Charles Bronson

Death Wish

1974

Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures

Directed by Michael Winner

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Bobby Roberts

Screenplay by Wendell Mayes

Based on the novel “Death Wish” by Brian Garfield

Considering how ridiculous and downright cartoonish the later movies in the series were, I can easily see how a recommendation of DEATH WISH would bring snickers and outright guffaws from modern day movie fans. Hey, I can’t sit through “Death Wish 3” without collapsing into fits of laughter while “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown” and “Death Wish V: The Face of Death” are simply embarrassing. By the time Charles Bronson made those last two movies he was plainly way too old to be trying to play the action hero.

But the first DEATH WISH still holds up for me as a powerful piece of filmmaking. Maybe because I remember how the issues of urban crime, white flight, racism and vigilantism were raised, debated and discussed in magazines, newspapers and TV talk shows thanks to DEATH WISH. The movie was actually extremely controversial when it was released. Urban crime was a growing plague in American cities back in the 1970’s and there was a very real fear that the vigilantism advocated by DEATH WISH would be embraced and possibly even acted out by the audiences that packed the theaters showing the movie.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a successful architect living and working in New York with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange.) They return home after a wonderful Hawaiian vacation and resume their lives. It’s a life that is forever destroyed when three hoodlums break inside Kersey’s home. In a truly brutal and graphic scene, the three hoodlums trash the apartment, one of them (Jeff Goldblum) beating Joanna with a blackjack in bloodthirsty glee and then all three savagely raping Kersey’s married daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) and leaving without anybody seeing them. Paul is called to the hospital and meets his son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats) there. Carol’s mind has been shattered by the horror of what happened to her and Joanna is dead. The police are professionally sympathetic but without Carol able to look at mug shots or tell them exactly what happened there is little to no chance of them catching the criminals.

To help him deal with the shock, Paul’s boss sends him to Arizona on a working vacation to help design a residential development for a wealthy businessman, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin.) Jainchill takes Paul to a gun club to unwind and is amazed that Paul is an excellent marksman. Paul reveals he was taught how to shoot as a boy by his dad. But when the elder Kersey was killed in a hunting accident Paul swore never to touch a gun again. But recent events in his life as well as discussions he has with Jainchill about liberalism, urban anxiety and where do law-abiding citizens take it upon themselves to defend themselves if the police can’t prey upon Paul’s mind. Upon the completion of the job, Jainchill gives Paul a present: a .38 Smith & Wesson.

Back in New York City, Paul begins a nightly ritual of taking aimless walks in dangerous neighborhoods and riding in empty subway cars, deliberately setting himself up as a target for muggers who he guns downs. New York City is soon set afire by the series of killings done by “The Vigilante.”

NYPD Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to the case. But it soon become apparent to him that the Powers That Be don’t really want Paul Kersey brought to justice. The number of violent crimes such robberies, rapes and muggings at night are dropping dramatically. And New Yorkers, as they are wont to do have made a hero out of The Vigilante. The last thing the District Attorney wants is a martyr for the press. But Paul is taking more and more risks and it’s only a matter of time before he’s either caught by the cops or catches a bullet.

DEATH WISH is a movie soaked in urban chaos. There’s a scene where Paul asks his son-in-law, “What do you call people who are faced with a condition of fear and do nothing about it except run and hide?” And that was a very real fear in the 1970’s when it seemed as if anarchy ruled the cities and all of our civilized institutions were breaking down. During the Arizona scenes it’s as if Paul is visiting NRA Heaven which makes his return to the concrete jungle of New York even more psychologically unsetting and helps plunge him into his nightly shooting sprees.

This is undoubtedly the best known movie and role Charles Bronson played. It certainly was the most successful and profitable of his movies. There are other movies I think Bronson has done better acting: “Once Upon A Time In The West” “The Dirty Dozen” ”The Mechanic” ”Master of The World” ”Mr. Majestyk” “Breakheart Pass” “The White Buffalo” and I could easily name half a dozen more. But you mention Charles Bronson’s name and the first movie that comes to people’s mind is DEATH WISH.

