Charles Bronson Film Festival: The Mechanic (1972)

 

[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.

 

Charles Bronson Film Festival: Death Wish

I don’t know what I did, but the completed post for “Death Wish” disappeared this morning. I was trying to copy it over to the other site and BOOM it was gone. So now I have to do the best i can to recreate my original comments on this iconic Charles Bronson Film.

Charles Bronson had starred in some of the biggest action movies of the 1960s, including the “Magnificent Seven”, “the Great Escape” and “The Dirty Dozen”. He was an international box office star at the turn of the decade, but he had not reached those heights in the United States. His name may appear above the title, but he was not necessarily a draw…until this movie happened. His fourth film with Director Michael Winner, turned out to be the biggest hit of both their careers. While a blessing in some ways, it was also the start of a path that would narrow Bronson’s options as an actor down the road. There were four sequels to this project, all of them ultimately made money but none of them had the impact of the original “Death Wish”.

The movie was successful not simply because it was an effective exploitation film. It tapped into zeitgeist of the 1970s, crime in the big city. NYC was the poster child for violent criminals gone wild. Just a few years before, Clint Eastwood and company were accused of facism and advocating vigilantism because of similar themes. While “Dirty Harry” is a classic of the era, when it comes to touching off controversy, it was nothing compared to this movie. Here is the last line of the New York Times Review from 1974 (Vincent Canby) “it’s a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.”  The Variety said “Poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement is the vulgar exploitation hook on which Death Wish is awkwardly hung.” It returned seven times it’s budget in the U.S. alone however. Clearly the public saw something here that stirred them. The answer was pretty straightforward, Charles Bronson was dealing out the justice that was so frequently denied to victims of crime in those days. They identified with Paul Kersey, a peaceful man who had actually been a conscientious objector in his war service, who had the most horrifying thing happen to his family and the cops were unable to do anything about it.

In an attempt to recover some sense of sanity, Kersey takes a contract over from his architecture firm for a development in Arizona. The developer wants a design that is maybe less space effective but that preserves the sense of space a family might like to have. Stuart Margolin had appeared with Bronson in an earlier Micheal Winner Film, “The Stone Killer”, there he was an mercenary working as a gangland assassin, but in this film he is an avuncular traditionalist who gives Kersey an opportunity to feel empowered.

In Arizona they do some target shooting, but when he gets back to NY, Kersey discovers that the gift his new friend has sent back with him is a gun.The story however does not immediately turn Bronson into a stone cold killer. First he gets a taste of simple justice by defending himself with nothing more than a sock with a couple of rolls of quarters in it. When he fends off a mugger successfully, he gleefully swings his weapon around his apartment with enthusiasm. It is this first rush of control that pushes him toward carrying his new six shooter around at night. Kersey is not hunting the hoods who attacked his family, he is fighting back for all of us and it created an uproar in the film story as well as the real world.

The consequence of swift justice, in spite of it’s illegal nature, is that muggers begin to second guess themselves. This has always been one of the arguments gun rights advocates have made, if everyone is disarmed, we are all potential victims, if anyone could be armed the criminal is more likely to be the victim.  In one of the few moments of humor in the film, a grandmother type tells a TV news crew how she was inspired by the vigilante and used a hatpin to fight off her attackers. It will amuse us but it frightens the police who see random acts of violence as likely to result in the name of just such vigilance.

One of the things that makes the story feel necessary to the audience is the fact that an average person is unlikely to get justice, after all the investigation of the crimes against Kersey’s wife and daughter is going nowhere. The police though, turn a dogged detective loose on the vigilante, and the procedural in looking for that criminal seems very effective. Vincent Gardenia, in the same year that he was nominated for supporting actor in “Band the Drum Slowly”, tackles the part of a cop who is given conflicting orders. He must find the vigilante but should do nothing that would harm the downward trend of violence that the vigilante has left in his wake.

Ochoa tumbles onto Kersey and plays a cat and mouse game with him as Kersy continues to rid the city of as much vermin as he can find. The violence quotient in the film is high and Bronson’s character goes out of his way several times to find criminals that he can eliminate. In a scene on a New York Subway, that anticipates Bernie Goetz by 10 years, Kersey rides alone in a subway car, baiting three thugs to attack him but he turns the tables on them dramatically.

This is one of those lines the film asks us to consider, if we deliberately make ourselves a target, are we justified in our actions. Of course the film’s answer to this is a resounding “YES!” The audience knows who the bad guys are. The likelihood is that, today,  the film would also be targeted as racist because the actors cast as thugs are primarily from the usual ethic groups that get blamed for crime. In the 70s though, audience were less concerned about being culturally sensitive and were instead freaking out that the violent crime rate had tripled. They needed a character they could identify with to help them feel empowered if only for an hour and a half.This movie fit the bill and Bronson’s performance helps us make that identification. He reacts to his own violence the first time the way many of us would, by puking. Kersey is an early sufferer of PTSD and his way of coping is to act, even if it is not against the specific criminals responsible for his trauma.

Director Winner moves the action effectively and stages the final conflict between Kersy and the last set of thugs as if an old west shootout were in the offing. Some might get the feeling from the look of the movie that this was a cheap exploitation film, but if you compare the lighting, sets and atmosphere, you could easily confuse it  with one of Sidney Lumet’s urban thrillers of the era. NYC is gritty and dangerous, there are places where you would not want to be on your own, and the movie conveys this very well. The dialogue exchange between Ocha and Kersey recalls an ultimatum given by a sheriff in the old west, another deliberate choice that works well and provides a little humor.

Jeff Goldbloom and Christopher Guest both have small roles in the film, very early in their careers. Charles Bronson would have his biggest success in America with this film and almost all of his obituaries probably started with a reference to this icon of 1970s cinema.  Intellectually, there are valid reasons to question the ethics the film sets forth, but most people living in fear of just walking out the front door did not want an intellectual debate on law and order. They wanted to feel safer. For the run time of this film, Charles Bronson made them feel that way.