Bang, You’re Dead!: Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (Paramount 1974)

Most people think of DEATH WISH as just another 70’s revenge/exploitation flick, right? Nope. Far from it. Sure, there’s loads of graphic violence, but this gem of a movie contains just as much political commentary as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with an added dose of black comedy to boot. The film had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of 1970’s America, with all its fear and paranoia about rampant urban crime, and is among the decade’s best.

Director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson had made three films together up to that time: the revisionist Western CHATO’S LAND, the actioner THE MECHANIC , and the cops-vs-Mafia drama THE STONE KILLER . All were hits with the drive-in crowd, and helped Bronson go from supporting player to major star. Strangely enough, Bronson wasn’t the first actor considered for the part of Paul Kersey. Jack Lemmon was original choice, and that would’ve been an interesting interpretation, but the role ended up in Charlie’s firm hands, and he made it his own.

Architect Paul and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) return from an idyllic Hawaiian vacation to grimy, crime infested New York City. They have a good life, but that life is shattered when Joanna and daughter Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three young punks (one of whom is future star Jeff Goldbum, making his film debut), who break into their apartment, brutally raping Carol and killing Joanna. The scene is graphic and uncomfortable to sit through, causing critics of the era to condemn it, but that savagery is necessary to understanding Paul’s motivation.

Tired and frustrated by police efforts and living in daily fear, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands with a sockful of quarters, then is sent by his boss to Tuscon, where he meets Western developer Ames Jainchill. We learn Paul served in Korea as a medic (and conscientious objector). We also learn quiet, peaceful Paul is more than familiar with guns. A trip to a Wild West show gives him ideas, and a going away present from Jainchill gives him the means to carry them out…

Bronson’s Paul Kersey is not just a cardboard vigilante. After his first kill, Paul is sickened by what he’s done, going home and immediately vomiting. As he gains more confidence in believing his actions are justified, he comes to think of himself as a Wild West bounty hunter mowing down bad guys (and there are several allusions to Western films throughout the movie). Bronson walks a fine line here, and gives what I think is his best performance. True, Kersey becomes a murderous Avenging Angel, but ask yourself these questions: What if you were in his shoes? What if it were YOUR wife and daughter?

Two of my favorite 70’s character actors are in DEATH WISH: Steven Keats and Stuart Margolin. Keats made a memorable first impression in the Boston-lensed neo-noir THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE opposite Robert Mitchum, and went on to act in THE GAMBLER, HESTER STREET, BLACK SUNDAY , SILENT RAGE, and the TV miniseries SEVENTH AVENUE and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG. Here he plays Kersey’s meek son-in-law Jack, whose response to the tragedy is much different than Paul’s, to say the least. Keats was a fine actor who tragically committed suicide in 1994, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work these days.

Margolin is a Familiar Face to fans of TV’s THE ROCKFORD FILES; he played James Garner’s former cellmate Angel, a con artist who frequently got Jim into trouble (winning two Emmys for his efforts). As Jainchill, Margolin plays a brief but essential part as the Westerner who sets Paul’s behavior into motion.  He’s best known for his television work, both as an actor and director, but his feature films include KELLY’S HEROES, FUTUREWORLD, DAYS OF HEAVEN, and S.O.B. He’s still acting, recently appearing on the revival of THE X-FILES. Both these men would make interesting Familiar Faces posts (hmmm… ).

Another great character actor, Vincent Gardenia, plays cynical NYC cop Frank Ochoa, assigned to hunt down the vigilante. Ochoa is enmeshed with the political ramifications of capturing the mysterious shooter, whose actions are popular with the public at large, having caused the crime rate to drastically drop in the Big Apple. The Emmy and Tony winning, Oscar nominated (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, MOONSTRUCK) Gardenia is well remembered by 70’s audiences for his role as Frank Lozenzo, neighbor of TV’s Archie Bunker on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Plenty of other recognizable performers ply their trade as well: Paul Dooley, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Elliott, Christopher Guest, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Eric Laneuville, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster!), Sonia Marzano (SESAME STREET’s Maria), and William Redfield.

Wendell Mayes’ script doesn’t judge Kersey one way or the other, letting the audience make their own decisions, and the writer of THE ENEMY BELOW, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE pulls it off with style. DP Arthur Ornitz gives viewers a bleak, uncompromising look at New York’s mean streets, and I absolutely love Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. Critics of the time loathed and reviled DEATH WISH, but theater owners packed ’em in, as the film really resonated with audiences, and still does today. DEATH WISH spawned a slew of vigilante movies that became a sub-genre in themselves, but none truly caught the zeitgeist of the times like this one. It also spawned four sequels, which are enjoyable but not nearly on a par with the original. It also spawned a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis and directed by Eli Roth, but like I always say, ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby! No matter which side of the coin you’re on, you’ve got to admit DEATH WISH is an important film that ranks with the best of the decade, not to mention damn entertaining!

