BR: Valachi Papers, The (1972)

January 23, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Standard

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 13, 2017

Genre:  Crime / / Mafia / Biography

Synopsis: Dramatic adaptation of Peter Maas’ book on mob informant Joseph Valachi, whose 1963 testimony before congress revealed details of the Italian-American mafia.

Special Features: Partial Isolated Stereo Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Released the same year as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, The Valachi Papers is based on Peter Maas’ 1968 book which chronicled the real-life testimony of Joseph Valachi, a driver for the Genovese family whose federal testimony in 1963 confirmed the existence of the Italian-American mafia, and detailed its power structure, illicit activities, rituals, and code of conduct.

Savvy producer Dino De Laurenrtiis had Stephen Geller (Pretty Poison, Slaughterhouse-Five) adapt Maas’ book, and Charles Bronson was cast in the first of several productions for De Laurentiis. This is inarguably one of Bronson’s best works largely because it’s more about the character than servicing the star’s silent / forceful screen persona, as later showcased the following year in The Stone Killer.

Valachi is portrayed as a low level family member who does what he’s told but is happiest when extended periods of calm allow him to run a restaurant and manage his racehorse – supposedly legit activities, which pleased his wife, and kept him off police radars, unlike boss Vito Genovese (French-Italian cinema icon Lino Ventura).

Bronson must have believed in both the role and the production, because he truly gives Joeseph Valachi his all, showing a restrained yet evident range of emotions as the driver / racketeer / killer recounts his 30 years in crime to government agent Ryan (prolific character actor Gerald O’Loughlin), offering up facts to avoid being killed in Sing Sing prison by Genovese’s men.

The casting choices are extremely smart because most of the actors are just a little bit younger than their 1960s counterparts; seeing them age over 30 years with Bronson ensured no single actor becomes a weird, badly made-up anachronism as Valachi recalls the events that integrated him with the mob in the 1930s, the warring factions which liquidated several top men in the 1940s, and as new mob leaders included drugs as part of their stock & trade during the 1950s.

The parade of important crime figures includes Valachi’s mentor Gaetano Reina (Amedeo Nazzari), whose daughter Maria (Jill Ireland) he eventually weds; soon-to-be-convicted head Lucky Luciano (Angelo Infanti), successor Salvatore Maranzano (Dr. No’s Joseph Wiseman), and Genovese, whom Ventura plays as savvy and forceful, but without the cinematic shrillness and bombast of the genre’s villainous archetypes.

Walter Chiari is marvelous as Dominick “Gap” Petrilli, Valachi’s loyal pal who’s brutally castrated for bedding Genovese’s mistress Donna (striking Maria Baxa); and Guido Leontini’s rather magnificent bone structure adds to the actor’s similarly restrained rendition of supposed pal Tony Bender.

The cast is often fitted with a few moments of wry humour, and perhaps the funniest moment is a straight visual punchline: after ordering the death of Donna’s husband, a later cut to the former exotic dancer in Genovese’s bed makes it silently clear the murder was a designed to send the fresh widow into his arms.

The NYC locations are effective, as are period cars, costumes and décor… but the film is also known for several glaring anachronisms: contemporary buildings (including the emerging WTC) are seen in wide shots of Manhattan; and incredibly, 1960s and 1970s cars pass 1930s and 1950s models in what are supposed to be period scenes. The filmmakers may have naively hoped audiences would focus on the dialogue scenes, but it’s impossible to ignore the gaffes when familiar models like a new Ford Grand Torino passe by.

One can presume permits to block highways and city streets were eschewed, and the vintage cars were hastily shot with the intention of using old style wipes to block out contemporary elements, but those classic optical transitions weren’t broadly applied or perhaps left out in spots, making the modern cars stand out in affected day and night shots.

A nice surprise is Riz Ortolani’s restrained and fairly threadbare score which consists of a few iterations of his gorgeous bittersweet main theme, and a few suspense cues which bleed in and out in stealthy fades. The main theme offers a gentle contrast to the bloody mayhem orchestrated by veteran James Bond director Terence Young. (Anthony Dawson, who played a careless assassin in Dr. No., is also given a small role in Valachi.)

Young doesn’t pile on gore but uses his actors’ aces to convey the shock of stabbings and shootings, and the horror of Gap’s fictional emasculation is largely conveyed by Bronson’s reaction, as Valachi is unable to save his foolish friend but puts him out of his miserable state after Genovese’s goons have left his restaurant.

Young’s career arguably peaked with this film, as later projects – The Klansman (1974), Bloodline (1979), and Inchon (1981) were far from his three essential Bond films, and the classic shocker Wait Until Dark (1967).

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a crisp transfer of this visually gritty film – Aldo Tonti’s cinematography evokes the eras by balancing stable colours with celluloid grain – and the disc includes a partial isolated stereo music track of Ortolani’s music, previously limited to select LP releases.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes offers bittersweet praise for the film, acknowledging it suffered for being the rival mafia film released a few months after Coppola’s masterpiece, but that Godfather Mario Puzo no doubt benefited from Valachi’s congressional testimony for some inspirational seeds. Also cited is Maas’ approach to recount Valachi’s history in the third person after publication of the convict’s memoirs were successfully blocked.

Coppola’s genuine masterpiece may be pop culture’s definitive saga in film (and expanded TV form) of la cosa nostra, but The Valachi Papers provides a grittier perspective in a more compact narrative. It’s also unusual for showing the reorganization of the family by Maranzano into a unit that’s part gang, corporation, family, and union-like brotherhood where loyalty and fidelity (initially) trumps hierarchy.

Bronson would play a hardboiled detective with a cruel streak in Michael Winner’s weird genre hybrid The Stone Killer (1973), unearthing a crazy plan by a mafia leader (Martin Balsam) to recreate a bloodier version of the 1930s crime putsch, whereas Wiseman would return to the mob world playing uber-boss Manny Weisbord in Michael Mann’s failed epic series Crime Story (1986-1988).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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