Happy Birthday Charles Bronson!: THE STONE KILLER (Columbia 1973)


cracked rear viewer

Charles Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 in the coal-country town of Ehrenfield, PA to a Lithuanian immigrant father and second-generation mother. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teen, and joined the Air Force at age 23, serving honorably in WWII. Returning home, young Charles was bitten by the acting bug and made his way to Hollywood, changing his last name to ‘Bronson’ in the early fifties. Charles Bronson spent decades toiling in supporting parts before becoming a name-above-the-title star in Europe.

By the 1970’s, Bronson had begun his long run as an action star. THE STONE KILLER capitalizes on the popularity of Cop and Mafia movies of the era, with Our Man Bronson as Lou Torrey, a Dirty Harry-type who shoots first and asks questions later. After he kills a 17-year-old gunman in the pre-credits opening, Torrey is raked over the coals by the New…

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Bronson’s Old: Death Wish 3 (1985, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote Roger Murtaugh, “I’m too old for this shit.”

It has been ten years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) left New York City and the place has gone to Hell.  It’s no longer just muggers that you have look out for.  Now, there are roving street gangs of directionless teenagers, terrorizing the elderly and forcing them to live like prisoners in their own apartment building.

One street corner now looks like a war zone, controlled by spiky-haired, face-painting punks who look like something from a Mad Max movie.  Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy) rules this street corner, supported by a gang that worships him as if he was some sort of god.  Manny thinks that he is immortal but he’s just targeted the wrong person.  The gang may think that Charley (Francis Drake) is just a defenseless old man but what they don’t know is that, when Charley served in Korea, his best friend was Paul Kersey.

The past few years have been busy for Paul.  He’s killed muggers and rapists in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kansas City and now he’s returned to New York City, to visit his old friend Charley.  Paul arrives at Charley’s apartment just in time to witness Fraker’s gang murdering him.  The gang flees and when the police arrive, they take Paul into custody.

While public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin) tries to figure out why Paul is being held in jail, Paul has a conversation with Lt. Shriker (Ed Lauter).  Shriker remembers Paul as being the New York vigilante and he has a proposition for him.  Paul can kill as many members of Fraker’s gang as he wants, as long as he allows the police to take the credit and reports everything that he discovers to Shriker.  Paul agrees.

In the neighborhood, Paul starts to put Fraker and his gang (one of whom is played by pre-Bill and Ted Alex Winter) in their place.  In a scene borrowed from Brian Garfield’s original Death Wish novel, he uses a used car as bait to gun down two aspiring car thieves.  When Paul gets a new gun, he tests it out on a depraved mugger known as the Giggler.  Though some might call him a serial killer, Paul is soon a hero to the entire neighborhood.  Though Charley may be gone, Paul befriends the other residents of the apartment.  He shows the elderly Kaprovs how to catch anyone trying to climb through their window.  He protects Maria Rodriguez (Marina Sirtis) from the gang.  Best of all, he befriend Bennett Miller (Martin Balsam), a World War II vet who still remembers how to load a machine gun.

(Balsam and Bronson previously co-starred in The Stone Killer, though in that one Bronson was a cop and Balsam was on the other side of the law.)

He also finds time to pursue a relationship with Kathryn Davis.  This is one recurring element in the Death Wish franchise that has never made sense to me.  Paul always has a new girlfriend, despite the fact that almost every woman that he ever gets involved with ends up getting killed.  Paul also only seems to go out with women who would be upset to discover that they were dating a notorious vigilante.  In Death Wish II, he went out with a crusading journalist who was against the death penalty.  In Death Wish 3, he falls for a public defender whose job is to provide legal counsel to the very people that Paul is trying to kill.  After Death Wish 3, Paul would date yet another crusading journalist and, finally, the ex-wife of a notorious mobster.  Maybe Paul should just give up and concentrate on mourning his wife.

Michael Winner returned to direct Death Wish 3 and, this time around, he imagines New York City as being a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of abandoned buildings and murderous scavengers.  Imagine A Clockwork Orange if Charles Bronson suddenly showed up to shoot Alex and the Droogs.  As played by Gavan O’Herlihy, Manny Fraker is the type of seemingly indestructible bad guy who can actually give Paul Kersey a challenge, something that was missing from the previous films.

