Cast & Crew
Bruno Della Santina
In Manhattan's Little Italy in 1909, a criminal causes a small girl to be seriously injured during a crowded Sicilian-American religious festival. The child's distressed mother accuses her husband of foolishly placing their daughter in danger, but when Lt. Joseph Petrosino, an Italian-American police officer, questions the father about the perpetrator, the frightened man refuses to speak. Joe has been trying to persuade the local victims of a group of extortionists known as La Mano Nera, or the Black Hand, to testify against the thugs, but the business owners who receive written warnings to "pay or die" are too distrustful of the police to cooperate. One day a baker known as Papa Saulino receives one of the dreaded warnings, which are identified by a drawing of a black hand dripping in blood, but his daughter Adelina's urgings that he report the incident fall on deaf ears. The extortionists, angered by Saulino's refusal to pay, destroy the bakery and lock him in the oven, and after he emerges from the hospital, the baker finally tells Joe about the note. Because Adelina is brutally attacked by two Black Hand men, however, Saulino soon withdraws the charges. During a visit with Adelina, Joe reveals his desire to become the first Italian captain on the New York police force and engages the pretty young woman to tutor him in preparation for the required literacy test. Next, Joe asks the New York police commissioner to give him an "Italian squad" of five or six plainclothesmen to patrol the city's Little Italy neighborhood. The commissioner balks at first, remarking that Italians do not seem to "catch on to our ways," but Joe assures him that if his people are freed from their fear of petty criminals, they will work hard to become Americans. Impressed, the commissioner quietly grants Joe's request. With Joe's detectives posing as members of the community, the squad is able to identify and convict a number of Black Hand criminals. One day, beloved Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso asks for protection, revealing that he, too, has received a Black Hand warning. Following Caruso's performance at the Metropolitan Opera that evening, Joe saves the singer from becoming the victim of a car bomb, but nonetheless the city's wealthier Italian-American citizens are convinced that Joe is too poorly educated to lead the squad, and demand his removal. The police commissioner defends Joe, who, despite Adelina's tutoring, fails his sixth academic test for the position of captain. Despondent, Joe ends his visits to Adelina, assuming she will marry her more successful student, the handsome young Johnny Viscardi. Following an attempt on Joe's life, however, Adelina proposes to Joe, and the two are wed. Later, after Joe persuades a jeweler to ignore a Black Hand demand for money, the jewelry shop is bombed, and the child of Black Hand lawyer Luigi Di Sarno is killed while gazing at trinkets through the window. Di Sarno hangs himself, but Joe and Johnny are able to locate the bomber, who reveals that the crime was commissioned by respected citizen Vito Zarillo. On hearing the word "Mafia" in connection with Zarillo, Joe begins to believe what he had earlier considered nonsense: that the Black Hand might be linked to the powerful Sicilian crime organization. He bids an emotional farewell to Adelina and Johnny and travels to Sicily to investigate. In Palermo, Joe learns by searching police records that many of New York's Black Handers, including Zarillo, are wanted for crimes in Italy. This information he sends home, but Joe decides to trust only himself with some shocking evidence that, as he writes to Johnny, confirms his worst fears about the Mafia's presence in the United States. On the night before he is to return home, Joe encounters Don Cesare, the leader of the Mafia, but before he can escape, one of Cesare's henchmen kills him. At Joe's funeral, Adelina sadly tells Johnny that although Joe thought he was ugly, "he was beautiful to me." Johnny hides when Zarillo enters and spits on Joe's body. He then arrests the criminal, whispering, "Joe, we got him."
Bruno Della Santina
Robert F. Simon
Joseph D. Sargent
Charles La Torre
Saverio Lo Medico
Joseph La Cava
Emily La Rue
Fritzy La Bar
Lou La Cava
Edward Morey Jr.
Clark L. Paylow
Paul Schmutz Sr.
Roger J. Weinberg
Pay or Die
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
Pay or Die
According to a statement in the opening credits, the film is "based on the life of an authentic American hero, Lieut. Joseph Petrosino, New York Police Force. Events of 1906-1909." The Black Hand was a group of petty extortionists who victimized primarily lower-class Italians in a number of American cities during the early twentieth century. Although Petrosino, who emigrated to the United States from Salerno at age thirteen, never believed that the thugs who extorted money from poor immigrants in Little Italy, a practice common among many urban-based ethnic groups at that time, were tied to the Mafia, the film suggests that he gradually discovered the existence of a powerful crime syndicate that was largely controlled by Mafia dons in Palermo. Petrosino's murder in Palermo in 1909 deeply affected the Italian-American community.
Although the SAB claims that the film is based on Burnett Hershey's short story "Pay-off in Sicily," which appeared in the September 1944 issue of Readers Digest, other information found at the AMPAS Library indicates that the screenplay was not based on "previously published material." According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Murvyn Vye was initially cast to play "Mayor George B. McClellan." A November 4, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that actor Robert Evans abruptly left the cast of Pay or Die and was replaced by Alan Austin. Although Hollywood Reporter production charts include Robert Shannon in the cast, his appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. Set decorator Darrell Silvera's name is misspelled "Darrel Silvera" in the onscreen credits.
The street festival depicted in the opening scenes honors Santa Rosalia, a Catholic saint who was believed to have saved Palermo from pestilence. The New York Times review commented that "all the Italo-American faces and dialects in the cast...authentically flavor [the] production." In 1912, Feature Photoplay Co. also released a film about Petrosino and his investigation of The Black Hand, entitled The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20).
Released in United States Summer June 1960
Released in United States Summer June 1960