Tag Archives: Charles Bronson

The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges)

While The Great Escape runs nearly three hours, director Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett never let it feel too long. Part of the quick pace comes from the first half hour being told in something like real time and another big part of it is the aftermath of the escape taking up the last hour. So for ninety minutes, the audience is getting to know and like the characters. It gives the escape aftermath a breakneck pace, even though Sturges doesn't do much different.

The Elmer Bernstein score also plays a large part. It's frequently upbeat and congratulatory to the characters (and sometimes the audience), but Bernstein also bakes in the possibility of tragedy. The music can go from light to dark in a second and the film trains the audience to prepare for such moves.

Also contributing to the film's relative brevity is how the script pairs characters up. Usually it's a strong personage with a weaker one, but the actors do such a good job–and Sturges often sticks with scenes of characters' frailties until they're uncomfortable–the pairings are never hollow. Even Steve McQueen, who gets a huge solo set piece at the end, starts off with a sidekick or two.

Most of the acting is spectacular. Richard Attenborough might give the best performance; him or James Donald. They both have the most responsibility and it clearly weighs on them. But James Garner, McQueen, Donald Pleasence, Gordon Jackson, Hannes Messemer–also all excellent.

It's an outstanding picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Sturges; screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill; director of photography, Daniel L. Fapp; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by United Artists.

Starring Steve McQueen (Hilts), James Garner (Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett), James Donald (Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Danny), Donald Pleasence (Blythe), James Coburn (Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Von Luger), David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (MacDonald), John Leyton (Willie), Angus Lennie (Ives), Nigel Stock (Cavendish), Jud Taylor (Goff) and Robert Graf (Werner).


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The Indian Runner (1991, Sean Penn)

Halfway through The Indian Runner–I’m guessing at the location, but halfway sounds about right–there’s a stunning montage. It might be the best way to talk about the film, or at least to start talking about the film, because The Indian Runner resists any standard–or glib–entry angles. It’s a five character montage, taking place in the late evening and then the late night. David Morse lies in bed, smoking cigarette after cigarette–as close to the filter as he can accomplish–wife Valeria Golino asleep beside him, watching the Democratic Convention riots on the news. Four states away, his brother, played by Viggo Mortensen, steals a car from a man going to a birthday party (his birthday party, in fact). Mortensen’s girlfriend, Patricia Arquette, spends an evening watching Gilligan’s Island with her parents, hoping Mortensen will call. Across town from Morse, he and Mortensen’s father–Charles Bronson–watches home movies of the two as children. Penn includes the birthday party in this montage of his main characters and there’s where The Indian Runner is something. It’s frequently indescribable. This montage, where Penn is able to plummet into the depths of his characters, doesn’t have any dialogue. It takes the length of the song playing on the soundtrack. It’s like nothing else.

What Penn brings to The Indian Runner–as an auteurist–is a thorough understanding of how to apply (and I hate to use the term) pre-Miramax independent filmmaking techniques to a mainstream American story. The montage is an easy example. Not so simple is, for instance, Arquette’s constant shrieking–or the graphic child birth sequence–or Morse (a deputy sheriff) harangued by a lonely woman. Or Golino smoking pot and Morse giving her time to put it out before he sees her. Or Bronson telling Morse he’s glad he married Golino, even though she’s a Mexican. The Indian Runner is based on a Bruce Springsteen song and Penn captures that complicated pride Springsteen feels about people and being American. It’s like nothing else.

Penn has some amazing directorial moments–the end is a visual delight, though it’s hard to use the word delight while discussing The Indian Runner, since–even though it’s a positive affirmation of the human condition–it’s a constant downer. But the scenes where he lets the people talk… those are something else. The Indian Runner isn’t dialogue heavy. It’s conversation heavy–but that description isn’t right either. People talk and people listen. Charles Bronson spent the last half of his career in schlock, but fifteen seconds of his performance in The Indian Runner leaves a fine epitaph, revealing an immensely capable actor if only he had the opportunity. Penn’s script is extraordinary, but his direction of it–the way he can introduce a character, the time he gives the actors–makes it. The script is so fine it allows David Morse to emote while wearing sunglasses.

The character development is another high point. Mortensen’s the screw-up son (even before Vietnam, which makes The Indian Runner somewhat unique), but it slowly becomes clear he’s the one more like Bronson. Mortensen’s regret at failing to make Bronson proud is palpable and devastating. It comes at a moment long before Penn even plunges deeper into the characters’ depths–the climatic scene near the end gives the impression of reaching bottom, but the denouement reveals otherwise. It’s almost limitless.

I suppose, since I’ve talked about Bronson and Mortensen (a little), I could spend some time talking about the other actors. Glibly, because it’s one of the few subjects related to the film where I can get glib. Penn gets a great performance out of Valeria Golino, something I previously would have said was impossible. Arquette’s excellent. Morse–in this quiet (especially when compared to Mortensen) role–is amazing. So many of Morse’s scenes are spent without verbosity, just with him looking at something, watching something… Penn’s ability to get a performance out of his actors is incredible, especially for a first time director.

The Indian Runner doesn’t have a single misstep. Everything Penn does is perfect. It’s one of the most impressive debuts.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Sean Penn; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Don Phillips; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring David Morse (Joe Roberts), Viggo Mortensen (Frank Roberts), Valeria Golino (Maria), Patricia Arquette (Dorothy), Charles Bronson (Mr. Roberts), Sandy Dennis (Mrs. Roberts), Dennis Hopper (Caesar), Jordan Rhodes (Randall), Enzo Rossi (Raffael), Harry Crews (Mr. Baker) and Eileen Ryan (Mrs. Baker).