The other thing that distinguishes Death Wish 3 is that it was one the only film in the franchise to directly confront an obvious truth.  Charles Bronson was 53 when the first Death Wish was released.  By the time he made Death Wish 3, he was 64 and decades older than the typical action star.  (As way of comparison, Clint Eastwood was 55 when Death Wish 3 was released and was already experimenting with less action-orientated roles.)  By partnering him with Martin Balsam and the other elderly residents of the neighborhood, Death Wish 3 not only acknowledged Bronson’s advanced age but also took advantage of it.  Death Wish 3 is a film where the old folks finally get to teach the young punks a thing or two.  If the other Death Wish films were about one man fighting a lonely war, Death Wish 3 is about a community refusing to be silenced.  The chance to put those kids in their place even seems to perk up Charles Bronson, who gives one of his best performances in Death Wish 3.

Death Wish 3 may have been roundly despised by the critics but it’s the best of the Death Wish sequels.  It made a fortune at the box office so naturally, another sequel would follow.

Tomorrow: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown!

Bronson’s Back!: Death Wish II (1982, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote John McClane, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

It has been eight years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lost his wife and single-handedly cleaned up New York City.  The first Death Wish ended with Paul in Chicago, preparing to gun down a new group of criminals.  I guess Chicago didn’t take because, at the start of Death Wish II, Paul is in Los Angeles and he’s working as an architect again.  He has a new girlfriend, a bleeding heart liberal reporter named Geri (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife) who is against the death penalty and who has no idea that Paul used to be New York’s most notorious vigilante.  Having finally been released from the mental institution, Carol (Robin Sherwood) is living with her father but is now mute.

Crime rates are soaring in Los Angeles and why not?  The legal system is more concerned with the rights of the criminals than the victims and Paul has retired from patrolling the streets.  But when a group of cartoonish thugs rape and kill his housekeeper and cause his daughter to fall out of a window while trying to escape them, Paul picks up his gun and sets out for revenge.

Death Wish II was not the first sequel to Death Wish.  Brian Garfield, the author of the novel on which Death Wish was based, never intended for Paul to be seen as a hero and was disgusted by what he saw as being the film’s glorification of violence.  As “penance,” he wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, in which Paul discovered that he had inspired an even more dangerous vigilante.  When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought the rights to produce a second Death Wish film, they decided not to use Garfield’s sequel and instead went with a story that was co-written by Golan.

It’s the same basic story as the first film.  Again, Paul is a mild-mannered architect who is a liberal during the day and a gun-toting reactionary at night.  Again, it’s a home invasion and a death in the family that sets Paul off.  Again, Paul gets help from sympathetic citizens who don’t care that the police commissioner (Anthony Franciosa) wants him off the streets.  Jeff Goldblum played a rapist with a switch blade in the first film.  This time, it’s Laurence Fishburne who fills the role.  (Fishburne also carries a radio, which he eventually learns cannot be used to block bullets.)  Even Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) returns, coming down to Los Angeles to see if Paul has returned to his old ways.

The main difference between the first two Death Wish films is that Death Wish II is a Cannon film, which means that it is even less concerned with reality than the first film.  In Death Wish II, the criminals are more flamboyant, the violence is more graphic, and Paul is even more of a relentless avenger than in the first film.  In the first Death Wish, Paul threw up after fighting a mugger.  In the second Death Wish, he sees that one of the men who raped his daughter is wearing a cross, leading to the following exchange:

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, you’re going to meet him.”

BLAM!

Death Wish II is the best known of the Death Wish sequels.  It made the most money and, when I was a kid, it used to show on TV constantly.  The commercials always featured the “You believe in Jesus?” exchange and, every morning after we saw those commercials, all the kids at school would walk up to each other and say, “You believe in Jesus?  Well, you’re going to meet him.”  It drove the teachers crazy.