The violence in this movie is handled in a manner that I find appalling even by today’s standards. Maybe because it’s presented in an almost documentary-like, matter-of-fact manner. The movie was charged with being racist as the criminals who attack the two women were white but most of the thugs Paul kills are black, which adds another level to the horror we’re seeing on screen. And I think that’s why DEATH WISH still carries a wallop even today. Charles Bronson isn’t playing an invincible, wisecracking superman. He’s an ordinary man who deals with his overwhelming grief and rage in the only way that makes sense to him. He’s committed to his plan and he goes through with it even though it takes a toll on him. He starts drinking more. He throws up after killing a mugger. He rages at his ineffectual son-in-law because he’s got to take out his anger on somebody and the killing still isn’t enough.

But even after all that, we’re left with that final chilling, scary scene where Paul Kersey, having relocated to Chicago comes to the aid of a woman being harassing by a gang of punks. Paul points his hand like a gun  at the punks and gives them the scariest smile I’ve ever seen Bronson give on screen. It’s then that we realize that there’s a lot more to Charles Bronson’s performance and a lot more to DEATH WISH.

93 Minutes

Rated R

Once Upon A Time In The West

1969

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Sergio Leone

Produced by Bino Cicogna

Written by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone and Sergio Donatti

Music by Ennio Morricone

Three men wait a remote train station.  One man (Al Mulock) endlessly cracks his knuckles.  The second man (Woody Strode) stands underneath a leak in the water tower. Eventually the water gathers in the crown of his hat and he drinks it with a really satisfied smile.  The third man (Jack Elam) engages in an existential war with a fly that just won’t leave him alone.   The train arrives and one man (Charles Bronson) disembarks.  The three men have obviously been waiting to kill him.  The lone man plays a sad dirge on an old battered harmonica and he asks the three men if they brought a horse for him.  The third man jokingly says that it looks as if they’re one horse shy.  The harmonica player disagrees:

“You brought two horses too many.”

The harmonica player whips out his gun, kills all three men with incredibly fast and accurate shots and that’s how ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST begins.  A movie that I think is the best western ever made.  You can disagree with me.  I don’t mind.

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the boomtown of Flagstone to take up housekeeping with Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) whom she met and married in New Orleans.  Jill is desperately looking to put her former life as a prostitute behind her but that dream is totally shattered as she finds that McBain, along with his three children have all been brutally murdered.

The townspeople are quick to put the blame on Cheyenne (Jason Robards) a local bandit noted for his flamboyance and rough charm.  But Cheyenne is for once the innocent party.  The McBains were actually killed by Frank (Henry Fonda) a merciless killer in the employ of railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) who is dying from tuberculosis of the bones but is determined to stay alive long enough to see his railroad reach The Pacific Ocean.  Frank’s got other plans.  And those plans include the McBain ranch of Sweetwater which Jill has inherited.

The ranch is sitting on a vast underground lake of fresh water.  And Brett McBain’s intention was to build a railroad station right on the spot where the railroad would pass through.  McBain knew that the water was worth millions and whoever controlled the water would control the town that would spring up around the station.  Frank is determined to get that land.  Jill is just as determined that he doesn’t.  Cheyenne genuinely likes Jill and genuinely doesn’t like Frank and wants to help her out.  Nobody knows what the motives and intentions of the mysterious man that they all call Harmonica are.  But he moves among these four and manipulates their actions for his own dark purpose.  A purpose we don’t learn until the end of the movie and one I wouldn’t dare reveal here.

I love all of Sergio Leone’s movies and I’ve thought for years that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was his highly underrated masterpiece.  Most would say that “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” takes the top honors among Leone’s films but I gotta disagree.  Much as I love “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” I love ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST even more.  Why?  Okay, sit back.  This will take a while.

First of all is the title: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Leone is letting you know right up front he’s telling you a grown-up fairy tale.  This isn’t going to be a fairy tale that has a happy ending because it takes place in the west.  But it really isn’t The American West we know.  The film critic Danny Peary wrote in his review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST that Sergio Leone’s West was inhabited by a select group men who belonged to an elder race of warriors who possessed near supernatural skills with guns.  And I think that’s valid.  Sergio Leone’s American West is actually as much a fantasy realm as Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Era.  But in Leone’s fantasy world his warriors tote sixguns instead of swords.  In fact, there’s a key scene where Charles Bronson’s Harmonica says to Henry Fonda’s Frank that he belongs to ‘an ancient race’.

