Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Retro Review: THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972)

(Italy/France - 1972)

Directed by Terence Young. Written by Stephen Geller. Cast: Charles Bronson, Lino Ventura, Joseph Wiseman, Jill Ireland, Walter Chiari, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Amedeo Nazzari, Fausto Tozzi, Pupella Maggio, Angelo Infanti, Guido Leontini, Maria Baxa, Mario Pilar, Alessandro Sperli, Anthony Dawson. (R, later PG, 125 mins)

The other big Mafia hit at movie theaters in 1972, THE VALACHI PAPERS was in production at the same time as THE GODFATHER, beating it to European theaters by a month in February 1972, but its US release was held up until November, eight months after the trailblazing Francis Ford Coppola blockbuster. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, THE VALACHI PAPERS benefited from the GODFATHER phenomenon and was itself a huge box office success, and along with the following year's SERPICO, was a key film in helping the legendary Italian producer establish himself as a Hollywood mogul. THE VALACHI PAPERS and SERPICO were both fact-based crime biopics based on books by journalist Peter Maas (De Laurentiis would later produce 1978's KING OF THE GYPSIES, a fictionalized adaptation of another Maas non-fiction work). VALACHI gets a lot of mileage out of a terrific performance by Charles Bronson as Joseph Valachi, the infamous informant whose Senate testimony in 1963 blew the lid off the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra and organized crime in America. As the film opens in 1962, an aging Valachi arrives in prison and is given the "kiss of death" by incarcerated mob boss Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura), who believes Valachi was the rat who tipped off the Feds on a drug shipment that got a good chunk of the Genovese crime family pinched. Valachi emphatically professes his innocence, but after an attempt on his life in the showers, having his 15-year-sentence bumped to life after mistaking a fellow inmate for a Genovese hit man and beating him to death with a lead pipe in the yard, and receiving word that Genovese has offered $20,000 to anyone who whacks him, he demands to be put in solitary confinement and decides to cooperate with FBI Agent Ryan (Gerald S. O'Loughlin), spilling the beans on the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra and "this thing of ours."

Charles Bronson sending a message to his critics
The film then cuts to a flashback structure, going back to Valachi's early days as a two-bit hood in the 1920s. In 1931, after a stretch in Sing Sing where he meets low-level mob flunky Gap (Walter Chiari), he eventually gets a job as a driver for "Boss of Bosses" Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman). He's placed under the tutelage of underboss Gaetano Reina (Amedeo Nazzari) and assigned to the crew of the ambitious, scheming Tony Bender (Guido Leontini). After whacking Maranzano's chief rival Joe Masseria (Alessandro Sperli), Lucky Luciano (Angelo Infanti, the only VALACHI cast member who was also in THE GODFATHER) and Genovese stage a coup with the help of Bender, killing Reina and distracting Valachi and Gap with a pair of prostitutes as they send a crew of hit men to kill Maranzano. The power play is a success, as Luciano takes over Maranzano's family, but is himself set up by the duplicitous Genovese and arrested on prostitution charges, leaving Genovese the Boss of Bosses of the Cosa Nostra. Valachi eventually marries Reina's daughter Maria (Bronson's wife Jill Ireland) and runs a successful Italian restaurant, and while he was a simple man with a seventh-grade education who never advanced beyond being a driver in the Maranzano/Luciano/Genovese family, he heard and saw everything, making him an easy target for an FBI sting where he's viewed as the small fish who can lead them to a much bigger one. Even before Genovese orders a hit on him from prison (upped to $100,000 after he learns that Valachi is talking to the FBI), Valachi already gets a spot on his shit list for his association with lunkheaded Gap, who was carrying on a clandestine affair with Genovese's bisexual moll Donna (Maria Baxa) and was brutally castrated by Bender for his transgressions in the film's most notorious scene. R-rated at the time of its release in 1972, THE VALACHI PAPERS was eventually and inexplicably re-rated PG at some point prior to its 2006 DVD release, and with some Baxa nudity, a level of squib splatter throughout that rivals Sonny Corleone's causeway death in THE GODFATHER, and Gap getting his dick chopped off in an agonizingly long scene (ripped off the next year in a cartoonishly over-the-top fashion when cuckolded mob boss Arthur Kennedy orders an underling's junk hacked off and stuffed into his own mouth in Tulio Demicheli's RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE), VALACHI might now rank as one of the most violent PG-rated movies in existence.

