Of all The Godfather‘s memorable scenes, perhaps none struck as large a chord with the audience as the baptism sequence. It’s the film’s crescendo, and Francis Ford Coppola expertly cuts back and forth between Michael’s godson’s baptism (a symbol of renewal of life and divine protection) and the brutal slaying of the Corleone family’s enemies. In the book, the planning and execution of the murders consumes dozens of pages, so Coppola came up with the idea of unifying the scenes with the baptism in what he calls an “innovation of the film.”
Though the scene may have been conceived out of practicality, its execution lifted it into the realm of the classics. Coppola used 67 shots over five minutes; the first half average six seconds, while the next half are roughly a third of the length each. Between the pacing and the juxtaposition of violent killing with religious ritual, Coppola made a statement about Michael’s willingness to gamble with his soul. But like many scenes, this one didn’t come together until the very end. Coppola wasn’t happy with the sequence. It never really worked, he said, until one of the film’s two editors suggested he overlay an organ track over the entire collection of shots. The sequence is proof that necessity is often the mother of great invention, as long as the director is willing to allow his ears, as well as his eyes, serve as his guide.