the cinema of charles bronson

~ by john b. cribbs ~

In the latter half of his career, Charles Bronson became the angel of death of action cinema. He wore it on his face (next to the mustache): those worn features, greying, weathered, represented more than just a hardened resolve; they were a final, ruthless image inflicted on those unfortunate enough for him to have visited upon. In his films from the 1970's on, even before things turned nasty and guns were unholstered, the promise of an ordained darkness burned like obsidian within that cadaverous expression, the only emotion registering from those beady, unrelenting eyes. Laying the action movie emblems and politics of the Death Wish movies aside, at his bare essence Bronson embodied a tenacious emissary of inevitable evisceration starting in 1969, when his avenger in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West was described as having "something to do with death."

It was that very "something" that held a morbid curiosity even for those he hunted, like West's lifelong sinner Frank, who grungingly accepts his ultimate showdown with Bronson's Harmonica by uttering the self-assurance "The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cuz I know that now, you'll tell me what you're after." To which Harmonica responds: "...Only at the point of dyin'." A beautiful double meaning: we only learn the point of dying... at the actual point of dying. And for countless creeps and evildoers, Bronson was the grim messenger.

In this series, we'll be writing about movies from Bronson's post-West filmography. Although his earlier work as an essential member of ensemble action epics like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen is indeed significant and worthy of lengthy evaluation, I'm more interested in the last leg of his career when he was doing interesting work for directors such as Michael Winner and J. Lee Thompson. Like leather or scotch, Bronson got better with age, so while his "solo" work may not be as good as the group adventures from the 60's, what the action icon came to symbolize - a weatherbeaten grim reaper - is one withered grape that is ripe for interpretation.


nicolas gessner, 1971.

Imagine Charles Bronson showing up at your front door, drenched in cold sweat with a loaded gun in his pocket, a complete blank slate - no memory, no background, no family to avenge, no harmonica to play, no melon crops to harvest. Who would you have him kill? C'mon, you were thinking the same thing: unless you're James Coburn and you're hurting for a noble, Depression-era bare knuckle boxer, what else are you supposed to do with your very own unwritten Charles Bronson? Even if you weren't aware of his past history of death hunts and death wishes, one look at that gnarled face with the soulless sunken eyes is enough to know the man's a loaded gun just waiting to be aimed at someone: but if not at lawless creeps, then who? And what if this suggestible Bronson fell into the wrong hands? How would an opportunistic coward with murder on the brain rewrite the DNA of the angel of death? Who would such a man deem deserving of some classic Bronson & brimstone?

Having more than a little practice in role playing and psychologically manifesting murderers, Anthony Perkins has a few creative ideas on the subject. Clocking out after a long stint in the operating theater, Perkins' neurosurgeon happens upon Bronson's amnesiac drifter being dropped off by a mildly-concerned citizen with one foot already out the door (having possibly recognized the leathery, unkempt crate of nitroglycerin he's just managed to pass off on somebody else.) After a brief exam, Perkins waves off a nurse by diagnosing the confused drifter - who can only vaguely recall the imagine of himself standing over a woman's body on the beach - as indulging in one too many cabo blancos and charitably offers to give him a ride to the train station. Instead he takes his passenger to his impressive seaside home, feeds him orange juice and puts him up in the spare guest room. The next morning, Perkins presents Bronson with a suitcase he claims to have found on a nearby beach containing clothes that fit Bronson perfectly, a provocative polaroid of a nude Jill Ireland and a letter which suggests that Ireland, apparently Bronson's wife, has been two-timing him with a French playboy. With remarkable spontaneity, Perkins' mind specialist has whipped up a complicated scheme to work Bronson into a slowly-boiling homicidal rage against his "wife," who in reality is Perkins' unfaithful spouse. Then all he has to do is invite Ireland and her lover to the house and pass the resulting double murder off to police as the random act of a crazed derelict.

