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Charles Bronson used to say he got his start because of his ability to belch on command. That's how he got the job in You're in the Navy Now in 1951. Or so he says. The point isn't whether or not that's true but that Bronson told it as if it was and anyone telling that story isn't trying to look like a glamorous star. Bronson wasn't and never would be. He was a tough, working class guy, strong and muscular but with a face that veered away from the traditional idea of a handsome leading man.
Bronson was born Charles Buchinsky but changed his name in the fifties to avoid sounding too Russian in an age dominated by Red Scares and McCarthyism. Again, that's just Bronson's story. He could've changed it for the same reasons so many other actors with ethnic or hard-to-pronounce names did - studio pressure or better marquee potential. But Bronson probably liked the "I wanted my name to sound more American" angle of the story and went with it. One thing about Bronson: He knew what he wanted and wasn't afraid to ask for it. When he felt he wasn't getting the lead roles he deserved, he began seeking them out wherever he could, even if it meant leaving Hollywood and heading to Europe, which is, in fact, just what he did.
In 1968, he made the film Adieu, L'Ami (Farewell, Friend) with Alain Delon and suddenly, in Europe, he was a hit. Movies with Bronson in supporting roles, like The Magnificent Seven , The Great Escape  and House of Wax  began playing in theatres across the continent to exploit his newfound stardom. Hollywood studios soon gave Bronson the lead roles he desired and The Valachi Papers (1972), based on a non-fiction book published in 1968, was exactly the project he'd been looking for.
The film version of The Valachi Papers wasn't released until 1972 but was in development from the moment the book, written by Peter Maas (Serpico), became a bestseller. The story was one that riveted American readers, giving them an inside look at the dealings of organized crime, which had attracted major media attention in recent years. While everyone knew there were organized gangsters out there, from Al Capone to Lucky Luciano, the actual existence of a large organization of families, La Cosa Nostra, was still only legend. That is, until November, 1957, when, quite by accident, authorities stumbled upon a meeting in Apalachin, New York attended by over a hundred underworld figures in the Mafia, from America, Canada and Italy. Suddenly, its existence was out in the open. Then, in 1963, Joseph "Joe Cargo" Valachi testified against the mob. Although he didn't provide any direct testimony that led to anyone inside the mob being convicted, in the end he provided something far more valuable: an insider's historical chronicle of a secret group. Valachi said he was testifying because it was the right thing to do while others said he was doing it to save his own skin. Whatever the reason, after the Apalachin meeting exposed the organization, Valachi provided the background.
In 1968, Valachi was still in prison and under FBI protection (he would remain there until his death in 1971). However, between the time of the publication of his biography and the plans to make it into a movie, another book on the mob proved even more popular, The Godfather, published in 1969. In fact, it was a literary blockbuster. Paramount had the rights and it was getting the red carpet treatment. No expense was to be spared for the sweeping story of Michael Corleone and his rise to power in a Mafia dynasty. Now, after having the benefits of being based on a true story and the status of being the first to break the real story, The Valachi Papers was playing catch-up to the new kid on the block but producer Dino De Laurentiis had a plan.
Terence Young was the director behind Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965). If anyone could make this movie into a hit, De Laurentiis thought, it was Young (The Valachi Papers even has Joseph Wiseman, Dr. No himself). Of course, Young had Connery but this Bronson chap was making a pretty big splash across the Atlantic and this seemed like the perfect time to put him in the lead. Young would direct and the movie would be released after The Godfather (1972) but, De Laurentiis was hoping, The Valachi Papers would be the bigger hit. It wasn't in box office terms, but it was still a winner.
The critics gave it a drubbing but audiences didn't care; they didn't even mind about obvious period mistakes like contemporary automobiles clearly visible in scenes intended to take place in the thirties. They went to it, week after week until by the end of the year, it was still one of the top moneymakers of 1972 and, more importantly, Charles Bronson was finally a bona fide star. It wasn't The Godfather, but the studios made him an offer he couldn't refuse: a three picture contract, taking home a million dollars per film, a percentage of the gross and the ability to pick his female co-star (so he could work with his wife, Jill Ireland).
The Valachi Papers gave audiences the inside look at the mob they wanted and Bronson the stardom he craved. In two years' time, he played the lead in Death Wish (1974) and his reputation as the consummate tough guy was cemented. And with Bronson, it didn't stop at the screen. In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1973, he set the tone for the interview by giving Ebert his opinion of film critics. Jay Cocks of Time magazine had written a bad review of Bronson's latest film, The Stone Killer ; even worse, he singled out Bronson and director Michael Winner. Bronson said, "first it was a novel, then it was a screenplay, and there was a cinematographer involved and a lot of other people. That makes it personal, when he picks on just two people, and that gets me mad." Ebert then noted "an ominous pause" before Bronson continued, "One way or another, sooner or later, I'll get that man." Regardless, it was obvious that Bronson had finally arrived as an actor and popular star and after The Valachi Papers, he would go on to specialize in playing tough, single minded characters who followed their own code and sense of ethics as in Mr. Majestyk , Death Wish and Hard Times .
Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Stephen Geller from a book by Peter Maas
Cinematography: Aldo Tonti
Music: Riz Ortolani, Armando Trovajoli
Film Editor: Johnny Dwyre, Monica Finzi
Production Design: Mario Garbuglia
Cast: Charles Bronson (Joe Valachi), Lino Ventura (Vito Genovese), Jill Ireland (Maria Reina Valachi), Walter Chiari (Gap), Joseph Wiseman (Salvatore Maranzano), Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Ryan), Amedeo Nazzari (Gaetano Reina), Fausto Tozzi (Albert Anastasia).
by Greg Ferrara
The Mafia Mystique, Dwight C. Smith, Jr.
Esquire, "Bronson Speak, You Listen!" Roger Ebert, 1973