Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Stephen Geller
Based on a Novel by: Peter Maas
Starring: Charles Bronson, Lino Ventura, Jill Ireland, Walter Chiari, Joseph Wiseman, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Amedeo Nazzari, Fausto Tozzi, Pupella Maggio
Country: Italy, France
Running Time: 125 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Joseph Valachi was famous for being the first member of the Italian-American Mafia (a.k.a. cosa nostra, as he called it) to publicly acknowledge the existence of the organisation and describe its activities. Whilst serving a 15-year prison sentence for drug trafficking, Valachi murdered an inmate he thought was sent to kill him by his boss Vito Genovese, who was also in the same prison, and ended up with a life sentence.
In 1963, a year after that incident, Valachi began cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department. This culminated in him testifying in front of a special committee, in what would become known as The Valachi Hearings. These were broadcast on American television, so his testimony became big news and opened the public’s eyes to the supposed truth about cosa nostra.
Something that big was never going to end there though. In 1964, the US Department of Justice talked Valachi into writing down the personal history of his long service within the mafia. This became a sprawling 1,180-page manuscript Valachi called ‘The Real Thing’.
Author Peter Maas was hired to edit this hefty tome into something more palatable and he was granted access to interview Valachi further. However, before the book was released, the American Italian Anti-Defamation League appealed against it being published, claiming it would unfairly develop negative ethnic stereotypes. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach spoke to President Lyndon B. Johnson about it and soon after decided to call on the district court to prevent the book from being released.
Maas was, however, allowed to publish a third-person account of his interviews with the gangster. So, in 1968, ‘The Valachi Papers’ was released. It was a big success, so it’s no surprise that, shortly afterwards, the ambitious producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to make it into a film.
Eventually finished and released in 1972, the film adaptation of The Valachi Papers, was also quite successful. An Italian-French co-production starring Charles Bronson (as the eponymous mobster) and directed by Brit Terence Young, the film was both helped and hindered by another gangster movie released in 1972, that we’ll get to later. First, let me briefly skim over the plot of The Valachi Papers, which is being released on Blu-ray by Powerhouse Films, as part of their excellent Indicator collection.
The Valachi Papers begins with the gangster’s time in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, mentioned earlier, when he murders a man he thinks is trying to kill him. His boss, Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura), believes Valachi is an informant (which reportedly wasn’t yet true at this time), so had put a price on his head.
After the incident, hearing first hand from Genovese that he doesn’t trust him and receiving the ‘kiss of death’, Valachi decides to get his own back on Genovese by bringing him down through giving information to the authorities.
So, Valachi spends many days speaking with FBI agent Ryan (Gerald S. O’Loughlin), relating his decades of service for cosa nostra. The film flashes back to these times, showing the audience the world of the criminal underground, through the eyes of a low-level ‘soldier’.
There’s an elephant in the room when discussing The Valachi Papers and that’s The Godfather. Whilst watching Young’s film, I thought to myself, ‘this feels like it might have been quite influential on Coppola’s beloved film series (and the books that inspired them)’. However, I soon realised they were actually released in the same year.
Now, it’s up to debate as to whether or not The Valachi Papers was a cash-in on The Godfather. The former was released in America after the latter, so The Valachi Papers’ publicity campaign made the most of the comparisons and The Godfather’s success clearly helped boost box office takings. However, reportedly De Laurentiis bought the rights to The Valachi Papers before Mario Puzo released his book, The Godfather. In fact, Puzo is known to have drawn inspiration from the Valachi Hearings and interviews that formed Maas’ book.
However, regardless of which came first and who ripped off who, the fact is I couldn’t help but compare the two films, particularly after learning they were released within months of each other, and, quite frankly, The Valachi Papers doesn’t match up to Coppola’s majestic The Godfather. My main issue is that Young’s film seems so dated in comparison. It looks and feels like a film from the 60s, let alone the 70s, whereas Coppola’s gangster epic has a timeless elegance. There’s more of a naturalism to that film too, where Young’s feels relatively stagey and performed, despite its script being more closely drawn from reality.
