“An uncommonly nonsensical cops-and-crooks movie” that blew unceremoniously into New York neighborhood theaters 45 years ago today, The Stone Killer (1973), the third of six collaborations between American action icon Charles Bronson and journeyman British director Michael Winner, drew the wary admiration of The New York Times critic Roger Greenspun. In evaluating this no-nonsense Dino de Laurentiis-executive produced policier about a dogged cop’s coast-to-coast determination to thwart the machinations of a Mob boss who assembles a hit squad of precision-trained ex-military to rub out rival gangsters who engineered a 1931 series of Mafia exterminations that altered the Cost Nostra landscape (an actual event, in fact), he relished a certain profundity in the pulpish surroundings, freely adapted and decidedly Americanized by screenwriter Gerald Wilson from John Gardner’s very British 1969 novel A Complete State of Death.
“To a large extent, the real interest in The Stone Killer rests in subordinate characters – hired assassins, ancient junkies, young creeps, down to a dwarf perched on a seedy hotel’s registration desk. In such picturesque details, Winner is obviously recalling his predecessors in the genre, but I think he recalls them honorably. He has at least put a lot of favorite devices into a film that moves with great energy and with an overall economy to control its small-scale flamboyance,” he wrote. “Michael Winner’s recent career (The Mechanic, Chato’s Land [another Twilight Time title], etc.) has created at least a few loyal supporters, and I think I begin to sense why. With a strange combination of vulgarity and technical elegance, a feeling for when to cut away from an action or a face – whether by accident or design – The Stone Killer keeps turning into exciting cinema, crude, often funny and quite brilliantly idiomatic. It may come as close to inspired primitivism as we are likely to get in the movies these days.” It would have been interesting to know Greenspun’s take on the following year’s megahit Bronson/Winner/de Laurentiis reunion Death Wish (1974), which The Times’ Vincent Canby found exploitatively effective and morally repellent all at once. Also starring Martin Balsam as the calculating, vengeful Don, with Norman Fell, David Sheiner, Ralph Waite, Stuart Margolin and John Ritter in notable supporting roles, TT’s arresting hi-def Blu-ray of The Stone Killer features an astutely analytical Audio Commentary by Bronson biographer Paul Talbot. Whether one taps into it for its moral malaise or nonstop mayhem, the film – like its lead cop – gets the job done.