The Strongest Face of Our Thing
In his 2011 biography Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson, Brian D’Ambrosio reports comments made by director Terence Young in an early 1970s interview discussing his leading man in the ambitious, decades-spanning, truth-based gangland chronicle he made for producer Dino de Laurentiis from Peter Maas’s best-selling book: “The first time I heard the name of Charles Bronson was when my friend, the late Charles Laughton, talked to me about him. He said, ‘Bronson has the strongest face in the business and he is also one of its very best actors.’ That is a strong endorsement, and after working with the man for three films [Cold Sweat (1970, U.S. 1974), Red Sun (1971, U.S. 1972) and The Valachi Papers (1972)], I see what Laughton meant.” The Valachi Papers, de Laurentiis would authoritatively assert in publicity materials, was the realistic, street-level mob tale that complemented the more artistically executed family story told by The Godfather, released eight months earlier. Unlike the calculating yet patrician Corleones, Joe Valachi was a dogged and loyal foot soldier who rose through the ranks of the Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”) in the shadow of mob family overlords named Anastasia, Genovese, Luciano and Maranzano before pressure-cooker circumstances drove him to become an informer, just as Bronson had ascended the ladder of ever increasing supporting and second-lead movie roles over the preceding 20 years and was ready to command the spotlight. The taciturn yet adventurous Bronson saw the challenge of playing a cold-blooded triggerman with a backbone of loyalty and entrenched sense of tradition was tantalizing. D’Ambrosio writes that Bronson saw the murderous Valachi as “a very simple man…very human…very warm. He grew up in the Mafia, and he joined just to make a living. I’m not idolizing him. I just want to show his simplicity and the sad, sad life he was leading. Joe Valachi had no choice but to be a killer. He had nothing to lose.” And with interest in mob machinations piqued by sensational trial press headlines and the success of the Mario Puzo and Maas times, de Laurentiis and Young had everything to gain in getting their production right. D’Ambrosio quotes Young’s recollections: “We worked around the clock. We concentrated on the exterior scenes, with skyscrapers, bridges and other New York landmarks in the background. We had a big crew of top professionals and we needed them all because the incidents in our story take place over a period of more than three decades and Charles Bronson had to look like a young hoodlum of 30, in some sequences, while, in others, he was Joe Valachi at 62. This required expert changes in makeup and shifting periods, his costumes, props, even to the correct models of the getaway cars…We filmed on the Brooklyn docks, in Fulton Fish Market, along Park Avenue, in The Bronx, in Queens, in Appalachian rural New York State, even in prison.” (Although not every detail was covered: scrupulous watchers of the film over the years have caught the occasional glimpse of the World Trade Center towers and more contemporary cars in the background of a few shots.) Threats of Mafia influence to disrupt production in the U.S., which have become part of the film’s lore and played into de Laurentiis’ publicity build-up for the film, prompted a shift to Rome for filming interiors and completing post-production, as well as a change in studio distribution from Paramount (with whom de Laurentiis had a long-standing relationship) to Columbia. But the blood and guts of The Valachi Papers and the steel and sinew of Charles Bronson proved to be a winning criminal collaboration, strikingly photographed by Aldo Tonti (Nights of Cabiria, Reflections in a Golden Eye) and resonantly scored by Riz Ortolani (Mondo Cane, The Yellow Rolls-Royce). Also starring elegantly sinister crime-movie icon Lino Ventura as Vito Genovese, plus Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland as Maria Valachi, Walter Chiari, Gerald S. O’Loughlin and Joseph Wiseman (immortalized in the title role of director Young’s first James Bond foray Dr. No), The Valachi Papers hits hi-def hard, fast and furiously June 13 on Twilight Time blu-ray. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday May 31.