"I believe in America," states Amerigo Bonasera, framed against a dark background, close to tears. The camera slowly tracks back as he shares his story in a thick Italian accent. His daughter was beaten mercilessly by her boyfriend and his friends, leaving her disfigured. As the camera continues to move backwards, it stops behind the shoulder of the man who is sitting silently across from Bonasera. Bonasera continues, telling the man that the perpetrators walked free and now - Bonasera has come to him, Don Corleone, asking for justice. We hear The Godfather's voice before we see his face. Don Corleone rejects Bonasera's request at first, because Bonasera has distanced himself from Corleone for a long time, trying to stay on the right side of the law. Bonasera breaks down. He kisses Don Corleone's hand and calls him 'Godfather,' asking for his friendship and pledging loyalty. Corleone agrees to take care of the problem. After Bonasera leaves, the Don tells Tom Hagen to ask Clemenza to discipline the boys who roughed up Bonasera's daughter - but no murder.
Cut to the exterior of the Corleone Mall - where celebrations for the marriage between Corleone's daughter, Constanzia "Connie" and Carlo Rizzi are underway. A photographer tries to gather Corleone's family for a photograph, but the Don won't do it without his son Michael Corleone. Outside the gates, men in suits write down the license plate numbers of all the cars parked there. Tom Hagen tells his wife Theresa that he has to "go to work" and retreats into the house, much to her dismay. Meanwhile, Sonny Corleone leads Paulie and Clemenza onto the sidewalk to confront the inquisitive men in suits - who happen to be FBI. On his way back into the house, Sonny smashes the wedding photographer's camera, throwing some bills onto the ground as he storms away.
A Sicilian can never say no on the day of his daughter's wedding. Inside Don Corleone's darkened office, Tom Hagen looks on while Nazorine (a baker) requests the Godfather to help him with Enzo, a young Italian soldier who has fallen in love with Nazorine's daughter. The problem is, the war is over and Enzo risks being repatriated back to Italy. The Godfather easily understands the predicament and instructs Tom Hagen to contact a certain congressman in order to solve Nazorine's problem.
Back outside, the camera follows Michael Corleone, dressed in his marine uniform, as he guides Kay Adams into the wedding reception. The Don watches through the window as Michael and Kay dance. Meanwhile, Luca Brasi sits alone at a table, talking to himself. Kay notices and describes him as 'scary'. Michael agrees and vaguely mentions that Brasi works for Michael's father. Tom Hagen comes to Michael's table and hugs him intimately, saying the Don has been asking about him. Later, Michael tells Kay that Tom Hagen, his adoptive brother, will surely become a 'Consigliere'. Inside the office, Luca Brasi pledges his loyalty to Don Corleone - mechanically reciting the speech he had been practicing outside.
Connie and Carlo dance jovially in the courtyard, and Mama sings. Later, famous singer Johnny Fontane takes the mic and everyone is impressed, especially Kay. As Johnny croons smoothly to Connie, Kay begs to know the story of how the Corleone family knows Johnny Fontane. Michael reluctantly reveals that Don Corleone is Fontane's godfather. When Johnny's star started to rise, he could not get out of an oppressive contract with his bandleader, so the Don and Luca Brasi made the bandleader an "offer he couldn't refuse". Kay's face falls and Michael assures her that even though his family operates that way, he does not. Moments later. Fredo comes to Michael and Kay's table, drunk.
Johnny Fontane sits on Don Corleone's desk and tells him that his voice has grown weak, but he needs to be cast in the lead role in a particular film in order to revive his career. However, the head of the studio has refused to consider Johnny for the part. Downstairs, Sonny has Lucy Mancini up against the bathroom door, her petticoats around her neck. Tom Hagen bangs on the door to beckon him to the office - but Sonny finishes his tryst first. Tom Hagen comes back into the Don's office just in time to see Corleone slap Johnny Fontane across the face for crying like a woman and feeling sorry for himself. Corleone consoles Fontane and promises to make the studio head an "offer he can't refuse".
Outside, Nazorine brings out the lavish, four-tiered white wedding cake. Meanwhile, Don Corleone makes it clear that Carlo, his new son-in-law, will not be involved in the family business. He instructs Tom Hagen to go to California the following day to take care of Johnny's problem. Finally, business is finished and the Don can go enjoy his daughter's wedding. He finally gets his wish - a family photo with Michael included, who brings Kay into the photo as well. Don Corleone dances with his daughter proudly as everyone applauds.
A plane lands in Los Angeles. A yellow taxi pulls into Woltz International Pictures. In a wide-shot of the movie lot, Tom Hagen walks onto a sound stage, where Woltz is on the set of one of his films. Hagen demands the part for Johnny and Woltz takes him aside. Tom assures Woltz that "his client" could make Woltz's union problems disappear and claims that one of Woltz's top stars has a heroin addiction. The daylight streaks into the darkened studio as Woltz shouts at Hagen, insisting that there is no way Johnny Fontane will ever be cast, no matter how many "goombas" threaten him. Hagen remains calm as Woltz hurls insults. He gives Woltz his phone number and leaves quietly. Woltz asks his assistant to check Hagen out.
Cut to Woltz showing Tom Hagen around his lavish estate - the studio head is much kinder now that he knows Hagen works for Don Corleone. Woltz takes Hagen to the stables and shows him a horse named Khartoum - Woltz's pride and joy, worth $600,000. At dinner, Woltz politely tells Hagen that he cannot put Johnny in the film because he seduced one of Woltz's "proteges" and she ran away from the business. Woltz does not want to look ridiculous and starts shouting at Tom Hagen to get out. Tom Hagen calmly asks for a car to take him to the airport.
