The Face of Justified Homicide
He had been a Hollywood face for 20 years in supporting roles as assorted hoodlums, Native Americans and soldiers, even a potent presence among four of the all-time great male ensembles in movie history – The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Once upon a Time in the West (1968). As The New Biographical Dictionary of Film author David Thomson tells it, “That face did not become an image until the age of 50. It took that long for lines, sleepy eyes and a drooping mustache to soften the sculptured Lithuanian rock often cast as an Indian. But, by 1970, the weathering process had confused shyness and menace, and there followed a brief glory as he dispenser of monumental violence, always with an expression of geological impassivity. Nevertheless, his four films for Michael Winner – Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1974) – had audiences cheering at the celebration of ‘justified’ homicide.” With these four films, particularly the last-named, which was a box-office loose-cannon that spawned a series, audiences’ faith in the face of Charles Bronson became justified, and he ascended to a higher tier of popularity and productivity. The second film in this gun-toting quartet, The Mechanic, opened 44 years ago today, and its premise proved so intriguing that, though the Death Wish movie series became a brand of its own across five films and 22 years, brooding action star and Bronson admirer Jason Statham took up the mantle of the ace hitman Arthur Bishop for his own pair of stylish and profitable Mechanic movies in 2011 and 2016. Bronson’s killer for hire is the ideal, brutally anonymous face for the time in which The Mechanic, by the adventurous screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (noted adaptor of The Fox, The Great Santini and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea), came to the screen: the early 1970s period of prime paranoid moviemaking involving political manipulation and shady corporatocracies, wherein an operative comfortable at going solo with skillfully designed, cold-blooded efficiency can thrive. But a certain unease with age and isolation, added to an uncharacteristic desire to pass on the tricks of his murky assassin’s trade, compel him to take on a younger protégé (Jan-Michael Vincent), the son of an ex-employer-turned-target (Keenan Wynn) – and the movie then transforms into a ticking time bomb about how and when the pupil just might eliminate the master. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, not a huge fan of the movie, nonetheless appreciated how this dynamic fuels what’s great about The Mechanic: “Bronson is a good movie actor, and he knows how to listen. That's hard; a lot of actors just look like they're waiting for the other guy to stop talking so they can start again. Since The Mechanic depends on scenes where Bronson keeps his own counsel and lets the kid talk, the listening is important and helps to establish the weight of the character.” Carlino’s original screenplay reportedly contained more of a homoerotic attraction between sorcerer and apprentice, but that option would likely not have suited the newly assertive superstar face at the forefront of this thriller or the hard-assed marketing prose (“He has 100 ways to kill – and they all work!”) and James Bond-like adventure imagery in its poster. But The Mechanic that emerged is a perfect match to the granite face and focused intensity of its now-legendary leading man, and that film, plus Chato’s Land and the later From Noon Till Three, Murphy’s Law and 10 to Midnight – all offered on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray – celebrate a singular star who moved to center frame after years off to the side, listened well, and took decisive care of those in need of dispatching…his way.