In his review of The Godfather, Roger Ebert explains why we are enamored of the movie’s characters:
We tend to identify with Don Corleone’s family not because we dig gang wars, but because we have been with them from the beginning, watching them wait for battle while sitting at the kitchen table and eating chow mein out of paper cartons.
But however much we identify with the characters, we the audience are always watching them through the eyes of an outsider. And that outsider is Kay Adams, portrayed by the wonderful Diane Keaton in an understated (and sadly, underrated) performance as Michael’s girlfriend and later, his wife.
The movie can be described as a series of unfurling climaxes, each one more poignant than the previous. It reaches its crescendo at the very last shot, when after Pete Clemenza kisses Michael’s hand calling him “Don Corleone”, Al Neri walks up and shuts the door on Kay at the very moment the truth dawns on her.
To me, this image of Kay, one of helplessness and horror is priceless. It is haunting not just because I / we, as the audience, feel a sense of betrayal.
Up until the scene where Connie’s son gets baptized, the audience knows about as much as does Kay. At that point, however, we realize Michael’s ruthlessness, a fact confirmed by the following scene where he gets Carlo killed. Kay knows none of this. Indeed, she only has Michael’s word (“Is it true? Is it?”). She is our on-screen alter ego, yet she knows less about the goings-on than we do. It is at this point that our heart goes out for her. That moment when she recognizes her husband’s true character, we as the audience feel helpless, almost as if we were tasked with breaking a piece of bad news to her, and yet she could surmise that her worst fears were indeed true.
The Godfather is a cinematic masterpiece on so many levels. Indeed I feel that the Academy should have made a special exception and given the movie several Oscars for Best Picture alone; one of which is just for this shot.
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