So The Godfather, you know The Godfather, right?
In fact, you don’t know The Godfather. You know the movie and the movie is brilliant, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Coppola and Puzo hashed it out and hashed it out and hashed it until the screenplay was awesome.
And they both believed in the thing. The studio thought it was going to be an utter flop. Coppola had to fight to keep the studio from pulling the plug halfway through.
But never mind all that. What I’m talking about is the book. I was perusing it the other day, because I wanted to steal some technique. Two things, how Mario Puzo sets up such detail so quickly and effortlessly in the book, weaving action and backstory hand in hand — and how he jumps to the already completed action.
We never see how the horse’s head gets into Woltz’s bed. And it’s better that we don’t know. More shocking even. We as the reader and viewer struggle to keep up, the story pulls us forward, and, quite frankly, the little bit of a story we make up to fill in the part we missed is more terrifying and cool and badass than anything that could be written. Because we think we know, or we have the edge of a knowing, but we really don’t know.
But that’s not what I want to talk about either. I want to talk about the Godfather you think you know and a scene that I cannot believe was left out of the movie. Well, I can, because it doesn’t really advance Michael’s story — but the temptation of this scene.
So, the day of his daughter Connie’s wedding, after everybody has left, the Godfather takes his sons and goes to see his old Consigliere, who is dying in the hospital.
Here, let me read it to you.
The family of Genco Abbandando, wife and three daughters dressed in black, clustered like a flock of plump crows on the white tile floor of the hospital corridor. When they saw Don Corleone come out of the elevator, they seemed to flutter up off the white tiles in an instinctive surge toward him for protection. The mother was regally stout in black, the daughters fat and plain. Mrs. Abbandando pecked at Don Corleone’s cheek, sobbing, wailing, “Oh, what a saint you are, to come here on your daughter’s wedding day.”
Don Corleone brushed these thanks aside. “Don’t I owe respect to such a friend, a friend who has been my right arm for twenty years?” He had understood immediately that the soon-to-be widow did not comprehend that her husband would die this night. Genco Abbandando had been in this hospital for nearly a year dying of his cancer and the wife had come to consider his fatal illness almost an ordinary part of life. Tonight was just another crisis. She babbled on. “Go in and see my poor husband,” she said, “he asks for you. Poor man, he wanted to come to the wedding to show his respect but the doctor would not permit it. Then he said you would come to see him on this great day but I did not believe it possible. Ah, men understand friendship more than we women. Go inside, you will make him happy.”
A nurse and a doctor came out of Genco Abbandando’s private room. The doctor was a young man, serious-faced and with the air of one born to command, that is to say, the air of one who has been immensely rich all his life. One of the daughters asked timidly, “Dr. Kennedy, can we go to see him now?”
Dr. Kennedy looked over the large group with exasperation. Didn’t these people realize that the man inside was dying and dying in torturous pain? It would be much better if everyone let him die in peace. “I think just the immediate family,” he said in his exquisitely polite voice. He was surprised when the wife and daughters turned to the short, heavy man dressed in an awkwardly fitted tuxedo, as if to hear his decision.
The heavy man spoke. There was just the slightest trace of an Italian accent in his voice. “My dear doctor,” said Don Corleone, “is it true he is dying?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Kennedy.
“Then there is nothing more for you to do,” said Don Corleone. “We will take up the burden. We will comfort him. We will close his eyes. We will bury him and weep at his funeral and afterwards we will watch over his wife and daughters.” At hearing things put so bluntly, forcing her to understand, Mrs. Abbandando began to weep.
Dr. Kennedy shrugged. It was impossible to explain to these peasants. At the same time he recognized the crude justice in the man’s remarks. His role was over. Still exquisitely polite, he said, “Please wait for the nurse to let you in, she has a few necessary things to do with the patient.” He walked away from them down the corridor, his white coat flapping.
The nurse went back into the room and they waited. Finally she came out again, holding the door for them to enter. She whispered, “He’s delirious with the pain and fever, try not to excite him. And you can stay only a few minutes, except for the wife.” She recognized Johnny Fontane as he went by her and her eyes opened wide. He gave her a faint smile of acknowledgment and she stared at him with frank invitation. He filed her away for future reference, then followed the others into the sick man’s room.
