Michael: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
(The Godfather Part III)
Michael utters these words shortly after returning home from a gathering of mafiosi in Atlantic City, where he and Vincent were among the few survivors of a massacre. With this simple sentence, Michael expresses the realization that despite his attempts to become legitimate, he will never be able to escape the Mafia life. Growing up, Michael never expected to be part of the “family business,” and his father and brothers didn’t want it for him. Their hope was that he would become a politician. When Michael does begin to work for and then take over the Corleone family in The Godfather, he has every intention of making its business legitimate. When he proposes to Kay, it is the early 1950s, and he gives himself five years to reform the family. By Part II, it is 1959, and Kay, frustrated by his inability to make good on the promise, winds up leaving him. By Part III, it is twenty years later, 1979, and Michael still hasn’t completed the transformation. But at the beginning of the film, having been awarded the medal of the Order of St. Sebastian and with the Immobiliare deal seemingly immanent, he believes legitimacy is finally within his reach.
Unfortunately, he quickly loses this illusion. In no time, the tension between Vincent and Joey Zasa, the Atlantic City massacre, and the complications around the Immobiliare deal make clear that going legitimate will not be possible. This sentence is Michael’s cry of despair. With it, he acknowledges that he will never be able to escape his past actions. These past actions, as much as other gangsters, are what “pull him back in.” Moments after speaking, Michael suffers a stroke, highlighting the statement’s importance. For Michael, the failure to make the family legitimate is his principle failure. Indeed, the question of legitimacy has always been about more than crime—it has also been an issue of assimilation. There is a Sicilian way of doing things and an American way, and it was Michael’s goal to bring his family into the American mainstream. As such, this quotation touches on the theme introduced by Bonasera in the trilogy’s opening statement. With this single sentence, Michael acknowledges that under his watch, the Corleones never achieved full integration into American society. When Vincent, who seems unconcerned with legitimacy, takes over, there is no indication that they will escape the cycle of violence any time soon. Mary’s death at the end of the trilogy is a grim signal that the Corleone future looks no less dark than its past.