THE VALACHI PAPERS – A Look back at 1972
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated last year on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and I’ve been writing a regular movie-related column since. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I post all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks as well. In honor of the 40th anniversary of Blueberry Hill, the landmark St. Louis restaurant and music club that’s filled with pop culture memorabilia, this month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat is written as if it’s 1972.
When Joe Valachi joined the Mafia, he was passed a piece of burning paper and swore: “This is the way I will burn if I betray the secret of the Cosa Nostra.” Valachi’s view of the Mafia was not from the top but that of a foot soldier, but as the first member to publicly attest to the existence of the Mafia, Valachi became the most famous traitor in the history of the criminal underworld. Despite having taken a blood oath to “live by the gun and knife and die by the gun and knife”, Valachi died last year in prison of heart disease at age 68.
Valachi’s criminal career began in the early 1920′s as the getaway driver for a gang known as “The Minutemen,” so called for their ability to commit burglaries and escape in less than sixty seconds. In the early 1930s, after serving time at Sing Sing, Valachi befriended made Mafia member Dominick “The Gap” Petrilli who introduced him into the organization and he soon became a soldier in the Genovese family headed by Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Valachi remained in this position and served the mob loyally for over thirty years, even marrying the daughter of Lucchese crime family boss Gaetano “Tommy” Reina.
In 1959 Valachi was arrested on narcotics charges and began a 15 year sentence in a Georgia prison. Crime family boss Vito Genovese was also jailed there and began suspecting that his fellow organization members were going to talk to the government in exchange for shorter sentences. Valachi heard he was the target of a murder plot and soon began fearing for his life. Believing he was acting in self-defense, he killed another prisoner in June 1962, mistaking him for one of Genovese’s men. Valachi decided to sing and In October 1963 he testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan’s congressional committee on organized crime, laying bare the inner-work of the organization. Although the low-ranking Valachi’s disclosures never led directly to the prosecution of many Mafia leaders, he was there and saw the formation of the modern Mob as we know it. Valachi had broken the Cosa Nostra code of silence, providing many details of its history, operations and rituals, and aiding in the solution of several uncleared murders, as well as details about many members and the major crime families including Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Carlo Gambino, and other long-gone bosses. While many of Valachi’s claims seemed self-serving and debatable, much of his story has since been corroborated. Vito Genovese died in prison in 1969, the same year the book The Valachi Papers was published. Award winning investigative journalist and author Peter Maas skillfully organized the thoughts, testimonies and writings of Joe Valachi to produce an all-in-one history and biography and the book became a best seller. When Valachi died last year at La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Texas, the $100,000 bounty placed on his head by Genovese went uncollected.
Joe Valachi testifying
Now Italian movie mogul Dino DeLaurentis has produced the film version of THE VALACHI PAPERS. Many critics are discounting the film as an inferior knockoff of the recent smash THE GODFATHER, but THE VALACHI PAPERS was actually filmed concurrently with Francis Coppola’s film and released in Europe earlier. Screenwriter Stephen Geller’s adaption of the Maas book tries to wedge several decades’ worth of events into a two-hour film which is both a blessing and a curse: the non-stop flow of shootings and double-crosses is never dull but the speed with which it is delivered ensures that the film lacks depth and characterization. Presented in flashback and book-ended by Valachi’s time in prison, THE VALACHI PAPERS brutally barrels through the gangster’s life, barely pausing when comrades and family members perish violently and the film hits a lot of shocking notes, including a memorably bloody barber chair cut-down and a nasty castration (yet it’s rated PG!). DeLaurentis claims much of the THE VALACHI PAPERS had to be filmed in Italy for fear of mafia intervention on American soil, but he’s no stranger to hyperbole and that claim should be taken with a grain of salt.
While not as stylish or well-written as THE GODFATHER, THE VALACHI PAPERS does have similar scope and period detail but obvious anachronisms abound: ’60s-era cars drive by and the twin towers of the World Trade Center under construction can be clearly seen in the background of one of the New York-shot exteriors. Terence Young, best known for helming three of the Sean Connery 007 films, directs and Valachi is played by Charles Bronson, who Young recently directed in in COLD SWEAT and RED SUN. Bronson, a 51-year old actor of Lithuanian descent, doesn’t look much like the Italian Valachi but gives an inspired, surprisingly emotional performance and ages 30 years throughout convincingly. Joseph Wiseman (DR. NO) brings an embarrassingly overdone Italian accent to his portrayal of Mafia don Salvatore Maranzano. As Genovese, Lino Ventura, who’s been acting in Italian gangster movies for decades, is much better. British actress Jill Ireland, married to Bronson in real life and costarring with him for the seventh time, is given little to do as Valachi’s wife except look good, which she does quite well. In mimicking Valachi’s testimony, the film of THE VALACHI PAPERS leans towards the anecdotal and at times simply boils down to one anonymous mafia stooge after another getting whacked with little dramatic substance between gangland thrills. Nonetheless, it’s an engrossing gangland thriller, evoking the breakneck pace of the old Warner Brothers crime classics, and is a fine showcase for Charles Bronson.
THE VALACHI PAPERS was the 14th highest-grossing film of 1972, raking in over 17 million dollars, but was overshadowed by THE GODFATHER which grossed over 135 million that year, setting the box-office record. THE VALACHI PAPERS became somewhat forgotten and was a difficult film to find for many years, but was finally released on DVD in 2007 complete with footage shorn from its initial U.S. run. Peter Maas went on to write the biographer of Frank Serpico, a New York City Police officer who testified against police corruption and was the author of the number one New York Times bestseller, Underboss, about the life and times of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. Maas died in 2002. Charles Bronson would costar with wife Jill Ireland in nine more films before her death from cancer in 1990. Bronson died in 2003.