Overall, Death Wish II is a lousy film.  Michael Winner, who was always more concerned with getting people into the theaters than anything else, directs in a sledgehammer manner that makes his work on the first film look subtle.  He obscenely lingers over every rape and murder, leaving no doubt that he is more interested in titillating the audience than getting them to share Paul’s outrage.  The script is also weak, with Geri so poorly written that she actually gets more upset about Paul going out at night than she does when she learns that Paul’s daughter has died.  When Paul sets out to track down the gang, his method is to merely wander around Los Angeles until he stumbles across them.  It doesn’t take long for Paul to start taking them out but no one in the gang ever seems to be upset or worried that someone is obviously stalking and killing them.

There are a few good things about the film.  Charles Bronson was always a better actor than he was given credit for and it’s always fun to watch Paul try to balance his normal daily routine with his violent night life.  Whenever Geri demands to know if he’s been shooting people, Paul looks at her like he is personally offended that she could possibly think such a thing.  Also, the criminals themselves are all so cartoonishly evil that there’s never any question that Paul is doing the world a favor by gunning them down.  For many otherwise sensible viewers, a movie like Death Wish II may be bad but it is also cathartic.  It offers up a simple solution to a complex issue.  In real life, a city full of Paul Kerseys would lead to innocent people getting killed for no good reason.  But in the world of Death Wish II, no one out after nightfall is innocent so there’s no need to worry about shooting the wrong person.

Finally, the film’s score was written by the legendary Jimmy Page.  The studio wanted Isaac Hayes to do the score but Winner asked his neighbor, Page.  Page took the film, retreated into his studio, and returned with a bluesy score that would turn out to be the best thing about the movie.  The soundtrack was the only one of Page’s solo projects to be released on Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns with Death Wish 3!

Bronson’s Revenge: Death Wish (1974, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote “Dirty” Harry Callahan, “I’m all broken up about his rights.”

In 1972, a novel by Brian Garfield was published.  The novel was about a meek New York City accountant named Paul Benjamin.  After Paul’s wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, Paul suffers a nervous breakdown.  A self-described bleeding heart liberal, Paul starts to stalk the streets at night while carrying a gun.  He is hunting muggers.  At first, he just kills the muggers who approach him but soon, he starts to deliberately set traps.  Sinking into insanity, Paul becomes just as dangerous as the men he is hunting.  Garfield later said that the book was inspired by two real-life incidents, one in which his wife’s purse was stolen and another in which his car was vandalized.  Garfield said that his initial response was one of primitive anger.  He wondered what would happen if a man had these rageful thoughts and could not escape them.

The title of that novel was Death Wish.  Though it was never a best seller, it received respectful reviews and Garfield subsequently sold the film rights.  At first, Sidney Lumet was attached to direct and, keeping with Garfield’s portrayal of Paul Benjamin, Jack Lemmon was cast as the unlikely vigilante.

Lumet, ultimately, left the project so that he could concentrate on another film about crime in New York City, Serpico.  When Lumet left, Jack Lemmon also dropped out of the film.  Lumet was replaced by Michael Winner, a director who may not have been as thoughtful as Lumet but who had a solid box office record and a reputation for making tough and gritty action films.

Winner immediately realized that audiences would not be interested in seeing an anti-vigilante film.  Instead of casting an actor with an intellectual image, like Jack Lemmon, Winner instead offered the lead role (now named Paul Kersey and no longer an accountant but an architect) to Charles Bronson.  When Winner told Bronson that the script was about a man who shot muggers, Bronson replied, “I’d like to do that.”

“The script?” Winner asked.

“No, shoot muggers.”

At the time that he was cast, Charles Bronson was 52 years old.  He was the biggest star in the world, except for in America where he was still viewed as being a B-talent at best.  Bronson was known for playing tough, violent men who were not afraid to use violence to accomplish their goals.  (Ironically, in real life, Bronson was as much of an ardent liberal as Paul Kersey was meant to be at the beginning of the movie.)  Among those complaining that Charles Bronson was all wrong for Paul Kersey was Brian Garfield.  However, Bronson accepted the role and the huge box office success of Death Wish finally made him a star in America.

To an extent, Brian Garfield was right.  Charles Bronson was a better actor than he is often given credit for but, in the early scenes of Death Wish, he does seem miscast.  When Paul is first seen frolicking with his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii, Bronson seems stiff and awkward.  In New York City, when Paul tells his right-wing colleague (William Redfield) that “my heart does bleed for the less fortunate,” it doesn’t sound natural.  But once Paul finds out that his wife has been murdered and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), has been raped, Paul gets mad and Bronson finally seems comfortable in the role.

