From 1972, this evening’s movie. Only the third time in forty-six years I’ve seen it.
This was the second feature film my parents took me to see in a theater…in Savanna, Illinois, when I was three…the first movie being Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (I didn’t really see that first movie, though, because I threw a hysterical fit and demanded to be taken home, due to the opening melody of When You Wish Upon A Star making me believe something dreadfully sad was about to happen).
For some reason, I was a very well-behaved three-year-old for The Valachi Papers, even though, back then, the movie made very little impression on me. For years, my only memories of the film involved a lot of guys in suits, in a series of different rooms, standing around talking about things I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Every once in a while, somebody in the movie would shoot a gun and there’d be some blood.
I recall being very bored staring up at that movie screen, except there were a lot of people in the theater that night and I didn’t want to call attention to myself, so I kept quiet.
The only vivid part of my Valachi Papers experience, which I’ve talked about before, was when I was quickly taken to the theater lobby by my mother during the film’s infamous castration scene. Valachi’s best friend’s been cornered by some other mob guys who are there in Valachi’s restaurant after hours to punish the guy for fooling around with the mob boss’s mistress.
The goons have been ordered to cut off the guy’s you-know-what so the mob boss can give it to his mistress as a ‘present’. Very scary scene, fairly bloody, even though you never see anything graphic. It’s mostly the actor’s performance that gives the scene its unpleasant power. The character’s agony goes on for a bit before Valachi gives in to his friend’s pleas and puts him out of his misery with a bullet.
I’m not sure at which point in the scene my mom decided enough was enough. I only remember suddenly being picked up and carried to the lobby, where she and I stood for the next thirty minutes or so waiting for my dad to join us. He didn’t make much money back then, so a night out at the movies was a big deal; when my dad paid hard-earned cash for a movie ticket, he wasn’t about to walk out early.
My mother was not happy standing around that lobby for thirty minutes. Though she still bristled about it years later, she never really explained to me exactly why they took their three-year-old to see an R-rated Charles Bronson movie about the Mafia. I’m guessing the cost of a babysitter and my grandmother being unavailable that night may have been factors.
What’s even more interesting to me now, though, is that the movie theater folks had no qualms about letting me in to see it. Different times.
As for watching the movie tonight, I chose it mainly to decide whether or not I should upgrade my older DVD copy to Blu-ray. I’d heard Bronson historian Paul Talbot (author of Bronson’s Loose!: The Making Of The Death Wish Films and Bronson’s Loose Again!: On The Set With Charles Bronson) state that the new Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Valachi Papers, though labeled as PG, is actually the bloodier R-rated version.
When I realized Sony’s 2006 DVD of the film, also labeled PG, was the same R-rated cut, I figured I’d revisit the movie after a nearly ten-year absence and make my decision.
I’ve decided against the Blu-ray upgrade.
The character of Joe Valachi was a big part of what kept me from enjoying the film. As a mobster, Valachi’s not very successful. He’s just a boss’s driver, with a pair of legit side businesses, but he’s kind of passive and, ultimately, boring. He’s not clever. He’s not charismatic and often comes across as bizarrely naive. At times, almost child-like.
This is probably the only Bronson flick where I didn’t find his character interesting or appealing at all.
For me, the most interesting historically-based mob movies are about the flashy guys in the Mafia, not the unambitious, humorless schlubs who drive the flashy, powerful gangsters around from place to place. If Valachi hadn’t broken tradition and turned rat for the Feds, there would have been nothing unique or interesting about him at all.
Another aspect of the film that bugged me? Since this was a Dino De Laurentiis production filmed partially in Italy, with the supporting cast mostly Italian, there’s a lot of awkward dubbing into English. The practice was pretty commonplace in movies at the time, but it gives the movie a canned, artificial quality. And, to my ears, too many of the voice actors sounded alike.
Every time one of these onscreen characters spoke, in a voice that was clearly recorded later on, probably off the set in a small studio recording booth, I didn’t believe it. Awkward Seventies dubbing never convinces me. Its inherent sound quality of disembodiment simply reminds me, with every delivered line, that I am watching a movie.
Sometimes that awkward, distracting dubbing works for Horror movies– Dario Argento’s Suspiria, for example– providing an added layer of surreal detachment that enhances the film’s atmosphere rather than detracting from it. But a gritty gangster movie based on real life events? Nope.
The Valachi Papers isn’t a horrible movie, it’s just not terribly interesting. It may have seemed fresh in 1972, being released as it was eight months after The Godfather, but compared to that film, and every Scorsese mob movie that’s come along since, The Valachi Papers comes across rather flat. It’s not so much the movie’s style that put me off, it’s just that I didn’t find the majority of the events in the story all that compelling.
There was enough action in the film to hold my attention, but I didn’t really care about any of the characters or what they were going through. I certainly didn’t learn anything about the Mafia that I hadn’t already learned from books and other films on the subject.
Yet, in theaters, this movie was a big hit. A bit of a sensation, actually, one of those movies ‘everyone’s talking about’. Throughout his career, this was Bronson’s biggest box office hit, bigger than the original Death Wish.
Due to this one film, released in November 1972, Charles Bronson, at fifty-one years of age, was firmly put on the map, for the first time in America, as a movie star. The Valachi Papers basically rejuvenated his career.
But in response to that critic’s exclamation on the film’s poster I placed at the top of this post? No, The Valachi Papers is not better than The Godfather. Not even close.
“The Godfather? That was the shittiest movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
(Charles Bronson Superstar by Steven Whitney, p. 170)
For further reading on the subject of Charles Bronson films, I highly recommend each of these books: