the cinema of charles bronson

~ intro by john b. cribbs ~
(you can tell by the use of
the word "obsidian")

In the latter half of his career, Charles Bronson became the angel of death of action cinema. He wore it on his face (next to the mustache): those worn features, greying, weathered, represented more than just a hardened resolve; they were a final, ruthless image inflicted on those unfortunate enough for him to have visited upon. In his films from the 1970's on, even before things turned nasty and guns were unholstered, the promise of an ordained darkness burned like obsidian within that cadaverous expression, the only emotion registering from those beady, unrelenting eyes. Laying the action movie emblems and politics of the Death Wish movies aside, at his bare essence Bronson embodied a tenacious emissary of inevitable evisceration starting in 1969, when his avenger in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West was described as having "something to do with death."

It was that very "something" that held a morbid curiosity even for those he hunted, like West's lifelong sinner Frank, who grungingly accepts his ultimate showdown with Bronson's Harmonica by uttering the self-assurance "The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cuz I know that now, you'll tell me what you're after." To which Harmonica responds: "...Only at the point of dyin'." A beautiful double meaning: we only learn the point of dying... at the actual point of dying. And for countless creeps and evildoers, Bronson was the grim messenger.

In this series, we'll be writing about movies from Bronson's post-West filmography. Although his earlier work as an essential member of ensemble action epics like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen is indeed significant and worthy of lengthy evaluation, I'm more interested in the last leg of his career when he was doing interesting work for directors such as Michael Winner and J. Lee Thompson. Like leather or scotch, Bronson got better with age, so while his "solo" work may not be as good as the group adventures from the 60's, what the action icon came to symbolize - a weatherbeaten grim reaper - is one withered grape that is ripe for interpretation.


michael winner, 1973.

~ by christopher funderburg ~
(who in this piece also
uses the word "obsidian")

In my piece on Death Wish, I explored how that film is erroneously marked as the turning point in Charles Bronson’s career, that moment in 1974 supposedly being when his persona hardened into obsidian. In reality, he continued playing a variety of types up until Death Wish II in 1982 when he really did begin to more or less run out the string of his career assiduously adhering to all the cliches of Bronsonhood that we know and love. 

Between Death Wish and its sequel, he played a Depression era bare-knuckle boxer, a humorless KGB agent, and Giff Hoyt: Hunter of Nazi Treasures amongst a half dozen other characters lacking a single-minded focus on protecting the sanctity of American moral decency through the medium of wanton revenge-driven violence. Death Wish didn’t turn Bronson into BRONSON. Before Death Wish II, he was still up for playing a simple melon farmer pushed too far or even a simple Yukon trapper unwilling to be pushed any farther.

So like I keep repeating to you fine young folks, even Death Wish isn’t really Death Wish. Twisted out of Brian Garfield’s anti-vigilante novel, it has more complicated/incoherent ideas about grief and revenge and Our Sick Culture than it gets credit for. A more telling prelude to Bronson’s infamous tetralogy of Death Wish sequels* can be found in 1973’s The Stone Killer. The third of the mustachioed Pennsylvanian’s collaborations with dandyish British fop Michael Winner (following Chato’s Land and The Mechanic, both from 1972), the film presaged the mindset of the Death Wish series that would come to define their careers.

Like Death Wish, it’s based on a novel, though one without the kind of reputation that Garfield’s book has earned - and the tangled high-concept plot makes me doubt it's likely to be worth my time. Written by noted hack John Gardener** (best known for his James Bond continuations novels and Sherlock Holmes extended universe fiction), the book is titled A Complete State of Death, which is great enough on its own - but I’m sure you’ll be delighted to hear that the novel’s title gets said out loud as a line of dialog in the film!

The convoluted story follows a no-nonsense New York City cop as he heads out to the all-nonsense wilds of sunny Southern California. Feeling the heat of bad PR after once again being too quick on the trigger with a fleeing suspect, Bronson’s independently-minded detective is transferred over to The Golden State where a hunch sends him sniffing out a complicated Mafia plot to get revenge for a series of killings that occurred back in nineteen-goddamned-thirty-one (19-goddamned-31.)