This is an appropriate follow-up to my last Point of Dyin' entry, Telefon, in which people with no memory of their real past were unwittingly programmed to kill. Discussing Siegel's film, I mentioned how Bronson and co-star Lee Remick weren't very engaging characters and that segments featuring the random targets of Donald Pleasence's telefon-athon were far more interesting. Pawns in a jaded Pleasence's nefarious revenge plot against his own government, these brainwashed machines were triggered to destroy specific strategic areas that, as the years passed, the Cold War grew colder and the sleeper agents settled obliviously into their phony blue collar American existences, became as arbitrary and meaningless as the victims' long-forgotten identities. There was a genuine tragedy to the pointless deaths of these random people, their names literally drawn from a phone book, so that Bronson eliminating those activated by Pleasence to become zombie terrorists could almost be considered acts of mercy. In Someone Behind the Door, Bronson's brain becomes the blank canvas on which Perkins programs his own fiendish agenda, but rather than send him after arbitrary targets the good doctor devises a more ambitious plot: to transplant his own jealousy and urge towards uxoricide into the empty shell of a man with a natural drive to vengeance, which Perkins himself could never carry out. More than just mold a convenient patsy, Perkins finds a host for the hatred he's too emotionally impotent to act upon, and his first step is to give Bronson the same kind of artificial background as the Russian government created for its implanted agents, the difference being that Bronson will recognize and react to the tragedy of his life being as abruptly ripped apart as it was impetuously invented. It's not enough that Perkins instills his own feelings of confusion and betrayal onto Bronson, he has to give him a family and then threaten its foundation; like a true Bronson expert, Perkins seems to know that nothing sets the guy off like the threat of his family being taken away from him.

But what about the threat of Bronson's family voluntarily abandoning him? How would the angel of the death respond to that? Preceding Death Wish by three years, this movie's almost prophetic in its understanding of the vulnerable moral code held by Bronson's late career characters, the collapse of which would send them spiraling into a blind devotion to self-righteous retribution. Over the course of a weekend, Bronson's amnesiac takes the scant information Perkins has provided - specifically the lurid polaroid - and from it constructs a narrative in which Ireland is his saintly if misguided wife, and he the suffering yet forgiving cuckold. So even playing a drifter with no past and no future, Bronson is a slave to strong traditional values that force him to piece together an acceptable and face-saving account of events and assign roles accordingly. It doesn't take long for the wife in Bronson's mind to change from offender to victim, she being a woman whose innocence needs protecting and death requires avenging. So she had an affair you say? Well obviously this led to her being murdered by the amoral foreigner she's allowed herself to be tempted by. Therefore Bronson's concocted reason for revenge isn't just that his "wife" has been cheating on him, but that the jealous lover must have killed her. This is Bronson's logical connection between his vague recent memory of standing over a dead woman on the beach and the contents of the letter, in which the wife's lover issued the misconstrued verbatim "I'd rather see you dead than remain with your husband." The letter actually was written by the French stud - Perkins merely planted it in the suitcase - so the "threat" isn't even something Perkins created to inspire Bronson's erroneous conclusions: that's just how Bronson chooses to interpret it. Even though the combined information "cheating wife...evidence of infidelity in my possession...memory of standing over a dead woman" immediately suggests that Bronson killed his wife in a jealous rage, he decides instead that the Frenchman is the culprit and the one deserving of swift execution. Any other scenario would be unfathomable to him.

