I first became aware of Ernest Borgnine as most of my generation did, through McHale’s Navy. I knew nothing of his early career. Since that time, many of his films, both before and after, have become favorites. The Wild Bunch, of course, and most especially his Oscar winning turn in MARTY.
PAY OR DIE! is based on the real life hero Police Lt. Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino, one of New York’s early opponents of the Black Hand, the Mafia, and their activities against the poor among the Italian community of the city. It’s a remake of a 1912 silent, THE ADVENTURES OF LIEUTENANT PETROSINO. As a small boy, Petrosino and a cousin had been sent over from Sicily to live with their grandfather. When he was killed in an accident, rather than allow them into the foster system, the Judge took them home with him until such time as family could be found and brought over to take them. Living in the Judge’s Irish household gave Petrosino a grounding in law. It also gave him the rudiments of an education and taught him to speak and read English. He became a policeman and a protege of Teddy Roosevelt while he was Police Commissioner.
It’s 1906 when the film opens and a celebration is going on, likely around Christmas. Two small girls dressed as angels are suspend over the crowd reciting their lines when one line collapses. The little girl has a broken leg and back. Petrosino is on hand and finds the line has been cut. The family is to scare to say anything.
Zohra Lampert plays Adelina Saulino, whose family runs a bakery. The Black Hand leaves a note for him to bake an extra large loaf of bread and stuff all his cash inside. The old man is defiant and leaves a note refusing in the loaf instead. He’s shortly visited by three nattily dressed Italians, smacked around, his bakey trashed, and left stuffed in one of his ovens with the threat of lighting the oven if he didn’t comply. He agrees to testify against the one man he recognized, Lupo Miano(Barry Russo, billed as John Duke). That soon ends as the other two, disguised as a hunchback and a cripple grab Adelina and deliver a threat.
Petrosino is angered, both by the dropping of charges and what was done to Adelina. Though an older man, he harbors a love for the young woman, completely unaware that she responds in kind. She’s been helping tutor him for the upcoming Captain’s exam, which he’s already failed five times.
The lawyer for every Black Hand he arrests is a man named Luigi Di Sarno(Robert Ellenstein), a slimy caricature. Petrosino asks him why hr represents that sort that terrorize his own, their own, people. “I have a lot of clients that can’t pay,” he responds.
Petrosino convinces the Police Commissioner to let him form an “Italian Squad,” a group of Italian police officers from other boroughs of the city so their faces wouldn’t be known. Five tough men, including the little banty rooster, Simonetti(Vito Scotti). They slip in as civilians and set up businesses, inviting pay or die threats from the criminals. They pay off with marked bills. One brought a smile to my face when Simonetti, playing a barber because he had those skills, holds a razor sharp shaving knife to one’s throat after paying him off and until Petrosino could get in to arrest him.
The Mafia doesn’t give up though. Petrosino receives death threats and more than one attempt. He barely survives being knocked off a subway perch, hugging a beam as the train races behind him.
Adelina finally declares her love for Petrosino when it seems he won’t. He claims he’s too old for her. “Johnny is more right.” Johnny Viscardi(Alan Austin) was a kid he’d prodded away from a life of crime. He’d became a cop and was now a member of the Italian Squad. He’d proposed marriage himself and was gently rebuffed. Adelina wanted a man. Petrosino was afraid for her life with all the threats he received. They marry and begin life together.
Things make a strange turn at a meeting of prominent Italian businessmen. They worry because Petrosino’s harassment and deportation of wanted men back to Sicily has moved the threats up. Tenor Enrico Caruso(Howard Caine) has been threatened and Petrosino saved him when a bomb blew up his Rolls, killing the chauffeur. “Before it was the little people only!” The contingent that want him off the Italian Squad are led by Vito Zarillo(Franco Corsaro), a banker. The Commissioner sticks with his man, though, and Petrosino’s suspicions are drawn.
He’d never believed there really was a Mafia in this country, just a few thugs trading off old country fears and reputations. The one backing him receives a threat and comes to Petrosino, telling him that Zarillo is telling everyone to pay the threats. Raises more suspicions.
While setting up protection at the man’s jewelry store, lawyer Di Sarno is there with his daughter buying her a ring. Obviously proud of her, he talks about her convent school. Petrosino politely listens, smiles at the little girl as she displays her ring, and dismisses them as soon as he can, wanting to get back to work.
In a scene right from today, a bomb laden wagon is driven through the city. The driver is sweating as the streets are crowded and he’s having trouble working the horse. Cutting back and forth between Di Sarno(he keeps looking at his watch, he knows what time the bomb is to go off), the driver who’s sweating more and loudly shoutin at peiople to get out of his way, and the contingent of little girls being led by a nun along the streets. You just know what is about to happen
The driver jumps and runs, the bomb takes out the jewelry store, killing the owner and one of the Italian Squad, and, unfortunately, most of the little girls. The nun is far enough ahead and survives and is able to identify the driver, partially wounded himself with damage to his face.
John Marley has a brief role as the Ragman, who’s hiding the bomber.
Petrosino was a pioneer of a number of investigative methods still in use today. He used an artist to draw a sketch based on the nun’s view of the driver. He recognizes the shoes on the dead horse as new and made by an Italian. American blacksmiths made a different shaped shoe. He traces the wagon to the Ragman, who seems to be missing one. Once the man is bagged, Petrosino learns he’s just off the boat from Sicily, arriving in New Orleans before heading North.
More suspicious than ever, Petrosino convinces the Commissioner to let him to go Sicily to search records and hopefully find more evidence to get some of the criminals deported. He’s really suspicious of the banker Zarillo now after seeing him hustle the distraught Di Sarno away from the body of his daughter, only later to find he’d hanged himself. The Commissioner, ever cognizant of the vote, trumpets the trip to the newspapers.
A fatal mistake.
Petrosino finds what he’s looking for, then makes his own mistake. Wanting confirmation of what he’s found, and keeping it with him in his brief case, he meets with an informant who’s assured he can give him what he wants. They’re eating dinner and the man is telling hem everything. The Capos in both New York and New Orleans. The last thing the man asks Petrosino if he knows who the Capo di Capo is, smiles when he’s told the police didn’t know, and admits he IS that man.
Petrosino was shot to death in Sicily. What the screen showed, of course, wasn’t likely what really happened.
I enjoyed this one. Directed in black and white by Richard Wilson from a script by Richard Collins and Bertram Millhauser, the photography was crisp. An engaging story, one I’d never heard of before Turner ran it during a block of Borgnine films after his death.
For more overlooked movies and related matters, go see Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.