In the late 1960s, Charles Bronson emerged from a long career as a character actor to a top action star. From 1968 through the 1970s, Bronson enjoyed his most successful period.
Two of his early 1970s stand out as his best. I’m not discounting other films like Once Upon a Time in the West or Death Wish, which are often noted, but The Mechanic and Mr. Majestyk are smart and stylish films deserving of their own attention.
The Mechanic (1972) was a stylish crime film, which found Bronson as a pipe-smoking, classical music living international hitman who lived lavishly and traveled the world for his targets.
Written by Lewis John Carlino (Seconds, The Great Santini), directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish, Chato’s Land), and produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (Rocky, Raging Bull). This was a high quality creative and production team.
Bronson is not required to say much in the film, until co-star Jan-Michael Vincent shows up about a third of the way in. As written, the film takes the viewer through Arthur Bishop’s (Bronson) hit job and introduces us to how he methodically plans his work. He’s a very patient, detailed professional.
Bishop lives lavishly but in seclusion. His home fits him and shows off his interests, but also points out his solitude with no one to share these interests. In Bishop’s work, he is self-contained and leaves no traces.
Bishop was the kind of character who could pass as a low-rent hotel client or a cultured, intellectual who enjoys a game of chess and classic literature. I don’t know if this was written with Bronson in mind or adapted, but Carlino’s story is one of Bronson’s better film characters.
Overall, there are very few characters in the film, besides Bronson and Vincent, Keenan Wynn is the only other major character. Bronson carries the film, with help from Vincent, who brings a cockiness to the role of the young understudy.
Winner and Bronson worked together on a total of six films. Winner created the somber tone of the 1970s with an undercurrent of slow-building suspense. There is a grit to the look of the film which gives it a muted composition, adding to the steeliness of the tone.
Bishop works for a nebulous crime organization. His contact with them is Harry, a longtime friend. Bishop’s next hit is Harry, which he does coolly and cleanly. Then Steve, Harry’s son, shows up, wanting Bishop to teach him the business. It is unclear what Steve’s motivation is, you get the feeling that Steve has never been committed to anything, other than enjoying life. So, Bishop takes Steve under his wing, and this marks a turning point in the film.
Together, Bishop and Steve undertake Bishop’s next job. Unfortunately, the organization disapproves of Bishop taking on a partner without their okay. They are funny that way. Next, Bishop is given a hit in Italy, which proves to be a setup, to kill Bishop. Narrowly escaping, Bishop and Steve must fend off an ambush on a narrow mountain road. Winner does a remarkable job with this action sequence.
It turns out that Bishop is the next hit, which Steve carries out. In the scene, it appears that Bishop is suspicious, but does not follow his gut, and it leads to his death. Steve, happy with himself, takes over Bishop’s lifestyle including his house and car. However, as Steve learns when he gets into Bishop’s car, Bishop suspected Steve and arranged a welcome home for him. The car explodes, engulfed in flames.
Of all the hitman films that followed, few came close to meeting the style or impact of The Mechanic. Most filmmakers want to show off their style, but Winner goes the opposite way, this was really minimalist filmmaking at its best. The Mechanic is told through action and reaction, with restrained dialogue, and creative direction. It was clear that Bronson and Winner understood each other’s style and their films reflected each other’s strengths. I’m not sure Death Wish 2 or 3 were worth the effort, but they happened anyway.
Mr. Majestyk (1974) came from a story by crime novelist Elmore Leonard (Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma) and was directed by Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green). It was produced by Walter Mirisch (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), of the Mirisch Corporation, one of the most successful independent production companies of the 1950s and 1960s. The film was in great hands with Leonard, Fleischer and Mirisch.
Bronson is Majestyk, a Vietnam Vet, and a reclusive melon farmer, who tried to mind his own business, until the local mob tried to muscle in on his operation. Majestyk befriends some migrant farm workers, including Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal), with whom he begins a relationship.
Wrongly accused of assault by the mob, when they try to force their workers on him, Majestyk is arrested and fears his crop will rot if he cannot get it picked. The police are unsympathetic. Also in jail is mob hitman Frank Renda, who takes an instant dislike to Majestyk. Renda is then broken out of jail in a spectacular ambush on a jail transport bus. Majestyk chooses to escapes with Renda, and to barter his freedom.
Majestyk gets Renda to safety, but has to escape when Renda’s girlfriend gives Renda a gun in the hand-off. Now he must find a way to get Renda back into custody and clear his name with the police. In the meantime, Renda and the mob exact their revenge on Majestyk’s melon crop and those who work for him.
This is a film about a man who wants to live peaceably, but is placed between the law and the mob. Majestyk must use his own cunning to bring about justice.
Fleischer populates the film with fine character actors. Al Lettieri, the go-to mob guy of the era, turns in a great performance as the murderous Renda, who’s personality is a very good match for the reserved Majestyk. Lee Purcell, a rising young actress, was cast as Renda’s girlfriend, Wiley. Alejandro Rey was Majestyk’s loyal foreman. Veteran actor Frank Maxwell was the Sheriff Lieutenant who wants to throw the book at Majestyk. Paul Koslo and Taylor Lacher are part of Renda’s posse.
Mr. Majestyk is a tough film, like Don Siegel’s films with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Walter Matthau. You might not think a mob story in a New Mexico rural setting would have flair, but it did. Siegel’s Charley Varrick proved that. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of the best crime films emerged. It might have been the taught but realistic action, the uses of strong, interesti character actors to support the leads, or putting the story smack in the middle of everyday life. Ironically, Bronson would work with Siegel on Telefon (1977).
Whereas The Mechanic had a muted use of color, the photography of Mr. Majestyk popped with bright color to show off the landscape. Colorado shooting locations substituted for New Mexico, but it’s beautiful scenery.
Fleischer, had a sensitivity for character and forging empathy with the audience. His pacing and frank portrayal of violence puts this film in the same category as Dirty Harry. Fleischer staged several very impressive action scenes, including an escape by Majestyk and Nancy in a pickup truck through the country, on dirt roads and off-road, that is one of the best chase scenes of the era. It’s quite spectacular.
Bronson made decent films with Winner and others during the decade, before his career took a downturn in the following decade. Then, he worked with journeyman directors and often with J. Lee Thompson, who was on the downward arc of his career. Teaming with Fleischer on this project was a stroke of luck, together they made one of Bronson’s best films and one of the best crime/thrillers of the decade.
See the films.