Joe Valachi literally changed the face of the American Mafia—and for that reason alone, Terence Young’s uneven docudrama about him would belong in any discussion about the Top 100 gangster movies.
Valachi, a soldier in the Genovese crime family, was the first Mafioso to publicly testify about the inner workings of the secret society. In fact, he was the one who first disclosed that the organization was known as the Cosa Nostra, literally translated as “Our Thing.” His appearance before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1963 was covered by both television and radio and captured the imagination of the country.
For years, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had downplayed the possibility that a large-scale organized crime syndicate existed in the U.S. Even after the infamous Kefauver Committee hearings in the 1950s—which included an appearance by Mafia boss Frank Costello—many Americans still failed to grasp the scope and power of the Italian-American crime families.
Valachi put it all out there. And this movie does a more-than-adequate job of telling his story.
Set in flashbacks after Valachi agrees to cooperate, The Valachi Papers traces the history of the American Mafia, from the Castellammarese War that pitted 1930s mob bosses Salvatore Maranzano against “Joe the Boss” Masseria, all the way up through the emergence of a ruling commission, the dominance of Lucky Luciano, the infamous murder of Albert Anastasia (no relation to one of the authors of this series) and the 1957 Apalachin Conference that was designed to reestablish order in the underworld, but ended up having an entirely different effect.
Discovered by a New York State Police trooper, the conference became an embarrassment for mob leaders who had to scatter through the fields and woods around an upstate New York farm. Many were arrested and their secret society was again exposed publicly.
While the acting is choppy and sometimes overly dramatic in The Valachi Papers, the story stays close to actual events. It offers an easily digestible history lesson about Cosa Nostra and its origins in America.
Just as interesting is the back story that led to journalist Peter Maas’ book on which the movie is based. Valachi, like his boss Vito Genovese, was serving a prison term for heroin dealing in the 1960s and believed that Genovese had marked him for death because he thought he was an informant. Panicked and paranoid, Valachi mistakenly killed a fellow inmate he thought had been assigned to kill him by beating him with a pipe. The prison intrigue and murder are part of the opening scenes in the movie.
Not an informant before the prison murder, Valachi quickly became one afterward. As he was cooperating, Valachi was told that he would be able to write his memoirs. In fact, Maas, then a young journalist who broke the story about Valachi’s decision to become a witness in Life magazine, was asked by the U.S. Justice Department to edit what became known as The Valachi Papers.
Before they could be published, however, U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach went back on his agreement with Maas and sought to block publication. Katzenbach, according to most reports, was responding to complaints from Italian-American groups claiming the memoir would reinforce the ethnic stereotype of Italians as gangsters.
Maas was unable to publish Valachi’s memoir, but did write a third-person account based on the information he had obtained through editing the papers and through hours of interviews with the jailed mob soldier. In what remains an historic black eye for the Justice Department, Katzenbach went to court in an attempt to block Maas from publishing his book, but failed.
Still, complaints from civil rights groups and threats from Cosa Nostra resulted in much of the movie being filmed in Italy, with Italian actors playing many of the roles and the English dialogue dubbed.
The result was a less-than-satisfying film. The Valachi Papers also had one other thing working against it as a theatrical endeavor. It was released in 1972, the same year as another mob movie that you may have heard about—The Godfather.
HIT: Bronson, who built a career around tough-guy characters who spoke with their actions rather than their words, gives a strong performance as a conflicted and introspective gangster whose world has come undone.
MISS: The same cannot be said of Bronson’s supporting cast. Even delivering their lines with a credible Italian accent proves too much for some of them, especially Joseph Wiseman, who plays Salvatore Maranzano.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The movie’s life is in a series of fairly nice period pieces, some strong action sequences and the interesting Bronson performance. For the rest, it declines to be a traditional gangster movie and cannot approach the psychological or narrative depth of The Godfather. We’re not involved enough to really care that much about Joe Valachi, and the movie becomes a series of high points on the road to a labored conclusion.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
GOOF: During one car chase set in the 1930s, Valachi speeds past parked cars that are clearly from the 1960s. In another New York scene, the World Trade Center towers can be seen under construction in the background.
REALITY CHECK: The castration scene takes place offscreen, but still manages to be one of the most brutal in any mob movie. Designed to show the bitter and violent nature of Cosa Nostra, it is actually a fictionalized account of revenge taken on a mobster who had a secret love affair with the boss’s wife (never a good idea). Still, it’s one of the few elements in the movie that has no basis in fact.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: There are better mob stories, but few with the same historic backdrop. For that reason, this is a movie worth revisiting occasionally.
BEST LINE: “Always he lived with death. . . . Always he waited for this to happen.” Salvatore Reina’s wife explaining to her daughter Maria (Jill Ireland) that mob boss Reina’s murder was not unexpected and, in fact, was part of Mafia life. Despite the warning, Maria stayed in the “family,” marrying Valachi.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: This is a story of the mob at war, so there’s plenty of shooting, as well as the aforementioned dismemberment.
BODY COUNT: Eighteen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]