Based on an autobiographical novel by Peter Maas, The Valachi Papers tells the story of Joseph Valachi, a lower-echelon enforcer in the mafia. The book, released in 1968, was based on the Valachi hearings, as well as an almost-1200 page manuscript Valachi wrote himself, called “The Real Thing,” where he infamously spilled the beans about the Genovese crime family, making him one of the first government witnesses to testify about mob activities.
The book was a hit and mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis near-immediately snatched up the rights to the film. The story begins in 1963, after Valachi has been put in prison for attempting to smuggle heroin. He’s soon “marked” with the kiss of death and a price on his head by the boss of his crime family, Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura). After mistakenly killing a fellow inmate who he believes has been sent to kill him, Valachi is offered a deal by the FBI: go against mafia code, start talking, and receive protection. “The Real Thing” manuscript is represented through flashbacks as he tells his life story to FBI agent Ryan (Gerald O’Loughlin).
Released the same year, comparisons between The Valachi Papers and The Godfather were bound to be made. While the latter’s reputation needs no explanation here, Valachi is occasionally overlooked, despite being a hit with audiences worldwide upon its release. There are many reasons for why this may be, but I believe that Roger Ebert put it best when he stated that the film “declines to be a traditional gangster movie and cannot approach the psychological or narrative depth of The Godfather.”
Directed by Terence Young (Dr. No, From Russia with Love), the film takes many liberties with its true story source material, but this is neither the first, nor certainly the final instance of that happening. It’s more than easy to overlook any inconsistencies, though, as it was clearly made for entertainment purposes and not necessarily to be used as a history lesson. Embellishments aside, there are a few things that are very hard to turn a blind eye to. It has almost a television mini-series feel, with sets that look cheap. The production feels as though it was rushed – but perhaps that’s because it was, if rumored pressures from the Italian-American Civil Rights League, amongst others, happen to be true. It is also filled with quite a few glaring anachronisms, the most obvious being a shot of what is supposed to be the 1930’s New York skyline that just so happens to include the World Trade Center Towers.
That’s not to say that he film is completely without merit. Charles Bronson is great as the titular Joe Valachi; he portrays him as a beleaguered, multifaceted individual, one who is constantly torn between his desire for a normal life and his loyalty to the mafia. One scene in particular stands out when, towards the end of the film, he sees himself on national television telling the entire world the mob’s dirty little secrets. Thinking there’s nothing left for him in this world after denying the blood oath that he took, he has a breakdown that almost has mortal consequences. The man is quite obviously at the end of his rope both mentally and emotionally and the viewer is witness to a profound range of emotions emanating from him. Bronson is spectacular in this scene, as he has no qualms with shedding his usual tough-as-nails veneer in order to show the world what a lonely, terrifying place this man has gone to inside his head. Scenes like this are what make the film shine and, dare I say, even rival The Godfather.
The Blu-Ray, released by Twilight Time, is pretty lean on special features. The only one available is a partially isolated music track; however, there is an excellent booklet documenting the plot and production history by film historian Julie Kirgo.