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    Bronson Birthday Bash

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    “Charlie represents the quintessential male in the eyes of the audience. The women see strength and toughness mixed with tenderness, while the men see Charlie’s power and his ability to prevail over any situation.” That’s director Tom Gries’ assessment of the star he directed in Breakheart Pass (1975), the formidable Charles Bronson (1921-2003), who today would have marked his 96th birthday. Jerry Vermilye’s career chronicle The Films of Charles Bronson notes the granite-faced superstar’s own evaluation of his 50-year screen output: “I’ve sustained because I’m sympatico with the material I do, and the other way around. An actor shouldn’t just think of doing things he might enjoy doing. I think first of the audience, not of myself, but of the movie fans all around the world who want to be entertained. They pay for it all.” 

    Bronson, nearly always an eye-catcher in his early supporting-player years, evolved to become a reliable asset in star ensembles (The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Once upon a Time in the West (1968),’nuff said) and finally, the leading man of his own cannily tailored vehicles. Twilight Time has offered high-definition editions of 10 of his movies. Three – The Mechanic (1972), Hard Times (1975) and 10 to Midnight (1983) – have sold out their limited-edition runs. The remaining seven offer a nice survey of his long run as a viewer favorite. From the early supporting player era comes the Rita Hayworth 3D/2D dramatic/musical showcase Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), in which, Vermilye writes, “he was frequently on muscular view as one of Sadie’s marine pals.” Tucked into his 1960s star-ensemble phase is the Elvis Presley dramatic/musical showcase Kid Galahad (1962), in which he played a stalwart boxing trainer, and in which, Vermilye says, “Bronson impressed the film’s critics…, making an overweight Elvis seem a better actor because of their scenes together.” The other five titles each deploy Bronson in smart and edgy ways that fueled his edgy latter-day iconography. Chato’s Land (1972), about a fugitive Apache half-breed, sought for outgunning a bigoted, trigger-happy lawman, who outmaneuvers his pursuers in the hostile Western badlands, Robin Bean wrote in Films and Filming: “The screenplay is truthful, the direction understanding, and the performances are unnerving. No one is the hero. Chato himself is more a symbol of conscience. Bronson in fact dominates the film by a mystic presence, rather than actually being on screen for any length of time.” As real-life mob informant Joe Valachi in The Valachi Papers (1972, opening in the U.S. 45 years ago today on Bronson's 51st birthday), “his performance is honest, affecting and strangely poignant," according to Playboy's Bruce Williamson. "The role offers little of the machismo associated with Bronson’s established image, but the story is compelling and carries the sting of truth. Bronson’s unsentimentalized yet human portrayal sets the tone for an atmospheric gangland drama in which cowardice, treachery and cruelty are shown to be precisely that – without redeeming virtues.” His next venture has him switching sides, incarnating a no-nonsense, rule-breaking cop doggedly trying to undercut the murderous machinations of a Mafia-organized hit squad by some magnum-force tactics of his own. “In short,” Vermilye writes, “The Stone Killer (1973) is a cunning bundle of all the ingredients that [executive producer Dino] de Laurentiis realized the Bronson public wanted and expected of their superhero. The inhumanity of Bronson’s flint-eyed screen image had reached its zenith.” 

    Three years later came a sly, surprising change of pace that The New York Times’ Vincent Canby judged “neither a conventionally comic Western nor a conventional comedy, and it certainly isn’t a conventional Bronson film. More than anything else, I suppose, it is an ebulliently cheerful satire of contemporary mythmaking and celebrity, cast as a fable of the Old West. [Writer/director Frank D.] Gilroy has a nice, light way with irony that prevents From Noon Till Three (1976) from tripping over its own rather large intentions. He’s also obtained two remarkably attractive, absolutely straight performances from Mr. Bronson, who is funny without ever lunging at a laugh…and from Jill Ireland, whose cool, somewhat steely beauty is perfectly suited to the widow who manages almost immediately to transform a real-life experience [with Bronson’s ragtag fugitive outlaw gang leader] into mass-media material with plenty of spin-off.” Murphy’s Law (1986) is the aptly-named thriller about an LAPD detective who must apprehend a murderer who’s framing him for her crimes, even as he’s on the run and handcuffed to a foul-mouthed, young-punk fellow jail escapee, and Bronson’s work was a saving grace from the lurid plot mechanics for the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington: “He plays Murphy as engagingly rumpled, drunken, slovenly and seedy: a cop on the skids after his wife ditched him. His Murphy is a pro, who's had the heart kicked out of him and is sliding along on memory, instinct and swigs of whiskey. Occasionally here, Bronson shows what an excellent actor he can be – when he's not swiping helicopters, or chasing around the Bradbury Building, dodging [vengeful psycho] Carrie Snodgress' metal arrows. Bronson uses all of his 64 years to good advantage. In a way, it’s an old man’s movie…and it’s best when you feel the years; feel a little palpable weariness, weathered toughness.” Miss Sadie Thompson 3D/2D [only available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/31901/MISS-SADIE-THOMPSON-1953-2D-and-3D/], Kid Galahad, Chato’s Land, The Valachi Papers, The Stone Killer, From Noon Till Three and Murphy’s Law collectively offer on TT hi-def Blu-ray a mixture of both sweetly-layered frosting and fiery pyrotechnics apropos to a 96-candle Bronson birthday cake.