Violent, pulpy gangster cartoon featuring our favorite Cro-Magnon-American actor, Charles Bronson.
By Paul Mavis
It can’t just be me: aren’t believably homicidal actors like Charles Bronson looking better and better as the years go on? With today’s clueless movie studios giving us pantywaist pretty boys like Ryan Gosling and Ryan Reynolds as faux-tough guy role models, authentic 1970s cinematic hardasses like Bronson and Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood only rise in our esteem by comparison (and don’t even breathe pneumatic neuter “The Rock” as some kind of rebuttal—if you have to call yourself something like the giggle-inducing “The Rock”…you’re a powder-puff). So I’m stoked about Mill Creek Entertainment’s Charles Bronson 4 Movie Collection, a great-looking 2-disc Blu-ray set that includes The Valachi Papers, The Stone Killer, Breakout, and Hard Times—all of them top-flight meat-and-potatoes actioners featuring the 1970s’ most malevolent, menacing star. Let’s look first at The Valachi Papers.
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1962. The Big House. Aging mobster Joseph “Joe Cargo” Valachi (Charles Bronson) isn’t exactly getting the big welcome he expected, being an underling of fellow inmate and capo di tutti capi, Don Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura). He comes to this conclusion when no one talks nice to him on the bocce ball court and when he almost gets shivved in the shower. You see, Don Vito thinks Valachi is a rat f*ck stoolie and it’s the kiss of death for our two-bit punk Joe. When Joe learns there’s a $20K bounty on his head, suddenly talking to the Feds, in the form of Agent Ryan (Gerald S. O’Loughlin), doesn’t seem so bad after all….
Safe in a new prison and encouraged by Ryan to tell his life story, Joe flashes back to 1929, when he’s sent up the river to Sing Sing for a bungled robbery. There he meets gangsters Dominick “The Gap” Petrilli (Walter Chiari) and Tony Bender (Guido Leontini), both “made men” in La Cosa Nostra (“this thing of ours”), headed up by boss Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman). When Joe gets out of the joint, he looks up “The Gap,” and is quickly hired as a wheel man for Maranzano. When Joe shows initiative in a botched hit job on a henchman of Maranzano’s main rival, Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, Maranzano welcomes Joe into La Cosa Nostra, where Joe pledges undying loyalty through omerta (the vow of silence)…or eternal death by fire in Hell should he violate it.
War rages among the “Five Families” of the New York mafia, as Maranzano declares himself capo di tutti capi after zapping Masseria. However, despite over-educated Maranzano’s efforts to militarize the mob, he eventually gets whacked by Vito Genovese and “Lucky” Luciano (Angelo Infanti)—after Maranzano put out an unfulfilled contract on Vito. On the run and fearing for his life, Joe hides out at his old goombah’s widow’s home, where he falls in love with Maria Reina (Jill Ireland). This helps clear his name with Vito Genovese, who welcomes Joe back into the fold. But soon, Joe will find himself caught between his boss and the FBI.
From what I’ve read online, The Valachi Papers stays reasonably close to a somewhat accurate portrait of mob squealer Joe Valachi’s already hazy biography (can that sentence get any more qualified?). I can assure you, though, that as a seven-year-old kid going to see this at the Jesse James Drive-In (yes, it had a neon sign of a rearing horse and cowboy), I couldn’t have cared less about The Valachi Papers’ historical veracity. All I knew was I was getting to see an R-rated gangster movie with Charles Bronson…so I was cool with whatever the moviemakers wanted to invent. Apparently, contemporary critics not only picked away at the fictionalized elements of this Italian-French co-production from notorious producer, Dino De Laurentiis (“Dino? He’s Horrendous!”), but they also drew decidedly unfavorable comparisons to another little gangster flick that was also in movie theaters back in November, 1972: something called The Godfather.
Author Peter Maas’ book, The Valachi Papers, was published a year before Mario Puzo’s fiction novel, The Godfather, bowed in 1969. Maas had written a magazine article about Joe Valachi in 1963, when Valachi’s televised testimony before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations (a.k.a.: the “Valachi hearings”) blew the doors off federal law enforcement’s official stance that there was no such thing as the “Mafia.” When the Feds, in 1965, encouraged Valachi, along with Maas, to write his life story (for more prosecutorial info), they didn’t count on various “Italian-American groups” screaming for the book to get squashed. Eventually, Maas was forced to alter his strictly first-person narrative into a third-person, generalized account of Valachi’s story.
Hollywood had been sniffing around Valachi’s story since 1963, but once The Valachi Papers became an international best seller in 1968, De Laurentiis pounced and bought the movie rights for $200,000. At one point in 1971, Marcello Mastroianni was attached as the lead, but eventually the producer snagged Charles Bronson—who had previously turned down the role—when De Laurentiis offered him a three-picture/$3 million dollar contract.
