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The Italian release title of the film was Joe Valachi: I segreti di cosa nostra. The following quotation appears before the film's title: "'Crime is a question of criminals. It is not a matter of race, color or religion.' Robert Kennedy, when Attorney General of the United States." The following written statement appears prior to the end credits: "After seven years in solitary confinement Joseph Valachi died of natural causes. So did Vito Genovese...but six months earlier." Interspersed throughout the film are titles identifying the date and time of various events. The story is told as a series of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between scenes of "Joe" in the present talking with agent "Ryan" and scenes depicting Joe's past.
For the film, many details of Valachi's life were altered. As depicted, the real Joseph Valachi (1904-1971) was born to an extremely poor New York family and dropped out of school at a young age, becoming the head of a gang of teenagers called the Minute Men. As noted in modern sources, while serving time in Sing Sing, Valachi met mobster Dominick "The Gap" Petrilli, who then introduced him to gangster Girolamo Santucci. Unlike what is depicted in the film, Valachi met crime boss Gaetano Reina through Santucci, not Salvatore Maranzano. Valachi became part of Reina's gang at the height of its war with rival Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria's gang. Maranzano invited Valachi into his operations following Valachi's participation in the contract killing of Steven Ferrigno. As depicted in the film, for his gang initiation, Valachi was forced to hold a piece of burning paper in his hands.
Valachi's first goombah, meaning a crime boss or mentor, was not Reina, as presented in the film, but Joseph Bonanno. After Masseria's lieutenants Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Vito Genovese conspired with Maranzano to have Masseria killed, Maranzano declared himself capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses). Impressed with Maranzano's style, Valachi switched allegiances and asked to be Maranzano's driver and bodyguard. As in the film, Maranzano immediately ordered that Luciano and Genovese be killed, but was outsmarted by the pair and slain. Valachi went into hiding and although he stayed in Reina's attic only briefly, he did begin a romance with Reina's daughter Mildred.
At the urging of Gap, Valachi eventually joined Genovese's gang, which was controlled by Luciano, the new capo di tutti capi. Valachi met Tony Bender at this time and later married Mildred. As depicted in the film, during the 1930s, Valachi expanded his gambling and loan sharking operations to include more legitimate businesses. He had a son and became an avid racehorse owner. During World War II, while his clothing factory filled orders for the military, Valachi also made money on the black market selling stolen gas ration stamps.
Genovese, who had fled to Italy in the mid-1930s to avoid arrest on murder charges, returned to New York in 1945. Luciano had also been forced to flee, and Frank Costello took over as mob boss. Although the film suggests that Genovese's position in the mob hierarchy remained unchanged while he was in Italy, he did in fact have to re-establish himself. With Bender's help, he recruited Valachi, and during the early 1950s, Valachi, who had suffered some financial setbacks, became more heavily involved in drug dealing and mob killings. Gap was ultimately betrayed by Valachi and murdered, but was slain over a business matter, not an affair, as portrayed in the film. During Genovese's exile, his wife Anna, whose first husband was reputedly murdered by Genovese, became financially entangled with a mobster named Franse. When Anna sued for divorce in 1953 and divulged details about her husband's finances, Genovese ordered Franse killed (not castrated, as shown in the film).
Before Genovese could eliminate him, Costello retired, and Genovese took over as boss, stepping up the gang's narcotics trade. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics began infiltrating the Mafia, pressuring members to turn informant. In the early 1960s, Valachi was imprisoned on two different drug charges, one of which Bender was suspected of setting up. According to an October 1963 Time article, Genovese, who was also convicted on drug charges, reportedly threatened Valachi in prison and gave him the "kiss of death," as depicted in the film. Bender disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and following an incident in the prison showers, a fixated Valachi killed a convict he mistakenly believed had been sent by Genovese to murder him.
In 1963, Valachi appeared as a witness during Congressional hearings on organized crime and narcotics traffic, led by Arkansas Senator John McClellan. Although Valachi's televised testimony did not lead directly to any arrests, he did reveal the inner workings of the Mafia and helped convince FBI director Edgar J. Hoover that a vast network of organized criminals did, in fact, exist in America. Valachi claimed that he was exposing his former bosses not out of revenge, as depicted in the film, but because they had gotten too greedy. As portrayed in the film, Valachi attempted to hang himself in prison, but the event took place in 1966, long after his Congressional appearance. In 1971, Valachi died in prison following a gall bladder attack. Although the film states that Valachi died six months after Genovese, Valachi actually outlived his former boss by over two years.
Plans to film a story based on Valachi's testimony were announced as early as October 1963. According to a Los Angeles Times article, producer Bryan Foy, who had produced a number of gangster films in the 1930s, had the "inside track" on acquiring story rights from Valachi, but it is not known whether Valachi ever discussed a deal with Foy. According to a February 1969 Daily Variety article, the U.S. Justice Department granted Valachi permission to write his memoirs in 1965. Modern sources note that the Justice Department actively encouraged Valachi to pen his life story, hoping he would reveal useful information about the mob. Valachi then decided to work with author Peter Maas, after Maas wrote an article about him in the May 1963 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, according to the Daily Variety item.
