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    From Sicilian Vespers to Stone Killers

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    As directed by Don Siegel and headed by Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry (1971) proved to be a touchstone movie in its depiction of a no-nonsense, unblinking detective that gets the job done in the face of bureaucratic obstruction and legalistic challenges. When it thundered into theaters that holiday season, there was no stopping it at the box office. Its sequel Magnum Force (1973, from director Ted Post), delivered two Christmases later, introduced the notion of a secretive law enforcement hit squad devoted to eliminating underworld reprobates the justice system failed to curtail. In between the two, five months before the latter brought its San Francisco mayhem to cinema screens, an action thriller bearing the dirty Callahan DNA debuted – signaling the arrival of another hard-boiled, justice-fixated rogue cop as well as a guns-blazing star turn for its leather-faced leading man, Charles Bronson. The Stone Killer (1973), bringing together Bronson’s Chato’s Land and The Mechanic director Michael Winner, Chato’s Land screenwriter Gerald Wilson and the production financing of international mogul Dino de Laurentiis, now seems like a bridge between the two Harrys: the relentless, rule-flogging lawman facing down the seemingly insurmountable forces of a shadow cadre of assassins. In this case, it’s not a corrupt police official pulling the strings (Magnum Force’s Hal Holbrook) but a calculating Mafia kingpin (played with sinister suavity by Martin Balsam) who has assembled and bankrolled a nationwide brigade of disaffected Vietnam veterans as lean, mean killing machines with tactical training to avenge the decades-earlier mass slaughter of gangsters past by rubbing out the usurpers’ descendants. (This was inspired by true events involving the so-called Night of the Sicilian Vespers, on which Lucky Luciano reportedly ordered the execution of the elder heads of the various New York Mafia factions, 86 years ago today on April 10, 1931, and later moved to extend that death list to “old guard” Mafiosi leaders in other cities who resisted national mob consolidation.) Adapted from a 1969 book by prolific action thriller novelist John Gardner (noted for taking up the mantle of Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle on respective series of James Bond and Professor Moriarty books from the 1970s through the ’90s) called A Complete State of Death, with its hard-nosed protagonist Derek Torry, a Scotland Yard inspector of Italian descent, it was reimagined with the Italian-American detective Lou Torrey (Bronson) at its center and harrowingly staged action hotspots in New York, Los Angeles and Mojave Desert locales, including a frenzied pursuit sequence through L.A. city streets that the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert called “a beauty. Bronson, in a car, is after a killer on a motorcycle. Together they crash through a handicraft fair, jump railroad tracks, burst through warehouses and used-car dealerships, and raise hell in general. It’s an exhilarating scene, magnificently choreographed, with a lot of difficult stunts well planned. And with Bronson at the wheel, you can relax; you know he’s not going to stop for a little well-chosen dialog.” Beyond the mouths of co-stars David Sheiner, Norman Fell, Ralph Waite, Paul Koslo, Stuart Margolin, Jack Colvin, Alfred Ryder and John Ritter, well-chosen words will also be issued on Twilight Time’s upcoming hi-def Blu-ray of The Stone Killer by Bronson career chronicler Paul Talbot on an information-packed Audio Commentary. It hits the streets in a brand-new 2017 Sony HD transfer May 16. Preorders open May 3.