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Charles Bronson

Review: The Stone Killer

[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.

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Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

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Review: ‘Breakout’

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

They were smart to change the title from The TenSecond Jailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange.
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Review: ‘Hard Times’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

The beginning of Hard Times comes close to successfully evoking a sensitive feel for rundown Thirties landscapes and the forced freedom of men on the move to the next city in hope of something better than what they left behind. Charles Bronson rides into town in an empty freight car, gazing out at a countryside whose facelessness is placed in perspective by a simple touch: a truckload of Depression-reared children who, perhaps enviously, stare back at Bronson as he rolls on by. He hops off the train and wanders towards a clump of deserted factory buildings, then off into the town where, like a man with nothing much to do, he sits down in a sleazy joint for a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee. Soon he’ll stumble onto a little fistfight between two hulking sluggers, the object of a few friendly bets, and he’ll take up as a fighter himself in order to win enough money to get him to the next stop. So far, though, we simply hope that his quiet and quietly depicted arrival may be building towards an understated film of real men in hard times. Bronson’s lived-in face seems as unflinchingly stoic and potentially lethal as it does in any Michael Winner movie, but there’s that lurking possibility that a period movie like Hard Times will soften its edges and crags and turn Bronson into something of a more easygoing romantic figure.

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Review: Breakheart Pass

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Right off, one should say that Lucien Ballard is one fine cinematographer, even though he didn’t get a chance to point his camera at anything very interesting in Breakheart Pass, a suspense ripoff dressed up as a quasi-Western. We just get a quick taste of the sort of thing he can do with Peckinpah, establishing a period feeling with a few deft swipes through a ramshackle hamlet as the movie begins, or the way he can light an exterior night scene to make the effect seem just part of the atmosphere. Most of the rest of the time we’re inside this train with most everybody in the cast, waiting as they get killed off one by one, and as it slowly becomes clear that the governor (Rich Crenna) and his henchmen are in cahoots with some toughies at the other end of the line, across Breakheart Pass, and that they’re all conspiring to take over a fort from the army and use it to receive illegal shipments of gold coming in from the fields.

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‘Run of the Arrow’: Birth Pangs of the United States

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

As with many of Fuller’s films, Run of the Arrow is finally about nothing less that the United States, even though it is “just” a Western. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps the most conventionally “Western” of Fuller’s Westerns, the only one that really utilizes the redrock and sagebrush landscapes that one associates with the West of directors like Mann, Ford, and Walsh (compare, for instance, Colorado Territory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in Run of the Arrow), and the only one that is in color—vivid color, bright with eye-catching primary hues that become motifs on the political and historical canvas of Fuller’s story. Blood is red, and so are the stripes of the American Flag that O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a bitter Confederate soldier who leaves his home after the war. and seeks out a viable identity as a Sioux Indian, initially rejects and later accepts as his. The uniforms and wagons of the cavalry are blue, and so are the feathers on the lance of Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson), the Sioux chief whose tribe defeats that band of cavalry; so, for that matter, are the blueprints for a new fort to go up in the middle of the Sioux nation most definitely blue, creating an analogy between plans for this specific outpost and the manifest destiny blueprinted in the more encompassing vision of an America moving ever westward.

The film’s themes, which intertwine, support and counterpoint each other, operate on this dual level of significance; the personal crises of identity and the more far-reaching problems of national unity are the components of Fuller’s vision, a cumulatively dark picture of the forces that drove men west to expand the boundaries of their country. The story itself has a sinister way of revolving in ever tightening circles around the antagonism between O’Meara and Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the Yankee officer whom O’Meara wounds with the last bullet fired in the Civil War. They meet up again out West, Driscoll as the leader of a detachment of cavalry commissioned to guard some Army engineers who intend to build a fort in Sioux territory, O’Meara as a scout for the Indians. A parallel conflict springs up between Driscoll and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), the latter a stabilizing force in a world that balances the self-hating O’Mearas against the vicious opportunists like Driscoll. Clark’s strength becomes the most reliable core of value in the film, shoring up the foundations of a reasonable patriotism that will endure beyond both the reactionary ethics of the old Sioux scout Walking Coyote (“I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he says as a party of young bucks get drunk and prepare to string him up) and Driscoll’s incipient fascism. Clark’s spiel to O’Meara questioning O’Meara’s rejection of home and flag and ending with the parable of Philip Knowland, the man without a country (done all in one breathless take, the only movement being an honest and unashamed nudge to a slightly closer shot when the legend of Knowland is invoked) is eloquent enough to rise high above the platform jingoism of a flag-waving patriot, and is indeed infused with an almost Fordian sense of privileged participation. It counterpoints the more patly violent and potently chaotic aspects of Fuller’s films, offering us an openness and resilience that seems as essentially Fullerian as his attention-grabbing visual style and volatile worldview.

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Review: St. Ives

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Oliver Procane, eccentric planner of multimillion-dollar ripoffs, has been impotent all his life; he enjoys spending his non-criminal time watching silent masterpieces by Vidor and Griffith. It’s entirely possible that J. Lee Thompson & co. were inviting congratulatory inferences here: anybody who appreciates good moviemaking must be a bit of a wimp, so let’s hear it for our manhood! If this be the rationale, St. Ives is one hell of an advertisement for a stud service. This movie is so bad that when the convoluted action takes us to a drive-in movie the same film clips can be glimpsed four times (and no, this wasn’t an exercise in staggered chronology à la The Killing—it was just staggering); that when you see Jackie Bisset in bed in longshot she’s lying on her back, but when you cut to a medium closeup she’s sitting up with a thigh hanging out; that even though the film is punctuated by Siegel-like titles (… LOS ANGELES 11:00 A.M. OCTOBER 25), temporal continuity is so shoddy the hero is privileged, on several occasions, to reveal that he made a little phonecall during some offscreen time and therefore it is perfectly permissible for the cavalry to come to his rescue…. At first it seems that we have here another howler of a miscasting job for Charles Bronson—he’s a semi-starving novelist (who nevertheless maintains a swell wardrobe in his fleabag hotelroom)—but this too is retroactively defused: well, you see, he’s trying to be a novelist, he used to be a crackerjack crime reporter, although guys who have been on the police force long enough to make detective never heard of him….

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Review: Telefon

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Charles Bronson—who plays a Soviet KGB agent in Telefon—is introduced to us in the act of coaching a Russian boys’ hockey team. “How do you make sure you are the first one to hit the puck?” he asks them rhetorically. The answer is, Don’t watch your opponent, and certainly don’t watch the referee (“If you see him drop the puck, you don’t see the puck”), but “Keep your eyes on the ice.” These words to live by are one statement of the code of the Don Siegel independent (and they might do for the maverick director himself), the man at odds with society who has been the central figure of virtually all his films. Whether it be the independent-as-cop (Dirty Harry, Madigan), the independent-as-crook (Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio), the independent-as-cop-and-crook (The Verdict), or the independent as social maverick trying simply to assert his identity against the encroachment of enervating social and political forces (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell Is for Heroes, The Beguiled, The Shootist), Siegel’s anti-hero has always commanded our respect as one who walks the middle ground between equally attractive, equally destructive extremes.

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