It's not The Godfather, but The Valachi Papers is nevertheless a worthwhile and eye-opening look into the organized criminal underworld. Never one to shy away from a challenge, producer Dino De Laurentiis spotted the success of Francis Coppola's mafia book adaptation and quickly recruited Terence Young, famous as a James Bond director, to create his own mobster epic. Or, as often was the case with De Laurentiis, something close enough.
Based on the true events recounted in the book of the same name by Peter Maas, this is the story of Joseph Valachi (Charles Bronson), who became the first man to betray the mafia and name names to the justice authorities in the United States, in return for protection for him and his family.
Told mostly in flashback, the film traces Valachi's career from the 1930's to the 1960's, as he rose from a small time New York hood to the driver and confidant of some of the Mafia's most notorious bosses of the era, including Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman) and Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura). Valachi's role is that of an observer, enforcer, participant and enabler, rather than a plotter, which gives The Valachi Papers more of a street-level, gritty front-line view of organized crime compared to the rarefied air of the Corleones.
There is no shortage of blood and gore as numerous mafia types are gunned down in a hail of bullets for a full two hours. As an added touch, we are treated to one memorable and quite painful castration, prior to the poor victim being gunned down anyway. There is also no shortage of production snafus, not the least of which is the appearance of the ill-fated Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 1930's New York.
The Valachi Papers features one of Charles Bronson's less stereotypical performances, in a role that sees him more animated that usual, and in the center of the action but, unusually for him, not in control of events. Jill Ireland, in real life Mrs. Bronson, shows up as, well, Mrs. Bronson. The rest of the cast, a mixture of forgettable American character actors and lesser known Italians, stick strictly to one dimension.
Much like its topic, The Valachi Papers is in turns intriguing, engaging, and quite messy.