Early the next morning, the camera moves slowly through Woltz's lavish estate, finally settling on the man's bed, where Woltz lies asleep. He awakens to find blood on his sheets and pajamas. Shocked, he pulls down the blankets and finds the bloody severed head of Khartoum the horse lying at the foot of his bed. He screams and shouts - the agonizing sounds echoing over a wide shot of his opulent home.
The opening line of the film, "I believe in America," plays before Amerigo Bonasera's face appears on screen. This line encapsulates one of the overarching themes in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of The Godfather: The American Dream. Coppola himself said during a pre-production meeting, "[that opening line] is saying that our country should be our family... that it should afford us the protection and honor that, in a strange way, this Mafia family does..." (Jones 141). Vito Corleone's empire is the embodiment of the American Dream - he was a penniless Italian immigrant who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, earning his wealth through hard work, and using his power and resources to take care of his family.
Francis Ford Coppola wanted to view Mario Puzo's fictional mafia family through the lens of American Capitalism - a "modern system for gaining power, a playground..." (Delorme 25). Although Don Corleone is, without a doubt, a criminal, he does have a specific moral code. For example, Bonasera must pledge his "friendship", or loyalty, to the Don in order to get justice for his daughter's attackers. Meanwhile, Don Corleone makes sure that the punishment matches the crime - as he tells Tom Hagen, "we're not murderers..." This statement is also representative of Corleone's business tactics. Bonasera's loyalty may not actually be worth murder - because, as Virgil Sollozzo says later in the film, "Blood is a big expense."
The vacillation between light and dark, public and private, is a constant theme throughout Coppola's film. Outside, Don Corleone's family dances and sings to celebrate Connie's wedding, while behind closed doors, the father of the bride deals in violence and bribery. However, the activities inside the Don's office are crucial to the existence of the merry goings-on in the courtyard. The cat sitting on Brando's lap during this scene (which just happened to be wandering around the Harlem studio where they were shooting) is a symbol of Vito, as Coppola said, "as a gentle man with hidden claws." Corleone does what he has to do in order to maintain his power and therefore, his profits. After all, a lot of people depend on him. He is a godlike figure in this sense, supported by "... the conspiratorial shadows of Gordon Willis's photography [that evoke] the intimacy of some pagan confessional" (Cowie 69).
The wedding scene has long been praised by critics and audiences alike as a rich, authentic tapestry of Italian-American life. Coppola and his cinematographer Gordon Willis decided to the film this scene over 4 days using 6 cameras in order to achieve a cinema verite effect. This scene adds texture to the world of The Godfather and elevates the film beyond the trope of a "gangster" or "mafia" genre picture. Coppola introduces all of the important members of the Corleone family in the wedding scene - some doing their jobs (like Tom Hagen) and some simply enjoying the merrymaking (like Fredo). Vito Corleone is not just the powerful Don in a darkened room, but he is also a proud father, dancing with his daughter on her wedding day. The viewer is made to feel as though he or she has a private audience to the inner workings of this complex world.
Michael's introduction is particularly poignant in the wedding scene and Coppola subtly introduces the dynamic between Don Corleone and his youngest son. First, Don Corleone refuses to have the family wedding photograph taken until Michael is there, which represents the fact that Don Corelone does not control Michael the way he does the rest of the family. When Michael finally arrives, Don Corleone watches him through windows and asks other people, like Tom Hagen, about him, revealing the distance between them. Finally, when Kay Adams (who is as WASP-y and non-Italian as they come) inquires about the Corleone family's relationship with Johnny Fontane, Michael matter-of-factly relays the story of how Don Corleone and Luca Brasi made Johnny's former manager "an offer he couldn't refuse". However, Michael makes it clear to Kay that he does not engage in his family's business. At this point, It seems as though the two sides of the Corleone family - public and private - are capable of co-existing. However, these walls slowly crumble over the course of the film (and its magnificent sequel).
Mario Puzo came up with the phrase "make him an offer he can't refuse", and it has since become a common euphemism for a threat against a man's life. Along the same lines, the audience knows the extent of Don Corleone's violence, but Coppola never shows him actually committing it - which, like the cat's hidden claws, makes him that much more menacing. Gordon Willis filmed the closeups of the Don with shadows covering his eyes so that the audience cannot know what he is thinking. He is an enigma, a very powerful one at that. The first example of the Don's persuasiveness appears in the following sequence, when Tom Hagen goes to Hollywood to negotiate Johnny Fontane's next role with producer Jack Woltz. This scene offers a thorough portrait of Tom Hagen's character - calculated and professional. Tom refuses to use Don Corleone's name at first, fully aware that Woltz will do a background check on him and feel foolish, therefore putting Hagen in a position of power without having to ever raise his voice.
Meanwhile, Coppola wanted to make Woltz a "plausible" villain by showing the producer's deep, meaningful love for Khartoum - which Tom Hagen sees and uses to hit Woltz where it really hurts. Coppola crafted the famous "horse-head" scene subjectively - as Woltz pulls back his sheets, at first he (and the audience) think that he is the one who is injured. Upon seeing the head of the innocent horse, the camera holds on Woltz as he lets out a series of pained, gutteral screams. The message here is twofold - Don Corleone is not afraid to kill innocents to make a point, and that next time, the blood in Woltz's bed won't be coming from a dead horse. The "horse head" act also represents Don Corleone's lingering connections to the old world. Mario Puzo once said in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross that in Sicily, "apparently [mafia dons] nailed the head of your favorite dog to your door as the first warning if you didn't pay the money [for a debt]..." (Jones 63).