Set in turn-of-20th-century New York, Pay or Die! concerns Joseph Petrosino (Ernest Borgnine), a Sicilian-born NYPD lieutenant who founded Manhattan’s Police Department Italian squad and met his death while exposing the notorious Black Hand gang.
The true tale is skilfully characterised, and director Richard Wilson displays both sensitivity and showmanship. Compelling human and romantic by-play logically breaks up scenes of terror and violence, and the period backgrounds, faithfully re-created, have a mellowing effect.
During a festival in New York’s Little Italy, a bomb thrown by an extortion mob known as the Black Hand gang kills a small girl, and Petrosino determines to bust the racket.
Later, the thugs intimidate baker Papa Saulino (Bruno Della Santina) and when Papa refuses to pay, they wreck his shop and assault Adelina (Zohra Lampert), his pretty grown-up daughter.
Joseph, who loves Adelina but thinks she prefers his handsome aide Johnny Viscardi (Alan Austin), gains permission to organise an undercover squad.
The Black Hand continues its dastardly work: Famous tenor Enrico Caruso (Howard Caine) narrowly escapes assassination, a jewellery store is demolished and twelve schoolgirls are killed, and Joseph receives a bomb – luckily discovered in time – on his marriage to Adelina.
Joseph now feels certain that local Italian lawyer Vito Zarillo (Franco Corsaro) is the secret head of the New York Mafia and visits Sicily to establish the connection between the American Mafia and the Black Hand.
He is liquidated just after he posts vital evidence, but Johnny arrests Zarillo, and Adelina derives comfort from the knowledge that she will soon be a mother.
Lt. Joseph Petrosino
Bruno Della Santina
Robert F. Simon
Luigi Di Sarno
Voice of Caruso
Barry Russo (as John Duke)
Giulia De Sarno