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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Valachi Papers
The Valachi Papers
Sony Pictures // R // January 3, 2006
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted December 26, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
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P R I N T
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The Movie:

Based on a 'tell-all' novel that claims to be based on actual mob history by Peter Maas, The Valachi Papers, interestingly enough, had to be filmed in Italy for fear of mafia intervention on American soil. The real life Joseph Valachi, upon whom the stories in this film are centered around, was an actual mafia big-wig and no one involved in making the film wanted to wake up next to a horses head because of their commitment to the production.

Told in flashback by Valachi (played with a wonderful sense of menace by Charles Bronson), and book-ended by his time in custody, the film details his story to a U.S. Federal Agent about his work in the underworld between the years of 1929 and 1961. Employed by a mob boss named Vito Genovese (prolific star of French cinema, Lino Ventura), Valachi is wronged and turns informer on his former employer. It's a dangerous move and because of it a price ends up on his head and violence ensues. There are a few twists and turns along the way but the story moves in a pretty straight forward fashion as we witness Valachi working his way up through the ranks until he's ultimately forced to turn against his fellow hoods and fight for his life. The structure isn't all that different from Scorcese's Goodfellas and it does a fine job of letting us get to know the lead characters as Valachi's story unfolds.

Stylishly directed by Terence Young (who had worked with Bronson before on a few of his other 'shot in Europe' films, namely Red Sun and Cold Sweat), the film features supporting roles from Bronson's wife Jill Ireland as well as Walter Chiari and Joseph Wiseman (of Dr. No fame). While Young's direction is solid and eye-pleasing (thanks in no small part to the slick cinematography by Aldo Tonti who was also behind the camera for Sergio Sollima's 1970 classic Italian action film, Violent City, also starring Bronson), the supporting cast is comprised of some seriously clichéd Italian mobster types played by bit part actors who don't appear to be very authentically Italian. That being said, Young manages to make excellent use of the period costumes, cars and settings, which gives the very realistic story a strong and authentic feel. There's a lot of detail in the film, from the fashions to the decorations inside some of the restaurant settings and the production feels quite lavish despite a few anachronisms here and there (watch for the World Trade Center buildings in the background of one scene… I'm pretty sure that they weren't there in the 1920s!).

At over two hours in length, there are a few slow spots and a couple of sub plots that make the film feel a little on the padded side but there's so much that's good about the film that it's very easy to overlook these minor complaints. When the action hits, it's ugly and gritty and violent and Bronson manages to accomplish his climb up the mafia ladder with style and that cold sense of menace that's so easily and rightfully associated with many of his performances. The film also benefits greatly from a classy and emotional soundtrack from Riz Ortolani. As he's proven in the past with his work on such popular Italian genre films as Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and Tonino Valerii's Day Of Anger, the man knows what notes strike a specific chord with an audience and he uses that expertise quite wisely with his work on this film. While not quite as powerful as Ennio Morricone's compositions for Sergio Leone's take on the American gangster mythos, Once Upon A Time In America, it is damn close and nearly rivals the maestro's work in Leone's swan song.

Meandering subplots and mediocre supporting actors aside, The Valachi Papers hits you with a great performance from Bronson in a tough as nails role he was born to play and some great camerawork to pull you into the story. It isn't Bronson's best role, but it is reasonably close and is certainly a better than the average entry into his filmography. It also has the dubious honor of being one of the only films in his large body of work to feature a nasty castration scene, so if testicular injury is your bag, and you love Bronson like you should, then this is the movie for you. It's played completely straight, it works on almost every level, and it's a very down to Earth look at the early days of organized crime in America. While Coppola and Scorcese are the first two names that come to mind when you think 'mob movie' it's criminal to sell Young's film short, as it truly is up there with the best of them.

Worth noting is that the TV print of the film, which was the most common way to see the movie in North America until now, was shorn of any nudity and the castration scene. This version, though it states a PG rating on the back of the packaging, does have the castration scene in it (I'm not 100% positive that this scene is uncut, but if I had to guess I'd say that it was) and also includes two scenes of topless female nudity, indicating that this might be the original R rated version of the film. Furthering this is the fact that the murder and 'hit' scenes are all fairly bloody – definitely more so than your average PG film.

The DVD

Video:

The Valachi Papers is presented in a solid anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer. Print damage is present throughout in the form of print damage and speckles throughout but none of it is bad enough to really ruin the viewing experience. Some moderate grain is also present throughout and mostly noticeable during the darker scenes, but again, it's not overpowering. There's some minor edge enhancement and shimmering evident as well, but overall the transfer is pretty good with nice very nice color reproduction and a reasonably clear picture. Fine detail gets a bit buried in some of the grain from time to time but there aren't any issues with harsh compression artifacts or anything like that to complain about.

Sound:

The only audio track on this release is an English language Dolby Digital Mono mix. Optional subtitles are available in English and French, and there's an English language closed captioning option for the hearing impaired supplied on this release as well. As to the quality of the track, it's fine. There is a bit of mild hiss present in one or two spots but for the most part the mix is clean and free of any really noticeable audible defects or distortion. Riz Ortolani's evocative score comes through nicely and the dialogue is consistently clean and clear. Sound effects are fine and neither they nor the score over power the performers during playback.

Extras:

Extras on the are pretty slim. Aside from a static menu screen, subtitle/audio setup screen and a chapter selection option, the only 'extras' on this release are trailers for other mafia related DVDs available from Columbia Tri-Star: Be Cool, Get Shorty, Donnie Brasco and finally, Bugsy.

Final Thoughts:

Bronson is tough as nails in this one and The Valachi Papers is a great crime thriller from start to finish in spite of its few small flaws. Terence Young does a nice job bringing it all together and even when the movie is heading off into strange directions that don't really do it any favors, Bronson is good enough to pull it all together and the great action scenes redeem it in the end. The DVD from Sony/Columbia Tri-Star looks and sounds decent and comes recommended on the strength of the film despite it's near barebones status.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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