Monday, April 9, 2012

The Valachi Papers (1972)

          Although the mob drama The Valachi Papers hit theaters a few months after the explosive release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the movie’s origins date back to the early ’60s. In 1963, real-life Mafia soldier Joseph Valachi gave testimony before a Senate committee confirming the existence of the Cosa Notra in America, and during subsequent interviews and testimony, Valachi revealed secrets about the composition and conduct of U.S. crime families. Author Peter Maas, the true-crime expert who later wrote the nonfiction book that became Serpico (1973), gained access to Valachi during the last years of the criminal’s life and wrote a book called The Valachi Papers, which producer Dino Di Laurentiis turned into this film.
          Directed by Bond-movie veteran Terence Young, the picture jams four decades of murderous activity into 125 brisk minutes. The story begins with an aging Valachi (Charles Bronson) in prison, afraid for his life after receiving the “kiss of death” from godfather Vito Genovese (Joseph Wiseman). Willing to trade information for protection, Valachi spills his guts to short-tempered federal agent Ryan (Gerald O’Loughlin), triggering flashbacks that depict Valachi’s indoctrination and integration into the Genovese organization.
          The Valachi Papers has an awkward vibe because some of the scenes were shot with synchronized sound in English on American soil, while others were shot silently on Italian soundstages; the Italian scenes, per the norm of that country’s film industry at the time, are dubbed into English, leading to strange moments of Italian actors mouthing English words in a way that doesn’t quite match the soundtrack. And that’s not the only problem.
          A subplot about Valachi’s relationship with his girlfriend and eventual wife (played, of course, by Bronson’s real-life spouse, Jill Ireland) adds virtually nothing to the movie. Furthermore, the film’s most memorable scene (in which a mobster is castrated for sleeping with another gangster’s woman) was fabricated by the filmmakers in order to spice up the otherwise fact-based narrative. However, the biggest shortcoming of The Valachi Papers is the way the leading character’s nature shifts from one scene to the next.
          Sometimes, Valachi is depicted as an honorable man stuck in a dishonorable world, and at other times, he’s simply a hoodlum who prefers thievery to working for a living. One presumes the idea was to make Valachi seem sympathetic, but since the real-life man was a thug-turned-traitor, nobility was probably not high among his attributes. That said, there’s probably enough pulpy spectacle to make The Valachi Papers interesting to crime-movie fans: In addition to scenes of outlandish violence, the picture features arresting depictions of Mafia rituals, notably Valachi’s somber initiation.

The Valachi Papers: FUNKY

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