The film's U.K. setting (Perkins offering to lend some "quid," steering wheels on the right side, a hovercraft proudly displaying a huge Union Jack decal, a cab driver who looks suspiciously like Roy Kinnear; yep, it's England all right* ) places it squarely within Bronson's "European period." This period, which began with him becoming famous overseas following the release of Once Upon a Time in the West and transitioned into the U.K./Michael Winner era which would ultimately lead to his stateside star-making turn in Death Wish, was in more ways than one the most significant time of the actor's career. It not only established him as a bankable leading man in Italian or French-Italian productions (sometimes Spain and Belgium got involved too) but would prove the most consistent stretch of fantasy action roles prior to Bronson's reputation as the down-to-earth, decent, homegrown blue collar family man "pushed too far." Between 1968 and 1973 Bronson played exotic hit men, daredevil gunslingers and worldly government agents whose actions would never be described as "reluctant" - even the kidnapping of his family in Cold Sweat is the result of his character's own past mistakes and not the festid product of some sort of neglected "social ill" he's then forced to confront (with a bullet.) Liberated from the social and political implications of so many of Bronson's post-Death Wish parts, these lead roles may not have been classic "good guys" (more on that in a second) but they didn't quite gain him the notoriety as the cinematic emissary of death that would define his late screen image.

So Someone Behind the Door is something of an anomaly in this area of the star's filmography, pre-dating Bronson's Death Wish mold of wounded avenger yet somehow acknowledging it like the iconic trait it would eventually become. It plays like a reaction to the reactionary roles Bronson would later fill, which for the obvious reason that it was made before those roles existed couldn't have been the director's intention at the time.** The story Bronson's drifter creates for himself is one that involves a beautiful wife whom he loves, who is then horribly dispatched by a jealous lover - if the lover thinks he's getting away with it, he's got another thing comin'. But all of this is fiction, developed over two days in Bronson's mind, with the slightest manipulating on Perkins' part, as excuses to kill a man: one who, even in his deluded construct of reality, Bronson has never even met. Killing this bastard is what he's got to do and nothing else matters, not even discovering his real name - Bronson is billed only as "The Stranger," a parallel to his spectral, unnamed gunman in Once Upon a Time in the West*** (Bronson even jokingly speculates that he "came by ghost ship" - "I don't believe in ghosts," Perkins responses dismissively.) To have his personality based entirely on this obsessive need for revenge brings into question the anonymity with which Bronson's avengers fulfill their tasks and just how shallow an excuse one dead brother is for the amount of bodies Harmonica has put bullets in by the end of West, or the increasingly flimsy motives for Paul Kersey's war on creeps (the victims he's avenging over the Death Wish series going from wife and daughter to maid and daughter to old war buddy to girlfriend's daughter to, I think, Kersey's grocer's cable guy.) Bronson's Door character has only two things on his person when he's dropped off at the hospital: a wedding ring, which provides the connection to someone whom he'd kill for, and a loaded gun - a peculiar conscientious objector indeed! Perkins discovering the weapon and subsequently supplying Bronson with a target is really just one branch down the cuckoo tree from the guy in Tucson who inadvertently (although not-quite-innocently) deputizes Paul Kersey to the streets of New York with the .32 he gives him as a gift, thus enabling his vigilante spree. Perkins even dresses Bronson in a more appropriate costume with clothes taken from the suitcase, including the dark suit that gives him more of a conservative, cowboy-ish, Breakheart Pass-like look (his hobo rags are too noble in the proud Hard Times tradition.) Perkins' puppeteer seems to weirdly intuit Bronson's murderous nature: notably, he doesn't learn until well into the middle of the movie that Bronson is in fact an escaped mental patient who raped and murdered a woman on the beach. This new information explains his flustered and impatient house guest's quick temper, but Perkins clearly made a connection between the sanctity of the wedding ring and the authority of the gun and knew that Bronson was capable of pushing back at his oppressors - imagined or otherwise - so that despite having "no memory, no name, no mind," as the movie's tagline indicates, "this man will act out someone else's insanity and revenge!"