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Bronson in 1972 was certainly known in the U.S., but still only as a supporting actor (it would take 1974’s Death Wish to make him, briefly, an A-level Hollywood star). However, he was a massive international star, particularly in Europe (where he was nicknamed “El Bruto”), so De Laurentiis scored a bit of a casting coup for his true-life gangster flick, while also pleasing Bronson with the hiring of English director Terence Young, who had guided Bronson in two previous big international hits, Cold Sweat and Red Sun.
The Valachi Papers filmed in New York City and Rome (De Laurentiis, ever the promoter, invented some hype about being chased out of NYC by the mob), and was scheduled for release by Godfather studio, Paramount, in February, 1973. When Dino harangued Paramount into putting The Valachi Papers out sooner, to soak up some of that Godfather gravy, Paramount bailed and Columbia Pictures picked it up. The Valachi Papers was released in November, 1972, where it earned almost $10 million dollars alone in the U.S.—Bronson’s first headlining hit in the U.S.
Hey, I love The Godfather…the first 15 or so times I saw it. But I’ll be honest that I’m getting a bit fatigued with it; the “greatest movies ever made” always do that to me (Scorcese and Lean are bugging me, too—they roll by on the screen and I’m like, “Is The Facts of Life on MeTV?”). Over the decades, those titles have been programmed to death on TV, cable and now streaming, and just like every Doors, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Boston, Allman Brothers, Journey and especially Bob f*cking Seger song playing on the radio for the millionth time, you eventually get to the point where you want every physical and digital copy of them to be permanently and irrevocably erased from the historical record. So when The Valachi Papers popped up on this disc, whether or not it was comparable to Coppola’s masterpiece—as the critics back then and now deem important enough to discuss—wasn’t even a factor for me. It was just unfamiliar enough—I hadn’t seen it in years—for me to enjoy it thoroughly, getting my gangland genre jollies regardless of its obvious (and sometimes glaring) faults.
Now, nobody’s here to make a case for The Valachi Papers being some kind of neglected classic. There’re lots of things wrong with it. First and foremost–and it may be out of order in importance–but it’s been bugging me ever since I watched it: why does Bronson lay down on the bed with Ventura when they’re talking in the Don’s prison cell? Is that some kind of mob ritual? Is it left over from vacation Bible camp? There are many moments like that in The Valachi Papers, where you’re scratching your head trying to figure out if what you’re watching is something meant to be serious, and it just comes off weird…or is it a misstep.
And then there are moments where you understand all too clearly that someone on The Valachi Papers production has screwed up…like those 1960s cars on that 1930 street (they compound the gaffe by having a modern car in a bunch of photos of actual mob hits). Who did the “youth” makeup job on Bronson? Sometimes he’s so chalky white (against that shoe polish dye job) he looks like his Igor character from House of Wax. Bronson was never Olivier (nor did he ever have to be, to do what he did so well), but he sounds like Olivier next to Joseph Wiseman, who was always a terrible ham. He’s just awful here, blowing line after line, always witha da cliched ah-accent (“I can’t ah bring backa da dead…only killa da living,” he intones…as we hit the floor laughing). Most glaring of all, though, is the failure of Stephen Geller’s script to bring Valachi the person into any kind of focus. We don’t know why he’s a crook, nor do we buy his “poor me” existential crisis at the end of the movie. Without any real meaning behind the Valachi character, we might as well be watching a cartoon.
Which is fine…if the cartoon at least moves and provides the expected gangster genre conventions. Which The Valachi Papers does. It may not be as thematically rich, or as visually cohesive and informed as The Godfather, but it does have a lot looser, less stately, less arch and mannered approach than Coppola’s epic, which is refreshing. From the opening shots at that creepy, decrepit prison yard, with the instantly recognizable “foreign” feel to the dubbed dialogue, The Valachi Papers channels “European exploitation” quite nicely (ace cinematographer Aldo Tonti—Nights of Cabiria, Barabbas—gives real depth and volume to the grungy sets and cheap costumes).
Director Terence Young was always iffy; he directed Thunderball, the most successful Bond ever (adjusted for inflation), and the brilliant Wait Until Dark. But he also helmed bizarre crap like The Poppy is Also a Flower and The Klansman. Still, he had a crude facility with an action scene, and The Valachi Papers is agreeably violent, with some notably gory scenes here including meat hook fights, switchblade stabbings, and the movie’s show stopper: a gloriously wrong castration sequence (it’s so Italian for the victim to beg Bronson to kill him afterwards….). Unexpected humor pops up frequently, as well, keeping the dark proceedings from getting too downbeat (Bronson’s formal courting of Jill Ireland is well-timed comedy; Bronson grabbing that fistful of cookies and munching them is priceless). What The Valachi Papers is sorely lacking is a decent musical score. What’s here sounds juvenile and weak and even Mickey Mouse-y at times. Can you imagine this gangster opus with an Ennio Morricone score? Had it a score from a master like Morricone, who could impart meaning and beauty onto even the most incoherent cinematic mess (uh…that assclown Tarantino’s excremental Western), maybe the enjoyably messy The Valachi Papers wouldn’t have received the kiss of death from the critics.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.