The Godfather is Vito Corleone and today is his daughter’s wedding day. Since “no Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day,” people line up requesting favours. First person ushered into Vito’s shadowy office is Bonasera. He feels betrayed by the law. Some kids disfigured his daughter and even mocked him after they went free. Now, he wants street justice. Street justice is Vito’s specialty. After an awkward start, the undertaker eventually shows Vito the proper respect. The favour is granted — on Vito’s only condition that: some day, and this day may never come, he’ll call upon you to do a service for him. Bonasera accepts the terms and leaves humbly, but in high spirits. Vito straightaway consults with his advisors who is best to carry out this beating.
Just outside — in the New York sunshine — there’s much singing and dancing. Since many of the guests are criminals, the FBI are sniffing around. The powerful Don Barzini has the film torn out of a camera because it contains a photo of him. Sonny finds another FBI photographer and smashes the camera on the floor, peeling off compensation from his billfold and throwing the cash on the floor, too.
War-hero Michael has come with his girlfriend, Kay. She asks him about a surly man apparently talking to himself — reciting his respectful speech for when he meets The Godfather. Michael tells her that, in the past, Luca Brasi and Michael’s dad, Vito gave somebody “an offer he couldn’t refuse”.
While Luca held a gun to the man’s head, Vito told him:
“Either your brains or your signature will be on that contract,” which had the desired effect. Kay is shaken by this. Michael assures her it’s a true story, but that he’s different.
Hollywood legend Johnny Fontane arrives at the wedding and all the girls start screaming. He sings a crooning song, then goes inside to speak to Vito. He really wants the lead role in a big, new feature film but studio head, Woltz, is blocking him. This one role could put Fontane back on top again. Vito reassures his Godson he’ll sort it out. He sends Tom Hagen — his personal lawyer — on a plane to Los Angeles to persuade Woltz to hire Johnny.
Tom’s given a tour of Woltz’s large estate and stables, but his request is ultimately rejected. Woltz then starts insulting the lawyer. Tom explains that his employer insists on hearing bad news immediately.
That night, Tom puts the severed head of Woltz’s favourite stallion inside the Hollywood bigshot’s bed. Woltz wakes up next morning covered in blood and screaming. Fontane gets the part soon after.
Back on the east coast, a heroin dealer, Virgil Sollozzo, requests a meeting with Don Vito. He’s asking for finance and political influence. Vito is reluctant — involvement with narcotics would ostracise him politically. At the meeting, in response to Sollozzo’s main request, Vito silently leaves his seat, crosses the room, pours Sollozzo a drink and sits down next to him — then, politely declines Sollozzo’s proposal. It’s hard to imagine a more respectful brush-off than this.
Now alerted to the connection between Sollozzo and the Tattaglia family, Vito sends Luca Brasi to find out more. Luca’s told to pretend he wants to change families. He’s met by Tattaglia and Sollozzo in a deserted bar and they speak briefly. After having had his hand firmly nailed to the bar with a knife, Luca is garroted.
Pauli is off sick, so Fredo offers to drive his dad, Vito around. They stop at a grocer’s shop where Vito’s gunned down. He’s shot five times by two men as Fredo, unusually for a Corleone soldier, panics, fumbles and drops his gun. He then breaks down sobbing with his dad lying in the gutter.
Michael is Christmas shopping with Kay when he sees the news “Vito Corleone Feared Murdered” in a headline. At the Corleone house the top brass all discuss what their next move should be. They ignore Michael and talk over him. A fish wrapped in a Kevlar vest arrives. It’s an old Sicilian message that means: Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.
Sonny, as the eldest son, assumes control of the family while his dad’s in hospital. He wants war. He has one hundred men on the street twenty four hours a day looking for the Turk. He decides the family should “go to the mattresses”. It falls to Clemenza to arrange for these things. They need eighteen mattresses and a good address in which to house them. Pauli, who was due to drive Vito to the fruit stand wasn’t really ill. Because of this betrayal, Clemenza has him shot.
Michael is feeling the vengeance building in him, now — uncharacteristically distant with Kay on the phone as they talk. Alone, he visits his dad in hospital. It’s after dark and, uniquely, Tessio’s men have gone, along with all but one of the nurses. Michael tells her the danger they’re in and quickly, they move his dad’s bed into a safer room. He reassures Vito:
“I’m with you, now”. The weakened Godfather even manages a small smile from his hospital bed.
Sollozzo’s unofficial personal bodyguard Captain McCluskey arrives next at the hospital. He’s so angry, he breaks Michael’s jaw. Only moments too late for this, Tom Hagen arrives with a fresh set of soldiers to guard Vito. He declares that they’re all allowed to legally carry firearms and McCluskey reluctantly stands down.
In an uncharacteristically bloodthirsty suggestion, Michael offers to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey himself. Sollozzo wants a meeting with him anyway, since Michael is still seen as a “civilian”. They expect Michael to be initially frisked, so Clemenza will strategically hide a gun for Michael to use in the toilet of the restaurant. Clemenza’s covered the trigger and handle of the gun in anti-fingerprint tape and he’s left it noisy, so any bystanders are scared off.
