Charles Bronson Died Ten Years Ago Today – Here Are His Ten Best Films
I think everyone remembers where they were August 31st, 2003 when they heard that Charles Bronson had died. I was visiting my brother in Atlanta when my nephew knocked on my door and informed me that CNN had announced his death. I collapsed into a sobbing heap. Bronson was my hero, my muse, my role model. Hollywood’s brightest star would shine no more. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone ten years.
Charles Bronson was the unlikeliest of movie stars. Of all the leading men in the history of Hollywood, Charles Bronson had the least range as an actor. He rarely emoted or even changed his expression, and when he did speak, his voice was a reedy whisper. But Charles Bronson could coast on presence, charisma, and silent brooding menace like no one’s business and he wound up the world’s most bankable movie star throughout most of the 1970’s. Bronson did not rise quickly in the Hollywood ranks. His film debut was in 1951 and he spent the next two decades as a solid character actor with a rugged face, muscular physique and everyman ethnicity that kept him busy in supporting roles as indians, convicts, cowboys, boxers, and gangsters. It wasn’t until he was in his late 40’s, after the international success of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in 1968 (American audiences wouldn’t embrace him until DEATH WISH became a hit five years later) that he became a worldwide megastar. A man of few words onscreen and off, Bronson was never a critic’s darling and he had no illusions about his own stardom. “I don’t make movies for critics”, he once said, “since they don’t pay to see them anyhow”. Charles Bronson appeared in 93 films in his five decades as an actor, and here what I think are his ten best (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE should make the cut, but in those films Bronson is part of large ensemble casts so I’ve excluded them here).
10. DEATH WISH 3
The wonderfully preposterous DEATH WISH 3 (1985) sends Charles Bronson to a New York City portrayed as a vast burned-out wasteland with tenements occupied by terrified old people and the entire city dominated by gangs of unwashed thugs (and not a cop in sight). I’ve seen DEATH WISH 3 ma ny times over the years and it becomes funnier as it ages. The action is overblown to comic proportions and I lose count of all the people who are shot, blown up, stabbed, beaten, pushed off of rooftops, and generally maimed during the course of the film. DEATH WISH 3 plays like Charles Bronson’s 90-minute shooting gallery. Thugs pop up from behind cars, buildings, and storefronts, all to be mowed down in a sea of gunfire and the last half hour is pure madness. Bronson, usually a silent killer in his films, makes all kinds of humorous quips before letting loose the carnage and DEATH WISH 3, the last of six movies Bronson made for British director Michael Winner, is the best of the four DEATH WISH sequels.
9. RIDER ON THE RAIN
In the 1970 French noir RIDER ON THE RAIN from director René Clément, Charles Bronson played Harry Dobbs, an undercover US Army Colonel in France trying to track down an escaped sex maniac. Marlene Jobert played a rape victim who manages to kill her attacker and, in a panic, disposes of the corpse. What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse scenario between these two full of humor and style. Wearing a mischievous smile throughout RIDER ON THE RAIN, Bronson manages an odd suggestion of sadism and romance, a mysterious figure that enhances the mystery. A suspenser in the Hitchcock mold, RIDER ON THE RAIN won the Golden Globe award in 1970 as Best Foreign Film and was an breakthrough film in Charles Bronson’s career – it was a enormous success all over the world (except the U.S.) and was his first hit where he carried the lead after gaining fame in the ensemble action films. In the French language version of RIDER ON THE RAIN, Bronson’s voice is dubbed while in the English version, everyone’s voice except Bronson’s is dubbed. I prefer the English version. Note the American RIDER ON THE RAIN movie poster with a shirtless Bronson manhandling Ms Jobert. It’s one of my very favorite Bronson posters even though there’s no scene in the movie remotely like it. Artist Basil Gogos, best known for his many covers of ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ magazine, did this painting. I had Gogos autograph my poster and he recalled that Bronson refused to sign off on the image until he went back in and added more veins in his muscles.