The insanity is provided by Perkins, introduced behind the door of an operating room mad scientist style in a Dead Ringers-type surgical mask, and in typical Perkins fashion he seems smarter and two steps ahead of everybody else until he puts things in motion that he can't control, at which point he reverts from simpering con artist to whimpering man-child. As we know, Perkins' characters have a tendency to distance themselves from their own homicidal impulses and get other people to commit murders for them, either by creating a new murderous persona within himself a'la Psycho or indirectly awakening the bloodlust of another person as he does with Tuesday Weld's impressionable mother-hater in Pretty Poison. He accidentally inspires murderers who pick up the frustrated rage he leaves lying on the table, like when Sophia Loren misinterprets Perkin's O'Neillian sufferer's suggestions of patricide against Burl Ives as an invitation to smother the baby Loren and Perkins have created together in Desire Under the Elms. Unless he's channeling Mama Bates, Perkins is a noted screen psycho with one of the lowest body counts when it comes to picking up the knife himself but a regular Charlie Manson in terms of characters who feed off his nervous energy and powerless need to lash out against those who have wronged him, coaxed by an ingratiating charm towards sinister actions. It's not until after the crime that his surrogate killers discover he's really just a mischievous little boy in a lanky, well-groomed body who quickly got in over his head and has shut down, quivering in anticipation of some unthinkable punishment. Even in Winter Kills, where he plays a man at the center of every secret government action, he nevertheless allows a somewhat threatening Jeff Bridges to bully him into revealing the whole plot with only mild physical intimidation. He can engineer assassinations and organize large scale coups resulting in the deaths of thousands, but hey - don't play rough! His oily operators may intentionally or unintentionally inspire acts of violence, but violence at his own front door causes his face to contort and his meek frame to tremble. (I'm a little uncomfortable relegating Perkins to a specific "weak" type, as his characteristically effete manner is such tabloid fodder of the actor's private life - and no doubt the reason scenes between he and Bronson have been described by reviewers as "homoerotic" - but he makes as strong a case for "actor auteurism" as Bronson, so I guess he's fair game.)

The psychological kind of Ender's Game Perkins plays with Bronson, one that is dizzingly improvised (and convenient: it really worked out for Perkins that Bronson's random drifter just happens to be a schizophrenic rapist-murderer who just happens to have not noticed he's packing heat**** and just happens to wear a wedding ring, which just happens to be the thing that sets him off, and that the final confrontation between Bronson, Jill Ireland and the French lover just happens to play out the way it does), is constructed like an Anthony Perkins Greatest Hits compilation. Designed to kill two consenting, unmarried adults busy copulating offscreen - the same motivation for Norman Bates' spearheading murder of his mother and her boyfriend - it's based on confusing strangers as to the social order of a family (like pretending Mother is still alive and well) and unconvincingly blaming murders on other people. Having already played a vagrant dealing with memory loss who may or may not have been the Fool Killer, Perkins was himself the target of a similar scheme in another European film released the same year as Door, Claude Chabrol's adaptation of Ellery Queen's Ten Day's Wonder. In that one, Perkins suffers from blackouts and memory gaps, which result in being tricked by Orson Welles into believing he murdered the big man's adulterous wife, played by Bronson's Rider on the Rain co-star Marlène Jobert (in real life, Eva Green's mom.) But Perkins' Dr. Laurence Jeffries doesn't just take advantage of his guest's empty mind, he dumps his malignant purpose into it. Perkins blatantly states this while recording a joint case file/confession: "The metamorphosis is complete. The personality transplant has not been rejected. On the contrary: he has become me. Incapable of motivations from his own past, he has accepted my past. I am no longer an actor in the drama - only a spectator." (Funny that the star of The Trial would choose the word "metamorphosis." Ready Kafka?) True to form, when the time comes for his plan to unfold and Bronson to confront his wife's lover, Perkins not only becomes a sniveling spectator but hides, quite literally, behind the door. Naturally fey and awkward, Perkins lacks any hint of Bronson's hardness; the same lack of resolve that has made him seem such a weak suck to his wife has made it impossible for the doctor to pull the trigger and necessary to find someone who can. Perkins' got the motive but Bronson has the will: together they make up the "double" motif found in so many crime films. (Having recently read Errol Morris' book on Jeffrey MacDonald, it was easier for me to accept the idea that one man's murder impulse, personified by the Perkins-manipulated Bronson, is something that can be brought out and then cast aside - much more acceptable than, say, MacDonald's account of his family's murder, which involves a group of giggling killers not unlike the fantasy creeps of the Death Wish films.) A tough Bronson literally becomes a weak Perkin's murderous rage (Two Minds for Murder is the U.K. title of the movie; the U.K. video title is - I shit you not - Brainkill), but he does so in a purely Bronson way.

