Don Corleone sits in his living room, across from Tom Hagen and Sonny Corleone. Hagen, fresh off the plane from Los Angeles, fills the two men in on Virgil Sollozzo, "The Turk". Hagen's voiceover continues over an exterior shot of the Genco Olive Oil Company - which is where the Don conducts his business. Hagen thinks that the family needs to get in on Sollozzo's narcotics business because it is "the thing of the future". Cut to a medium close-up of Sollozzo sitting in the Don's office in the Olive Oil building. He requests a million dollars in cash, protection from the police, and access to the Don's political connections - and for that, Sollozzo will pay the Corleone family 30% of his annual take, which will amount to $3-$4 million the first year. As Don Corleone stands and considers the offer, cut to a wider shot - revealing that Tom Hagen, Fredo, Tessio, Clemenza, and Sonny are seated in a circle around Sollozzo. Don Corleone, however, turns down Sollozzo's offer down - saying that "drugs is a dirty business" and could cost him some valuable political connections.
Sollozzo leaves the office and Don Corleone asks to speak to Sonny privately. He chastises his hot-headed son for speaking out of turn during the Sollozzo meeting. Then, Tom Hagen brings in a large, garish bouquet of flowers from Johnny Fontane, who has been cast in Woltz's film. Corleone summons Luca Brasi and asks him to find out what Sollozzo has "under his fingernails". He asks Brasi to go undercover to the Tattaglia family (who support Sollozo) to find out more information. Meanwhile, on 5th Avenue in New York City, Kay and Michael come out of Best & Co after doing their Christmas shopping. They seem blissfully happy. Cut to the interior of Luca Brasi's small apartment, where he puts on a bulletproof vest under his clothes and checks his gun. Over at the Olive Oil offices, Fredo goes to get the car for Don Corleone because Paulie Gatto has called in sick once again.
Cut to Luca Brasi in the lobby of a well-appointed apartment building. The camera follows him as he walks through the corridor into an empty bar and sits down. Bruno Tattaglia offers Brasi a scotch. Moments later, Virgil Sollozzo emerges and confronts Luca Brasi. In Italian, he tells Brasi if he is not happy with the Corleone family, then he should join Sollozzo - who can pay him $50,000 to start. Luca Brasi pretends to consider but instead of shaking Sollozzo's extended hand, he pulls out a cigarette. In a close-up, Tattaglia grabs Brasi's hand and presses it onto the bar, while Sollozzo stabs him. Meanwhile, a third man appears from behind and strangles Brasi with a garrote. After a lengthy struggle, Brasi collapses to the ground - dead.
Later that evening, Tom Hagen exits a toy store, juggling a child's sled and other gifts. He runs into Virgil Sollozzo and tries to avoid him, but Sollozzo insists that Tom get into his car. Tom has no choice. Meanwhile, Don Corleone walks out of the Olive Oil building to see Fredo leaning against their car. The Don asks Fredo to wait while he buys fruit from the stand across the street. As the fruit merchant bags up some oranges, two men in fedoras and trench coats come from around the corner and rush towards the Don. They shoot him multiple times and run away, leaving Don Corleone collapsed on the hood of his car, bleeding. Fredo, in shock, sits over his father and weeps. Bystanders start to gather as Fredo cries out in agony.
Cut to the outside of Radio City Music Hall. Michael and Kay, in a luxurious fur coat and hat, walk outside after watching a show. They are in good spirits until Kay stops short. She pulls Michael to a newsstand - and he picks up a copy of the Daily Mirror with the headline "VITO CORLEONE FEARED MURDERED." Frantic, Michael flips through the paper, but it doesn't say if Don Corleone is dead or alive. He rushes across the street to a pay phone and calls Sonny - who says that the Don is in bad shape and asks Michael to come home. Cut to Sonny and Sandra's home - Sonny hangs up the phone and embraces Sandra, who is clearly on edge. All of a sudden, there is a clattering noise and their baby starts crying. Sonny grabs his gun and goes to the door. It's only Clemenza.