8. MURPHY’S LAW
MURPHY’S LAW (1986) was from Bronson’s ‘crotchety old man’ late period where in every film he seemed tired, impatient, and pissed off like he did not want to be there, an attitude that worked perfectly for Bronson’s Jack Murphy. A washed-up, alcoholic cop who rubs everyone the wrong way and vice versa, Murphy’s framed for the murder of his ex-wife, so goes on the run accompanied by a foulmouthed punkette handcuffed to his wrist. The body count is high, Bronson throws off more pre-kill one-liners than usual (As a female villain falls to her death, she screams “Go to hell!”, so Bronson politely replies “Ladies first!”), and MURPHY’S LAW is a hugely entertaining 80’s actioner. But what really elevates MURPHY’S LAW are the supporting performances by a diverse trio of actresses. Angel Tompkins, a sexy blonde starlet who had a run of leads in mid-70’s Drive-In classics like THE TEACHER (1974), is Murphy’s stripper ex-wife. Kathleen Wilhoite as his surly teenage captive spends the entire film spitting out such vulgar insults as “You snot-licking donkey fart.” and “Suck a doorknob, you homo!” but an odd friendship develops between her and Bronson that’s nice to watch. Best is Carrie Snodgress, a severe, husky-voiced actress who’d been nominated for an Oscar in 1970 for DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE but whose career never took off. Her vengeful, psychopathic villainess in MURPHY’S LAW is one scary psycho and she’s the perfect foil for Bronson, whose own Murphy’s law in this case is simply “Don’t fuck with Jack Murphy!” MURPHY’S LAW was Charles Bronson’s last really great movie.
7. THE VALACHI PAPERS
Charles Bronson aged 40 years in the 1972 gangster film THE VALACHI PAPERS as Joe Valachi, the real-life stoolie who spilled his guts about the inner workings of the mafia and whose tale had been told in a popular book by Peter Maas. Presented in flashback and book-ended by Valachi’s time in prison, THE VALACHI PAPERS details his story as told to a U.S. Federal Agent about his work in the New York underworld from the 1920’s to the 60’s starting as a low-level hood and moving quickly to top soldier. Though over two hours in length, THE VALACHI PAPERS brutally barrels through Valachi’s life, barely pausing when comrades and family members die violently and hits a lot of shocking notes, including a memorably bloody barber chair cutdown and a nasty castration. THE VALACHI PAPERS was discounted as an inferior THE GODFATHER knockoff when that film became such a huge hit, but THE VALACHI PAPERS was actually filmed in Italy concurrently with Coppola’s film and released in Europe earlier. While not as stylish or well-written as THE GODFATHER, it does have similar scope and period detail. Director Terence Young, best known for helming three of the Connery 007 films, had just directed Bronson in COLD SWEAT and RED SUN and gets from his star an atypically complex performance. Poorly received in 1972, and somewhat forgotten in the wake of THE GODFATHER, THE VALACHI PAPERS is an epic crime saga worth seeking out and the DVD released a couple of years ago restores footage shorn from its initial U.S. release.
6. DEATH WISH
In the 1974 revenge fantasy DEATH WISH, Charles Bronson played Paul Kersey, which would become his most identifiable role. Bronson was hugely popular in Europe and other parts of the world at this time thanks to the success of films such as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and RIDER ON THE RAIN, but those had failed to find big audiences in the U.S. A box-office smash, DEATH WISH finally cemented Bronson’s status as a major star in Hollywood as well, but it was a part he almost didn’t get. In Brian Garfield’s 1972 source novel, the character was more a wimpy everyman, a bleeding heart liberal whose descent into vigilante behavior was more a contrast to his passive disposition before his wife and daughter are attacked (Bronson did not want wife Jill Ireland, almost always cast in his films then, to film the brutal rape scene so Hope Lange was given the part). Garfield was strongly against casting Bronson and claims Dustin Hoffman was his first choice but it’s doubtful Hoffman even read the script, as he would have just finished STRAW DOGS with its similar themes. Jack Lemmon was at one point attached to the project but dropped out then Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Frank Sinatra all turned down the evolving role. Enter Bronson, who made DEATH WISH more a rousing action film that advocated vigilante philosophy than the essay on crime and punishment it was originally conceived. Kersey was the role that honed Bronson’s big-screen persona as a steely instrument of violence and Bronson was accused by some of spending the rest of his career remaking DEATH WISH in one way or another. DEATH WISH did indeed spawn four diverse sequels over the next twenty years, all entertaining in their own way, and remains an influential film.
