Three men enter a restaurant and are shown to a table. A waiter serves wine and takes an order and quickly retreats. A conversation starts between the three, but really just between the two younger men. It goes back and forth in Italian and English and seems to be somewhat tense. One of them stands and head to the bathroom and returns. He takes his seat and the conversation starts again, but he doesn’t seem to be listening. Suddenly he stands, draws a gun and fires, killing his two companions before quickly leaving the restaurant.
“Try the veal” – The Restaurant Scene
This is one most famous scenes in cinema history – the restaurant scene from The Godfather. This film is a monumental achievement in filmmaking and storytelling and contains one of the best acting performances ever – Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. To me, it is the definitive performance of a good man being turned bad and this scene is where he stops being a war hero with a stated aversion to the family business and starts to become the ruthless mob boss.
It is one of the tensest scenes I have ever watched. We know violence is coming, that Michael will at least try and kill these men and break his own code. Michael’s face is all shadows and brooding, sometimes coming close to the “Kubrick Stare” the famous look Kubrick had actors use when trying to convey a loss of sanity.
When Sollozzo and Michael start talking to each other in Italian what they say isn’t subtitled, the audience has no idea what is being said (neither does McCluskey). What is being said though isn’t important, Sollozzo is trying to negotiate, to come to a deal, but Michael isn’t there to make a deal. It’s not long before Michael slips back into English.
One of the tensest parts of the scene is when Michael goes to the bathroom to retrieve the gun that has been hidden there. The tension derives from Michael seems to spend an eternity looking for the gun and the audience begins to wonder if it is even there. Upon finding the gun Michael returns to the table. Solozzo goes into unsubtitled Italian, but this time even Michael is not listening, too concerned with what he is about to do.
“What I want – what’s most important to me – is that I have a guarantee” – Al Pacino
This is Al Pacino’s best performance and quite possibly it might be the best performance. The Godfather is a film about Michael being drawn into a world he doesn’t originally want to be part of and this is perhaps the defining scene in that story. Michael is a war hero and his brother Sonny earlier says how killing someone up close is different to shooting them across a battlefield, he’s referring to the specific physical differences but there are important moral differences. Michael considers his actions in World War Two as moral but murdering these two people, who are undoubtedly bad people, is that moral? Michael’s mind working through this is displayed on Pacino’s face.
“You think too much of me, kid, I’m not that clever”
Whilst this is very much Michael’s scene the other actors do an excellent job. McCluskey is played by Sterling Hayden and Sollozzo by Al Lettieri and I particularly enjoyed Hayden’s performance. A corrupt police captain who seems completely oblivious to the danger he is in, he broke Michael’s jaw and was part of the conspiracy to murder his father, but cannot comprehend that any consequences will fall on him. I also respect the absolute face plant Hayden does when Michael shoots him where he completely overturns the table. In terms of Sollozzo, Lettieri’s performance is quite subdued which I think helps point out that it is not Sollozzo who is really behind the plot, but another more powerful gangster.
The Lack of Music
One particular thing this scene is famous for is the music – or rather the lack of music. The Godfather has a very famous score but for this scene, there is no music. This was a very clear choice by Coppola – in a scene but the director wanted it so nothing took you out of the reality of watching it all unfold. But music in a film is more than just a background tune it can help set the scene and create tension. So whilst there was no music this is most definitely a lot of sound – a train screeches past just as Michael starts shooting, as the carriages rumble by the tension grows.
While some say this may be one of the best scenes ever there are those who don’t even think it’s the best scene in the film. Some prefer the epic opening scene of Vito Corleone meeting with people wanting favours, some the infamous “horse’s head” scene, there are so many to choose from. It is rare to be given so much brilliance in one film.