The Valachi Papers

  • 1972
  • Movie
  • R
  • Crime, Historical

An episodic quasi-documentary covering 32 years--mainly through flashback--unfolding that ever-fascinating subculture, the Outfit. Real names are used in a part-factual, part-fictional recounting of the development and growth of the organized Italian-American crime syndicate known as the Cosa Nostra, seen from the perspective of a minor "soldier" in the...read more

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An episodic quasi-documentary covering 32 years--mainly through flashback--unfolding that ever-fascinating subculture, the Outfit. Real names are used in a part-factual, part-fictional recounting of the development and growth of the organized Italian-American crime syndicate known as the

Cosa Nostra, seen from the perspective of a minor "soldier" in the ranks, played by Bronson. Serving a 15-year sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on a narcotics charge, Bronson learns that his ex-boss Ventura--a powerful capo in the hierarchy--has put out a "contract" on his life,

believing Bronson to be responsible for his own incarceration. Frightened for his safety, Bronson alerts prison authorities that he is willing to talk about his past activities in return for extra security in a different prison. FBI agent O'Loughlin responds to Bronson's request. Bronson begins

his long monolog, recounting details of his past as the visuals flash back to the year 1929, when he began his criminal career. The 30-year-old Bronson gets a job as driver for Mafia chieftain Nazzari, who in a dispute over territory, is killed by Ventura and Infanti. Bronson--seen by the killers

to be ruthless, ambitious, and efficient, and thus grist for their own gangland mill-goes to work for them, along with his good friend and compatriot Chiari. Boss of bosses Wiseman, to avoid further internecine disputes, organizes the Outfit into "families," each with its own turf, and the rising

young mafioso marries Ireland, the daughter of his murdered ex-employer, in a massive marriage ceremony, his peers bringing costly gifts to the grandiose hotel ballroom setting. Later, in 1963, Infanti is convicted of a felony and Ventura flees temporarily to Italy for sanctuary, appointing Chiari

as bodyguard for his mistress, Baxa, during his absence. Upon his return Ventura discovers that Chiari and Baxa have formed a romantic attachment, and orders that Chiari be castrated in as graphic a demonstration of punishment-fitting-crime as ever rendered on screen. Finding his friend so

mutilated, Bronson puts the man out of his misery. The panoply of crime continues to unroll as the stolid monster brings his avid FBI listener up through the year 1957, when a secretly bugged meeting of major mobsters is convened in Appalachia in a country estate. Federal agents raid the

conference and place both Ventura and Bronson under arrest. The string of flashbcks ends back in Bronson's cell. O'Loughlin persuades Bronson to testify before a US Senate subcommittee on crime in 1963, whereupon Ventura increases the reward for his head to $100,000. Remorseful at having broken

omerta--the Mafia code of silence--Bronson tries unsuccessfully to hang himself in his cell, using as a noose the cord of the TV set on which he viewed himself testifying before the subcommittee. Ultimately Bronson dies of a heart attack--ironically six months after the death of his incarcerated

enemy, Ventura.

Author Maas's book--enormously popular with a reading public fascinated by details of the inner workings of a much-feared secret society of hoodlums and killers--was based partly on minor mobster Valachi's Senate subcommittee testimony and partly on follow-up interviews with the imprisoned

hoodlum, whose revelations broke the chain of secrecy surrounding the highly structured Cosa Nostra ("Our Thing," literally). Director Francis Ford Coppola's enormously successful movie version of Mario Puzo's The Godfather had preceded THE VALACHI PAPERS to the marketplace, and audiences thought

this film-which seems somewhat hastily constructed--had been quickly put together to exploit the earlier blockbuster's popularity. In reality, Maas's book had been published before Puzo's, and film rights had been sold before the release of THE GODFATHER. Production difficulties slowed the

shooting in the US when New York-based Mafia mobsters arranged a series of "accidents" hoping to prevent the picture from being made. (Even after the film's completion, the producers were plagued with such events; a bomb threat emptied a preview screening room of critics in Manhattan.) Ultimately

producer De Laurentiis had to do most of the filming at his own studios in Rome. The book was bowdlerized somewhat in the movie; Chiari's castration appears to have been invented for visual effect--in fact, Chiari himself plays an amalgam of two different characters in the book. The critics

pilloried the picture on its initial release; many of them--despite its litany of gore--though it was boring. Despite its negative reviews, it did well at the box office, bringing in $9.4 million in the first eight months of release. Much of this take may have resulted from the popularity of

superstar Bronson, then thought to be the world's biggest movie draw. Initially loath to play his part in the picture, Bronson was finally persuaded by a lucrative three-film contract that gave him a million dollars for each picture, as well as a percentage of the gross profits, making him one of

the highest-paid actors in history. Bronson's wife, Ireland, plays his screen wife here--an additional inducement to the actor, who wanted to keep his family together during his filmic excursions abroad. Paramount had planned to release the film, but the studio planners quarreled with De

Laurentiis over the details of distribution, so the company lost the lucrative rights. Director Young does well with many of the violent action scenes--his forte, since he directed three of the best such scenes of another type of crime caper in the "James Bond" series, including one with Wiseman

in DR. NO (1963). He does less well with his international cast of players, whose comic-opera dialects are sometimes downright laughable. Young had directed Bronson before (COLD SWEAT, 1971, and RED SUN, 1972), and he got an appropriately wooden response from the actor.

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  • Released: 1972
  • Rating: R
  • Review: An episodic quasi-documentary covering 32 years--mainly through flashback--unfolding that ever-fascinating subculture, the Outfit. Real names are used in a part-factual, part-fictional recounting of the development and growth of the organized Italian-Ameri… (more)

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