5. THE WHITE BUFFALO
THE WHITE BUFFALO, a weird, offbeat western/monster hybrid from 1977 produced by Italian mogul Dino De Laurentiis (a year after his lame KING KONG remake) used real historical figures to riff on ‘Moby Dick’. In the 1870’s, Bronson’s aging gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok is haunted by dreams of his own death by a mammoth albino buffalo so he teams up with Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) and heads to the Cheyenne Black Hills to battle the white beast. Hired for his box office appeal, Bronson turned out to be an inspired choice as the haunted Wild Bill Hickock. It’s one of his most eccentric roles and he looks cool in his tinted prescription glasses. But it’s the buffalo itself that makes THE WHITE BUFFALO so memorable. Carlo Rambaldi, who’d created the barely-used 50-foot robot ape for KING KONG, created a full-size mechanical puppet that’s mostly shown in quick cuts, often obscured by shadows and fog and critics in 1977 were quick to make fun of it (Variety described it as looking “like a hung-over carnival prize”). It’s not very realistic, but the wild-eyed creation is surreal and scary, snorting and bellowing like some hellish fairy-tale demon and it totally works. J. Lee Thompson directed nine (!) Charles Bronson movies from ST. IVES in 1976 to KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS in 1989. These were mostly entertaining, if by-the-numbers, action jalopies but THE WHITE BUFFALO was the most artful of these movies and Thompson filled it with dark symbolism, occult references, and a real sense of dread. I wrote about THE WHITE BUFFALO in my ‘NOT available on DVD’ column several months ago and since then it has been officially released but as a MGM ‘Burn on Demand’ DVD-R.
4. THE MECHANIC
In THE MECHANIC (1972) Charles Bronson played Bishop, a secluded hit man targeting various underworld figures who decides to take on an apprentice (Jan-Michael Vincent), which leads to a deadly relationship between teacher and pupil. THE MECHANIC is filled with action, intrigue, and surprises and contains perhaps Bronson’s most definitive performance. He’s perfect as the coldly efficient ‘mechanic’ whose philosophy is “Murder is only killing without a license”. Bishop is a man detached from the outside world in a way Bronson himself was detached from the motion picture business. Bronson didn’t care for movies and never watched them, not even the ones he starred in. He was known for showing up at premieres with his wife but spent the duration of the film smoking cigarettes in the lobby. Bishop, even more so than Paul Kersey in the DEATH WISH films, is perhaps Bronson’s most iconic role.
3. VIOLENT CITY
In the 1970 crime thriller VIOLENT CITY, produced in Italy with some New Orleans exteriors, spaghetti-Western vet Sergio Sollima, working from a script by future art-house helmer Lina Wertmüller, directed Charles Bronson just as he was exiting his career as a character actor and phasing into his role as a megastar. VIOLENT CITY finds Bronson a vengeance-minded hit-man after a former flame (Jill Ireland at her sexiest) and her mob boss boyfriend (Telly Savalas) who’d conspired to send him to prison. Sollima directs one stylish action scene after another and maintains a tough, no-nonsense tone that’s perfectly accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s angry electric score. The wordless opening car chase is a gem, the finale with Bronson on a rooftop with a sniper rifle is exciting, and some elements, such as a prison plagued by huge spiders, are just weird. Bronson spent much of his career starring in these gritty urban westerns and VIOLENT CITY is the best. Jill Ireland was never a great actress but she was Bronson’s off-screen wife and contractually mandated to co-star in no less than 15 of his hit films (the last, ASSASSINATION, was filmed shortly before her death from cancer in 1990). VIOLENT CITY was not released in the U.S. until 1974, after the success of DEATH WISH, and then it was shorn 20 minutes and retitled THE FAMILY. Some of the original reviews mentioned Ms Ireland’s nude scenes but Anchor Bay’s restored eurocut DVD reveals that these scenes were the work of an obvious body double. Jill Ireland penned two autobiographies and one of them, ‘Life Wish’ was filmed as a TV movie in 1991 starring Jill Clayburgh with Lance Henrickson as Bronson!
