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The Valachi Papers

The gangster movie has been a pop-staple ever since Edward G. Robinson asked "Is this is the end of Rico?" and James Cagney shoved a half-a-grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. This isn't all that surprising — during the Depression era, gangsters held a sway over America, and cinema offered a chance to see both the highs of the fast life, and then the moralistic consequences of it. Were the makers of The Valachi Papers (1972) after more than a quick buck, they might have known they had something. The film is based on Peter Maas' exposé on the mob, which was written using the memoirs of mob underling Joseph Valachi, mostly covering the 1930s, when the real-life inspirations for Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were stomping around. In fact, during the course of the film famous cosa nostra members like "Lucky" Luciano and Bugsy Siegel are name-checked. The book offers an inside portrait into the ways of Mafia rule, and one wishes Martin Scorsese would be interested in dipping into the gangster-well once more to explore this time and era — the material is ripe for remaking. Alas, Terrence Young's effort is strictly exploitation, which becomes obvious when Dino de Laurentis' producer credit hits the screen. Charles Bronson stars as Joseph Valachi, who knows he might be murdered in prison because he's thought weak. And after a discussion with head boss Don Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura), it seems Valachi's only option is to turn rat. Such begins the film's 30-plus-year odyssey through Valachi's life, from joining the mob to getting married to a boss's daughter (played by Bronson's wife Jill Ireland), and then pinched when he needed a favor to stay out from under the cops. Though filmed in New York, this is very much an Italian production (which explains why the dubbing is so awful), and would feel like a cheap Godfather knockoff if both hadn't been released the same year. But the film lacks any pulp zest or sense of opera, making it muted and dull. Alas, there is a good movie to be made of the material, somewhere. Sony's DVD release of The Valachi Papers offers an acceptable anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Though the package lists it the title as rated PG, this appears to be the original R-rated cut (there is some nudity and violence that would seem to qualify it for the harder rating), possibly making it something of a curio, even though the only extras are bonus trailers. Keep-case.

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