It’s an iconic image from a film filled with iconic images: Vito Corleone, the titular Don of the Corleone crime family, dresses down Amerigo Bonasera for his lack of respect towards Vito when asking to kill his daughter’s rapist. All the while, he lovingly pets a cat that is in his lap. The dichotomy of the disrespect Corleone feels, the nature of the business they are discussing, and the playfulness of the animal add complex layers to the scene.
As The Godfather achieved success and acclaim, and as every scene began to be dissected, the significance of the cat began to be analysed. Was it a metaphor for Vito’s cunning nature, or perhaps his soft and calm exterior that bellies his brutal acts? Was it specifically meant to show how a man who runs a crime family can be a sympathetic and humanistic figure?
As it turns out, director Francis Ford Coppola didn’t originally mean for the cat to have any kind of meaning because the cat wasn’t meant to be in the scene at all. “The cat in Marlon’s hands was not planned for,” Coppola said according to Time Magazine. “I saw the cat running around the studio, and took it and put it in his hands without a word.”
The story goes that there was a stray cat around at the time. Anyone who has ever been around a cat would probably know that strays wouldn’t be as gentle and agreeable as the one that Brando plays with in the scene, so it seems more likely that the cat belonged to someone at the studio and simply wandered in at the right time.
Coppola was an exacting director, mapping out scenes and dialogue to the utmost degree. But he also allowed for concessions. Brando was famously averse to learning his lines, and cue cards were strategically placed out of camera view to allow him to recite the proper dialogue. The presence of the cat, and Coppola’s quick thinking, led to a brilliant new facet to a scene that was already overflowing with tension.