2. HARD TIMES
No one could touch Charles Bronson in terms of global popularity throughout the 1970’s and HARD TIMES was his best film from that decade. Walter Hill, in his 1976 directorial debut, made a remarkably earthy and entertaining film about illegal bare-knuckle fighting in Depression-era New Orleans. HARD TIMES, whose succinct tag line read “New Orleans 1933, in those days words didn’t buy much”, perfectly exploits Bronson’s granite presence and is a concise, almost mythical celebration of men who only communicate with their fists. The fight scenes, which seem authentic rather over-choreographed, are expertly staged and framed by Hill, especially the films centerpiece; an underground cage match between Bronson and a grinning goon named ‘Skinhead’ played by Robert ‘Mr. Clean’ Tessier. Supporting vets Strother Martin, James Coburn, and Ben Johnson all act up a storm but it’s Bronson, whose expression never changes, that commands all the attention. Bronson’s Chaney is a man of few words and no past and it’s perhaps his most fitting role. Acclaimed in 1976, HARD TIMES is the perfect Charles Bronson movie for people who claim not to like Charles Bronson movies and even critics who had previously overlooked Bronson’s abilities were impressed.
1. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
In a class by itself, Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) was an emotional, operatic Western that fully deserves to be called a masterpiece. It’s a grand overview of the themes and ideas that inspired the Italian filmmaker to write and direct films in the distinctly American genre and after the worldwide mega-success of his “Man With No Name” trilogy A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, Leone could have cast anyone he wanted in the role of ‘Harmonica’, the hero of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Charles Bronson had been Leone’s second choice (after Henry Fonda) four years earlier for the lead in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS but Bronson was unimpressed with the script and, unable to see Leone’s vision, turned it down (Clint Eastwood on the other hand, saw it as a free trip to Europe during summer hiatus between seasons of ‘Rawhide’ and it launched his movie career). In 1968, Bronson was 47 years old and, despite success in action films such as THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE DIRTY DOZEN, probably thought his best years as an actor were behind him, but Leone again offered him a lead and the rest is history. The 165-minute ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was a smash in Europe and the rest of the world and made Bronson a sensation in every country except his own. The film is beautiful to watch, masterfully paced and carefully plotted, yet Paramount though it lacked the violence, humor, and fast pace of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and cut 40 minutes from it before dumping it in American theatres where it bombed. It was finally restored here in 1985 and played at revival theatres, which is where I saw it and it’s been my favorite film since.
Charles Bronson made a lot of great movies (and a few duds) in his career and BREAKHEART PASS, RED SUN, TELEFON, BREAKOUT, and MR. MAJESTYK are some that I hated to cross off of this list. Bronson has been my favorite movie star since I was 7 years old and saw THE DIRTY DOZEN the first time it played on network television in 1968. I’ve been collecting Charles Bronson movie memorabilia now for 25 years and have suitcases stuffed with clippings, posters, stills, pressbooks, and lobby cards from his films (there’s a ton of it out there and it tends to go cheap). Charles Bronson died in August of 2003 after ending his career with a string of forgettable made-for-TV movies, but his legacy live on. A lot of casual film fans under age 30 are unaware just how popular he was in his prime but I’ve noticed that younger movie geeks are taking an interest in him and I feel that he’s a star whose cult is ascending.
Much of this article was posted in June of 2009 as Top Ten Tuesday – The Best of Charles Bronson.