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The movie begins in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where an aging prisoner named Joseph Valachi (Charles Bronson) is imprisoned for smuggling heroin. The boss of his crime family, Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura), is imprisoned there as well. Genovese is certain that Valachi is an informant, and gives him the "kiss of death." Valachi kisses him back.Valachi mistakenly kills a fellow prisoner who he wrongly thinks is a mob assassin. Told of the mistake by federal agents, Valachi becomes an informant, mistakenly recognized as the first in the history of the American mafia. He tells his life story in flashbacks.The movie traces Valachi from a young punk to a gangster associating with bosses like Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman). Maranzano tells a mourner at a funeral, "I cannot bring back the dead. I can only kill the living." Valachi marries a boss's daughter, played by Bronson's real-life wife Jill Ireland.Valachi's rise in the Mafia is hampered by his poor relations with his capo, Tony Bender (Guido Leontini). Bender is portrayed castrating a mobster for having relations with another mobster's wife. Valachi shoots the victim to put him out of his misery.The mayhem and murder continue to the present, with Valachi shown testifying before a Senate committee. He is upset with having to testify and attempts suicide, but in the end (according to information superimposed on the screen) outlives Genovese, who dies in prison.