Famously Terse Bronson Plays Infamous Mafia Canary



Bronson! Is! Valachi! in Dino De Laurentiis’ international production of Peter Maas’s 1968 bestseller The Valachi Papers. As the most infamous stool pigeon of the 20th century, Joseph Valachi was a career criminal and “made man” whose three decades as a low-level soldier in the New York Mafia became the basis for the most wide-reaching and comprehensive exposé of the inner workings of Cosa Nostra. The Blood Oath, the Code of Silence, the Kiss of Death, even the term “Cosa Nostra” itself were among the many revelations from hours of F.B.I. interviews and Senate sub-committee hearings by which Valachi exposed an organization whose greatest power derived from secrets and loyalty.

Terence Young, director of three early Bond films and two previous films with Bronson, ratchets up the sensationalistic aspects of Valachi’s often lurid and murderous real-life tale, dramatizing and conflating what is by now familiar aspects of Mafia history – including such recognizable historical figures as Salvatore Maranzano, Charles Luciano, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese – in a solid two hours of violence, mayhem, and of course death. Debuting the same year as The Godfather, though based more closely on real people and events – with no “fictional” disclaimer at either the beginning or end – The Valachi Papers plays today like the Bronson-fied version of that more famous Mafia saga, with all the good and bad that that might suggest to latterday viewers. There may be far fewer 50th-year screenings of The Valachi Papers this year, as opposed to the many anniversary showings of The Godfather currently playing across the country, but Kino Lorber does afford us an opportunity to reflect on this other foundational Mafia movie with a brand-new Blu-ray release.

The film opens without a credits sequence directly on Joe Valachi’s (Charles Bronson) early 1960s imprisonment in an Atlanta Federal prison, while serving a fifteen-year jail-sentence. Also doing time are several members of his New York crime-family, due to a far-reaching law-enforcement sweep of the city into its gambling, extortion, and heroin trades. Among the first to be sent up, however, Valachi is under immediate suspicion by his former cohorts, and indeed two attacks have been recently made on his life: first in the prison yard, and secondly, and much more harrowingly, in the showers. After he kills a man whom he thought would make a third attempt on his life, but who turns out to be not involved with the Mafia at all, Valachi arranges a meeting with his boss Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura) in Genovese’s cell. The meeting, however, conducted with the pair lying on Genovese’s bed, does not ultimately go well: Valachi is given the kiss of death upon leaving, which Valachi strongly returns. (Along with the Italian-American “salute” as a parting gesture.)

It is at this point that Valachi turns turncoat, meeting with a federal agent named Ryan (Gerald S. O’Laughlin) in his own cell, beginning a series of life- and career-ranging “confessions” on his role in and involvement with the Cosa Nostra from the late 1920s to his incarceration 30 years later. From Prohibition to Depression-era inter-Family wars to World War II-era power consolidation and post-war decline and corruption, we are introduced along the way to such notable criminal figures  as Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman), Lucky Luciano (Angelo Infanti), the ill-fated Albert Anastasia (Fausto Tozzi), along with Valachi’s mentor and immediate superior Vito Genovese, even as Valachi carves out a small piece of the action for himself as a driver, a slot-machine “operator”, and finally a restaurant owner. Inducted by blood ritual into The Family, and then participating in thievery, extortion, and murder on direct orders from his immediate superiors for over thirty years, Valachi rises no higher in the organization than where he started, but nevertheless has a major – perhaps The Major – story to tell about its inner workings when he finally breaks every oath that formerly bound him to the Genovese Family by the very movie we are watching.

Playing over its two-hour and five-minute running-time like a sped-up, de-glamorized, bloody yet curiously emotionless re-play of the Mob’s Greatest Hits, The Valachi Papers largely eschews more intimate family life or personal relationships – Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland is cast as Valachi’s wife Maria, but fails to make much more of an impression than that – for a montage-laden roll-call of Big-F-related activities marked by title dates and an at times cursory attention to period wardrobe, interior set-designs, and street locations. (Two of the more famous gaffes from the film are a later-model roadster careening into the East River against the moonlight silhouette of the then recently-constructed Twin Towers; along with a later chase through NYC streets where 70s-model cars, street-signs, and road-blocks are visible.) With super-producer Dino De Laurentiis’ first time helming a film partially shot in the United States, his production was threatened by real-life gangsters, many of whom had been alive at the time the film depicts, or had even known the famed traitor or been personally indicted by Valachi’s various federal testimonies; perhaps out of necessity giving the film an at times on-the-fly quality unusual in a period film.