 

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

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 York City press, and decides to accept a job with the LAPD. Two years pass, and we find Torrey making a heroin bust on a crook named Armitage, who he knows from the past. Armitage has a murder warrant out for his arrest in NYC, and Torrey has to escort him back to The Big Apple. The crook is gunned down at the airport, and a string of gangland-related killings occurs, as Torrey tries to connect the dots, leading him to a vengeful Mafia Don, a crew of Vietnam Vet mercenaries, violence, shootings, bloodshed, car crashes, and other fun stuff!

If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, and THE STONE KILLER is loaded with echoes of DIRTY HARRY and THE GODFATHER. Bronson’s at his best as the tough cop Torrey, whether he’s beating up a perp or spouting a quick quip (“The FBI can piss in its collective ear” is my favorite Bronsonism here!). There are a couple of in-jokes referencing Bronson’s coal-country roots, and I particularly enjoyed the amusingly weird scene set at an Ashram, where Bronson interrogates hippie chick Kelly Miles – it seems so out-of-place among all the carnage! This was his third film with director Michael Winner (CHATO’S LAND, THE MECHANIC ), and the duo’s DEATH WISH was looming on the horizon, which put Bronson over the top as an action star for good.

He’s surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors. Oscar winner Martin Balsam  plays Mafia chieftain Vescari, complete with Sicilian accent, out to settle an old score. Norman Fell plays Bronson’s boss Daniels (and Fell’s future THREE’S COMPANY costar John Ritter is a rookie cop!). Ralph Waite is the racist cop Mathews, David Sheiner’s Bronson’s old partner Guido, Stuart Margolin the mercenary Lawrence, and veteran Walter Burke stands out as a grass-dealing informant. Other Familiar Faces include Frank Campanella , Jack Colvin (THE INCREDIBLE HULK’s McGee), Robert Emhardt , Hoke Howell, Byron Morrow, Christina Raines, Angelo Rossitto , Alfred Ryder, and Charles Tyner .

THE STONE KILLER certainly fills the bill for Charles Bronson Action Flick junkies out there – and yes, I’m one of them! It’s got all the elements, including the obligatory car chase (only Charlie’s chasing down a suspect on a Honda – another good scene!), and moves swiftly thanks to Winner’s direction and Roy Budd’s pulse-pounding score. Happy birthday Mr. Bronson – we miss you!!


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

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 an overnight success with the same year’s THE VALACHI PAPERS. He’s his usual stoic self as Bishop, but the character has a bit more depth. Bishop is prone to anxiety attacks, and trouble forming a meaningful relationship, causing him to visit a call girl (wife Jill Ireland in a cameo), paying her to read him love letters before sex. Bishop’s bonding with young McKenna was originally homosexual in nature as envisioned  by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA, THE GREAT SANTINI), but producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (the ROCKY films) nixed the idea. Still, the relationship between Bishop and McKenna comes off almost as intended, as Bishop doesn’t seem to respond to anyone else, including the hooker.

Jan-Michael Vincent is good as the antisocial McKenna, and makes me wish he and Bronson had done more films together. Vincent is well known to fans of 70’s flicks for his roles in the TV Movie TRIBES, the Disney comedy THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHELETE, and a slew of drive-in fare: WHITE LINE FEVER, BABY BLUE MARINE, VIGILANTE FORCE, DAMNATION ALLEY, and DEFIANCE. He played Robert Mitchum’s son in the miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR, then headlined his own action series AIRWOLF from 1984-87. Vincent’s problems with alcohol and domestic violence have been well documented, and the actor, who lost a leg in a car crash, is now for the most part retired and living in Mississippi.

THE MECHANIC is the second of six films Bronson made with director Michael Winner, the last three being the first entries in the DEATH WISH series. Winner delivers (sorry, I can’t resist!) a winner here, keeping the suspense taut and the action exciting, including a cool dirt bike chase and the later scene with Bronson and Vincent chased by mobsters through a winding Italian mountain road. The film was remade in 2011 with Jason Statham in the Bishop role (and a sequel in 2016), which paled in comparison to this drive-in classic. Bronson and Winner’s DEATH WISH has been remade and is set for release this November, with Eli Roth directing and Bruce Willis in Bronson’s role. The trailer looks good, but like THE MECHANIC, it’ll be hard to top the original. We shall see…