Second of all is Claudia Cardinale.  Sergio Leone may have slighted women is his other movies but he made up for it with this one.  He takes every opportunity to film Claudia Cardinale the best way he can.  She’s an astoundingly beautiful woman and Leone takes advantage of that, giving her an amazing amount of close-ups where we can just take delight in how lusciously gorgeous she is.  And she’s not just there as eye candy.  Miss Cardinale’s character is the one that sets everything in the movie into motion.

Third is Henry Fonda.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is legendary as the only movie where he played a bad guy and I guess we’re lucky because if Mr. Fonda had really put his mind to it we’d have gotten some of the scariest bad guys of all time from him.   Henry Fonda  scares the you-know-what outta me everytime he shows up on screen in this movie.  He’s so scary that when this movie was first shown on American television, some of his scenes were actually cut out including Frank’s killing of a little boy.

Fourth is just the way the story is told.  Sergio Leone takes his time in all of his movies and this is no exception.  He’ll tell the story he wants to tell in his own way and in his own time.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is no exception.  There are many scenes which have nothing but characters staring at each other.  And compared to how fast the gunfights happen you might be bewildered at how much time Leone takes setting up the gunfights.  But that’s because Leone is more interested in the rituals leading up to the gunfight.

Fifth is the score by Ennio Morricone which I think is the best he’s ever done.  Do yourself a favor and pick up the two-disc DVD version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in which you’ve got commentary by guys like John Carpenter, John Milius, Claudia Cardinale and numerous others including Morricone who himself says that Leone wanted ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST scored liked an opera.  Every main character has their own theme music and the hauntingly evocative ‘Jill’s Theme’ is used to its greatest effect in the last ten minutes of the movie.  Which is Leone’s commentary in full on the mythic Old West he loved so much.

Should you see ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST?  It’s one of the movies in my Movies You Can’t Call Yourself A Movie Fan If You Haven’t Seen list.  It’s got terrific performances by Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and the exquisite Claudia Cardinale.  It’s not a western you want to see for non-stop action and bloody shootouts.  But the way it’s filmed, its story and the acting it’s captivating.   If you call yourself a fan of movies or a fan of westerns then ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a movie you need to see.

171 minutes

Rated PG-13

Mr. Majestyk

1974

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Walter Mirisch

Directed by Richard Fleischer

Written by Elmore Leonard

I don’t think anybody will be surprised when I say that Charles Bronson is one of my favorite actors of the group that I call “Old Time Tough”.  I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Woody Strode, William Holden, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, Sean Connery…you know what I’m talking about.  These are guys tough enough to walk through Hell with sticks of TNT in their hip pockets yet cool enough that the dynamite wouldn’t dare blow up on them.  Not like the current crop of pretty boy actors.  I’m sorry, but no matter how you try, you can’t convince me that half of today’s male movie actors can beat up on anybody over the age of nine, let alone the dozens of guys they take on in a movie.

Now Charles Bronson…here’s a guy who actually looks like he can pound the ever-lovin’ piss outta you in a New York minute.  He’s got a face that’s been lived in.  It shows age and experience.  He’s got a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling with whiskey and cigarette butts since puberty.  Charles Bronson radiates quiet menace.  He very rarely raises his voice on screen.  If he’s going to kick your sorry ass he just goes ahead and does it.  Chances are you’ve done something to deserve it.  And in MR. MAJESTYK the bad guys certainly do deserve it.  After all, Bronson goes through most of the movie just trying to mind his business.  But circumstances have other plans for him.

Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson) is a Colorado watermelon farmer.  After struggling along for a few years he stands to make a massive profit from this year’s crop of melons.  He’s got 160 acres of melons that need picking and by a lucky chance meets with the feisty migrant worker Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal) who isn’t related to that other Chavez but she has been involved in unionizing migrant workers.

