Tuesday, September 9, 2008
In the Middle of Blood and Violence
I feel sadly lacking when it comes to knowledge of Charles Bronson films. Of course I’ve seen his classics from the 60s along with a few of his better-known vehicles from the 70s. But it feels like there are so many more out there, from oddball entries he made in Europe to his later years I the 80s making films for Cannon that all look the same in the trailers. One that I have seen a few times, and it’s not even one of his better known titles, is VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY. It’s a film that actually has some pretty terrific stuff in it and while it doesn’t necessarily all come together it still holds up pretty well.
The deceptively simple plot has Bronson’s hitman left for dead and sent to prison after an unsuccessful attempt on his life. Once released, he is intent on seeking out the ones who tried to kill him while dealing with the woman (Jill Ireland, of course) he loved and a mob boss (Telly Savalas) intent on luring Bronson into his organization.
The description on the DVD box claims that the inspiration is LE SAMOURAI. That’s not much of a help for me, since I’ve never actually seen LE SAMOURAI (I have seen some films by Melville like LE CERCLE ROUGE and LE DOULOS, though), but I’ll try to get on that. The plot of VIOLENT CITY plays like a mish-mosh of various noir/revenge storylines familiar to all, particularly POINT BLANK which it bears a slight resemblance to stylistically due to some elliptically plotted flashbacks. It’s consistently a genuinely cinematic movie with at times striking imagery as well as a handful of truly memorable action scenes. There’s a terrific car chase, one of the best of this period, filmed in the Virgin Islands which comes almost immediately after the opening credits and as it happens there’s not a line of dialogue spoken for the first ten minutes. This neat RIO BRAVO-type idea of making the story purely visual even extends to other sections of the film, no real surprise considering this is Charles Bronson we’re talking about. I doubt he has a hundred lines of dialogue over the entire running time and yet it’s probably one of the best post-60s examples of how Bronson, along with his physical persona, was used within the frame. Like a number of other Italian films made around this period, some of it is actually shot in America and in this one there seems to be more than usual, with a lot of location footage filmed in and around Louisiana. The French Quarter is briefly seen, yes, but so are a number of other local sights of the sort not usually seen in films, ranging from slums to old fashioned southern backyard parties and it continually gives it a unique flavor. Adding to all this is the phenomenal score by Ennio Morricone, with a main title that is probably listed in the dictionary when you look up ‘cool’.
It is, however, a decidedly odd viewing experience, in how various sections seem to come from totally different movies, as if you’re switching channels and coming across different Bronson-Ireland films all at once. Along with the action, there’s a very long sequence of Bronson trying to pull off a hit at a racetrack which goes on so long and takes its time observing so many different elements of the goings on at the racetrack, practically in documentary form, and by a certain point it begins to come off as practically a mini-remake of LE MANS. The basic narrative almost feels like it reaches a sort of conclusion around fifty minutes in and what follows comes off as a continuation rather than the rest of the movie. Character motivation and even relationships feel unclear at times, something which is expected in a plot that involves multiple double-crosses, but it still helps to feel like you’re able to have a handle on what exactly is going on. It feels like some surprises are revealed before they should be and others remain murky beyond the point where they should be clear. The movie, directed by Sergio Salina and bearing the names of multiple writers in the credits (including, surprisingly, Lina Wertmuller), contains some scenes and imagery within which feel like they could very well be a part of a minor genre classic but other sections just seem to drift along, content to pad time for a reel or so. One of the sequences where all the elements come together is the finale (no spoilers) which is genuinely startling and is just one of those cinematic moments that you remember years after the rest of the film has been forgotten. It’s interesting that, as good as it is, this ending isn’t really built up to in a particularly strong way (we lose track of one character in the buildup, blunting some of its effectiveness) so, like the best things in the film, it almost seems to exist as just a sequence on its own. But that doesn’t diminish how well it truly works. For the record, what is now known as VIOLENT CITY was originally released in the U.S. as THE FAMILY, in a slightly different version than what is now on DVD. Like a number of other Italian genre titles from this period, scenes that were never dubbed into English are presented in Italian with subititles.
Bronson, with his small amount of dialogue and all, is excellent, somehow managing to lend the role a human touch even as he seemingly isn’t doing a thing. Telly Savalas, second-billed but playing a role that may as well have “Special Guest Star” attached to it, is playing a key role but never has the weight it needs (his office does come with a well-stocked bar which includes several bottles of J&B, however). He may be the only one of the leads who only worked at Cinecitta in Rome and ultimately the oversize glasses he sometimes wears make more of an impression than he ever does.
Jill Ireland’s presence is presumably due to Bronson and while it’s possible that she was never more beautiful than she is here (and there is nudity, though possibly by a body double) I’m still unconvinced in regards to how good she is. When called a bitch at one point she replies, “Of course I’m a bitch,” and the problem is everything about her as a person comes off as very un-bitchlike. Still, she photographs great and, like her husband, is at times used very well within the frame (there’s a great shot showing her in close-up in the center of the Scope frame, both leading men in the background on either side of her, showing us visually what we don’t need to be told in dialogue). With her long blonde hair and penchant for getting slapped around, I found myself imagining Barbara Bouchet in the role, especially since there is a very slight resemblance. But since this is a Charles Bronson movie that of course wasn’t going to happen and it could be argued that the obvious tenderness felt between the real-life couple adds an emotional potency to the film, which may not have otherwise been there. It’s one of a number of touches that keeps VIOLENT CITY from playing completely like a film you’ve already seen more than a few times.
How does it rank in the Bronson canon? I’ll still have to see a few more of those films to begin to find out. The disjointed nature of VIOLENT CITY probably prevents it from being at the top of that list but its very best moments, especially the beginning and end, are ultimately worth it, making it a film that deserves to be better known than it is.