I should clarify that rather than be one big, seemingly accidental comment on or critique of Bronson's angel of death persona, this role is one of Chuck's most complicated and conflicted, and certainly one of the most "Oscar caliber" Bronson performances you'll ever see.*** ** It's the character himself who's torn as to his drive for revenge, and his frustrations ultimately lead to a breakdown in which he does the kind of thing Bronson's characters have been known to kill people for. While Perkins' reputation for playing weirdo villains is on full display (he sports a turtleneck, guzzles O.J., fiddles with toy trinkets and plays liar's one point he even ominously wrings a sponge), labeling him as the movie's bad guy is kind of dubious since, as I pointed out earlier about many of his roles, he doesn't actually kill anybody. The opposite argument can be applied to Bronson's reputation as a good guy - Bronson does kill people, a lot of them, but the question is whether they actually deserve to die. He didn't often save people like a superhero, or even a Dirty Harry, and avenging their deaths isn't the same thing. The European Period saw Bronson playing lots of gray-area characters - an outlaw reluctantly paired with heroic Toshiro Mifune after his gang turns on him in Red Sun, a mob informant in The Valachi Papers, unethical hit men in Violent City and The Mechanic - but he certainly didn't rape anyone in those movies.*** *** Door even shares a few superficial plot similarities to Rider on the Rain from the year before (a seaside European town, a rape, a body on the beach), but in that one he's hunting a serial this movie he plays one. "Bronson's back! This time he's the BAD GUY!" boasts a Australian daybill (I couldn't find the specific release date for the movie down under, it had to have been post-Death Wish), but while rapist-murderer-mental patient would definitely be considered "against type" for a man who's more likely to be found shooting rapist-murderer-mental patients, to call him the film's bad guy is sorta hugely misleading.

Because this character is undeniably "Bronson-esque" - his motive to kill, the instinct to protect his family and resolve towards immediate action are all traits of his tough guy personality. But after exacting revenge on the man he thinks wronged him only to discover his "wife" doesn't want anything to do with him (the real reason - that she's never seen this crazy asshole who just shot her lover in the back - being completely unknown to him) is the ultimate rejection of his protector principles and makes him snap. What follows is something Paul Kersey fans never thought they'd see: Charles Bronson attempting to rape a woman. Of course his character doesn't realize he's a rapist-murderer, any more than he knows Jill Ireland isn't his wife (even though, in real life, Jill Ireland was Charles Bronson's wife! No wonder the actor never kissed her at the airport: reality's too damn hard to keep straight**** *** ), so the result is basically his escaped mental patient reverting to his "real" self once the fiction of "Charles Bronson, avenging angel" has come apart right in front of him. Which again, would very relevant to the star's career...if this movie had been made 10 or 20 years later. But at least it proves that Bronson wasn't someone to only accept heroic/avenger roles, that as an actor he was willing to explore some of the controversy of playing a man who wants to kill somebody for revenge well before that became who Charles Bronson was. Appropriately, Bronson's character never actually learns what Perkins has done, helplessly murmuring "I don't know what to do" before Perkins puts him behind the door. If everything can't be made right by a bullet, if his targets don't deserve what they got and their deaths have been pointless, what hope does someone like Paul Kersey have?

