In between “Death Wish” the most influential starring vehicle of Bronson’s career, and “Hard Times”, the most accomplished performance in his career, came this movie, an exploitation picture based on a real event but sold as a fictional story [something that never happens these days]. The premise of “Breakout” is simple. Robert Duvall is an unjustly imprisoned American in Mexico. His detention has been arranged for by the company he worked for because he has information that would be damaging to them. His wife is trying to arrange an escape from the prison and she hires Bronson’s character to carry it out.
Nick Colton is a somewhat shady bush pilot who is willing to run afoul of the law if necessary. Unlike the TV promo you see above, in the film, his price is not $250,000, it’s actually $1200 at first. Bronson plays Nick as an almost comic character; he is full of bravado, bullshit and big ideas. At first he doesn’t realize what he got himself into and the initial attempt at escape fails. The second attempt involves Randy Quaid in drag, and you know that’s not going to get it done. Finally he latches onto the idea that the film is based on, he will land a helicopter in the prison yard and lift the prisoner directly out of the fortress. Of course, he is not really a helicopter pilot and there are plenty of other complications.
Originally, the film was cast with Kris Kristofferson in the role but Bronson stepped in when he left the project. Robert Duvall was a successful actor but he was not yet the movie star he would become. Between 1972 and 1975 he made ten films that were not “the Godfather” including pulp material like “The Killer Elite”, “The Outfit” and this film. As the imprisoned executive, slowly losing touch with himself and becoming physically weaker as each day passes, Duvall turns in a competent performance with one really memorable scene. When he attempts to bribe his way out of the prison, the ruse that is being used is that he will occupy the wooden casket of a fellow prisoner who had died. The captain of the prison knows this is happening and basically tortures the man by pretending to bury the casket while Duvall is in it.
After this plot fails, he basically turns the planning of an escape over to his wife. Unfortunately, someone she is close to leaks information to the company and subsequently each escape is thwarted. She does however need to communicate with her husband to keep him abreast of the plans she is making and that forces her to participate in the conjugal visitations the Mexican prison system allows. She is humiliated by the guards who search her and she discovers that her husband is slowly going mad. This puts even great pressure on her plans to succeed. Bronson’s real life wife Jill Ireland plays Duvall’s wife in this picture. In spite of the fact that she loves her husband, she has a slightly flirtatious relationship with Nick, he is clearly attracted to her but never makes any move.
The other female cast member is Sheree North. She was a ubiquitous presence on TV and the movies in the 1970s, usually playing a blousey woman caught up in some criminal activity.
She ends up as a distraction to the guards at the prison during the helicopter landing. She comes on to her old boyfriend Nick after she and her husband agree to participate in the plan for a fee. It is a typically sexist role from the 70s that adds little to the plot but does allow a little cheesecake to be pushed into the movie and to make the star a part of that sequence.
The flying scenes in the movie are nicely shot and there is one clever setup that has a convertible Cadillac, a Piper prop plane and a helicopter, all leaving the airfield at the same time moving off in different directions. They then come back together and travel in a single shot to a rendezvous point in Mexico. It may be the one artistic moment in the film, most of the movie is gritty and straight forward in the way it is told.
For years my memory failed me and I believed that the money shot of the movie was a helicopter eviscerating one of the bad guys. I was completely wrong, it was not a helicopter and Bronson was not flying it, rather the bad guy gets killed by a large prop plane as he is about to shoot Duvall and Bronson. It was a very effectively staged shot and I’m not sure why I remembered it as a helicopter moment except that the helicopter is a key player in the film and maybe I just talked myself into it. If you are interested in seeing that shot, it is in the clip below.
As a Bronson film this is a little different. Charlie is avuncular rather than sullen, he is ineffectual at times rather than a model of competence, and his action scenes don’t involve him in gun-play and only minor fisticuffs. While “Jaws” is often given credit for the start of blanket releasing, this picture used the same strategy of widely available prints and substantial advertising. A month before the shark movie made it a standard practice for big time Hollywood fare, “Breakout” make back it’s budget and returned a profit on opening weekend .