[The above trailer is not the original but it is very effective at conveying a sense of what the film is so I chose it for this post.]
You could call this an action film, after all there is a motorcycle chase, a car chase, a bunch of shootouts and fistfights. The problem with that label however is that this is a 70s style action film, where more time and energy is spent building up the characters and the plot and less time is spent trying to show the sixteen different ways you can kick a guy in the face or twirl a handgun in the air and catch it and shoot it accurately. Charles Bronson laid the groundwork for the action stars to follow, but he did so by acting as a character, not just a puppet in a special effects shot.
All you have to do to see the difference between films from this period and those made now a days is watch the opening fifteen minutes of the movie. Without any dialogue, without knowing exactly what is going on, we learn all the essentials about the character Bronson plays, Arthur Bishop. First we can see that he is meticulous. Bishop walks through the scenes deliberately, he sets up a camera carefully, he takes dozens of photographs to examine at his leisure. Once he is home, he thinks, he plans and when he executes it is again with deliberation. Bishop is not a “cowboy” shooting his prey dead in the streets for a bounty, Bishop is an artist. His executions are designed to look like accidents and there will not be any way he will be connected to the death. This is terrific story telling but it doesn’t provide an adrenaline rush. This is tension tat builds from anticipation. As the plan is playing out, we get to see exactly how patient Bishop is, we also know that he has discipline as he continuously strengthens his gnarly hands by repeatedly squeezing a ball of wax that he carries to pass the wait time this way.
The plot of the movie starts after this opening sequence. Bishop gets a call from an old family friend who has crossed a line with the criminal organization that Bishop’s father once worked for. “Big Harry” (Keenan Wynn) wants Arthur to intervene on his behalf, even though he believes Arthur is not in the organization. It turns out that Harry has been given to Bishop as his next target. Bishop lives in a house off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. It is a unique home with a large two story atrium filled with exotic plants. There is a swimming pool that is half in the house and half on the patio. There is also a wall of weapons on display with a cork board behind it on which he plans his jobs. He drinks fine wine, smokes a pipe and lounges in red silk pajamas. Arthur Bishop is a sensualist without any real human connections and that’s what draws him to the spine of the story.
When he encounters a young man, much like himself, alienated from others with a strange sense of what is invigorating, he believes he has found an apprentice. Jan-Michael Vincent, a legitimate contender for stardom gone wrong status, plays the son of “Big Harry”. He ingratiates himself with Bishop because he senses that there is something going on behind the man’s stoic demeanor. Again, there is a long stretch of time without any action but the two characters are feeling each other out. We get more information about how isolated Bishop really is when he visits the now defunct and vanished “Marineland” and has an anxiety attack that mimics a coronary. His only human contact other than “Steve” the kid he is thinking about taking on, is a prostitute who has to invent elaborate romantic stories to satisfy him. I did especially like that Jill Ireland playing the girl has her apartment walls lined with old movie posters for films from the thirties, forties and fifties.
Now the story is full steam ahead. The two twisted men, who have been feeling each other out, go into an association that will have them working together. This is where there will be a variety of plot twists and complications that will cause the audience to wonder who really is in control of the situation. Bishop has always been cautious and thorough and he is passing these same skills onto a man who shares his value. It’s not about the money, “It has to do with standing outside of it all, on your own.”
I mentioned that there is a motorcycle chase. This happens out in the Newhall area of Southern California. This is the start of the last section of the film which does contain a lot more action. The nice thing about all the action is that you can follow it. There is a car chase on a highway on a mountainside in Italy, it looks like it could be the same road for the opening car scene in “Quantum of Solace”. The difference is we always know which car we are following, where they are relative to one another and we can see the physical actions required to get the explosions, sharp turns and gunshots off.
This has always been my favorite Bronson starring vehicle. His performance is stronger in “Hard Times” but the character here is so very intriguing. The conflict that exists at the end of the film was more shocking than most twists in a standard action film, and that opening sequence just hooks you in. Bronson’s shaggy hair, Fu Manchu mustache and craggy face are so unlike the looks of most film stars that you could never mistake a Charles Bronson film for one made by any of his contemporaries. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were too pretty, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were too long in the tooth at the time. Bronson was unique and his individuality shows itself best in this film.