In two key moments of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather 2 (1974), Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kisses his brother Fredo (John Cazale) at a New Year’s Eve party in Havana as a kind of “ocular proof” of his unspoken decision to murder him. In a now-legendary scene, Michael clutches his brother’s head with both hands, stares directly into his eyes, kisses him roughly on the mouth, and declares, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
Especially in the context of the Cuban revolution, whose celebratory origin serves as the occasion for the scene, the kiss renders explicit themes of love and violence which define not only the brothers’ relationship but also the internal battle being fought over Michael’s soul. Coppola staged the kiss as perhaps the pivotal moment in the saga, for in choosing to kill Fredo rather than forgive him, Michael will seal his own fate.
Later in the film, during the brothers’ funeral for their mother, Michael kisses Fredo a second time, signaling to hit man Neri (Richard Bright) that, because their mother is dead, the hit can finally occur. Thus Coppola alluded to two crucial biblical passages — the archetypal first murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and the betrayal of Jesus by his beloved disciple Judas — to dramatize Michael’s damnation.
Both Coppola and screenwriter-novelist Mario Puzo have spoken about their nervousness in screening Michael’s murder of Fredo. As Puzo explained, “We had a disagreement… I didn’t want Fredo to be killed. Psychologically, I felt that if Michael killed his brother while his mother was still alive, the audience would never forgive him.”
Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Together, the writers settled on two focused strategies for handling the murder. The obvious one was to delay the actual murder of Fredo until after the death of his mother. The more interesting strategy, involved their attempt to aestheticize or render “poetic” the murder and the two kisses leading up to it, a move that succeeded by shifting interest from consequence and realism to aesthetics. Coppola thus managed a visual language capable of redeeming the tragic protagonist at precisely the same moments that his damnation is most glaringly self-evident.
“Not all of my ideas went over so well,” the director revealed. “Mario was dubious about the idea that it was Fredo who betrayed Michael; he didn’t think it was plausible. But he was absolutely against Michael ordering his own brother to be killed. It was a stalemate for a while, as nothing would happen unless we both agreed.”
He continued, “Finally I tossed him the idea that Michael wouldn’t have Fredo killed until their mother died. He thought about this for a moment, and then said okay, it would work for him. He was the arbiter of what the novel’s characters would do, while I was offering a kind of interpretation from the perspective of what a movie director would do.”
The kiss of death (Italian: Il bacio della morte) is the sign given by a mafioso boss or capo that signifies that a member of the crime family has been marked for death, usually as a result of some perceived betrayal. It is unclear how much is based on fact and how much on the imagination of authors, but it remains a cultural meme and appears in literature and films.