Action heroes are often underestimated when it comes to their acting skills.  Consider Charles Bronson as an example. He seldom made the kind of films that are critically acclaimed, particularly in the twilight era of his career (i.e. the ‘Cannon Films’ era).  However, he excelled at a kind of stoic, quietly charismatic machismo that few actors can pull off.  Even in his lesser Cannon potboilers, he’s nothing short of professional… and when he got hold of a good role in a film like The Great Escape or Once Upon A Time In The West he could be revelatory.

Which brings us to The Valachi Papers. It’s a mobster epic from Italo-Hollywood kingpin Dino De Laurentiis, released the same year as The Godfather. However, it’s not just a knockoff – it’s an adaptation of nonfiction bestseller from Peter Maas (author of Serpico) that chronicles the life and times of Joseph Valachi, a gangster who was forced to become an informer for the government when his mobster buddies left him hanging out to dry.

The Valachi Papers covers about 30 years of Valachi’s life in just under two hours. The end result feels like the Cliff Notes version of American mafia history: there are mob hits, double-crosses and tough talk galore but we never get enough time with the characters to get dramatically invested in the chronological rush.

Terence Young, better known for his James Bond movies, directs in a style that is appropriately tough yet oddly impersonal – there’s none of the tragic/operatic sturm und drang that infuses the best crime cinema. The film also has an a rather retro take on mob behavior and activities that feels more like the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of the 30’s than the true mob chronicle it should be.  Period detail is often sloppy (look out for anachronistic cars). These aspects of the film give it a hasty, slapped-together feel that is cemented by the casting of several distinctly Anglo actors in Italian roles: for example, Joseph Wiseman is fun to watch but has an amusingly bogus Italian accent.

And yet The Valachi Papers isn’t a throwaway thanks to Bronson. He may not be Italian but he does the whole streetwise tough guy bit very well. More importantly, viewers used to his taciturn performances from the Cannon Films era will be stunned by how alive he is in this film. The film’s multi-flashback structure has him explaining both his history and the mystique of the Mafia and Bronson undertakes this task with plenty of fight and passion. It’s a rich role in the midst of a mediocre film and he plays it for all it is worth.

A stoic sense of heartbreak creeps into his performance near the end as all he loves is taken away from him.  However, even when fate is drawing Valachi’s story to a close, Bronson finds levels of pathos and pride in there that keep it compelling.  The present-day scenes further benefit from a strong performance by character actor Gerald S. O’Loughlin as Valachi’s interrogator: he makes a fiery case for his side of the law, starting antagonistically with Bronson but working his way towards a place of mutual respect as the story progresses.  The two actors have excellent chemistry and it’s a shame they weren’t paired together more often.

As a result, The Valachi Papers is a strangely poignant viewing experience despite its flaws. If you’re willing to give Bronson a fair chance – and you should – you can see some of his best work here.

Blu-Ray Notes: Your best bet in the U.S. is the limited pressing from Twilight Time, which looks great.  It’s light on extras but does include a partial isolated music track for the tense Riz Ortolani score.