The movie was made by Hungarian director Nicolas Gessner, who had previously done 12 + 1 (one of the few films to feature Sharon Tate) and went on to helm The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Jodie Foster, as that film's  main character, also does a lot of deliberate lying to convince people of a false family structure involving absent figures and assigning new people pre-existing roles (specifically, a young man who puts on make-up and pretends to be Foster's long-dead father.) Like Door, Little Girl also takes place largely in one interior - Foster's house, where she's sequestered herself so people will believe that she's protected by her father. (In fact, she's like Norman Bates, trying to convince everyone who comes to the house that one of her dead parents is alive and hide the fact that she's murdered her mother, and she even channels Paul Kersey a bit when she ends the movie by taking it upon herself to execute a rapist creep - ok so it's more plainly out of personal defense, although Foster would later go on to star in the awful Death Wish ripoff The Brave One, a film much more guilty of pro-vigilantism propaganda than Michael Winner's film.) The house is important: even though Bronson is aware that it belongs to Perkins, his transformation into Perkins is so successful that in the final scene he invites his victim inside as if he's the homeowner. It gives Bronson the entitlement to do what his (supposedly homeless) drifter wouldn't on his own: gun down a stranger and attack the woman he believes to be his wife. The interior setting does make a lot of the film feel flat like a play**** **** - it was adapted from a book (or possibly short story) but is incredibly stagy, right down to windy sound effects whenever someone opens a door - and Perkins' Shakespearean soliloquy, delivered straight into the camera, doesn't help. The monologue also tells the audience a lot they've probably already figured out which, when paired with a forced exposition scene of Perkins explaining his wife's affair to the brother-in-law, makes for some pretty lazy screenwriting and cringe-inducing dialogue. In the end credits, Gessner goes all arty on us by flipping the image back and forth between Perkins and Ireland at a heart beat rhythm that could induce seizures. Not a bad choice I guess, but he should have remembered the movie was more about would have been more effective to cut back and forth between Chuck shooting himself as he's trying to rape the girl. Now that'd be one death wish fulfilled.

~ JANUARY 30, 2013 ~
* And people usually associate "mental illness" with that British inmate who calls himself Charles Bronson - I guess that England + "Charles Bronson" = crazy person.
** I guess you could argue that the movie could have been a reaction to his character's obsessive revenge in Once Upon a Time in the West, but coming a mere 3 years after Leone's film that would display as admirable a foresight on the filmmaker's part as "predicting" the Charles Bronson that Charles Bronson would become.
*** In fact, you could argue that Bronson was the only "man with no name" in Leone's canon, since technically characters refer to Eastwood by name in all three of the Dollars movies. Although "Manco" in For a Few Dollars More and "Blondie" in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly are obvious nicknames and, yeah, the case could be made that "Harmonica" counts as a name under the same criteria, if we're accepting that Clint plays the same character in all three he's clearly identified as "Joe" in the first movie. I'm no nameologist, but to me that sounds like a name. (It's a footnote, let's not fight about it.)
** ** It would have made a lot more sense for Perkins to have planted the gun on Bronson: since Bronson reacts with surprise at finding the gun in his raincoat, he had clearly forgotten he had it. It also makes little sense that he removes one of the bullets and tells Bronson a shot's been fired, since his plot is based on convincing Bronson that the lover killed the wife...I guess he wants to create doubt in Bronson's head that he may have killed her? I dunno.
*** ** Depends on what you expect from the description "Oscar-caliber." To me, Wladislaw's speech about the officer taking off over that hill in Dirty Dozen is as calibrated as they come. I guess Hard Times would have been Chuck's best shot at an Oscar nod...he would have met stiff competition up against Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest and Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, but conceivably could have garnered more votes than Maximilian Schell in The Man in the Glass Booth or James Whitmore in Give 'em Hell, Harry!
*** *** Remember how Clint raped at least one woman, possibly two, in High Plains Drifter? But that's a topic for another article.
**** *** Also in real life Bronson was himself the "other man," sweeping Ireland away from her husband, Great Escape castmate David McCallum. Good thing McCallum couldn't find his own empty Bronson to train to kill Bronson.
**** ****The cheap dvd transfer makes the movie look like shit, but even picturing it on the big screen it's hard to forget the more impressive work of cinematographer Pierre Lhomme (Army of Shadows, Four Nights of a Dreamer, The Mother and the Whore, Sweet Movie.)