In both the book and the original screenplay, both the murder and the rape happened off-screen.  Never a subtle director, Winner instead opted to show them in a brutal and ugly scene designed to get the audience as eager to shoot muggers as Bronson was.  Today, the power of the scene is diluted by the presence of Jeff Goldblum, making his screen debut as a very unlikely street thug.  Everyone has to start somewhere and Goldblum got his start kicking Hope Lange while wearing a hat that made him look like he belonged in an Archie comic.

With his wife dead and his daughter traumatized, Paul discovers that no one can help him get justice.  The police have no leads.  His son-in-law (Steven Keats) is a weak and emotional mess.  (As an actor, some of Bronson’s best moments are when Paul makes no effort to hide how much he loathes his son-in-law.)  When a mugger approaches Paul shortly after his wife’s funeral, Paul shocks himself by punching the mugger in the face.

When Paul is sent down to Arizona on business, he meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a land developer who calls New York a “toilet” and who takes Paul to see a wild west show.  Later at a gun club, Paul explains that he was a conscientious objects during the Korean War but he knows how to shoot.  His father was a hunter and Paul grew up around guns.  When Paul returns to New York, Ames gives him a present, a revolver.  Paul is soon using that revolver to bring old west justice to the streets of New York City.

As muggers start to show up dead, the NYPD is outraged that a vigilante is stalking the street.  Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to bring the vigilante in.  But the citizens of New York love the vigilante.  Witnesses refuse to give an accurate description of Paul.  When Paul is wounded, a young patrolman (Christopher Guest, making almost as unlikely a film debut as Jeff Goldblum) conspires to keep Paul’s revolver from being turned over as evidence.

The critics hated Death Wish, with many of them calling it an “immoral” film.  Brian Garfield was so disgusted by how Winner changed his story that he wrote a follow-up novel in which Paul is confronted by an even more dangerous vigilante who claims to have been inspired by him.  Audiences, however, loved it.  Death Wish was one of the top films at the box office and it spawned a whole host of other vigilante films.

Death Wish is a crude movie, without any hint of subtlety and nuance.  It is also brutally effective, as anyone who has ever felt as if they were the victim of a crime can attest.  In a complicated and often unfair world, Kersey’s approach may not be realistic or ideal but it is emotionally cathartic.  Watching Death Wish, it is easy to see why critics hated it and why audiences loved it.

It is also to see why the movie made Bronson a star.  Miscast in the role or not, Bronson exudes a quiet authority and determination that suggests that if anyone could single-handedly clean-up New York City, it’s him.  An underrated actor, Bronson’s best moment comes after he punches his first mugger and he triumphantly reenters his apartment.  After he commits his first killing, Bronson gets another good scene where he is so keyed up that he collapses to the floor and then staggers into the bathroom and throws up.  Garfield may have complained that the Death Wish made his madman into a hero but Bronson’s best moments are the ones the suggest Paul has gone mad.  The real difference between the book and the movie is that the movie portrays madness as a necessary survival skill.

This Friday, a new version of Death Wish will be playing in theaters.  Directed by Eli Roth, this version starts Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Will the new Death Wish be as effective as the original?  Judging from the trailer, I doubt it.  Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson?  I’ll pick Bronson every time.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns in Death Wish II!

Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)


Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

Stone Cold: Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC (United Artists 1972)


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Stone-faced Charles Bronson is perfect as an ice-cold, classical music loving hit man who mentors young Jan-Michael Vincent in 1972’s THE MECHANIC. I’d say this is one of Charlie’s best 70’s actioners, but let’s be serious – they’re ALL damn entertaining!

Arthur Bishop (Bronson) takes his work seriously, meticulously planning every assignment he receives from his Mafia boss (Frank De Kova ). Given a job to kill family friend Big Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), Bishop does the deed with chilling precision. McKenna’s son Steve (Vincent) is a stone-cold sociopath himself, and soon worms his way into becoming Bishop’s apprentice. Their first caper together goes sour, bringing Bishop’s boss much displeasure. Bishop’s next hit takes the two overseas to Naples, where they’re set up to be killed themselves, resulting in a violent conclusion and a deliciously deadly twist ending.

