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On the occasion of his only daughter's wedding, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) hears requests in his role as the Godfather, the Don of his New York crime family. Vito's youngest son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), on leave from the service, introduces his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), to his family at the sprawling reception for his sister Connie Corleone (Talia Shire). Popular singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) pleads for help securing a movie role. Vito soon dispatches his consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to meet the abrasive studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley), who only agrees to cast Fontane after waking up in bed with the severed head of his prized racehorse.
Shortly before Christmas 1945, drug baron Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), backed by the Tattaglia family, asks Vito for investment and protection through his political connections, but Vito declines and voices his disapproval of drug dealers. Instead, he sends his enforcer, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) to spy on them, but the Corleone family receives a fish in Brasi's vest confirming he "sleeps with the fishes". Sollozzo's assassination attempt on Vito lands him in the hospital, so eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), takes command. Sollozzo kidnaps Hagen to pressure Sonny to accept his deal. Vito's youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) thwarts a second assassination attempt on his father at the hospital, but is accosted by corrupt police Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), who breaks his jaw.
Sonny retaliates by having Bruno, Tattaglia's son, killed. Michael comes up with a plan to hit Sollozzo and McCluskey that his brother approves over Hagen's objections. On the pretext of settling the dispute, Michael lures the pair to a restaurant, retrieves a planted handgun and murders them. Despite a clamp down from the authorities, the Five Families erupt in open warfare and the brothers fear for their safety. Michael takes refuge in Sicily and Fredo (John Cazale), is sheltered by associate Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) in Las Vegas. Sonny attacks Carlo on the street for abusing his sister. When it happens again, Sonny speeds for her home but assassins ambush him at a highway toll booth and riddle him with machine gun fire.
Vito learns to his distress that Michael has become involved in the family business; for him he had hoped for something better. However, Michael has fallen in love with Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli) and married her in Sicily. His peace is shattered when a car bomb intended for him takes the life of his new wife.
To end the feuds, Vito meets with the heads of the Five Families, withdrawing his opposition to the Tattaglias' heroin business and swearing to forego revenge for Sonny's murder. He deduces that the Tattaglias were under orders of the now dominant Don Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte). With his safety guaranteed, Michael returns home and over a year later marries Kay. Seeing his father at the end of his career and his surviving brother too weak, Michael takes the reins of the family and promises his wife to make it legitimate within five years.
Biding his time, Michael allows rival families to pressure Corleone enterprises and plans to move family operations to Nevada, while delegating New York operations to members who stay behind. Michael also replaces Hagen with his father as his consigliere; Vito explains to an upset Hagen that they have long range plans for him and the family. Later, Michael travels to Las Vegas, intending to buy out Greene's stake in the family's casinos. Instead, Greene derides the Corleones as a fading power, and Michael's anger is fueled when Fredo falls under Greene's sway.
Vito collapses and dies in his garden in 1955 while playing with Michael’s son Anthony. At the funeral, Tessio arranges a meeting between Michael and Don Barzini, signalling his treachery as Vito had warned. The meeting is set for the same day as the christening of Connie and Carlo's son, to whom Michael will stand as godfather. As the christening proceeds, on Michael's orders, Corleone assassins murder the other New York dons and Moe Greene. Tessio is told that Michael is aware of his betrayal and taken off to his death. After Carlo is questioned by Michael on his involvement in setting up Sonny's murder and confesses he was contacted by Barzini, he is escorted to a car whereupon Clemenza kills him with a garrotte. Michael is confronted by Connie, who accuses him of having her husband killed. He denies killing Carlo when questioned by Kay, an answer she accepts. As Kay watches warily, Michael receives his capos, who address him as the new Don Corleone.