Clemenza claims that word on the street is that Don Corleone is already dead. Sonny angrily asks what Paulie was doing that evening instead of being a bodyguard, and Clemenza says that he'd been calling in sick. After Clemenza leaves, the phone rings - it's Sollozzo, who tells Sonny that he has Tom Hagen. Sollozzo promises to release Hagen in 3 hours with a proposition that Sonny must take seriously. Cut to a darkened diner, where Sollozzo hovers above Tom Hagen and informs him that his boss is dead. A long shot reveals that the diner is entirely empty except for the mafia men. Sollozzo is making a move to gain the loyalty of all the New York families and needs Tom Hagen to help forge a peace between himself and Sonny. Tom, in tears, tells Sollozzo he will try - even though he thinks Luca Brasi will still come after Sollozzo. Of course, Sollozzo is not concerned about Brasi. The men step out into the wintry night.
Outside the diner, Sollozzo gets a message from one of his men and exclaims, shocked, that even after being shot 5 times, Don Corleone is still alive. He presses Tom Hagen harder to make sure the deal with Sonny goes through. Outside the Corleone Mall, where two burly button men are guarding the entryway, Michael gets out of a taxi. The darkened house is filled with mourners. Michael finds Clemenza, who shares the news that Don Corleone is going to survive. Cut inside the Don's home office, where Tessio, Clemenza, Sonny, Tom Hagen, and Michael are sitting around a table discussing their next steps. Sonny wonders if Luca Brasi betrayed the Corleones. Clemenza mentions that he hasn't been able to get in touch with Luca all night and decides to try to reach him again.
Tom Hagen, as the Consigliere, tells Sonny that if Don Corleone dies, the family will lose all their political contacts and half their strength. In that case, the other New York families will likely support Sollozzo just to avoid getting pulled into a messy war - after all, World War II only ended a few years before. Therefore, if Corleone dies, then Sonny has no choice but to make the deal with Sollozzo. Paulie comes inside to say that a package has arrived. After Paulie leaves the office, Sonny tells Clemenza to get rid of Paulie - whom he believes sold out the old man. Sonny asks Michael to wait for Luca at his apartment the next day, but Tom Hagen advises Sonny not to pull Michael into the family business. Sonny recants his request and instead asks Michael to try calling Brasi again. Then, Tessio re-enters the room with a large, paper-wrapped package and puts it on Sonny's lap. Sonny peels off the paper to find Luca Brasi's bulletproof vest wrapped around two large dead fish. Clemenza informs the family that this is a Sicilian message that means, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes". Michael hangs up the phone.
Cut to the next morning - Clemenza leaves his modest home and blows a kiss to his wife - who instructs him to come home with cannolis. Clemenza gets into the car - Paulie is driving and Rocco Lampone sits in the back. Clemenza informs Paulie that they are looking for a place to "go to the mattresses". Later, Clemenza asks Paulie to pull over so he can take a leak. The car stops alongside the tall reeds framing the Causeway, with the Statue of Liberty visible in the background. Clemenza gets out of the car and urinates. Meanwhile, cut to a wide shot - and gunshots slice through the silence. Paulie, in silhouette, slumps against the steering wheel. In a tighter shot, Clemenza returns to the car and instructs Lampone to leave the gun behind - but not before grabbing Clemenza's cannolis from the backseat.
Coppola is stunningly efficient in his scene construction - every scene in The Godfather operates on several levels. For example, Tom Hagen briefs Sonny and Don Corelone on Virgil Sollozzo, which is intercut with Sollozzo arriving at the Genco Olive Oil offices. It creates the tone of an average business meeting, even though, through Hagen's voiceover, we learn that Sollozzo is a narcotics dealer who has spent time in prison. This scene places the audience firmly inside the Corleone world, allow us to view their highly illegal and dangerous business dealings through a detached, corporate lens.
Meanwhile, Tom Hagen and Sonny both support the idea of the Corleone family getting involved in Sollozzo's profitable narcotics trade. This sets up the idea of Don Corleone becoming outdated, too attached to the traditional way of doing things and not open to trying risky new avenues. It also shows that Sonny does not think things through, and is drawn to the narcotics industry simply because it means more money for the family. He's not forward thinking.