Like the lead actor himself, famed for his terseness and tampered-down inner reservoir of unexpressed emotion – one might also say “stony” or “stoic” – The Valachi Papers is devoid of irony, resolutely straightforward, and grimly ritualistic. At its best when recounting the careful preparation for a hit, the lead-up to or fall-out from a heist, or covering/capturing Valachi’s elaborate initiation into the Mafia – with the mingling of his goombah‘s tiepin-pricked blood with his own, and the burning of the pages of the Bible in his hands as he repeats the oath – The Life as superseding empathy, kindness, friendship, relationships, and indeed life itself, is well represented by Joe Valachi’s cold-eyed and monotone recitation/relation of a thirty-year-cycle of revenge, murder, and death.

In this regard, the film’s most infamous “for instance” is when, mid-day through our unremitting, cyclical plot-movement of mobbed-up Greek Tragedy, Valachi’s nominal best friend in The Biz, the partially-fictionalized Dominick Petrilla AKA “The Gap” (Walter Chiari), is street-cornered after-hours by a gang of robotic Genovese goons and savagely castrated in the dining area of Valachi’s restaurant. In terms of the story, retribution for having led an affair with Genovese’s showgirl gumar (Maria Baxa), but it doesn’t really matter why even as the unspeakably violent act is occurring. All Bronson/Valachi is left to do in the end is register the act and, in the end, pull the trigger.

Which is largely the function of the film itself, and which a viewer has to respect on some level. The Valachi Papers certainly couldn’t be accused of soaking in its own atmosphere by perhaps purposefully avoiding creating atmosphere in the first place. In essence denying the viewer emotional entry into the life of the Mafia – no father/son relationship, brotherly betrayal, or strained marriage at the heart of it all – the perfunctory relationships between very violent men, with women their disposable playthings and/or excuse for vengeful vendettas, are dishes seemingly best served cold in the end.

Paul Talbot returns for his umpteenth commentary on this Bronson Mafia picture, combining two areas of considerable expertise in delineating both Bronson’s involvement with this production and how the production portrays, fits into, and even becomes a part of real-life Mafia history. While I’ve never read Talbot’s two Bronson’s Loose books, the first being about the production of the original Death Wish (1974) and the second being a more general look at Bronson’s method and behavior on-set, I get the sense from the many Talbot Bronson commentaries I’ve listened to that Talbot’s oft-stated “obsession”, one that apparently extends to the Mafia, its members, and particularly their violent methods and weaponry, might be said to be more for the robotic killing machine of the Death Wish-mold, say, than the more nuanced bare-knuckled brawler of Bronson’s true masterpiece, director Walter Hill’s Hard Times (1975). There are very few calling themselves Bronson Experts out there, so in that sense one should be thankful for Paul Talbot and his rigorous approach to both his subject and his research, but I hold out hope that Bronson someday gets the more analytical level of critical attention he also deserves.

Meanwhile, there’s The Valachi Papers to wrap up. A tough view, made a little easier perhaps with Kino Lorber’s improved visuals and attractive slip-cover and design, but as a movie at least true to its own principles, or, like its subject matter, lack of them. An analogue to the button-man he plays, Bronson as Valachi is no closer to revealing the heart and tragedy of a career criminal at the beginning or end, beyond expressing his lifelong frustrations to an F.B.I. stenographer, Senate sub-committee, national television audience, bestselling readership, and finally an international movie audience. Like the movie itself, Bronson/Valachi simply takes dead aim and shoots; any illusion of lost honor will last be seen rolling a crimson line of viscera down the prison bocce court.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are only a visual reference to the film and are not reflective of the visual quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray.