How does Michael Corleone complete his transformation from mild-mannered war hero to mafia Don in the finale of The Godfather, and what does Francis Ford Coppola's subtle imagery convey? Based on the original 1969 novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather represents one of cinema history's true undisputed landmarks, making the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and many more. Working from a screenplay by Puzo himself, Coppola's behind-the-scenes battles in bringing the story of the Corelone family to life are well documented but, ultimately, the director's career-defining work was completed, and released to a rapturous response that has only burgeoned as new generations continue to uncover this cinematic classic.
Centered on the infamous Corleone New York crime family, The Godfather begins with Marlon Brando's Vito as the Don of the operation, and Michael, portrayed by a young Al Pacino, is the wholesome son with no interest in his father's business. As a dispute over narcotics threatens the delicate balance between the five main New York families, Michael is forced to take an increasingly prominent role in defending the Corleone empire and quickly emerges as the only viable successor to Don Vito.
Michael's transformation is completed in The Godfather's final act - a sequence widely recognized as one of the greatest movie endings of all time. A flurry of blood, stunning cinematography, violence, metaphor and iconic dialogue, The Godfather's ending delivers on every conceivable level still sets the bar for climactic movie finales almost 50 years after debuting in theaters. As testament to the subtlety of Coppola's directing and the depth of Puzo's script, those closing scenes are also still analyzed and picked apart, as each decade brings fresh eyes to the story. Here's a breakdown of the events that take place in The Godfather's final scenes, and what they tell audiences about the story and characters.
The Baptism Bloodbath
The Godfather's final phase begins after Vito Corleone passes away in the comfort of his own garden. Before his death, however, Vito and Michael, now the undisputed Don of the family, had concocted a grand plan that would not only take all their enemies off the board, but would cement the Corleone legacy for years to come. The plan begins on the day Michael's nephew and godson is baptized.
The man shot by Clemenza in an elevator is Victor Stracci, head of the Stracci family. Although not the biggest threat to the Corleone family, Stracci is in league with Barzini, Vito's main rival. Moe Greene is shot through the eye in a massage parlor. He was an obstacle to the Corleones' Las Vegas interests and had physically attacked Michael's brother, Fredo, in public. The figure trapped and shot in the revolving door is another less prominent head of the Five Families, Carmine Cueno.
A member of Michael's inner circle, Rocco Lampone, shoots Philip Tattaglia as he cavorts with a prostitute in bed. The Tattaglia family were responsible for the attempt on Vito's life earlier in the film. Michael's future right-right man, Al Neri, puts on his old police uniform and takes out Emilio Barzini, the arch-enemy of the Corleone family and the driving force behind Sonny's death. After the celebration is complete, Michael goes on to have Tessio and Carlo, his brother-in-law, killed for their respective betrayals.
Frequently cutting between scenes that feature religious imagery and biblical passages, and acts of brutal, deadly violence make The Godfather's infamous Christening montage intentionally jarring and help establish the type of Don Michael has become. Vito's youngest son renounces the devil at the altar and promises to protect his nephew in the name of Christ. Simultaneously, a series of murders are being carried out in his name. This juxtaposition creates a backdrop of hypocrisy that will come full circle in The Godfather's very last shot.
While Vito and Michael take on exactly the same role as the head of the Corleone crime organization, the baptism sequence casts Pacino's character in a very different light to that of his father. In its opening act, The Godfather depicts Don Vito as a dedicated family man. He dances at his daughter's wedding, wants the family photograph to be just right, and takes care of those that come to him for aid and call him Godfather. The audience knows of Vito's criminal activities and his use of lethal violence against band conductors, but his initial presentation as a family man softens the blow.
As Michael enacts his grand design on the day Connie's child is baptized, and completes his transformation into the new Godfather, he is cast in a far harsher shade of evil. Michael is laid bare as a man who lies in the face of his God, a man who has no qualms about attending a family event while button men commit murder at his behest, and a leader with an icy heart and perfect poker face. Vito was all of these things too - but the inherent darkness wrapped around the position of Don only becomes fully clear when Michael takes the role, switching his alignment from protagonist to antihero.
Throughout The Godfather, music and sound effects are used to represent Michael's state of mind, for example the increasingly loud train noises that build up to Michael's first kill, and the same technique is employed during the baptism scene. As the bodies stack up and Michael continues to look ever more distant, the organ music and baby cries reach a crescendo. This hints towards the conflict at the core of Michael's character - the war between the person he was and the Don he has now become, and it's clear which side is winning the battle.
The Godfather's Closing (Door) Shot
In The Godfather's final scene, Connie hysterically confronts Michael about Carlo's death, correctly assuming that her husband was killed on the Don's orders. Michael neither confirms nor denies Connie's accusations, and merely holds her, before sending his sister downstairs to see a doctor. The confrontation takes place in full view of of Michael's wife, Kay, who has been under strict instructions to never ask about the family business since her husband assumed control. Unable to help herself, Kay asks whether Michael really was involved in Carlo's death.
Responding with anger at first, Michael calms down and allows Kay to ask one single question about his affairs. She does so, and Michael, as cool and resolute as ever, denies having any involvement in Carlo's demise. A wave of relief spreads over Kay's face but after she leaves the room and looks back, she sees Michael surrounded by his three capos, all hugging their leader and kissing his hand. Looking directly at Kay, Al Neri slowly moves towards the office door and closes it, leaving Kay with a mixture of distrust and stark realization.
This scene is the true final phase in Michael's evolution into a mafia boss. The bare-faced lie to his wife acts as a sign that their relationship has become far more distant since those early scenes spent Christmas shopping and is a foreboding sign of things to come, as Michael continues to adopt a double life as a criminal kingpin and an honest family man.
When Clemenza, Neri and Rocco are seen showing respect to their boss, this is a reaffirmation of their allegiance now that the War of the Five Families is over. When Michael first took over from his father and Vito was still alive, many still held Brando's character in high regard, and viewed him as the true Don. By The Godfather's conclusion, Michael is the undisputed heir to Vito's throne and the new Godfather.
In shutting the door on Kay, The Godfather highlights both Michael's decision to close his wife out of his business and the mafia's general attitudes towards a woman's role. While Michael at the outset of the film treated Kay with dignity, respect and an air of equality (for the period, anyway), Michael is now the archetypal Don - running the family business with his capos in a closed office, while the women of the house see to their maternal and domestic duties, those two worlds forbidden to ever collide.
Kay, of course, is an educated, professional woman, and isn't as willing to turn the same blind eye to Michael's activities that other mafia wives might. The expression on Diane Keaton's face that acts as The Godfather's final shot indicates that, despite initially being relieved by Michael's denial, her trust towards him has been irretrievably damaged. Kay no longer feels she truly knows what kind of man her husband is, nor what he's capable of, and views the world within those office walls as the divide between her and the man she fell in love with.