Sunday, May 24, 2009
Standing Outside Of It All
I had a bit of a week. The details aren’t important and they’re of no interest to you anyway, but let’s just say I had a bit of a week and leave it at that. So instead of collapsing at home on Friday night, I decided to make my way over to the New Beverly for the Charles Bronson double bill, a welcome way to get my mind off things and far preferable to certain films opening this week nationwide. (Yeah, I’ve seen TERMINATOR SALVATION and don’t have very much interest in writing about it. You probably shouldn’t have very much interest in seeing it.) The two films come from the early 70s and, both released by United Artists, can possibly looked at as a few of the very best of his star vehicles. They’re also just different enough to make pairing them not repetitive at all. One can be looked at as a steadily paced look at Charles Bronson as a screen presence, the other is a more standard popcorn movie that still delivers everything we want from it. I’d seen them both before but it had been a few years so it was great to give them another look.
The first of the night, 1972’s THE MECHANIC: Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, a hitman or “Mechanic” who lives a solitary life focused solely on his job. Soon after he fulfills an assignment to kill old friend Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), he runs into McKenna’s son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) who clearly takes an interest in what Arthur does for a living. For reasons that remain mysterious—out of loneliness? Guilt? The need for somebody to talk to?—Bishop takes him on as a protégé, teaching him the rules of his trade, only without telling his superiors, which turns out to cause some problems.
Directed by Michael Winner, THE MECHANIC is light on plot and dialogue—could the script by Lewis John Carlino have been more than 80 pages?—and it really isn’t a character study. What it is feels like a meditation of the nature of Charles Bronson and everything we expect from him in a film. It certainly has more weight than most of the other Michael Winner films I’ve seen and though some of that Winner hackery turns up here and there for the most part it holds together extremely well. From the very beginning where we have a completely dialogue-free stretch following Bronson’s character as he methodically prepares and executes a job which lasts nearly a quarter of an hour, there is a degree of confidence in this storytelling that sets the film apart from other Bronson vehicles. It doesn’t necessarily subvert expectations—there’s still enough well-done action that the average Bronson fan wouldn’t feel hoodwinked about it—but it does have a considerable amount of weight even without Bronson’s character ever expressing exactly what he’s feeling. As the film goes on it feels more and more like an examination of loneliness but how much it really says about this subject is up for the viewer to decide. The film also contains one of the truly great abrupt 70s endings, but to say any more would be giving it away. The film is filled with unexpected touches—the greenery in Bronson’s house, the visit the two men make to a girlfriend of Steve’s who insists she’s going to kill herself and these elements make enough of an effect that I almost forget about the weaker touches like the lame hippie-types seen partying at Vincent’s house, who don’t seem too far apart from the thugs who invade Bronson’s apartment in DEATH WISH (“My father never really liked my friends. And I’m not sure I do either,”says Vincent. That’s a little like a line in HEATHERS. Somebody should ask Daniel Waters about this.). I also wondered how many times Winner set up a shot deliberately so that the setting sun would be seen behind it, but that’s a minor point and besides, his style here makes sense for once. Much of the film is set in Los Angeles, but even though there’s a fair amount of location work including houses in the Hollywood Hills the setting is beside the point and very little interest appears to be paid to much of it. Even when the narrative moves to Naples in the third act, it never takes advantage of the setting as we’d like it too, but this seems deliberate as well. If looked at from the perspective that we’re viewing everything through the tunnelvision that Bronson sees everything it makes perfect sense and for once that slapdash Michael Winner style completely works. Though there isn’t much dialogue, what’s there is very cutting—“Murder is only killing without a license,” and Vincent’s “I call you Baby, because you’re innocence touches me so,” which he callously says to the girl who is about to slit her wrists over him. Jill Ireland turns up in one sequence and isn’t much better than she usually is but even this section ends in an unexpected way that has resonance for the rest of the film so for once, what Jill Ireland does in a movie actually makes sense. Incidentally, there’s a remake with Jason Statham coming. I’m guessing it will be much noisier.
Second on the bill was Richard Flesicher’s MR. MAJESTYK, released in 1974, a considerably more traditional narrative. Bronson is Vince Majestyk, a regular melon farmer who, when we first see him, is arguing to allow a family of Mexican migrant workers to use the bathroom at a service station. He’s a man of the people, a man who understands the value of a day’s work, a man of honor. When a local hood (THE OMEGA MAN’s Paul Kelso) tries to force his own workers, consisting of winos and bums, onto Majestyk’s farm our hero defends himself but this results in the hood presses assault charges. So Majestyk is sent to jail and he winds up on the same transfer bus as notorious hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri, Sollozzo in THE GODFATHER). When Renda’s cohorts try to bust him out from the bus Majestyk, determined to get back to his melon crop, takes matters into his own hands to escape with the hit man and use this to his own advantage. But things don’t quite go according to plan and soon Renda is determined to exact revenge against the melon farmer.
Jerry Fielding’s score for THE MECHANIC is cool and methodical, just like the film. MR. MAJESTYK is more of a straight genre plotline, so Charles Bernstein’s score is as big and melodic as most of those 70s action films. Of course I mean this in the best way and by a certain point MR. MAJESTYK is an absolute blast to watch. Written by Elmore Leonard, the plotting comes together like clockwork and the film even presents us with a Bronson who’s about as loose as we ever saw particularly in the scene where he first meets Letteri, about as goofy a moment as I’ve seen him play (maybe there are others. I need to keep looking.). It drags slightly in the middle, but much of MR. MAJESTYK moves fast and is extremely satisfying in that no-nonsense, old school 70s way with lots of expertly-done action. Letteri is fantastic as the bad guy who is ultimately a spineless coward when he doesn’t have a gun or his men to back him up, Linda Cristal has an interesting screen presence as Bronson’s sort-of love interest and Lee Purcell, also in BIG WEDNESDAY, is gorgeous as Lettieri’s moll though it does make me wonder exactly what a woman like her is doing with somebody like Al Lettieri.
The two films are different enough which prevented any sort of repetition, even though they are both basically “Charles Bronson movies”. They present him at his best and together they made a hugely enjoyable night at the movies. Neither one is deep, but the unspoken elements provided by the star make them practically profound when compared to what we get from the genre these days. Seeing Charles Bronson do what he did best was exactly what I needed at the end of that week and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to be quite so stoic.