For a character as large and powerful as Sonny, an ordinary death wouldn’t do him justice. So Francis Ford Coppola took inspiration from the finale to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. In that scene — one of the first in which intensely brutal violence was seen in a popular film — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are riddled with hundreds of bullets in a roadside ambush.
Sonny’s death at the tollbooth of the Long Beach Causeway is a study in pacing and anticipation. There are little cues, such as the tollbooth operator dropping the coin, that give away the outcome, but there’s no time. When a half-dozen men rise up with tommy guns, James Caan exudes the horrific pain of being hit by hundreds of bullets as 400-plus squibs attached to Caan’s body, the car and the tollbooth exploded on cue. The scene required three days, and the technicians and explosives cost $100,000, a significant amount for a film with a budget of about $6.5 million.