The Godfather is a feast of cinematic riches on all fronts. From the timeless story of honor and family to the parade of career-establishing performances, the 1972 gangster film is about as close to perfect as any film has been and ever will be. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo’s screenplay is noteworthy for the pulpy punch of its dialogue.
Many whole exchanges have etched their way into audience’s minds everywhere, including the opening scenes in Don Vito’s office and also those where the line between personal and business becomes blurred. The film is packed wall-to-wall with quotable passages fondly remembered to this day, so here is a list to help sort through the best Godfather quotes.
“You can act like a man! What’s the matter with you?” – Vito Corleone
This exclamation of words is memorable less for its verbal eloquancy than it is for the stark contrast of acting delivery. Brando creates an air of quiet power and authority in his introductory scenes, using body language and a hushed voice to cue the viewer that Don Vito is a pragmatic thinker and attentative listener whom people get trustworthy advice from. So when singer/actor Johnny Fontane says he doesn’t know what to do when a Hollywood producer blocks his chances at a dream role, the impact of Vito’s unexpectedly loud and harsh response, along with a nice smack across Johnny’s face, hits that much harder.
“Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” – Kay Adams
“Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?” – Michael Corleone
As part of the New Hollywood movement that started in the late ’60s, The Godfather was created in a time where counter-culture was becoming the culture and the loss of American innocence brought with it a healthy dose of skepticism towards government actions. While largely divorced of the political messaging that informed many films of this important cinematic era, the film still manages to sneak in moments of pointed cynicism such as this one suggesting that politicians are just wolves in sheep skin, or gangsters hiding behind a veil of legitimacy and national protector status.
“What do you think this is, the Army, where you shoot them a mile away? You got to get up close like this…bada bing you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit!” – Sonny Corleone
Sonny stands apart from the rest of the wide array of characters that populate this film, which mostly strips away much of the pomp posturing that defined the colorful gangsters of yesteryear and deals with the mob business in a more serious tone. On the flip side, Sonny is very much a callback to the kinds of gangster roles that James Cagney made popular in the 1930s, and this juicy line that he delivers to Michael retains the pulpy spirit of the sub-genre.
“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” – Peter Clemenza
Following the surprise assassination of Don Vito’s trusted enforcer Luca Brasi, the Corleone family receives a wrapped gift consisting of a dead fish inside Brasi’s bulletproof vest. The deadly meaning behind the Mafia message, and the memorable way in which it is presented, has allowed “sleeps with the fishes” to echo throughout the decades as an enduring pop culture phrase.
“Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.” – Michael Corleone
Michael’s mob story to his girlfriend, Kay, is notable not only for its amusing pulpy wit, but also for how casually Michael delivers that punch line. Michael assures Kay that he and the rest of his family are different, but his unassuming manner of speaking shows how Michael is already desensitized to gangster violence even before he becomes absorbed into the family business.
“Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.” – Tom Hagen
Although this isn’t a line that is remembered as easily as many of the others on this list, Tom Hagen’s finisher to his failed negotiation with egotistical Hollywood producer Jack Woltz is solidified by the act of shocking gore that follows it, as well as providing a nice bit of character texture that further fleshes out Don Vito’s manner of conducting business.
“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” – Michael Corleone
Despite how much Michael would like to deny this, it is in fact very personal, a common theme for his characterization that will run through all three films. The planned murders of corrupt cop McCluskey and drug runner Sollozzo originate from the tensions that have arisen since Don Vito was shot and put into the hospital, where McCluskey took it upon himself to break Michael’s jaw simply because he could. Michael’s decision to murder the two may have been made under the pretext of eliminating dirty business, but it sets him on a downward moral spiral from which he will never truly recover.
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” – Vito Corleone
Part of the enduring legacy of The Godfather is that it places just as much, if not more, attention on the importance of family honor as it does on all the orchestrated murder and shady gang dealings. The films explore how these men define themselves and their masculinity amongst thieves, notably about how that plays into the unbeatable value of maintaining strong family relations, and none of that is better crystallized than in Vito’s words of wisdom.
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” – Peter Clemenza
One of the qualities of The Godfather that often gets forgotten in conversations that extol the virtues of its sumptuous golden brown cinematography, layered performances and deeply resonant themes, are its rare instances of light humor. These moments often come from Sonny’s unfettered bravado, but the most memorable one of them comes courtesy of minor character Clemenza, who treats his hit job as if it were just another mundane part of his daily routine.
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Vito Corleone
In a series of films that contain scores of memorable pieces of dialogue, too many to possibly cover in a list of just the ten best, it takes a lot to stand out amongst all of them as arguably the most memorable of all. Vito’s assurance of his powerful influence is just the line to do that, especially since the words carry extra weight later in the film through character actions and repeats from other characters. Michael drops the line in his story about blood and signatures on the contract, but it’s the severed horse head placed inside Jack Woltz’s bed that ensures Vito’s line lives in the annals of film history infamy.