Possibly the greatest film ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is nearly three hours long, unfailingly epic in the scale of its action set-pieces and the breadth of its cast, and closes with a awe-inspiring orgy of violence in its famed baptism-of-fire montage.
It is strange then that, when asked to pinpoint the inciting incident that kick-starts the story, most people get it wrong.
The Inciting Incident is the hook that drags the main character into the story or starts his or her journey; the point of no return; the catalyst for the film’s second act.
‘You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?’
The lead character of a film has to desire something badly – it is not simply enough that he or she wants to win/achieve/succeed at something. They must want it so badly that it means everything. The struggle to win/achieve/succeed at whatever this something is, due to obstacles the writer places along the way, creates conflict and conflict makes for powerful, dramatic scenes that keep the audience hooked. To what extent the protagonist’s plight arouses the audience’s empathy and reflects aspects of their own lives back at them, how high the stakes are regarding whatever it is they desire and how thrillingly and enticingly the obstacles are overcome will reveal the skill and talent of the writer.
The spine of The Godfather, despite its ensemble cast and majestic sprawl, details the engagement of the Don’s youngest son, Michael, into the family business and his rise to power, so surely the inciting incident, or first key plot point, that triggers Michael’s entry into the mob business is the Don, his father, being shot five times while buying oranges from a market stall.
Sollozzo, or ‘The Turk’ as he is known, meets with the Corleone family, where he asks for a million dollars in cash, political influence and legal protection for the Tattaglias’ proposed heroin-trafficking venture.
Don Corleone turns Sollozzo down and tells him why. ‘Drugs is a dirty business,’ he says. Sollozzo tells him the Tattaglia family will guarantee his million-dollar investment, to which Sonny jumps in, in typically hot-headed fashion, and says: ‘You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment-?’
The Don, as played by Marlon Brando in unquestionably his most satisfying characterisation, realises immediately the grave error his eldest son and heir has made. Once Sollozzo has left the room, he calls Sonny back in and scolds him: ‘Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.’
But the damage has been done.
Later, Michael meets up with Sollozzo, in the car with corrupt Captain McCluskey, en route to the Italian restaurant where Michael plans to shoot them both, and we cannot help but ruminate upon the way Sollozzo told Tom Hagan: ‘Sonny was hot for my deal, wasn’t he?’ It is Sonny’s indiscretion, and this single line he utters in particular, that leads to the assassination attempt on the old Don’s life, which embroils Michael inexorably in the business his father never intended him to be a part of.