Bronson, after over twenty years and 50 plus movie roles, became…

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A Movie A Day #238: Lawman (1971, directed by Michael Winner)


In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock.  After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands.  Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town.  They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway.  Maddox doesn’t care.  The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.

Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave.  In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre.  Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.

Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances.  The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles.  In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson.  Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson.  Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.

A Movie A Day #170: Chato’s Land (1972, directed by Michael Winner)


Don’t mess with Charles Bronson.

That’s the main lesson that can be taken away from Chato’s Land.  In this western, Bronson plays Chato, an Apache who enters the wrong saloon and is forced to shoot a racist sheriff in self-defense.  Former Confederate Captain Quincey Whitemore (Jack Palance) forms a posse to track Chato down but soon discovers that his posse is not made up of the best and brightest.  Instead, most of them are sadistic racists who just want to kill Apaches.  Despite Whitemore’s efforts to stop them, the posse rapes Chato’s wife and kills his best friend.  Chato trades his white man’s clothes for a loin cloth and sets out for revenge.

Chato’s Land is historically significant because it was the first of many films that Charles Bronson made with Michael Winner.  The most famous Bronson/Winner collaboration was Death Wish, which also featured Charles Bronson as a man who seeks revenge after his wife is raped.  What is surprising about Chato’s Land is how little screen time Bronson actually has.  Most the film is spent with the posse, which is full of familiar faces (Richard Jordan, Simon Oakland, Victor French, Ralph Waite, and James Whitmore all report for duty).  It actually works to the film’s advantage, making Bronson even more intimidating than usual.  There’s never any doubt that Chato is going to kill every member of the posse but since almost every member of the posse is loathsome, that’s not a problem.

It’s possible that Chato’s Land was meant to be an allegory for the Vietnam War, which is probably giving Michael Winner too much credit.  (In an interview, the author of Death Wish, Brian Garfield, once shared an anecdote about Winner inserting a shot of three nuns into Death Wish and bragging about how the shot was meaningless but that it would fool the critics into thinking he was making a grand statement about something.)  Like most of Winner’s films, Chato’s Land is good but not great.  There are parts of the movie that drag and Jack Palance and Charles Bronson don’t get to share any big scenes together, which seems like a missed opportunity.  Bronson, who was always underrated as an actor, gives one of his better performances as Chato.  Chato does not say much but Bronson could do more with one glare than most actors could do with a monologue.  In Europe, Bronson was known as Il Brutto and Chato’s Land features him at his most brutal.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Scorpio (dir by Michael Winner)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  Having recorded over 150 movies since last January, she understands that this might be an impossible task but she’s going to try anyway!  She recorded the 1973 spy thriller, Scorpio, off of Retroplex way back on January 24th!)

On the surface, Jean Laurier (Alain Delon) would appear to be the perfect man.

He’s handsome.  He looks really good in a suit.  He’s wealthy.  He’s French.  And — get this — he loves cats!  He’s the type of guy who, when he discovers a stray cat in his hotel room, immediately starts to pet it and then gives it a saucer of warm milk.  He and his girlfriend (Gayle Hunnicutt) spend their spare time looking at cats and talking about how cute they are.  At one point, even though he’s just killed a man, Jean pauses when he sees a stray cat watching…

Oh, did I mention that Jean kills people for a living?  Well, he does but I’m sure they’re all bad guys.  Seriously, he’s just so charming (and he really, really loves cats) that you really can’t hold it against him that he’s an independent contract killer.  Add to that, his code name is Scorpio.

I have to admit that the film’s title — Scorpio — is the main reason that I chose to record this movie.  I’m a scorpio myself.  In fact, I’m such a scorpio that if I believed in astrology, I would point to my existence as proof that the stars actually do determine our fate.  Seriously, you don’t want to mess with us scorpios.  We’re scorpions.  We sting.

But anyway, back to the movie.

When Scorpio is busted on a trumped-up narcotics charge (or maybe it was a legitimate narcotics charge, it was kind of hard to keep track), the CIA gives him a choice.  He can either go to prison or he can do a job for them.  Apparently, the CIA believes that Scorpio’s friend and mentor, Cross (Burt Lancaster), is a double agent who has been selling information to the Russians.  They want Cross eliminated.