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Death Wish (1974, Michael Winner)

I’m having a hard time deciding where the start with Death Wish. I wanted to open with a glib comment about how much I appreciated (even though it’s counter to some expository dialogue in the film) more of the criminals being white than black. Very progressive (or cautious) for 1974. But then I thought maybe starting with director Michael Winner–who actually does achieve one well-directed sequence in the entire film (and Death Wish shot on location in New York, so it’s hard to mess up, but Winner makes it look like a Mentos commercial). Or the writing, which is more Hollywoodized than an episode of “Friends.” I never thought about starting with Bronson’s performance, because I wanted to positive comments to come as a surprise. And Vincent Gardenia being terrible isn’t particularly interesting. I even thought about outlining how the story elements could have been juxtaposed to create something good. But then I finished watching the movie and the ending sort of messed it all up. For the majority of the film, Death Wish implies it’s going to be responsible for its content and then ends instead as an action movie. Bronson’s character is obviously suffering from a psychological break and, again, it’s suggested this insanity will be addressed… it isn’t. The lack of responsibility does just undo Bronson’s otherwise excellent work, it also damages the film. The last half hour of Death Wish–the film only really has a good half hour, the middle one–is mostly Gardenia’s bad acting… so it needed to end well and it did not.

Oh, I didn’t mention the score. I guess getting Herbie Hancock was some sort of coup for director Winner (based on wikipedia), but Hancock’s music is the film’s biggest problem (besides the directing and Gardenia, ahead of the writing). Hancock blares everything in the score–there’s practically a ‘mugger theme’–and brings absolutely no nuance to the movie, which is exactly what it needs. Besides the lousy third act, it’s a very quiet, intimate story… something Bronson either gets or just couldn’t mess up.

The real problem is Winner, who can’t figure out how to direct family scenes, fight scenes, men at work scenes–there are a couple good establishing shots, but I’m guessing those were second unit. He’s a terrible, terrible director. Like I said before, Mentos commercials (“it’s the freshmaker.”)

The lousy supporting cast doesn’t help. All the cops are terrible, not just Gardenia. Steven Keats tries real hard as Bronson’s son-in-law, but he just doesn’t pull it off (a combination of his performance and, visibly, not getting enough back from Bronson). Stuart Margolin, as the gun-lover who opens Bronson’s eyes, is good. Otherwise, it’s mediocre acting at best.

The film’s effects (I find it odd I could care less about popular novels of particular eras, but popular films of past eras I usually get around to seeing) are wide-reaching (Taxi Driver being an obvious example–I’m sure, after Death Wish made a fortune, studios got a lot more willing to release this material), though it’s a toss-up between the film’s financial success and Dino De Laurentiis’s particular brand of filmic storytelling. Once I saw his name as presenting it… I actually had some idea what I was in for.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Winner; screenplay by Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Brian Garfield; director of photography, Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by Bernard Gribble; music by Herbie Hancock; production designer, Robert Gundlach; produced by Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charles Bronson (Paul Kersey), Hope Lange (Joanna Kersey), Vincent Gardenia (Frank Ochoa), Steven Keats (Jack Toby), William Redfield (Sam Kreutzer), Stuart Margolin (Ames Jainchill), Stephen Elliott (Police Commissioner), Kathleen Tolan (Carol Toby) and Jack Wallace (Hank).


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The Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges)

Apparently, no director has ever needed a good script more than John Sturges. His work in The Magnificent Seven is static, the camera as disinterested in the film’s goings-on as the majority of the cast. He lets the camera sit and stare, cutting when it wakes up from its nap. He also appears not to have shot enough coverage for the film–or any explanatory establishing shots, so there’s no good sense of the film’s setting. The lack of coverage means the cuts are ugly and fades are overused. Elmer Bernstein’s omnipresent score (poorly) covers Sturges’s ass throughout, the glue holding whole sequences together.

Before we started the movie, I told the fiancée the theme was the best thing about The Magnificent Seven. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty much the only good thing… Yul Brynner’s the lead and the protection of the farmers is the story and the scenes with them together are brain-numbing. The only time Brynner ever shows any life is during the bromance scenes with Steve McQueen. Those are mostly all of McQueen’s scenes so he doesn’t do anything else. Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughan actually have characters and Sturges treats them well (all Sturges needs is some real content–even the illusion of depth–and The Magnificent Seven doesn’t even make an exiguous offering). Their stories are the only time Seven gets interesting (the McQueen and Brynner bromance, however, is all the more amusing since Brynner hated McQueen). James Coburn has so little to do in the film he’s practically invisible.

The biggest problem–besides the terrible writing and the Hispanic cast speaking lame English dialogue–is Horst Buchholz, who has the most important role in the film. Buchholz is German (with the accent to prove it), playing a Mexican farmboy who wants to be a gunfighter. Calling his performance bad is like calling the sun hot.

Technically, the film’s in between. Great day for night photography, terrible sets. Whenever they get on a set, which is often, Sturges’s ability oozes from an exposed boil. The lifeless shots get even worse.

The Magnificent Seven is a chore of a film to watch, even though, in a historical sense, it’s rather important. Lots of filmmakers saw this film and then made good movies instead of ones like it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and produced by John Sturges; screenplay by William Roberts, based on a film written by Kurosawa Akira, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by United Artists.

Starring Yul Brynner (Chris), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Steve McQueen (Vin), Horst Buchholz (Chico), Brad Dexter (Harry), Charles Bronson (O’Reilly), Robert Vaughn (Lee), James Coburn (Britt), Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man), Rosenda Monteros (Petra) and Jorge Martinez de Hoyos (Hilario).


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