Majestyk isn’t interested in her politics but if she can get a crew to pick his melons he’ll gladly pay them the fair wages she asks for.  However, Majestyk has to run off the small time strong-arm man Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) who is trying to force Majestyk to hire his crew of melon pickers that are nothing more than a bunch of Skid Row drunks.  The drunks don’t know how to pick melons and Majestyk knows they’ll ruin one melon for every three they pick.  So what does Majestyk do?  Well, since this is a Charles Bronson movie, he kicks Bobby’s ass and sends his crew packing.  You expected something different, maybe?

Bobby swears out an assault warrant against Majestyk who is promptly jailed by the sardonic Lt. McAllen (Frank Maxwell) who is immune to Majestyk’s pleas that he be allowed two or three days to get his melon crop in.  While in jail, Majestyk gets on the bad side of Mafia hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) Renda’s boys try to break Renda out of jail during a wild shootout that goes horribly wrong and Majestyk sees a chance.  He makes off with Renda and tries to negotiate with Lt. McAllen: drop the charges against me and let me go back to picking melons and I’ll give you Renda.  However, with the help of his girlfriend Wiley (Lee Purcell) Renda escapes and vows vengeance against Majestyk.  After hooking up with Bobby Kopas, Renda scares off Majestyk’s migrant workers, breaks the legs of Majestyk’s best friend Larry (Alejandro Rey) and worst of all, machine guns Majestyk’s melon crop.

Well, he shouldn’t have done that.

You see, Majestyk is a decorated Vietnam veteran who earned a Silver Star and who was also one of the best U.S. Army Ranger instructors and he certainly hasn’t forgotten any of his skills.  He just hasn’t had a chance to use them for a while…

I’m a big fan of 70’s action movies like MR. MAJESTYK because while they lack the pyrotechnical whiz bang of action movies nowadays they have a gritty, down-to-earth look that gives such a realistic feel to the story that you really get sucked into what the story and characters are about and you’re not just waiting for the next big action sequence.  There’s really not anything in MR. MAJESTYK that is outside the realm of possibility.  I attribute that to the terrific screenplay by Elmore Leonard, who may just be the finest crime writer of the late 20th Century.  The dialog is wonderful to listen to but if you know anything about Elmore Leonard that shouldn’t be a surprise.  Leonard writes dialog where people talk to each other and not at each other.

The performances are great.  Charles Bronson is quietly capable as the enigmatic Vince Majestyk.  He’s just trying to get his melon crop in but all this other stuff keeps getting in the way.  Early on in the movie when he has a run in with some thugs and effortlessly takes away a shotgun from one of them, he says: “You’re in the wrong business” we believe him.  We also believe that Frank Renda doesn’t stand a chance against this man who he calls ‘The Melon Picker’ once we see what Majestyk is capable of when he finally gets sufficiently pissed off.  Al Lettieri obviously has a marvelous time playing Frank Renda.  His name might not be familiar to you but back in the 70’s if there was a crime/Mafia movie then Al Lettieri was in it.  His most famous roles were in the Sam Peckinpah version of “The Getaway” and he played Sollozzo, the only guy with the cojones to order a hit on Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” He was a guy who actually hung around and partied with Real Life criminals and mob guys.  It was that experience that he brought to the screen in the many roles he played, usually as a mob guy.

Linda Cristal is very good here as Nancy Chavez who eventually becomes Majestyk’s girlfriend.  They had a scene in a bar that is so refreshingly honest about how people actually decide to go to bed that I felt like cheering.  Sometimes it’s not all heart-shaped boxes of flowers and serenades under the balcony.  Sometimes people have a couple of drinks in a bar and say: “Hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we…”  And I can’t close out this review without mentioning Mr. Majestyk’s yellow Ford pickup truck that does such remarkable stunts in the final chase scene that it should be a member of The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures.

So should you see MR. MAJESTYK?  Totally.  If you’re a fan of Charles Bronson, of Elmore Leonard, of tight well-plotted, well-written crime thrillers then this is a movie that you’re going to love.  And in terms of acting, you won’t be disappointed.  MR. MAJESTYK is one of Charles Bronson’s best movies and one well worth seeing.  If you have Turner Classic Movies you can wait for it to show up there.  But if you’re subscribed to Netflix, put it on your list next time you’re looking for a satisfying action flick.  You’ll like it.  Trust me.

103 minutes

Rated: PG