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Production Design in The Godfather

Once again, we’ll look at the restaurant scene from The Godfather where Michael meets his family’s enemy Sollozzo and must decide whether to kill him in revenge for the man’s attempt on Michael’s father’s life. In this scene, you’ll see how all the elements of production design come together.

In Chapter 3, Writing, you learned how the writing of this scene focuses on Michael as he has to decide if he has the nerve to pull the trigger and kill Sollozzo, knowing full well that doing so will suck him permanently into the family business. The scene analysis, therefore, was this:

How does the production design help to shape our feelings about the scene?

The entire setting of the restaurant, from its location to its color palette, is designed to do two things: focus attention on Michael (and, to a lesser extent, the person he has promised to kill), and accent Michael’s change of attitude towards his position in his family. This fits in precisely with the scene analysis.

A look at two of the wide shots of the scene (one towards the front of the set, FIGURE 4.16, and the other towards the rear, FIGURE 4.17), and a rough floor plan of the restaurant (FIGURE 4.18) gives us a clue to Dean Tavoularis’ contribution to the message of the scene.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 A shot towards the front of the set, showing the relationship of Michael to the rest of Louis’ Restaurant.

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17 A view towards the back of Louis’ Restaurant in The Godfather.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18 Floor plan for Louis’ Restaurant in The Godfather (X marks where male customers are seated, Y represents females).

In the preceding scenes in the Don’s home, the decor is entirely muted and the costumes dark. Sonny is dressed in a white T-shirt with black suspenders, but his olive skin dominates the shirt’s coloring. Clemenza is in a brown suit that, in the shadows, drops off into black. Michael is in a dark brown suit with a dirty white shirt, whose deep red stripes are so close together that the shirt feels more brownish-red than white. The lighting allows all of the flesh tones to move towards red. In fact, it is only Tom Hagen, who is advocating avoiding the ensuing bloodbath, who has removed his suit jacket, revealing a stark white shirt.

This motif is carried through into the night shots of Michael being picked up by Sollozzo, with a black limousine containing the dark-suited McCluskey and Sollozzo. It is only when the car pulls up in front of Louis’ Restaurant that the red neon signs dominate the frame.

Once inside, we see that the restaurant is long and narrow, the tables arranged in orderly rows. This has the effect of creating a direct corridor from the front doors through to the rear door that, we will later learn, leads to the bathroom. In a metaphorical sense, Michael is truly caught in between two paths of his life. The choice to have the main characters sit at a table in the center of the restaurant is practical, allowing expansive shots from either end of the restaurant, while still keeping the three in the center.

The position of the two neon signs in the front windows, and the mâitre d’s table light in the back of the restaurant, allows Coppola to place these bursts of orange and red color over the shoulders of the two main characters in the scene—Michael and Sollozzo. The reason that these bright elements of colors work so well is that they exist in a world of almost complete browns and blacks, not unlike how Marlin the fish’s orange coloring is the sole brightness once he starts chasing after his stolen son, Nemo, in the scene from Finding Nemo that was described earlier in this chapter. Like most of the production in The Godfather, the decor in the restaurant is made up of dark wood, the men’s costumes are primarily black and brown suits, and the walls are a nondescript white with dark reddish-brown patterns on them, which Gordon Willis’ lighting exposes at nearly the lowest levels.

Coppola and Tavoularis introduce these colors—the neon red and pink of the signage in the front windows—at the beginning of the sequence, as the car pulls up in front of the restaurant. Coming out of the dark blacks and browns of the preceding night scenes we cannot fail to notice them. At the first shot inside the restaurant, we notice that the decor and lighting feel very much the same as in the preceding scenes, with the exception of those colorful bursts. There is also a small orange glow coming from a bulb on the wall next to the bar. These splashes of bright colors also serve a very practical function: They help to orient us in the room. The mâitre d’s station’s orange glow appears over Sollozzo’s right shoulder in his medium shots; the exterior neon signage appears over Michael’s left shoulder (FIGURE 4.19); there is no distinguishing color behind McCluskey. This creates the sense that Michael and Sollozzo are the important people to follow in this scene, but the striking reds also provide a change of mood from the preceding scenes of the planning of the killing. We are now, the production design is telling us, approaching a momentous event. Something in the design is changing.

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19 During nearly the entire Sollozzo killing scene, either the orange neon sign, or its color, can be seen every time we see Michael.

Having worked with Francis Coppola on The Cotton Club, I can testify that he has a strong desire for realism in his production design, but it is foolish to assume that this means that there are no choices to be made in the design of this scene. The restaurant that they chose to shoot in could have been wider or narrower, the tables here could have been more sparsely placed or crammed in closer to each other, and our main characters could have been seated against the wall instead of in the middle of the set.

So the creative team made plenty of choices in how to present the visuals in this scene. Even the props, from the dark red wine that the waiter pours to the dark tie that Michael is wearing, reinforce the darkness of this story.

Only one other item besides the neon and mâitre d’s light stands out from this dark tone—the tablecloths on each of the 13 tables. Though the lighting allows the tables in the farther areas of the location to become dirty, the foreground tablecloths remain starkly white. Though Coppola and Willis are careful to frame most of the tablecloths out of the frame in the closer shots, and allow them to go dark in the medium shots, they stand out in the wide shots—almost to the degree that we find it hard to locate Sollozzo and Michael in the first wide shot. There is probably a reason for this stark whiteness, besides the reality of how a restaurant like this would wash its linens. The choice of color forces us to see that most of the tables are empty. Michael doesn’t have to worry about shooting any innocent bystanders here.

I should also mention the design of the bathroom, which retains the dark brown tone of the restaurant. The entrance walls are a plain white, which is turned brown with Willis’s lighting. The stalls to the toilet area are the same deep brown as the furniture in the main area of the restaurant. The bowl above the toilet, behind which the gun has been hidden, is constructed of slightly lighter wood than the doors, but it is deep red. Everything in this bathroom is dark, dreary, and dour. When Michael stops to massage his head before re-entering the restaurant he is, therefore, framed by the deep-colored woods.

We have discussed the characters’ wardrobes, but we haven’t discussed their hair and makeup yet. Once again, we find that the choices that were made reflect the overall mood of the film: No one has light hair at all. The closest we come to that are Clemenza’s and Tessio’s balding heads in the preceding scenes. Here, in the restaurant, McCluskey has merely the slightest hint of gray hair on his temple; our two main characters have hair so dark it could have been applied with shoe polish.

The scene, in other words, has an overall patina of dark colors throughout, but allows some stark primary colors to jump out when it serves the story. The bright red neon sign that can be seen over Michael’s shoulder is always looming over him. In fact, it is not until the last LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, when Michael makes the decision to stand up and shoot Sollozzo and McCluskey, that the camera dollies in tight enough to lose the blood-red sign behind him. Michael is finally framed alone, without the sign, in his moment of decisiveness.

It is the very presence of the neon colors over his shoulders during the bulk of the scene that makes their disappearance so strong at this moment. And, of course, it is no coincidence that the change happens at the scene’s strongest LEAN FORWARD MOMENT.

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