Almost a Vigilante: Charles Bronson in GANG WAR (20th Century Fox 1958)

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Here’s a chance to see Charles Bronson in an early starring role, playing a man who’s wife is killed by thugs. But this ain’t DEATH WISH, it’s GANG WAR, and though the title may promise plenty of action, it doesn’t deliver. It’s a low-budget potboiler about schoolteacher Alan Avery (Bronson) witnessing a gangland rubout, and the mobsters who’re out to get him. Presumably by talking him to death!!

The film starts out like gangbusters, with lots of violent action scenes before the credits roll. Unfortunately it’s stock footage, and that’s about as good as it gets for action. After that, it’s Avery seeing Maxie Meadows’ two thugs murder a stoolie, calling the cops anonymously. But Avery leaves his pregnant wife’s medicine in the phone booth, and they trace him to his home. He identifies the goons, so Maxie sends his booze-soaked lawyer Barker to pay him off. Avery’s too principled to accept, so Maxie sends dimwitted flunky Chester to rough Mrs. Avery up. Chester goes a bit too far and winds up killing her. Korean War vet Avery grabs his gun and commando-crawls through Maxie’s back lawn, where he takes aim before being stopped by the cops (the cabbie who brought him tipped them off).

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The GANG WAR of the title refers to “The Syndicate” trying to muscle in on Maxie’s turf. I expected lots of blazing machine guns and things blowing up, but was disappointed to discover it’s a pretty bloodless coup. The filmmakers couldn’t afford to stage any action scenes, hence the early stock footage come-on. In fact, the budget was so tight that when Mrs. Avery holds up the morning newspaper, we can see there’s nothing written on the back page!

If only they’d given us more Charlie Bronson going after the hoods that killed his wife, we’d have something. Alas, DEATH WISH was sixteen years away. It’s still cool to watch Charlie in an early sympathetic part, instead of the usual villainous henchmen he played during this point in his career. There’s lots of familiar faces here, including TV’s BOSTON BLACKIE Kent Taylor as the sleazy lawyer. Taylor enjoyed movie stardom during the 30s and 40s before essaying the role of Blackie, but wound up his acting days in Grade-Z Al Adamson schlockers. Gravel voiced tough guy John Doucette goes over-the-top as Maxie, but that’s the way the part’s written. Mrs. Avery is Gloria Henry, forever known as the mom on TV’s DENNIS THE MENACE. Barney Phillips is one of those “I know the face but can’t name him” actors who’s probably best remembered for playing the diner owner in THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Jennifer Holden (JAILHOUSE ROCK), Ralph Manza, Jack Reynolds, and Larry Gelbmann (SHE DEMONS) round out the cast.

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Yes, the dialogue is hokey as hell, the budget’s rock bottom, the action’s almost non-existent, and director Gene Fowler Jr’s done better (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE). But fans of Charles Bronson will definitely want to take a look at their hero before he shot to superstardom in THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH series. He’s the only reason to catch GANG WAR. Everyone else, you’ve been warned!

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