The July 8th death of Ernest Borgnine (at 95) got me thinking primarily about one Borgnine movie. Not one of his early classics in which he plays a supporting role, such as From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), or Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Not Marty (1955), for which he won his Best Actor Oscar. Not The Dirty Dozen (1967) or The Wild Bunch (1969) or The Poseidon Adventure (1972). I’ve been thinking about Pay or Die (1960), one of Borgnine’s few genuine star vehicles and certainly an underrated, virtually unknown film.
Based on a true story, the bluntly titled Pay or Die is one of the more interesting of pre-Godfather Mafia movies, with Borgnine cast as real-life police lieutenant Joseph Petrosino. This is a good, tough account of the Mafia taking hold in New York’s Little Italy in the first decade of the 20th century. But, instead of focusing on the gangsters, the film puts its emphasis on Borgnine’s Petrosino and his mob-fighting Italian Squad. Despite his inevitable failure, Petrosino made great strides in battling the Mafia (until he was gunned down in 1909 on a visit to Palermo). Unfortunately, the script stresses Borgnine’s cuddly Marty-ish side, particularly in his limp romance with Zohra Lampert. Even so, he is the film’s sturdy, professional center.
Pay or Die is graced with some lovely ethnic details, like the cannoli-filling scene, but, despite flashes of brutality, it often looks and feels like a standard television episode, even if an especially good one. It may not have been filmed with much distinction (or budget), yet it still manages to present a fresh and eye-opening take on its subject. Pay or Die is carried by its historical heft, specifically with regard to the brave and moving actions of the heroic Petrosino.
The director, Richard Wilson, also made Al Capone (1959), making him the screen’s Mr. Mafia of the moment. Pay or Die is the far superior picture, much more original and detailed in its content, while the Capone picture feels flat, routine, and surprisingly dull. Rod Steiger’s Capone is a big, loud performance but not a good one. He offers no surprises or complexities.
Pay or Die is nowhere near all it could have been, but it dramatizes a genuinely inspiring story, one with jolts of power and palpable scares. And Borgnine was perfectly cast. If you’re so inclined, you can have an Ernest Borgnine Italian-American double bill of Marty and Pay or Die. If I could attend just one, I’d go with Pay or Die, which is as overlooked as Marty was overpraised.