This statement, as well as its several variations, is probably the most repeated line in the entire trilogy. At times, it seems like the official slogan of organized crime, an organization-wide mantra. All the mafiosi in the films euphemistically refer to themselves as businessmen. They do this in part to hide from the public the violent reality of what they do, but they also use euphemisms when speaking among themselves. Rather than talk plainly, mafiosi speak about the “family business” and “an offer he can’t refuse.” Such manipulation of language reveals a basic discomfort with the truth of their actions. The mafiosi not only need to tell policemen, judges, and congressmen that they are businessmen, they also need to tell themselves. They need to hear the lie so that they can look themselves in the mirror without being overwhelmed by guilt. The frequent use of this line also points to the Mafia-wide desire to keep business and personal life separate. The mafiosi may all work in the “family business,” but the realms of home and office are never supposed to mix. Violence is supposed to leave the wives and children unharmed, and personal feelings are not to influence business decisions. Of course, all this is much easier said that done. While the separation of family and business may sound good in theory, no mafioso seems capable of forgetting that the guy who killed his son did so only to cement a business deal.
Shortly after Michael becomes head of the Corleone family, his father gives him this advice: “Women and children can be careless. Not men.” In the world of the Mafia, Vito tells his son, men and women live in vastly different realms. Men should never discuss “business” with women, and women should never question the judgment of the men. Women can be careless, Vito says, they can make mistakes, because if a woman makes a mistake, no one dies. In other words, women can be not only careless but also carefree. They can live a relaxed life that the men, who must constantly watch their backs, cannot. In The Godfather Part III, the barrier between men and women is breached by Connie, who becomes involved in the family business. But never does any woman achieve status in the family hierarchy equal to that of Vito or Michael, nor does any woman ever have to bear such a tremendous burden of responsibility.
Michael is concerned with legitimacy, while Vito cares more about respect. From the moment he takes over the Corleone family, Michael wants to make his family “legitimate.” By “legitimate” he means free of criminality and immorality. He is also concerned with assimilation. He doesn’t want to kill, bribe, and extort, and he doesn’t want to make money through gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Legitimate means being respected by American law and society. Vito’s concern, on the other hand, is with respect, rather than legitimacy. As a don, he requires respect from everyone around him, and people respect him out of fear and the desire for Vito’s favors. Respect is the backbone of a Mafia family hierarchy, with the top members, such as the don, receiving respect from everyone beneath them. Disrespect, or even inadequate respect, is rewarded with death. Respect establishes power relationships and functions as a method of exchange. For Vito, showing proper respect, kissing the don’s ring, exchanging favors, making requests politely—all these formal gestures are more than just show. They are part of the order that keeps the social structure in place.