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


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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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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Five Easy Pieces (dir by Bob Rafelson)


First released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces tells the story of a lost man named Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson).

When we first meet Bobby, he’s working at a California oil field.  He likes to go bowling.  He has a girlfriend named Rayette (Karen Black), who is a country music-obsessed waitress.  His best friend is Elton (Billy “Green” Bush), a friendly redneck with a memorable laugh.  Bobby may have a girlfriend and Elton may be married but that doesn’t stop either one of them from going out at night, getting drunk, and trying to pick up women.

Bobby seems to be just another blue-collar guy with a grudge against the bosses but it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something different about him.  Bobby may be friends with Elton but it’s obvious that the two of them come from very different background.  No matter how much he tries to hide it, Bobby is smarter than everyone else around him.  When he and Elton get stuck in a traffic jam, Bobby spots a piano sitting on the back of a pickup truck.  Getting out of his car, Bobby yells at everyone who is honking and then climbs up to the piano.  He sits down, he puts his fingers to the keys and he starts to play.  Knowing Bobby, you’re expecting him to just bang the keys and make noise.  Instead, he plays beautiful music.

Later, Bobby steps into a recording studio.  Paritia (Lois Smith), a neurotic woman, is playing the piano.  The recording engineers joke about her lack of talent.  Bobby glares at them, annoyed.  It quickly becomes apparent why Bobby is so protective.  Paritia is Bobby’s sister.

Bobby, it turns out, comes from a wealthy family of musicians.  Everyone in the family has dealt with the pressure to succeed differently.  Paritia continues to play, despite not having much talent.  Bobby’s older brother, the buffoonish Carl (Ralph Waite), plays violin and has staid home with their father (William Challee).  Bobby, on the other hand, ran away from home.  He’s spent his entire life trying to escape from both his talent and his family.  However, when Paritia explains that their father has suffered from two strokes and might not live much longer, Bobby reluctantly decides to return home and try to make some sort of peace with his father.

It’s not as easy a journey as Bobby would have liked.  For one thing, Rayette demands to go with him.  On the drive up to Washington, they pick up two hitchhikers (Helena Kallionetes and Toni Basil), one of whom is obsessed with filth.  In the film’s most famous scene, an attempt to get a simple lunch order modified leads to Bobby losing control.

See, that’s the thing with Bobby.  In many ways, he’s a jerk.  He treats Rayette terribly.  While his family is hardly perfect, the film doesn’t hide from the fact that Bobby isn’t always the easiest person to deal with.  And yet, you can’t help but sympathize with Bobby.  If he seems permanently annoyed with the world … well, that’s because the world’s annoying.  And, to Bobby’s credit, he’s a bit more self-aware than the typical rebel without a cause.  When one of the hitchhikers praises his temper tantrum at the diner, Bobby points out that, after all of that, he still didn’t get the order that he wanted.

In Washington, Bobby tells Rayette to stay at a motel and then goes to see his family.  Bobby seems as out-of-place among his wealthy family as he did hanging out in the oil fields with Elton.  He ends up cheating on Rayette with Carl’s fiancee, a pianist named Catherine van Oost (Susan Anspach).

And then Rayette shows up for dinner…

Five Easy Pieces is a sometimes funny and often poignant character study of a man who seems to be destined to always feel lost in the world.  Bobby spends the whole movie trying to find a place where he can find happiness and every time, reality interferes with his plans.  Nicholson gives a brilliant performance, playing Bobby as a talented guy who doesn’t really like himself that much.  Bobby’s search for happiness leads to a rather haunting ending, one that suggests that some people are just meant to spend their entire life wandering.

Five Easy Pieces was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Patton.

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.

That’s Blaxploitation! 7: TROUBLE MAN (20th Century-Fox 1972)


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One of the earliest Blaxploitaion films is TROUBLE MAN, a 1972 entry about Mr T…

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…no, not THAT Mr. T! THIS Mr. T…

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Thank you! This Mr. T is played by Robert Hooks, a tough talking private eye who drives a big-ass Lincoln Continental and “fixes troubles” on the mean streets of L.A. T gets hired by gangsters Chalky Price and Pete Cockrell to protect their crap games, which are getting ripped off by masked gunmen. Things go awry when Chalky shoots one of the heisters, a dude named Abby who works for rival gangster “Big”. Abby’s body is dumped and word is on the streets T did the killing. Police Capt. Joe Marx puts the heat on T, as does “Big”, so T arranges a late night summit between “Big”, Chalky, and Pete at Jimmy’s Pool Hall .  “Big” arrives, but before Chalky and Pete do, some cops raid the joint. These…

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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.

Film Review: Kid Blue (1973, directed by James Frawley)


KidBlueFor the past week and a half, I have been on a major Warren Oates kick.  The latest Oates film that I watched was Kid Blue, a quirky western comedy that features Warren in a small but key supporting role.

Bickford Warner (Dennis Hopper) is a long-haired and spaced-out train robber who, after one failed robbery too many, decides to go straight and live a conventional life.  He settles in the town of Dime Box, Texas.  He starts out sweeping the floor of a barber shop before getting a better job wringing the necks of chickens.  Eventually, he ends up working at the Great American Ceramic Novelty Company, where he helps to make ashtrays for tourists.

He also meets Molly and Reese Ford (Lee Purcell and Warren Oates), a married couple who both end up taking an interest in Bickford.  Reese, who ignores his beautiful wife, constantly praised Greek culture and insists that Bickford take a bath with him.  Meanwhile, Molly and Bickford end up having an affair.

Bickford also meets the local preacher, Bob (Peter Boyle).  Bob is enthusiastic about peyote and has built a primitive flying machine that he keeps in a field.  The town’s fascist sheriff, Mean John (Ben Johnson), comes across Bob performing a river baptism and angrily admonishes him for using “white man’s water” to baptize an Indian.

Bickford attempts to live a straight life but is constantly hassled by Mean John, who suspects that Bickford might actually be Kid Blue.  When Bickford’s former criminal partner (Janice Rule) shows up in town and Molly announces that she’s pregnant, Bickford has to decide whether or not to return to his old ways.

Kid Blue is one of a handful of counterculture westerns that were released in the early 70s.  The film’s biggest problem is that, at the time he was playing “Kid” Blue, Dennis Hopper was 37 and looked several years older.  It’s hard to buy him as a naïve naif when he looks older than everyone else in the cast.  As for Warren Oates, his role was small but he did great work as usual.  Gay characters were rarely presented sympathetically in the early 70s and counter-culture films were often the worst offenders.  As written, Reese is a one-note (and one-joke) character but Warren played him with a lot of empathy and gave him a wounded dignity that was probably not present in the film’s script.

Kid Blue plays out at its own stoned pace, an uneven mix of quirky comedy and dippy philosophy.  Still, the film is worth seeing for the only-in-the-70s cast and the curiosity factor of seeing Dennis Hopper in full counterculture mode, before he detoxed and became Hollywood’s favorite super villain.

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