A Movie A Day #23: The Valachi Papers (1972, directed by Terrence Young)


The best thing about The Valachi Papers is this:

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That is Charles Bronson, playing real-life mob informant Joe Valachi and making a gesture that expresses the way many people feel about the world right now.  Valachi, in both the film and real life, was a bit player in the Cosa Nostra, a driver and an occasional hitman who was lucky enough to marry the daughter (played by Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland) of one of the bosses.  In prison for smuggling heroin, Valachi runs into one of those bosses, Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura).  Genovese, convinced that Valachi has broken the code of omerta, gives Valachi the kiss of death.  Valachi kisses him right back and then becomes a rat.

Valachi’s 1963 testimony to the U.S. Senate was the public’s first glimpse into life in the Mafia.  Many of the cliches that have since appeared in every mob movie or television show were the result of Valachi’s testimony and Peter Maas’s subsequent book, The Valachi Papers.  (In the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos, Tony can be seen holding a copy of The Valachi Papers.)

Over the years, doubts have been raised about both the validity of Valachi’s testimony and his claim that he only turned rat because Genovese put a contract on his life.  The film version of The Valachi Papers takes Valachi’s claims at face value, telling Valachi’s story in a series of flashbacks.

The Valachi Papers is often compared to another mob movie that came out in 1972, The Godfather, though there’s really not much of a comparison to be made.  Whereas The Godfather was a family saga, The Valachi Papers is much more concerned with the day-to-day operations of the Mafia.  It never comes close to matching The Godfather‘s epic feel and the cheap production values don’t help.  (Keep an eye out for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, anachronistically towering over depression-era New York City.)

Storywise, The Valachi Papers actually has more in common with Goodfellas than with The Godfather.  Like Henry Hill, Joe Valachi is not a major player.  He’s just a working man whose employer happens to be the Mafia.  Stylistically, of course, The Valachi Papers has nothing in common with Goodfellas.  If not for the violence and some the language, it would be easy to mistake The Valachi Papers for an old made-for-TV movie.

The best thing about The Valachi Papers is Charles Bronson as Joe Valachi.  When The Valachi Papers was made, Bronson was a huge draw in Europe but was still largely unknown in the United States.  It was not until Death Wish came out, two years later, that Bronson became a star.  He does a good job as Joe Valachi.  In a way, it’s the perfect role for Bronson, who was a genuine tough guy who, like Valachi, spent decades working in the trenches before eventually becoming a household name.

I don’t think Charles Bronson ever would have turned informant, though.

Not our Chuck.

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One response to “A Movie A Day #23: The Valachi Papers (1972, directed by Terrence Young)

  1. Charles Bronson made every other “tough guy” actor look like wimps in comparison. Both he and his wife Jill Ireland always came off as truly good people in real life, in my opinion, and both died way too early. I wonder if their own story will ever be made into a film. Now, there’s a tough casting challenge.

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