[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
It hardly matters what side of the moral fence Charles Bronson is on in a Michael Winner film. Whether he’s a noble savage hounded nearly to death by dregs of the American melting pot (Chato’s Land), an executive gun done in by his Mafia employers and an ambitious protégé (The Mechanic), or most recently, in The Stone Killer, a new centurion waging a crusade against urban Huns and Vandals—Winner’s undeviatingly nihilistic environment dead-ends him every time. Though Winner laces his increasingly ugly films with heavyhanded liberal preachiness, his central character rarely discovers any ethical position except the dubious one of executioner. Maybe Winner is after the notion that killer societies make murderers of us all—but I doubt it: he wallows too comfortably in his visions of the most brutal ways of dying. You need a long spoon to sup with the Devil, and The Stone Killer further substantiates one’s suspicion that Winner, on some level of consciousness, has begun to relish that which he superficially reviles.
His handling of scenes like the one in which a doctor proffers a gratuitous sermon to cop Bronson on the horrors the Vietnam war has loosed on peacetime society is ludicrously awkward, ponderously conceived: the two men maneuver about open shelves until they are peering melodramatically at each other through a fortuitous gap between beakers and bottles. This unnatural use of cinematic space robs the doctor’s—and presumably the director’s—point of any authenticity it may have possessed. On the other hand, Winner’s scenes of mayhem are competently choreographed, and move with a fairly organic sense of spatial logic. When a director’s mise-en-scène is at cross-purposes with his moralizing, one is best advised to trust the mise-en-scène. Playing both ends against the middle (us) is symptomatic of a current film genre as well as Winner’s individual predilections: Bronson practically retraces Robert Duvall’s footstcps in Badge 373 when he chases a “spic” up to a rooftop to more or less involuntarily kill him, subsequently getting fired for his pains. The creators of both films are unwilling or unable to call a spade a spade: are these cops meant to exemplify virtue beleaguered by friend and foe alike? Or the killer-instinct, aroused and ratified by the circumstances of their profession? Or a little of both? Winner at least makes an attempt—unconvincing though it is—to dignity his queasy stance with a metaphysic of sorts: frequent glances at a Breughel served as comment on the damned and distorted souls in The Mechanic. In The Stone Killer, the symbolically operative painting is Goya’s Chronos bestially devouring his offspring meant, one supposes, to inflate a Mafia don’s four-decades-long lust for revenge into a metaphor for the cyclical and cannibalistic quality of evil. After nearly two hours of panem et circenses, Winner has Bronson recall that old cartoon of the Roman arena, lions roaring on the periphery, and an emcee yelling down a corridor, “You’ve got five minutes, Christians!”—a punchline which Bronson delivers with leaden portentousness straight at the audience, in closeup yet. One somehow suspects that Michael Winner will continue to lovingly record our evil days and ways until the advent of that long-awaited apocalypse.
THE STONE KILLER
Direction: Michael Winner. Screenplay: Gerald Wilson, after the novel A Complete State of Death by John Gardner. Cinematography: Richard Moore. Music: Roy Budd. Production: Winner.
The Players: Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Stuart Margolin, Charles Tyner, Paul Koslo, Norman Fell, Walter Burke.
Copyright © 1973 Kathleen Murphy