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Pay or Die

Pay or Die(1960)

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teaser Pay or Die (1960)

Allied Artists had such success with their 1959 picture Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the infamous mobster, that the studio teamed up again with director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early 20th Century New York City. Pay or Die! (1960) is based on the true story of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle the Mafia.

Ernest Borgnine plays Joe as a dedicated officer determined to win over the largely Sicilian immigrant population of his neighborhood, a group that brought its mistrust of the police with them from the old country, where police corruption was rampant. Though 17 years in America, he still speaks in stilted, somewhat broken English, a holdover from his self-taught American education, but he overflows with praise for the melting pot of America. Borgnine spoke fluent Italian and had no trouble with the Italian dialogue, which was peppered through the dialogue with the Little Italy locals.

The nemesis is not any single gangster but the rampant crime and the reign of terror that the Italian hoodlums perpetrate on their own people under the cloak of La Mano Nera: The Black Hand, the old Sicilian term for the Mafia. Their threats, scrawled on pieces of paper, are accompanied by a rough, monstrous hand carved into the page. Joe doesn't want to believe that the criminal organization has taken root in America and chalks it up to the opportunism of local thugs using the fear of the old country Mafia to frighten their targets, but even he comes around when the organization brazenly attempts to make an example of opera singer Enrico Caruso, the most famous and beloved Italian celebrity in America.

Wilson directs in the same docu-realist manner as Al Capone, with returning cinematographer Lucien Ballard providing the clean, unobtrusive photography that brings out the period detail in the street scene sets. While the film takes some liberties with its dramatizations, the screenplay is actually quite accurate to the story of the real-life Petrosino, who learned the various dialects spoken in Little Italy, earned the trust of the locals, and received commendations from both President Theodore Roosevelt and Victor Emmanuel, the King of Italy. Petrosino really did stop the criminal who threatened Caruso (and became friends with the opera legend as a result) and his squad was responsible for cutting Black Hand crimes in half during the years he ran the squad. He was so effective in the fight against the Mafia that he worked with Italian authorities to change immigration practices and traveled to Sicily to gather intelligence on criminals who may have fled Italy to establish the mob in America.

Pay or Die! also benefits from the low-key integrity of the squad that Petrosino forms, a group of Italian American officers who refreshingly avoid the usual stereotypes. Only one of the officers, local boy Johnny (Alan Austin), is given any backstory but Wilson gives all the actors opportunities to suggest the dedication of the individual members and the commitment to the squad. Their sense of teamwork and camaraderie looks forward to the special FBI unit in the iconic mob TV series The Untouchables.


Ernie: The Autobiography, Ernest Borgnine. Citadel Press, 2008.
The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film, edited by Phil Hardy, Overlook, 1998.
The Mafia Encyclopedia, Carl Sifakis. Checkmark Books, 1999.

By Sean Axmaker

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