Charles Bronson rats out the Mob in THE VALACHI PAPERS
Two decades before Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece GoodFellas (1990) about the life of a mobster turned informant, Director Terence Fisher covered similar territory with The Valachi Papers (1972). Adapted from a book by Peter Maas (author of Serpico), the film tells the true story of Joseph Valachi a member of the mob who became a government witness and revealed secrets of La Cosa Nostra to the world in the early 1960s. Charles Bronson stars as Valachi and we follow his life beginning as a driver for mob boss Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman) up to his time as an associate turned enemy of the feared boss Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura). Valachi comes off much like Hill in GoodFellas, a guy who’s not cruel but is a likable lowlife that ultimately becomes a victim to the dangerous, seedy life he gave his allegiance to. The main difference between the two movies is the fact Fisher was not familiar with the Mafia. His version is more of a paint by numbers history lesson while Scorsese’s movie was a truly authentic look at the gangster lifestyle put on film.
This is easily one of my top favorite Charles Bronson performances. Throughout his career he was mostly typecast in stonefaced, strong but silent roles. What’s great about his work in The Valachi Papers is the fact he’s much more animated, emotional and funny. His portrayal of Valachi as a devoted soldier who did as he was told and believed in his bosses until their betrayal makes him a sympathetic figure for us as viewers. Of course Bronson put his own twists on the man he was playing and made him more cinematic and cool.
The Valachi Papers was an Italian production made by the legendary Dino DeLaurentiis and was obviously a low budget affair. Most of the scenes were dubbed from Italian into English and there were several goofs made during the shoot as well. For instance during a nighttime scene set in the 1930s, you can spot cars that are from the 1960s nearby. You can also see the newly constructed World Trade Center in another shot. Even with these continuity errors, the movie is a well made crime biography that takes you inside the underworld and shows how they operated. The fine supporting cast features Angelo Infanti as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Bronson’s real life spouse Jill Ireland as Valachi’s wife. Valachi would serve as an inspiration for the character of Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather Part II released two years after this film.
Director Terence Young had worked previously with Charles Bronson on Cold Sweat (1970) and Red Sun (1971). While I liked those just fine, The Valachi Papers remains my favorite of their 70s team ups.