Set in modern day SoCal, The Stone Killer finds Bronson at a cultural moment just before the definitions of The New Crime, that bugaboo of late-period Bronson, had fully worked themselves out and it’s fascinating to see how the film handles issues like Vietnam vets, gun control, police brutality and hippie mimes. The New Crime - the source of white flight, three-strikes laws, juveniles tried as adults and the resurrection of the death penalty - was a vague, ill-defined cultural anxiety based on the idea that things weren’t just getting worse but somehow getting worse in a new and different way. 

The New Crime wasn’t just an uptick in homicide rates and drug trafficking, but the dawn of the era of serial killer cult home invasions and crazy freakout head trips that left deranged “urban” types coming after you naked with nothing but a rusty screwdriver and a glass pipe. In 1973, these fears were only beginning to articulate themselves - the lines of the coming culture war were still partially implicit within it and which groups stood on what side of that war had yet to be etched in granite. 

For example, in the film the Mafia are working with bombed out Vietnam vets, now hippified longhairs who dabble in jazz trombonery. That Vietnam vets could be assembled into an amoral druggie hit squad fits with First Blood’s (1982) depiction of adrift veterans as natural enemies of the cops and the authoritarian impulse in American society; the idea of these young men as noble sufferers cast aside by the government they served and spit on by smug liberals wouldn’t become de rigueur until later. In The Stone Killer they’re still getting lumped in with other shaggy record store patrons such as boastful pimps with afros and bisexual vegetarian co-op owners.

Who is good and who is bad in this new world hasn’t been worked out decisively - the only thing that’s clear is that Bronson must now live in a reality where shady gurus tell him that a camel is a spiritual being and rainbow gangs of shirtless performance artists try to dance and juggle with such a manic self-serious intensity that he has no choice but to leave them alone. The film works in overdrive to tie together groups as disparate as old school Cosa Nostra, weaselly 50’s style “horse” dealers in Tom Landry hats, commune dwellers and Iceberg Slim knock-offs. 

As a result, it fumbles around with a worldview that’s both anti-Authoritarian and crypto-Fascist - which is appropriate considering that it’s a pretty shameless Dirty Harry rip-off. Like Dirty Harry, its philosophies are hopelessly caught between wanting to Stick it to The Man and shaking its damn head in disgust at the liberal censure of cops. In ways that might be surprising to a modern audience, The Stone Killer splits the difference between believing that The New Crime means all bets are off and that The New Crimes means the commandments of Western society are now more important than ever.

For example, Bronson laments the lack of meaningful gun control policy in NYC and mourns the death of the young black man he killed during a heated pursuit - pretty progressive, right? But the idea seems to be that Young Black Men are out of control and if the Bronsons of the world can’t crackdown on this nonsense, then more of these out-of-control youths are going to die as a matter of course. But the film doesn’t simply paint every weirdo as a potential suspect and every square as a decent human being. Killer shares Dirty Harry’s disgust with a police force that is becoming corrupt and complacent; the partner Bronson is assigned in California being a useless, soft fuck-up who repeatedly botches pursuit and support.

And with their suits and ties, their strict adherence to “the old ways,” their boardrooms and corporatized power-structures, their Catholic identity, what organization could be more conservative than the Mafia as it’s depicted in Killer? The film’s romanticized view of the mob is undoubtedly influenced by the operatic fantasies of The Godfather (1972) but the Mafia’s connections to The New Crime serve to drive home the film’s point that nothing about the shifting nature of society and its mores can be delineated by signifiers like fancy loafers or "just business" poses. The bad guys in The Stone Killer go to confession every Sunday while the cult gurus turn out to be harmless.