At the restaurant with Sollozzo and McCluskey, Michael discusses the attempt on his dad’s life. He then asks permission to use the bathroom. The plan works like clockwork. He comes out armed with the gun and leaves both men dead. Michael is then flown to Sicily to hide.
Under the protection of Don Tommasino and his men, Michael walks freely in the Sicilian hills. He learns that, tragically, all the men there are dead due to all the vendettas there’ve been throughout the years.
On the way to the village of Corleone, there’s a beautiful girl also out walking. It’s love at first sight for Michael and the girl in the purple dress as they both lock eyes with each other. This apparently happens quite frequently and is known as “the thunderbolt”. Michael’s warned that in Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns, but he won’t be dissuaded. The men retire to a café where they discuss this girl in the purple dress some more.
It turns out they’re actually talking to the girl’s dad and all talk of sexy girls immediately stops. The mood gets frosty and the father disappears inside only to return with some men. But, Michael won’t leave. Super cool in the face of danger — the perfect gentleman — Michael proposes marriage to the man’s daughter. An introductory meeting is arranged for the following day. Michael learns the girl’s name is Apollonia.
The two lovebirds walk casually together, he easily helps her when she stumbles — in full view of family and well-wishers who are walking not far behind. Michael festoons everyone with gifts at the wedding and it’s a joyous event.
Back in New York, Sonny’s sister Connie is still being beaten up by her husband. Sonny has repeatedly warned the man, Carlo, not to keep doing this. So, Sonny flies into a rage at the news and drives off at breakneck pace — his protection can’t keep up. He’s stopped at a turnpike on the way there, then the toll operator crouches down. Men with machine-guns appear and Sonny’s riddled with hundreds of bullets. He’s left so bloody and torn that Vito calls in Bonasera’s favour. The undertaker must do everything in his power to prepare Sonny’s body for the funeral. His mother wants an open coffin.
Rather than perpetuating the cycle of vengeance by attacking the Tattaglias, Vito calls a meeting of the Five Families suggesting a truce. At the meeting, he asks for assurances that Michael will be safe from harm when he returns to the States. In the car afterwards, Vito tells Tom he knows now that Barzini has been controlling the Tattaglias all along.
Since Apollonia was killed in a car bomb in Sicily, Michael’s free to remarry. He’s been back in the States for about a year now and he visits Kay, who works as a school teacher. He convinces her that the Corleone family will be entirely legitimate within five years. He then asks for her hand in marriage, telling her he wants to start a family.
Michael now takes over the family — with Vito as his consiglieri. He wants to move all Corleone operations to Las Vegas, swapping the olive oil business with casinos and hotels. There’s some pushback from Hagen and Clemenza, but Vito reminds them both that Michael is now in charge.
Michael flies to Las Vegas. Fredo has laid on hookers and hospitality just for his brother, but Michael’s not impressed — the girls are all made to leave. Johnny Fontane is also there and he agrees to honour his promise to the Godfather after the Woltz affair. He’ll sing at the casino at least five times a year as return favour for the horse’s head in Woltz’s bed earlier.
When big casino owner, and Fredo’s effectual boss, Moe Greene arrives, Michael immediately offers to buy him out. Greene gets angry, then Michael compounds the tension by quizzing him on having “straightened out” Fredo in public by hitting and humiliating him. Fredo jumps to Greene’s defence, but Greene storms out.
“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family, ever,” Michael tells his brother.
Vito passes away peacefully amongst his tomato plants. The Don’s funeral is a lavish affair — with dozens of chauffeur-driven, black limousines each carrying important underworld figures. Michael views all the guests with suspicion. Just before his death, his dad had said that the person who comes to him with news of the Barzini meeting will be the traitor. When Tessio discreetly takes Michael aside, he unwittingly reveals himself as the traitor.
Connie’s daughter’s baptism is the day Michael really settles into his new role as Godfather. While he’s in church renouncing Satan and all his works, Moe Greene, Philip Tattaglia, Cuneo and Barzini are all separately being killed on his orders.
Michael takes special interest in Carlo Rizzi. He wants to be certain Carlo helped Barzini get Sonny to the turnpike where he was shot to pieces. After saying “Don’t insult my intelligence” by lying and amidst reassurances he won’t be harmed — Carlo sheepishly confesses. Soon after, Carlo is garroted.
Connie goes ballistic when she finds out Michael killed her husband — no matter that he was violent to her all the time. She gets hysterical and starts attacking her brother. All Michael can do is defend himself politely and request she sees a doctor. Kay watches all this, suspicious now of Michael.
Kay starts asking Michael if he did actually order the hit on his brother-in-law. He repeats that it’s nothing to do with her and she should mind her own business. Finally, he lets her just this once ask about his affairs. She frames the question she wants answered and he confidently assures her that he had absolutely nothing to do with it.
When she leaves the room, a couple of solemn characters well known to Michael take her place in his office. They respectfully kiss his hand and stand by him. Michael is the new Don and they’ve sworn an oath to him. Michael’s business dealings are now and forever strictly off limits to Kay.
Starring Marlon Brando. Al Pacino. James Caan. Rated X. Dir Francis Ford Coppola. Released in the UK 1972. Runtime 2hrs 55mins