Controversial in its day and rumored to have moved production from NYC to Rome after threats from the mob, THE VALACHI PAPERS was scripted by Stephen Geller (who also wrote the big-screen version of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE the same year), with uncredited contributions by Italian writers Massimo De Rita and Dino Maiuri, who co-wrote the excellent 1970 Bronson crime thriller VIOLENT CITY. The film was directed by Terence Young, whose place in film history is secured by his helming the likes of DR. NO (1962), FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), THUNDERBALL (1965), and WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967). VALACHI was the last of three European Bronson films he directed (following 1970's COLD SWEAT and 1971's RED SUN), and by this period, Young was mostly on autopilot, slumming on mercenary gigs like the Italian T&A female gladiator movie WAR GODDESS (1973) and the outrageously offensive THE KLANSMAN (1974), and more focused on maintaining his jet-set lifestyle and being a sugar daddy to a much-younger girlfriend than he was on filmmaking. In the VALACHI PAPERS entry in the Leonard Maltin video guide, the film is described as "sloppy but engrossing," and that's just about dead-on accurate. Young got the film in the can, but from the looks of things, he was in Zero Fucks mode throughout the shoot: the film gets some key dates wrong (it says Valachi died in 1969, but he died in 1971); scenes of Valachi as a driver set in 1930 have late 1960s/early 1970s cars driving alongside him and parked on NYC streets, obviously catching footage on the fly without permits; Bronson slips at one point and refers to Masseria as "Maserati" and Young just left it in; Gerald S. O'Loughlin's name is misspelled "Gerard" in the credits; late in the film, Valachi attempts to hang himself with the power cord yanked off of the TV in his cell, and when he's rescued by Ryan, the red makeup around Bronson's neck to simulate the cord burn is smudged all over his white collar--again, no "Take 2" from Young; and most hilarious of all, a 1930 car chase that ends with Valachi driving into the East River, the camera panning up to show the 2/3 completed World Trade Center towers, still under construction with cranes visible on top of each building.

Joseph Valachi testifying before a Senate committee in 1963

THE VALACHI PAPERS is good but with a more engaged director at the helm, it could've been great. Bronson was always an engaging badass onscreen, but he rarely got a chance to really show off his acting chops, and his vivid portrayal of Joe Valachi is one of his career highlights, with the 50-year-old actor convincingly playing the character from his 20s to his late 60s. Ventura is appropriately menacing as the ruthless Genovese, while Ireland, likely included in the package deal to keep Bronson happy, has little to do in the historically thankless "Mafia wife" role, though her reactions to Valachi's lack of culture and table manners during their courting are cute, and allow Bronson a rare opportunity to show some comedic skills. Even though they're dubbed, Italian character actors Chiari, Leontini, and Fausto Tozzi (as hot-headed, Joe Pesci-like anger management case Albert Anastasia) make memorable impressions with their distinctive features. The scene-stealing honors, however, must go to Wiseman, best known for being the first Bond villain with the title role in DR. NO. Playing a Maranzano far more sympathetic than existed in real life, Wiseman conveys a grandfatherly charm and affable befuddlement, and while he may not offer the best acting in THE VALACHI PAPERS, he certainly offers the most acting. He sports a huge mustache and uses goofy facial expressions and a garbled, completely invented accent, rolling his Rs and sounding like a Transylvanian mafioso and giving the audience a bizarre, alternate universe look at what might've happened if Bela Lugosi lived long enough to audition for the role of Vito Corleone. Wiseman's shining moment comes at Reina's funeral, when the dead underboss' grieving widow demands justice and Maranzano embraces her and declares "I-uh-can-uh-not-uh-bring-uh-back-uh-the-dead-uh...I-uh-can-uh-only-uh-kill-uh-the-living-uh!" Maranzano's execution-style murder is integral to the Valachi story as it begins Genovese's ascent to capo di tutti capi, but Wiseman's performance is so unpredictably strange that THE VALACHI PAPERS definitely loses a little something when he exits midway through. Twilight Time has just released a limited edition Blu-ray of THE VALACHI PAPERS, and it's easily the best it's ever looked. Bonus features are sadly lacking, though there is an isolated audio track for Riz Ortolani's score, which has some lovely and memorable cues, but comes in a distant second to Nino Rota's work on THE GODFATHER.

THE VALACHI PAPERS opening in Toledo, OH on November 8, 1972

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