In The Stone Killer, our veterans are psychopaths, our cops are criminalized for doing their jobs, informants are more trustworthy than beat cops, and hitmen get hit. Like Death Wish, it comes very close to making a point, but director Michael Winner has too unsteady a hand to develop the themes lurking around every corner - he’s better at stoking a vague, ill-defined paranoia and using Bronson’s steely sharpness to cut through the bullshit. At the end of the day, The Stone Killer has very little to say beyond “There are all kinds of bad people in the world. Bronson is going to do his damnedest to take them all down. And his damnedest is some goddamnedest tougher than leather and rawer than rawhide stuff.”

And it should be noted that in spite of the film’s narrative sprawl and intellectual fuzziness, or maybe because of those qualities, this is one of the more engaging Winner/Bronson collaborations. The film sends Bronson on his investigation through a diverse set of social milieus - combined with its guarded, frequently unreadable moral tone and conflicting groups of criminal elements (dealers, mafioso, Vietnam vets, pimps), you’re never sure exactly where it’s going with any of this. The Mafia’s plan isn’t fully fleshed out until well into the movie - it’s a bizarre development even in a film that keeps piling on unexpected characters and idiosyncratic plot wrinkles. John Ritter and Norman Fell both turn up as police officers.

The film’s wobbly tone can be summed up by the very end of the film: Bronson telling a joke. There might be stranger ways to end a film than Charles Bronson trying to send us out of the theater with a couple yuks, but I’m hard pressed to think of what they would be. Outside of a church, staking out the Mafia honchos he failed to take down, Bronson turns to his partner and says, “You remember that cartoon of an old Roman circus, where all the lions are roaring? And the pageboy yells down the corridor, ‘You’ve got five minutes, Christians.’”

That’s the theme, got it. But the weird contrast between the setting and the joke gives the punchline an anti-Catholic tinge that I’m not sure the film’s Roman Catholic star would’ve intended. I won’t be a jabroni here, the idea is clear enough, I’ve spent this whole piece turning it over and over: decent human beings of Americans, there’s an evil encroaching - are you prepared? This voraciously leonine evil will tear you apart, tear apart your families, your communities, your country… even your Catholic sense of morality, I guess. 

The thing that makes the joke so weird is that - well, it’s that it’s Charles Bronson goofin’. But another thing that makes it so weird is that it’s so definitive a thematic statement, but that the film has such an elusive sense of evil. The evil in The Stone Killer is both everywhere and nowhere - the film presents no vision of a healthy society, of the kind of explicitly Christian society alluded to in the joke. Unlike the family structures whose obliteration is so crucial to the Death Wish sequels and late-period Bronson in general, The Stone Killer doesn’t feature innocent families and good communities being victimized by The New Crime. There are no little old ladies being menaced by swarthy men of indeterminate ethnicity in leather vests, no loving (if misguidedly progressive) wives and daughters, no Decent Society set in opposition to The New Crime.

The story concerns one group of scumbags orchestrating a plan to assassinate another group of scumbags with the help of a third group of scumbags but the whole plan is undone by turncoat scumbags who sell out everyone else. Even the cops are corrupt or incompetent (Do your job, John Ritter!), disinterested in pursuing tough leads or pusillanimous in the face of bad press. Like Dirty Harry, the film displays an almost thoughtless contempt for law enforcement that ironically manifests in a tone pleading for cops to be allowed massive moral leeway and operational autonomy. 

But at the same time, before his final stand-up routine, Bronson’s character is presented as a refreshingly non-judgmental type. It’s a contrast to the disgust his Paul Kersey feels for the world around him at all times - Detective Lou Torrey generally behaves with a dispassionate professionalism, he gives a fair shake even to the freaks, penny-ante crooks and weirdos that come his way. He exhibits none of the glee that The French Connection’s (1971) Popeye Doyle exudes while beating the shit out of a handcuffed suspect nor any of the enthusiasm for cruelly drawing out the punishment of punks that was Harry Callahan’s signature.