In his production notebook, Coppola wrote that the meeting between Sollozzo and the Corleone family should play like a "poker game between the Cincinatti Kid and the Old Man" (Jones 67). Their meeting starts on a medium one-shot of Sollozzo, while he lists his conditions for a partnership. Sollozzo is attending this meeting alone, and as Don Corleone rises in a wide shot, it becomes clear that Sonny, Fredo, Tom Hagen, Clemenza, and Tessio are all seated in a circle around Sollozzo. This is the difference between Don Corleone, who has his trusted circle, and Sollozzo, who is still trying to establish his place within the New York City world of organized crime. Don Corleone easily turns Sollozzo down, citing that participation in a "dirty" business like narcotics would alienate his political allies. This may seem like a commonplace business meeting amongst civilized men (in the offices of the Genco Olive Oil Company - the Corleones' legitimate business) but it actually sets the stage for the major conflict in the film - the old guard vs. the newcomer; The established system vs. the young upstart.
Everything in The Godfather is deliberate - Coppola is a master of planting small details and then paying them off in the most satisfying way. There is a short scene of Luca Brasi getting dressed in his apartment, putting on a bulletproof vest. Coppola purposefully added this scene because he wanted the audience to expect a shootout when Brasi goes to meet with Tattaglia and Sollozzo. However, the outcome is even more satisfying when Sonny receives a package containing Brasi's vest wrapped around some large dead fish, indicating "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes".
From the beginning of his career, Francis Ford Coppola drew a great deal of influence from Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, Psycho, was one of his favorite films. In that film, Hitchcock bucked the Hollywood norm by casting a well-known movie star (Janet Leigh) as his protagonist and then having her die within the first 10 minutes of the film. Likewise, as Coppola wrote in his production notebook, "The Don is the main character of this movie, so as in Psycho, we are totally thrown when he is shot" (Jones 78). Like the Corleones, the audience is unprepared for the rapid escalation of the conflict between the Tattaglias/Sollozzo and the Corleone family. Meanwhile, Fredo proves himself to be weak and impotent once again by failing to pull out his weapon in time to defend his father, as well as being the person who vouches for Paulie Gatto, the traitor, and lets him stay home sick.
In each scene in The Godfather, Michael gets more deeply engrained in his family's business, despite his early insistence to Kay that he is not like his family. His distance from his brothers is evident in the fact that he does not find out about Don Corleone's shooting until Kay points out a newspaper headline. Back at the Corleone Mall, Michael is a bystander as Sonny and Tom Hagen try to decide how to retaliate against Sollozzo. Sonny asks Michael simply to stand outside Luca Brasi's house, but Tom Hagen warns him against involving his "civilian" brother in the family business. Here, the boundaries between business and personal start to butt up against each other, especially for Michael. He does not want any part of his father's business - but he loves his father and wants him to survive.
Meanwhile, Coppola portrays the elimination of Paulie Gatto as a strategic, businesslike move - distancing the audience from the violence. Clemenza blows a kiss to his wife before leaving on his errand, just like any other man going to work in the morning. Paulie has an inkling of suspicion that he has been made - because he asks Rocco to shift sides in the backseat (therefore preventing him from having a straight shot into the back of Paulie's head). However, despite this, he drives Lampone and Clemenza around, because it is his duty - and even if he has been made, he knows there is precious little he can do about it. In a wide shot, Clemenza gets out of the car to urinate and just the silhouettes are visible as Lampone executes Paulie with a single shot to the head. "Clemenza and Lampone leave Paulie in the car to make his murder more exposed - to frighten would-be traitors and prove that the Corleone family had not gone soft" (Jones 98). Continuing in the detached tone of this scene, Clemenza makes sure that Lampone does not forget the cannoli in the backseat. In these scenes, Coppola indirectly insinuates that detachment is a necessary tactic that allows these men to look at organized crime like any other job.