashioned toilet. You know, the box and chain thing.” Turns out, Tessio isn’t just very particular about how he goes to the commode. Instead, this is where Michael Corleone is going to serve up street justice to go with the veal: according to the plan that’s been cooked up, midway through his tense dinner with rival mobster Sollozzo and corrupt cop McCluskey he’ll retrieve a gun that’s been stashed behind the loo, return to the table, then blast both men with bullets.

The subsequent sequence is a tour de force in every sense. It’s clear that Michael’s emotions are boiling over, yet he’s suppressing them just enough that his two dining companions don’t get wise. When he heads to the WC, Coppola draws out the tension exquisitely — Michael fumbles for the gun, but can’t find it, until suddenly it’s there. He runs his hands through his hair, wracked with tension. And when he sits back down, a 30-second close-up of his face — eyes flickering from side to side, lizard-like, as he musters up courage to do what must be done — is augmented not by cliched suspenseful music, but by the rumble of an elevated train, a hellish industrial sound effect that reflects the horror churning in his stomach. Italian, without subtitles, plays over the shot, making us feel as disorientated as Michael. Then, as it becomes almost unbearable, he stands and he shoots. And Michael Corleone’s soul is lost forever.

Empire's The Godfather 50th Anniversary issue is on sale now, with features including an interview with Francis Ford Coppola, some of the cast talking through iconic scenes, a tribute to John Cazale and lots of rarely seen BTS images. Pick up a copy on newsstands now, or click here to order online.

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