- Directed by Terence Young
- December 9, 1972 (France) / December 13, 1972 (Italy)
This is the story of Mafia informant Joseph Valachi who was the first ever mafioso to acknowledge the Mafia’s very existence.
How factual The Valachi Papers is I do not know exactly. There are moments where it clearly follows history but I’m sure they took liberties with the narrative. That is often the case with any Hollywood product fact-based production so as always go into such understanding that.
This film is considered a bit of a classic and I can certainly understand why. It’s well directed and well produced. Bronson is in fine form as Joseph Valachi. Valachi is portrayed as a bit of a nice guy-or as nice as a murdering mob man can be. He’s as blue-collar and Average Joe as one could find in the criminal underworld. He is street smart and tough but loyal and perhaps even thoughtful. His main issue in life is his poor relationship with capo Tony Bender (Guido Leontini).
Bronson was a good actor that could really bring the goods when necessary. He doesn’t do too bad here as Joseph Valachi. The story is essentially told as a flashback as Valachi relates his life and knowledge to federal investigator Ryan (Gerald S. O’Loughlin). They form a bit of a bond by the end of the film.
The Valachi Papers is as much drama as it is a mob movie. We see Valachi’s humble beginnings as a young thug with his own gang and his climb up the hierarchy. The then fifty-year-old Bronson plays Valachi from a youth all the way to a sixty-year-old man. Really? That there makes it difficult to understand the length of time that passes in this movie.
Bronson’s real life wife Jill Ireland shows up as Valachi’s wife Maria Reina Valachi. I think with any other pairing this would’ve felt very forced but they’re offscreen chemistry definitely made there on screen pairing spark. Maria loves Joe from the first and is blindly supportive of him in large part having grown up in that life herself.
Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman) is portrayed rather sympathetically in The Valachi Papers. He’s a murderous mob boss but is almost fatherly towards Valachi. He was an involved leader and he took a shine to Valachi. There was just something charming about the character in his portray here. I know enough about history to know what happened to him and I really wanted this to avoid historical accuracy and him to get a happily ever after of some sort.
I can’t say the same for the majority of the other characters. Justifiably so they were portrayed as utterly unlikable. These were terrible people, and they went as terrible as they could for 70s cinema. The strange thing is you could get very violent in what was shown but you couldn’t necessarily make people very terrible.
Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura) was portrayed as a bit of a duplicitous jerk. He was willing to take out everybody just to get the one bad apple that had set everything up. Valachi was clearly an honorable soldier but saw that he was going to pay the price for something he apparently didn’t do. He knew his options to extend his life were very limited.
Clearly this film tries hard to be like The Godfather. It was released later the same year, but it is not in the same league as that film. The Godfather was a sweeping epic with a large cast and detailed plot. This is a hyperviolent biographical film and lacks that epic nature or vast cast.
For the time the production values are not bad. They do keep things mostly era specific though there is one scene that is very noticeable for me that doesn’t work. Valachi and pals are driving along in an old style car. They do an external establishing shot and the car is clearly on the road with cars that are not era appropriate. Ugh! All they really needed was a shot of everybody getting in the car. I know this took place at night and the lower resolution process of the time most likely hid it but it was still bad.
There are a great many native Italian actors in this movie. No harm there but their lines are clearly dubbed over. Sometimes you can get away with it but not always. The volume is off in comparison to the rest of the movie or the lips do not match the words. Here the issue is volume.
The Valachi Papers is a good bit of older 70s films. It’s a good and well directed script and just a story that will keep you watching from beginning to end. I will not call it a must see but it is entertaining.