Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pay Or Die

Today's honoree in TCM's Summer Under the Stars is Ernest Borgnine. TCM is running the Private Screenings interview he did with Robert Osborne a couple of years before he died; that comes on at 7:00 PM and is well worth watching if you haven't seen it before. As for the movies, one of his films that doesn't get mentioned so often is the very good Pay or Die, which you can see at 10:00 PM.

Borgnine stars as Joseph Petrosino, a real-life Italian immigrant to the US who lived in New York at the turn of the 20th century, working in New York City's police department. This being Italian immigrants in New York City, and the time period being what it is, you know there's going to be a Mafia. Well, the Mafia as we think of it today hadn't quite fully developed. Instead, we have a criminal organization known as "The Black Hand" that's engaging in the protection racket which is one of the oldest rackets out there. They try to shake down one baker, and when he refuses, the Black Hand trashes the place. This is what finally gets the police involved, and it's Petrosino who takes the case.

Petrosino realizes that a special squad is needed for this, and wants such a squad to be formed, but that requires him to be of a rank that necessitates the civil service exampinations of the day, which is a problem. So the baker's daughter Adelina (Zohra Lampert) helps Joseph prepare for the exam, and unsurprisingly, the two fall in love.

The Black Hand extortion continues, and at one point they even try to extort the great opera singer Enrico Caruso. (This is apparently based on a real incident.) The extortion goes on to the point that Petrosino believes that it's connected to the Sicilian Mafia, and the only way to stop it is to go to Sicily. It turned out to be a fatal move for Petrosino, as he was lured into a trap and assassinated. I don't think I'm giving too much away since this is a biopic, although it is one about a lesser-known figure.

It's a shame that Pay or Die isn't so well-known, since it's really quite a good little movie. Borgnine does well with what is a bit of an atypical character for him: even though Borgnine was of Italian descent himself, I went into the movie thinking it a bit hard to imagine him playing a cop, or at least a serious cop. And yet he does a fine job here. I don't know exactly how much was real here and how much was embellished for dramatic effect, but in any case the story is interesting. If you haven't seen Pay or Die before, it's one you definitely should see.

Pay or Die has also been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

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