Speaking of reality, from listening to the special features and reading the booklet included with this release, it sounds like screenwriter Stephen Geller and Young kept the film’s narrative fairly accurate. The mob reportedly threatened the studio to prevent the film being released, in fact. It got passed around to another studio before producer Dino Delorentis met with members of the mob to plead with them as a fellow Italian to allow him to release this film which would help him make the permanent move to Hollywood. They let him release the film in the end, though with a few names changed and removed.
Dramatic licence has been used in the film too, of course, condensing characters, changing some names and shifting timelines round a bit to fit a crisp narrative arc, but most scenes are based on some sort of real-life events and many details remain from Valachi’s testimony and interviews. This gives the film an interesting slant that sets it apart from The Godfather in one way.
Also, being a Charles Bronson movie directed by Terence Young, who’s famous for directing three of the first four James Bond movies, it’s pretty good as an action film. There’s a lot of violence, which is quite well orchestrated, as well as being pretty brutal for its time. One pivotal scene where one of Valachi’s friends is dealt with in a horrific manner is particularly shocking.
Bronson has more dialogue than usual, which doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths, but he does a pretty good job. The Academy weren’t knocking at his door afterwards, but it shows he was more than just an interesting face for the camera. There’s a particularly good scene where he flexes his comedic muscles, portraying Valachi making a fool of himself in front of his potential mother-in-law whilst Genovese attempts to arrange a marriage between his underling and her daughter Maria (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s off-screen wife). It’s rare to see humour like this in a Bronson movie but it’s surprisingly funny and even a little sweet.
So, though dated in delivery, even then, The Valachi Papers is still an entertaining gangster movie. With true accounts backing it up, it’s quite an interesting watch too, though it feels pretty by-the-numbers after the wave of gangster movies that have come since (and even some prior). Perhaps if it had beaten The Godfather to release by a wide margin it would be more highly regarded and remembered, but it’s worth a watch anyway.
The Valachi Papers is out on 25th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Indicator. The picture and sound quality is fantastic, as is the norm from the label.
There are plenty of special features included in the package:
– High Definition remaster
– Original English and Italian mono soundtracks
– Audio commentary with film historian Paul Talbot, author of Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films and Bronson’s Loose Again!
– In the Make-up Room (2021, 18 mins): celebrated make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi recalls his time working on The Valachi Papers
– Reviewing the Evidence (2021, 35 mins) screenwriter Stephen Geller shares personal anecdotes about the production
– Valachi: The Violent Era (1972, 7 mins): archival making-of documentary with on-set interviews with director Terence Young and actor Charles Bronson
– On-set footage (1972, 2 mins): rare behind-the-scenes material capturing the filming of a key scene
– The Valachi Hearings (1963, 18 mins): archival broadcast footage from Joseph Valachi’s original testimony to Senator John L McClellan’s congressional committee on organised crime
– US theatrical trailer
– German theatrical trailer
– US TV spot
– US radio spot
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
– Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Pasquale Iannone, newspaper reports on Joseph Valachi’s criminal career, excerpts from the source book by Peter Maas, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 3,000 copies
Paul Talbot’s commentary spends a lot of time discussing how the film fits in with the real story. It’s fascinating, if a little exhausting, as he rattles off facts at quite a pace.
Giannetto De Rossi is wonderfully blunt about his feelings towards some of the cast and crew in his interview. He has some amusing anecdotes to tell too.
Stephen Geller is also enjoyably honest and bitchy at times in his interview. He provides some wonderful stories too, such as when Delaurentis took him to see the famous mob boss Frank Costello who asked him to take his name out of the script. He also speaks highly of Young as a person, though he wasn’t a fan of him as a director.
The archival making-of is very much a promotional piece, but it’s nice to catch a glimpse behind the scenes of the production, which is rare for older films.
The gem of the set is the sample of the Valachi Hearings though. This allows you to see the actual mobster behind the story and hear him tell some of what happened.
Likewise, the booklet contains some period articles and book extracts that describe some of the actual comings and goings of the mafia during Valachi’s time. There’s also a thoughtful essay and the usual archive review excerpts. Indicator always go that extra mile for their booklets and this is no different.
So, the film may not be exceptional but Indicator, as usual, have made sure the package as a whole makes it worth a purchase.