There's a remarkable sequence in the film where one of Bronson's informants is uncermoniously hauled out of his home to be brought down to the station by Bronson's useless partner, leading a bunch of underprepared cops to cause a near-riot in a black neighborhood - it's a choatic moment with a crowd of angry black men screaming at the officers and smashing bottles on their black & white. Bronson, who wasn't privy to the maneuver, confronts his fellow cops in the station, outraged about the chief's orders, "He sends this cracker to pick up a suspect and he brings an army with them! To ask a few question?!" It's startling to see Bronson indignant on behalf of those targeted by blunt force police actions.

Sure, at one point he roughs up a suspect in custody pretty bad, but with a righteous & purposeful rage that undercuts any of the wish-fulfillment aspects of the scene. The battery is grotesque and detestable, but it's not intended to be crowd-pleasing fun. It’s hard to say with any Bronson film how much fun you’re supposed to be having - another reason the baroque machinations of the Mafia’s assassination plot play so unsteadily. The clever set-up and rehearsal for an elevator hit is like something out of Grand Slam (1967) or Topkapi (1962), but the deadly seriousness of Bronson drains any levity out of the proceedings.

There’s a desert ambush on a lonely road, a panicked pursuit via helicopter, a raid on a criminal compound, a daring escape from a police station turned double-cross, shootouts, foot-chases, body-blows, doors kicked in, coup de graces, and at one point Bronson even stands on top of a credenza. Bronson never wavers from his signature mien of grave dutifulness, at least not until he’s saddled with a groan-worthy one-liner that might as well send the film rolling to the credits with a rimshot.

That might be the toughest question to answer with any of the Death Wish family of Bronson films: is any of this supposed to be fun? I’m reminded of the Dead Kennedys lyric, “My dad’s a vigilante now, he’s bringing home these weird-ass friends, like the guy who fires blanks at the tv when Kojack’s on.”*** These films seem to be designed for people to fire blanks at them while they’re on. But knowing where Winner and Bronson would head with their work, The Stone Killer is by contrast a surprisingly sober and even-handed attempt to tap into the disgust and fear felt by those firing the blanks, before the battle lines had been demarcated and the stakes had been set, when the meaning of The New Crime was without form and void.

You think it’s gonna be fun? Bronson’s got a joke for you.

~ NOVEMBER 28, 2017 ~
* The entire Death Wish series, of course, being a Pentateuch. Wakka/wakka.
** Cribbs objected to my description of Gardener as a hack.
Cribbs: Gardener a "noted hack?" I really like his Moriarty trilogy. Maybe change it to "John Gardener, best known for his James Bond/Sherlock Holmes continuation novels" and let the reader determine whether he's a hack.
Funderburg: I guess I didn't mean "hack" to have entirely negative connotations, only that he's a guy known (if he's known at all) for writing continuation novels and whatnot. A professional imitator/sanctioned rip-off artist. The only thing that's notable about him is that he does hack-work. (Even if it's good. Which I think is pushing it, to call those Moriarty books "good.")
Cribbs: I see where you're coming from - how is Michael Avallone a noted hack, yet John Gardener isn't? I appreciate them both, in their own ways. I guess "noted hack" just seems so immediately dismissive. "Toils exclusively in genre"? I don't know. Go with your heart.
Funderburg: There is nothing in my heart, John. Nothing at all. Anyway, it's not that he toils exclusively in genre, it's the kind of books he's known for - and I'm contrasting him to Brian Garfield, who is an interesting genre writer but unfairly maligned for his associations with Death Wish, you know? Plus, the movie just has one of those terrible high concept plots that I associate with hacks. But I'm also the kind of person who if I were writing about Black Sunday, I would describe it as being written by noted hack Thomas Harris. I guess I just don't think the word "hack" is entirely dismissive (even if most people take it that way) and it plainly applies in Gardener's case. What I'm going to do is put a footnote in the piece that you're not going to like! It will be this email exchange!
*** The song “This Could Be Anywhere, This Could Be Everywhere” (Frankenchrist, 1985) is one of the better portraits of the paranoia of The New Crime that I can think of.