This 1960 period piece tells the true story of New York City’s first Italian-American police captain, and his astonishingly brave but ultimately futile attempts to wipe out the Black Hand in turn of the century Little Italy, before they could become the Mafia of today.
Still affecting and even shocking (see below) in parts, and obviously a must-see for anyone who enjoys/studies “Mafia” and/or American cop movies.
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.
And of course, like 90% of all movies about Italians — be they the American type or back in the old country — this movie includes a religious procession.
I’m troubled by the skull in the Virgin’s hand; that’s a new one on me.
Anyway: This is how people used to talk to each other. We all lived.
PS: My Jewish friends will be amused/depressed to see Italian parallels in this film to their own “Official Jews.” The “Official Italians” feel that Petrosino isn’t worthy of representing them (despite his impressive arrest and conviction record) because he’s only a Lieutenant and not a Captain. They want to replace him with a “Professori”…