The Valachi Papers (1972) is probably the movie that Paramount thought they were making when they secured the rights to Mario Puzo's The Godfather. It's a bloody, pulpy gangster story, inspired by the real-life exploits of famous Mafia foot soldier-turned-informant Joe Valachi. The actors are macho and magnetic, and the violence is excitingly staged by director Terence Young (From Russia with Love, Wait Until Dark). Who cares if the characters are wafer-thin? It's a Mafia movie, not a great work of art.
Charles Bronson fits the movie's vision of Valachi perfectly: a rough and tough product of the streets who is (relatively) smarter than the average thug. Bronson's resting stoneface makes his Valachi a natural observer of the goings-on around him. This turns out to be useful when the head of the New York Mafia, Vito Genovese (Army of Shadows' Lino Ventura), puts an open contract on Valachi's head. Valachi decides to become an informant, in the hopes of saving his skin.
The film plays out mostly as a flashback, as Valachi relays his life story to a tough but sympathetic fed (Gerald O'Loughlin). The real-life Joe Valachi reportedly rambled on, filling over 1000 sheets of paper with disjointed recollections, but the film keeps it all pretty tight. Joe hooks up with a couple of made guys in Sing Sing, a real prick named Tony Bender (Guido Leontini) and a sweetheart nicknamed "The Gap" (Walter Chiari). After prison, they get Joe a position working for mob boss Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman, slightly more believable as an Italian than he was as the titular Asian villain in one of Young's other James Bond films, Dr. No). Joe proves himself to be useful, so he also gets made, just as Maranzano and his crew are going to war with some of the other New York families. Joe tags along for the ride, as the film becomes a tangle of secret alliances, double-crosses, and piled-up dead bodies.
Every film needs a love interest -- even one who gets mostly ignored for all but a few scenes in the movie -- and Charles Bronson's wife, Jill Ireland, fills that space here as Joe's wife Maria. Further illustrating the film's lack of interest in its main character's family life, Joe and Maria's young son is mentioned a few times and is glimpsed only briefly in a scene where he's asleep. In other circumstances, Ireland and Bronson can make a solid onscreen team (just look at Twilight Time's reissue of From Noon Till Three for proof), but Ireland seems woefully miscast here. Bronson barely passes as an Italian mob guy on toughness alone, but when he is paired with the anything-but-Italian Ireland (in a painfully obvious wig), they look like a spoof of Mafia characters and not remotely like the real thing.
It's impossible not to think of The Godfather movies when watching The Valachi Papers. This film came out the same year as the first Godfather. They both feature memorably brutal assassinations, some in similar locations (secluded restaurants, barber shops). A fish is used to send a message in both movies. Moe Greene loses an eye in The Godfather, while The Gap ends up losing a body part that many men will find far more precious. A late-film sequence where the Senate holds hearings about the Cosa Nostra ends up unwittingly anticipating The Godfather Part II.
And really, The Godfather is the main reason you (probably) have not heard of this film. It does a lot of what The Valachi Papers does, but better. That's not to say that The Valachi Papers is a total waste -- as a straight-ahead action thriller, it's pretty darn thrilling -- but don't expect anything greater than a solidly crafted popcorn picture.