After seeing Once Upon a Time in the West, I had a hankering to see more Charles Bronson flicks. Obviously the first stop was Death Wish, and the sort of “proxy” choices I got to anyway (The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven). This one caught my eye because it fit the image of “Charles Bronson movies” as I had built them in my head. I thought of him (by reputation) as sort of a 1970’s Van Damme, someone who would appear on TNT’s “Movies for Guys Who Like Movies” back in the 1990s, someone appreciated by the sort of person who guzzles a beer and cheers for the psychopathic cop who stomps all over civil rights to get the bad guy. Maybe a Chuck Norris? I don’t know. Still, I took my mental image of him and this movie seemed exactly it–yet, I’d seen these other films of his and found that he was not at all what I had imagined. This film does not change that fact.
Arthur Bishop (Bronson) is a mechanic; he doesn’t fix cars or craps tables, he fixes situations–by killing people. He wanders into a hotel and sets himself up in an otherwise untouched room, setting down a suitcase next to an open window. From it he draws a stubby telescope, which he uses to take pictures of an apartment across the street. Then we see him examining these images, tapping his fingers lightly on the images that seem to be drawing his attention. Now he makes his way into the room he was spying on, moving to the oven where he puts a compound on one of the gas lines that eats away at it, replaces tea bags, places a pudding-like substance in a book and then leaves. Clearly he’s at work, and it’s not long before we see the results. Soon he’s back in the fancy home where he was examining his pictures, receiving a call from an old friend. That friend is Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), who asks Bishop to put in a good word for him with the organized crime group they both work for. Harry’s son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) wanders through and looks curiously at Bishop while taking money coldly from his father. When Bishop orchestrates Harry’s death, Steve is left alone, and curious about what Bishop does, sure it relates to his father’s business. Bishop is reluctant to reveal himself until he watches Steve ignore the suicidal threats of his girlfriend Louise (Linda Ridgeway) and even lets her get so far as slitting her wrists and waiting a while before throwing her car keys to save her own life. Bishop takes Steve on as an associate, which leads them through a very messy job and a recrimination from Bishop’s employer. A hit is assigned in Italy, but Bishop finds a secondary hit has already been assigned.
It’s difficult to explain the appeal of Charles Bronson to the sort of people I am around most often. They’re not utter snobs only interested in art films, but generally a more sparkly sort of action is necessary. This is 1970s action though, which is a very different breed from what came about in the 80s and 90s, and the new breed that arrived in the past decade. Stunts feel more authentically dangerous, because you can tell they are not so carefully orchestrated, with the only precaution likely coming down to stunt doubles and maybe extra padding, or something to that effect. Violence, of course, often comes off as a little less grisly without those “real” squibs and “realistic” fake blood that have followed (though squibs were used–often they looked a little off, as did the blood), but that has never bothered me too much anyway. That difference in stunts though adds something; in the 80s and 90s it seemed like stunts were obviously contrived. They continued to be entertaining and thrilling, but were obviously not natural occurrences. Most recently, a naturalistic tone has been returned to them, but now it’s just the mark of even more careful orchestration. It was sort of an excess previously, with images of gigantic cranes with wire riggings and fire trucks and engines standing by, gigantic trampolines and air cushions and the like all over the place, where now it seems those things are carefully hidden, and perhaps narrowed down to only the relevant elements for each stunt. But in the 70s, boy, it looks like they said, “Well, this ought to be safe if we use a professional and have a soft crash at the end!” It makes things seem loose and dirty, and more real for it. Clearly the events and the essential run of the stunts is pre-determined, but it seems less likely that they just set a car on a guided track and pulled it into a wall and more likely that they just drove the bloody thing, or dropped a brick on its gas pedal and let it go.
Michael Winner (who also directed Death Wish) did this one with Bronson and seems to have a very similar mentality to film itself. Dialogue and performance of it seem to be a very minor concern to him, with much of it actually sounding like it was recorded in ADR rather than live, and little of it sounding natural. But he draws the focus away from that and into the events and the physicality of characters. If you read the dialogue, it doesn’t seem quite so silly-sounding, yet at the same time as it does end up sounding that silly, the silliness is muted by the way Bronson and Vincent play it and the way Winner directs it. Bronson has never been one to overstate a line (barring possibly his response to the rebellious children in The Magnificent Seven), so he just sort of rolls almost every line out of his mouth sounding like the last one. It’s essentially flat, but never toneless or dead despite this. Something about his look, the way he carries himself and moves, manages to overcome that inattention to dialogue (with Winner clearly caring little for it either) without damaging the story in the process. It doesn’t become an issue of a film you watch to see Bronson or stunts or violence or gags or effects, but one you watch because it has Bronson, and then find pretty engaging anyway. It’s a curious style of film-making, and one that is purely instinctual. This is why there is difficulty in explaining the appeal: you either like Bronson or you don’t. It’s not that he’s an amazing actor, nor even that he’s as macho as the beer-guzzling variety of fan likes to think. The proper term would be closer to “bad ass,” because he’s silent in his strength, even when he’s running with a shotgun and taking out criminals. I’ve talked about this kind of actor before–actors who aren’t strong, but aren’t bad, and simply have this screen presence that makes their films enjoyable anyway (unless the film itself is simply awful). Bronson is easily one of those souls, and that and Winner’s measured but loose direction make for a hell of a fun film.