Before Charles Bronson had a DEATH WISH, He Hunted THE STONE KILLER

Charles Bronson in THE STONE KILLER

If you want to know why I love Charles Bronson, you have to go back to one of his first film roles: as a thug in George Cukor’s 1952 comedy Pat and Mike. Barely thirty and at the peak of his physical prowess, Charles Buchinski – he didn’t become “Bronson” until 1954 – gets roughed up by Katharine Hepburn twice. It’s one of my favorite moments in Hepburn’s six-decade film career, and an early demonstration of what was great about Bronson: he didn’t take himself too seriously, even at his toughest.

Men, as a rule, like Charles Bronson movies. Not that women don’t, but the one-time Pennsylvania coal miner and decorated World War II veteran has a particular resonance for male viewers. Just as Humphrey Bogart defined masculinity for the Greatest Generation, and James Dean and Steve McQueen did the same for the 1950s and ‘60s, Bronson became an icon for guys who came of age in the early days of VHS and cable. It wasn’t so much about the movies, which got increasingly outlandish as Bronson aged. It was his quiet confidence, that slight hitch in his voice, the vaguely haunted look beneath the bushy bangs. Even when the film wasn’t credible, Bronson was. He was the solitary sheriff, transposed to lawless, post-Watergate America.

Although he was a key member of epic 1960s ensembles like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Dirty Dozen, Bronson took two decades to perfect the everyman action hero persona for which he’s best remembered today. That character was firmly in place by the time he played an aging assassin in The Mechanic in 1972, and it became a controversial archetype two years later in the brutal revenge fantasy Death Wish. But between those two unforgettable classics, Bronson gave a subtly brilliant performance in a film that’s often overlooked today: The Stone Killer.

Based on a novel by John Gardner – the successor to Ian Fleming on the James Bond novel series – The Stone Killer is the story of an NYPD cop forced to step down after shooting a teenaged suspect in self-defense. Lieutenant Lou Torrey transfers to Los Angeles, where he uncovers a plot by elderly Mafia don Al Vescari (Martin Balsam) to avenge the Prohibition Era assassinations of Sicilian crime bosses by killing their descendants. And you thought your family held grudges.

In order to exact his vengeance on “made men,” Vescari must use hired hitmen who are not members of the Mafia. These co-called “stone killers” are ex-soldiers and recent Vietnam veterans proficient in “combat, transportation, and communications.” The team of 40 is led by the mysterious Mr. Lawrence (Stuart Margolin), who trains the mercenaries for their murderous mission in the Mojave Desert, far from view.

The Stone Killer was Bronson’s third film under contract to independent producer Dino De Laurentiis, and it was a critically acclaimed success in the U.S. and international markets like Italy and France (where Bronson was well-known, thanks to foreign co-productions). Released a year and a half after Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather captivated moviegoers (and Oscar voters), the film goes refreshingly light on the mob movie tropes. It’s more of a procedural/caper movie, with Bronson in a race with the clock to prevent a crime nobody knows is happening. His Lou Torrey is a surprisingly nuanced character – a cop who’ll throw a punch at a suspect, but will still call out his bosses for racial profiling.

The Stone Killer may remind you of William Friedkin’s The French Connection, as Bronson cat-and-mouses with drug dealers, snitches, and wiseguys on both coasts. Like that complex crime classic, The Stone Killer also boasts a stellar supporting cast of familiar faces. Three’s Company legend Norman Fell is the long-suffering LAPD captain who just wants to retire in peace (don’t we all). Ralph Waite (the dad on The Waltons) is Torrey’s unapologetically racist partner. And the ever-reliable Margolin, Angel on The Rockford Files and the man who gives Bronson his gun in Death Wish, is memorable as the stone-killer-in-chief. Best of all: Fell shares a scene with John Ritter, three years before Mr. Roper would become Jack Tripper’s landlord. Spoiler alert! Only one makes it out alive.

If you notice stylistic similarities between The Stone Killer, Death Wish, and The Mechanic, there’s good reason: all three were directed by veteran action auteur Michael Winner. The British filmmaker worked with Bronson six times over 13 years, including on the first two Death Wish sequels (only one of which is good, sadly). Winner’s storytelling here is deliberate and economical, but the slow burn pays off in a climatic orgy of mayhem that will delight any fan of outsized ‘70s action. Winner and J. Lee Thompson, who directed Bronson nine times between 1976 and 1989, made most of the actor’s latter era films for indie producers like De Laurentiis and Cannon. And it’s this material that is largely responsible for the Bronson persona many think of today, thanks to cable and VHS ubiquity.

For those of us who grew up watching gritty, violent Charles Bronson movies after our parents went to bed, here’s a fact worth noting: almost all of the films that elevated him to icon status were made after he turned 50. I wasn’t aware of that then, but I sure am now. And it makes me love Charles Bronson even more.

The Stone Killer airs June 6, 11, 15, 16, and 17. For more information, visit the getTV schedule.

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