As noted in various news items, the Justice Department, bowing to pressure from Italian-American groups, tried to stop publication of Maas's book. The groups, including Americans of Italian Descent, argued that the book portayed Italian Americans in a defamatory manner. Maas countered that Valachi's story was about criminals, not Italian Americans. According to modern sources, the FBI finally negotiated a compromise with the protesters by suggesting that Maas's book be written in the third person and include the author's interviews with Valachi. The book, untimately entitled The Valachi Papers , was published in 1968.
Onscreen credits note that the picture was "An Italo-French co-production." In February 1969, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased Maas's book for $200,000, and according to a March 1969 Variety article, Valachi received fifty percent of both the film sale and the book's royalties. News items at this time also reported that Maas also was to work on the film's screenplay. An April 1971 Variety news item announced that Marcello Mastroianni had been selected for a "top spot" in the film, which De Laurentiis' company was reportedly co-producing with Castoro Film. Castoro Film does not appear to have been involved in the final production, however. The Paris-based company Euro France Films is listed onscreen and in reviews as the film's co-production company.
According to modern sources, De Laurentiis convinced a reluctant Charles Bronson to star in the film by signing him to a three-picture contract, which guaranteed him a million-dollar per-film salary, plus a percentage of the gross and a generous expense account. The Valachi Papers marked Bronson's third and final collaboration with English director Terence Young. Their previous two films were De la part des copains (Cold Sweat), released in France in 1970 and the U.S. in 1974; and Soleil rouge (Red Sun), released in Europe in 1971 and in the U.S. in 1972. Modern sources add Franco Ressel, Gianni Medici and Ron Gilbert to the cast.
Filming took place in New York City and at De Laurentiis' studios in Rome. In early April 1972, De Laurentiis announced that New York filming had been halted prematurely and moved to Rome because of protests from the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Although the group had earlier complained about the screenplay's inclusion of the terms Cosa Nostra and Mafia, De Laurentiis' claims of harassment were generally regarded as a publicity stunt. Modern sources contend that the production moved to Rome after it was threatened by members of the Mafia. Pre-production news items, however, indicate that De Laurentiis had planned to film in Rome after location shooting in New York. Modern sources also state that a critics' pre-release screening in Manhattan was interrupted by a bomb threat placed by the Mafia.
Paramount Pictures, the film's original distributor, according to news items, had scheduled a February 1973 release. When De Laurentiis insisted that the picture's opening be moved up so it would overlap with the still-in-release Paramount 1972 blockbuster The Godfather and thereby capitalize on the bigger film's popularity, Paramount backed out as distributor. News items note that in August 1972, after De Laurentiis had failed to reach a distribution agreement with Warner Bros., Paramount briefly reconsidered releasing the picture. According to news items, Columbia Pictures took over as distributor in September 1972, and the picture was released nationally in November 1972. A November 1972 Daily Variety news item stated that Columbia offered De Laurentiis "$5,000,000 for 100% producer interest," but the final details of the deal have not been determined.
According to an October 1972 Hollywood Reporter item, De Laurentiis took out a $1 million insurance policy as part of his contractual obligation to indemnify Columbia in the event of slander lawsuits resulting from the picture's release. Some of the real-life people depicted in the picture were still living, and as noted in Hollywood Reporter, De Laurentiis had not obtained releases granting his company permission to portray them on screen. In order to avoid litigation, De Laurentiis reportedly cut a few scenes for the film's U.S. release.
Many reviewers compared The Valachi Papers unfavorably to The Godfather, which had been released in March 1972. De Laurentiis defended the originality of his picture by noting that he had purchased Maas's book long before Puzo's novel was published. Modern sources state that, despite the mostly negative reviews, the picture earned $9,400,000 at the box office during its first eight months of domestic distribution. Shortly after the film's release, Euro France Films sued De Laurentiis and Columbia for breach of contract, accounting and defamation. Euro France demanded over $13,000,000 in payment, asserting that De Laurentiis and, by extension, Columbia, had violated details of its equity participation in the distribution of the film. According to a January 1973 Hollywood Reporter article, Euro France also contended that the De Laurentiis company and Sedifo, S.A., a Swiss company, had "defamed the plaintiff by various communications and an advertisement" in the December 1972 issue of Variety, in which Euro France's financial claims were questioned. While the case was being decided, some of De Laurentiis' assets were attached, and the New York Supreme Court forbade Columbia from paying the producer any additional U.S. income. The disposition of the suit has not been determined. In 1974, the MPAA changed the film's rating from R to PG.