A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
If Dr. Johnson had James Bosworth as his chronicler in the inimitable The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), so the departed star Charles Bronson is posthumously fortunate enough to have Paul Talbot. On the Set with Charles Bronson (BearManor, 2016) is an enlarged and detailed sequel to his modest but equally informative Bronson’s Loose!: The Making of the “Death Wish” Films (2006) that concentrated on Bronson’s involvement with the series most popularly associated with him. Focusing on that franchise and interviewing as many people possible who worked with the star, Talbot has superbly followed up his earlier work both in terms of detail and supplying a more comprehensive perspective surrounding the star’s difficult persona. While not downplaying Bronson’s negative behavior both on and off set (see 96), if not supplying a dubious counter-narrative exclusively promoting a “kinder and gentler” Charlie, the author provides a more balanced assessment of this intensely private and professional actor both from interviews given (no footnotes are supplied for the actual sources unfortunately) and from many of those still around who worked with him. In Talbot’s interview with actor Robert F. Lyons, he found the star a “perfect gentleman” on the set of Death Wish II (1981) as opposed to its “obnoxious director” (187). While being neither esoteric nor fundamentally populist in nature, this book is a welcome addition to publications in the Bear Manor Media series that provides accessible well-documented information to the academic and general audience performing the often impossible task of appealing to both worlds.
The first volume naturally concentrated on the Death Wish films but Talbot supplies additional material that has since surfaced such as further information and new informative interviews Lyons and Death Wish II scenarist Robin Sherwood, actor Robert Joy from Death Wish V: The Face of Death, and the “Giggler” himself Kirk Taylor from Death Wish III, one of the most surrealistic entries in the series. Shot in a London area resembling New York’s dangerous mean streets dominated by a white leader (played by Dan O’Herlihy’s son, Gavin) of a multi-ethic gang, the film moves to its expected Dirty Harry climax with Bronson’s Paul Kersey teaming up with tough cop Ed Lauter not just to wipe violent low-lifes off the face of the streets but also to ensure that viewers will never again be able to approach any of the Eastwood and Bruce Willis vigilante films with a straight face.
While not recommending the Death Wish series or theatrically released Bronson movies as essential viewing for readers, I would argue that they are not entirely devoid of interest and can readily affirm that I saw many of those later films while they were still shown in the cinema before they went straight to VHS release. So I have performed my necessary yeoman service in the cause of a more comprehensive version of film criticism than most people. Alas! I never got to see Kinjite Forbidden Subjects (1989) on the big or even small screen, a work that appears to be Charlie and director J. Lee Thompson’s (supposedly the model for the alcoholic director Burke Dennings in The Exorcist?) contribution to the Japanese-American Friendship Society. Covering a diverse number of films beginning with Hard Times (1975) (renamed The Streetfighter in the UK so audiences would not think of it as a Charles Dickins adaptation starring Bronson as a muscular Pip having “Great Expectations” in the midst of the Great Depression and his English wife Jill Ireland portraying a demure Victorian heroine) to the actor’s final appearances in the 1995-1999 The Family of Cops TV series, Talbot does an exceptionally fine job with the material he chooses to cover and the people he managed to interview. One misses, of course, coverage of the earlier pre-star films, The Mechanic (1972), the underrated White Buffalo (1977), and a more extensive examination of the actor’s touching secondary role in The Indian Runner (1991, 357-8) but, hopefully, Talbot will provide more books in the future as did his distant ancestor James Boswell on his equally cherished subject.
Following a brief Bronson biography in which we learn that virtuoso agent Paul Kohner (5, 10) represented the star for most of his career, the following chapter covers one of his most accomplished films Hard Times in which he appeared bereft of his trademark moustache adorned since his French success Rider in the Rain (1969) and which he would remove on very rare occasions when the role called for it. I remember seeing the film at a Manchester press show and noticed how the cinematographer used a shadow over the star’s upper lip to assure the audience that it was the familiar star who would soon exhibit a very different facial appearance that would also be well-known to those who followed his earlier career. Material from a 2014 phone interviews with Maggie Blye and Bruce Glover accompany contemporary press material featuring Bronson and director Walter Hill as well as now deceased character actor Robert Tessier (40-41) sentenced to a jail term after he completed his role. The chapter also contains stills from several deleted scenes as well as Blye’s description of another deleted scene (46). Set in the Great Depression that Bronson knew all too well, the period setting appealed to him and he tried several times to launch another thirties-era film set in a coal mining town, Dollar Ninety-Eight, that he had co-scripted with Ireland and wished to produce, direct, as well as star in (50).
