Where The Godfather had a good script and excellent actors, The Valachi Papers offered less art but more facts in its dramatisation of the Cosa Nostra operation in New York City from 1929 to 1963 in an engrossing and often gripping style.
The Valachi Papers was based on the real-life testimony of confessed minor Mafia soldier Joe Valachi (played here by Charles Bronson in the best performance of his career) who later, with the help of Peter Maas, turned his confessions into a best-selling book.
Valachi told a Senate investigating committee everything he knew after he became convinced that Mafia chieftain Vito Genovese was trying to have him killed in prison.
Valachi’s career started in the late 1920s, and the film follows his corpse-littered trail into the 1960s when he finally turned on his former bosses.
The movie does name names – Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman), Lucky Luciano (Angelo Infanti), Don Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura), Albert Anastasia (Fausto Tozzi). All the killers are there shooting, knifing and garroting each other.
The blood flows freely. Gangsters are dispatched by other gangsters with machine guns and stilettos and – in one particularly messy scene – Genovese’s boys take nasty revenge on a hood who has been fooling around with Genovese’s girlfriend with a stomach-churning castration.
It was Maranzano – an intellectual of great dignity and charm with Julius Caesar as his idol and role model – who first divided the New York Mafia into five families and, for a time, controlled them all. Ironically, he was to die by the knife as Caesar did, betrayed by his most trusted lieutenant.
To Genovese, a more conventional gangster type who spent World War II in Italy, goes the blame for adding narcotics to the Mafia’s arsenal of pleasures for the populace.
Maranzano had resolutely kept the families out of the dope trade.
The Valachi Papers had been in the works since 1968. Italian producer Dino de Laurentis brushed aside veiled threats from the actual Mafia and red tape from the US government and awaited the death of the real Mafia chieftain Vito Genovese in February 1969 before making the film.
Filmed partly on location in Brooklyn and Manhattan but mostly at the de Laurentis studios in Rome, the film effectively reproduces the backgrounds and atmospheres in the three decades it covers.
When The Valachi Papers was released in 1972, it was only 15 years since crime czar Albert Anastasia was ripped apart by bullets in a New York barber shop – an incident which the movie recreated in indecently loving detail, it was less than ten years since Joseph Valachi appeared before the Senate and proceeded to disclose the structure of organised crime in the US, and it was less than two years since the deaths – in prison by natural causes – of both Valachi, and the man who placed a $20,000 contract on his life, Vito Genovese, the top boss of organised crime in America.
English director Terence Young took great pains not to make any of the Cosa Nostra characters even slightly sympathetic. There are no good Mafiosi in the picture, and the audience could not take sides as it had done with The Godfather.
Maria Reina Valachi
Giuseppe ‘Joe the Boss’ Masseria