Scorpio takes the job but it’s not going to be easy.  Cross is a veteran spy.  He has connections all across the world and he’s a ruthless killer, the type who forces a man to swallow a cyanide pill and then says, “You’ve got 30 seconds to live.”  In fact, the only person that Cross seems to care about is his wife (Joanne Linville) but he still doesn’t hesitate to abandon her when he realizes that their house is being watched

Cross taught Scorpio everything that he knows but there’s one lesson that Scorpio is still learning and that is to trust no one.  Is Cross actually a spy or is he being set up?  And, if Cross is being set up, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Scorpio?

Scorpio is probably one of the most cynical films that I’ve ever seen.  If Scorpio was a political protest, it would be full of people carrying cardboard signs reading, “Nothing Matters” and “All Is Darkness.”  Remember that annoying as Hell scene in SPECTRE where James Bond got drunk and demanded to know who a rodent was working for?  Well, imagine the disillusionment of that scene stretched out for two hours.

Fortunately, no one in Scorpio is as whiny as Daniel Craig was in SPECTRE.  In many ways, Scorpio is a triumph of old-fashioned movie star charisma.  Burt Lancaster is perfectly cast as the world-weary Cross while Alain Delon makes for a compelling Scorpio.  Both of them are believable killers and the film becomes as much about the competition between Lancaster’s old school Hollywood style of acting and Delon’s more refined (and very French) style of cool as it is about the competition between Scorpio and Cross.

Scorpio‘s a good little spy thriller, more than worth keeping an eye out for.

 

Bronson’s Best: The Stone Killer (1973, directed by Michael Winner)


Stone_killerAfter tough New York detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) lands in hot water for shooting and killing a teenage cop killer, he moves to Los Angeles and gets a job with the LAPD.  Working under an unsympathetic supervisor (Norman Fell), saddled with an incompetent partner (Ralph Waite), and surrounded by paper pushing bureaucrats, Torrey still tries to uphold the law and dispense justice whenever he can.  When a heroin dealer is murdered while in Torrey’s custody, Torrey suspects that it might be a part of a larger conspiracy, involving mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam).

Vescari is plotting something big.  It has been nearly 40 since the “Sicilian Vespers,” the day when Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Busy Siegel killed all of the original mafia dons at the same time.  Viscari has invited mafia leaders from across the country to attend a special anniversary dinner.  During the dinner, all of Vescari’s rivals will be assassinated.  To keep things a secret, Vescari will not be using any of his usual hitmen.  Instead, he has contracted a group of mentally unstable Vietnam vets, led by Lawrence (Stuart Margolin).

Charles Bronson has always been an underrated film star.  His legacy has been tarnished by the cheap films he made for Cannon and, unlike Clint Eastwood, he never got a chance to really take control of his career and reinvent his image.  But during the 1970s, not even Clint Eastwood was a more convincing action star than Charles Bronson.  Bronson may have never been a great actor but he was an authentic tough guy with a physical presence that dominated the screen.

It was during this period that Bronson made his first four movies with director Michael Winner.  Though Death Wish and The Mechanic are the best known, The Stone Killer may be the best.  Tough, gritty, and action-packed with a great car chase, The Stone Killer was filmed on location in Los Angeles and some of the best parts are just the scenes of Bronson awkwardly interacting with the local, California culture.  If you have ever wanted to see Charles Bronson deal with a bunch of hippies, this is the film to see.  The Stone Killer also has more of social conscience than the usual 70s cop film, with Bronson’s character not only condemning excessive police brutality but also his racist partner.

(Ironically, Bronson and Winner would follow The Stone Killer with Death Wish, a film that many critics condemned as being racist and which suggested that the police were not being brutal enough.)

The other thing that sets The Stone Killer apart is that it has a great cast, featuring several actors who would go on to find success on television.  Balsam, Fell, and especially Waite and Margolin are all great.  Keep an eye out for a very young John Ritter, playing one of the only cops in the film who is not portrayed as being either corrupt or incompetent.

Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other action films, The Stone Killer is one of Bronson’s best.