Talbot is perhaps too generous in his next chapter that deals with Bronson’s failed attempt at comedy, From Noon Till Three (1976). It may have looked good on paper but needed far more accomplished actors than Bronson and Ireland to really make it work. (I remember asking some South American Swansea University students leaving the Carlton Cinema, now a Waterstone’s bookstore with original exterior preserved, what the Mexican bandit was saying to Ireland in the film’s beginning and they informed me that his Spanish matched the gesture with the lips!) Bronson often insisted his wife appear in his films, ostensibly to keep the family together but Ireland’s contractual presence usually resulted as the weaker link in films that were already creaky by nature. I do not have the same opinion of Ireland’s abilities as Talbot, but even he sees her imitations in Assassination (1987), one of the weakest of their Cannon collaborations (313-314).
The book thankfully does nothing to dispel Michael Winner’s reputation as an obnoxious person and Talbot’s interview with Death Wish II screenwriter David Engelbach confirms that the ugly rape scene was the director’s responsibility: “Basically, Winner took everything out of my draft that was original. The scene where the maid is brutally raped was Michael Winner’s invention. I didn’t have that in there” (162).
Both star and frequent director J. Lee Thompson were very aware of the nature of the industry they were working in that often demanded familiar, unadventurous product and the necessity of showing a profit despite the mediocre nature of many of the films they made together, something that did not help either to achieve later distinguished careers (see especially 122-123). Bronson’s work in The Magnificent Seven (1960), Once Upon A Time in the West (1967) and many of his earlier films reveal a much more flexible actor capable of achieving better things but this does not appear in most of his later work with the star preferring to be a well prepared, meticulous craftsman content to be with his family off-set and just “earning a crust,” as Arthur Daley would say in Minder. If Bronson never achieved the level of being an artistic thespian, he sadly became part of “the age of mechanical reproduction” in the cinematic machine, to misquote Walter Benjamin. Though already in decline as a former box-office attraction, the death of his long-time agent Paul Kohner in 1988 ended the possibility of any reversal of his cinematic deterioration but by then it was a lost cause. Although there would be some intermittent exceptions as in the TV movies Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1991) and attempts to try new things as in his role as Wolf Larsen in the The Sea Wolf (1993), aging and unavoidable decline of star charisma prevented any dignified retreat into twilight years away from the camera since Bronson stubbornly decided to keep working until failing powers halted him. Although Larsen appeared an inspired choice of casting, the actor’s lack of the necessary vitality that Edward G. Robinson gave to the role in the 1941 Warner Bros. version made this venture a total disappointment.
Over twenty five years since his tragic death, Charles Bronson’s work is “readily available on DVD, Blu-
Ray and online” (418) whether they be some later films of interest such as Murphy’s Law (1986) or reportedly dreadful works such as Kinjite (1989), all seem to have vanished from free YouTube access into chargeable domains. Bronson still continues as a source of posthumous profit on the internet particularly. Undeniably Paul Talbot will bring out other volumes in his quest for the actor’s significance since it will definitely continue both in terms of earlier films not covered and later ones, such as White Buffalo, needing more extensive analysis. Whatever form later studies will take, Bronson’s Loose Again! is a fine development of Talbot’s first study and promises much in the way of future development.
While coping with geographical culture shock in the transition from Manchester to Carbondale, I often sought out Bronson films in the 80s whether on VHS or theatrical release not as a “guilty pleasure” but fully aware of their nature associated with the dubious brand names of Cannon and J. Lee Thompson. One went to see the star who, if not a “Lion in Winter” at this stage of his career, at least exhibited a type of screen presence absent from most of his successors today and if one left the cinema disappointed with the final result, it was with the hope that some flicker of his past magnetism would shine through the dross in the next film. Sometimes, very briefly, but not always, it did. This is much more than can be said for his cinematic heirs today, whether at the supposed heights of their careers or in irreversible decline. Today, it is difficult to tell both apart.
Finally, some corrections are needed for subsequent editions. J. Lee Thompson’s 1957 film was The Good Companions, not the singular title on 114. Peter Graves did not play Wolf Larsen in the 1958 film version but Barry Sullivan (380, n.1), Bear Manor Press’s print-on-demand faculties will easily enable these to be made.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-editor, with Esther C.M. Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017), he is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.