Genco Abbandando had run a long race with death, and now, vanquished, he lay exhausted on the raised bed. He was wasted away to no more than a skeleton, and what had once been vigorous black hair had turned into obscene stringy wisps. Don Corleone said cheerily, “Genco, dear friend, I have brought my sons to pay their respects, and look, even Johnny, all the way from Hollywood.”
The dying man raised his fevered eyes gratefully to the Don. He let the young men clasp his bony hand in their fleshy ones. His wife and daughters ranged themselves along his bed, kissing his cheek, taking his other hand in turn.
The Don pressed his old friend’s hand. He said comfortingly, “Hurry up and get better and we’ll take a trip back to Italy together to our old village. We’ll play boccie in front of the wineshop like our fathers before us.”
The dying man shook his head. He motioned the young men and his family away from his bedside; with the other bony claw he hung fast to the Don. He tried to speak. The Don put his head down and then sat on the bedside chair. Genco Abbandando was babbling about their childhood. Then his coal-black eyes became sly. He whispered. The Don bent closer. The others in the room were astonished to see tears running down Don Corleone’s face as he shook his head. The quavering voice grew louder, filling the room. With a tortured, superhuman effort, Abbandando lifted his head off his pillow, eyes unseeing, and pointed a skeletal forefinger at the Don. “Godfather, Godfather,” he called out blindly, “save me from death, I beg of you. My flesh is burning off my bones and I can feel the worms eating away my brain. Godfather, cure me, you have the power, dry the tears of my poor wife. In Corleone we played together as children and now will you let me die when I fear hell for my sins?”
The Don was silent. Abbandando said, “It is your daughter’s wedding day, you cannot refuse me.”
The Don spoke quietly, gravely, to pierce through the blasphemous delirium. “Old friend,” he said, “I have no such powers. If I did I would be more merciful than God, believe me. But don’t fear death and don’t fear hell. I will have a mass said for your soul every night and every morning. Your wife and your children will pray for you. How can God punish you with so many pleas for mercy?”
The skeleton face took on a cunning expression that was obscene. Abbandando said slyly, “It’s been arranged then?”
When the Don answered, his voice was cold, without comfort. “You blaspheme. Resign yourself.”
Abbandando fell back on the pillow. His eyes lost their wild gleam of hope. The nurse came back into the room and started shooing them out in a very matter-of-fact way. The Don got up but Abbandando put out his hand. “Godfather,” he said, “stay here with me and help me meet death. Perhaps if He sees you near me He will be frightened and leave me in peace. Or perhaps you can say a word, pull a few strings, eh?” The dying man winked as if he were mocking the Don, now not really serious. “You’re brothers in blood, after all.” Then, as if fearing the Don would be offended, be clutched at his hand. “Stay with me, let me hold your hand. We’ll outwit that bastard as we’ve outwitted others. Godfather, don’t betray me.”
The Don motioned the other people out of the room. They left. He took the withered claw of Genco Abbandando in his own two broad hands. Softly, reassuringly, he comforted his friend, as they waited for death together. As if the Don could truly snatch the life of Genco Abbandando back from that most foul and criminal traitor to man.
You know, I was going to make some comments about writing and story — but honestly, that was so good, it feels like it would blasphemous.
You know, I had some things I was going to say about writing and crafting stories, and about how I tried to do a similar thing with a story in How to Succeed in Evil, but just damn. That is soo beautiful and perfect,
A man so powerful and cunning that someone, a worldly, cunning man who has known him for years, believes that he can cheat death? Holy shit. And double-wow, because, if you think about it at all, what kind of shit has he gotten away with in the past?
And at the same time he is very loving and respectful. Crying at the bedside of a dying friend.
I tried something this with a bit of How to Succeed in Evil — one of the podcast episodes, which you can listen to for free, if you like.
Topper has been kidnapped, and he’s explaining to the guy that Edwin’s not going to pay the ransom. In fact, he’s not going to get away with at all. So he says,
“You got no idea who you’re dealin’ with. No idea. This is Edwin Windsor. Even the devil owes him money!”
A lot more ham-handed and schticky, but it’s the same trick. For that matter it’s the same trick that Arthur Conan Doyle uses with Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
If I tell you I’m a badass, you are skeptical. I’m most likely bragging or trying to sell you something. But, if somebody else tells you that I’m a badass, well, then, you are more likely to believe it.
It wasn’t the trick I went looking for, but I found it anyway.