THE POINT OF DYIN': The Cinema of Charles Bronson

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, invariably greying, made up more than just a hardened resolve; a final, ruthless image for those unfortunate enough for it to visit upon. Even before things turned nasty and guns were unholstered in the movies he appeared in from the 1970's on, the promise of an ordained darkness burned like obsidan within that cadaverous expression, the only emotion registering from those beady, unrelenting eyes. Laying 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 and 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.

 

I remember the video box for Telefon from the old days: Bronson with a magnum in one hand, in the other an almost dimension-defying telephone receiver outscretched as if to say "It's for YOU, motherfucker!" From this cover image and the movie's title - which I assumed was in reference to one of those boring PBS pledge drives - I had imagined a sort of Speed-type scenario where a madman somehow rigs a live telethon to fit his evil mechanisations. Like, if the fundraisers were unable to meet their projected cash goal, he'd blow up the studio. Or, he calls to make some kind of similar threat during a live marathon and ends up speaking with the volunteer phone-answering wife of Bronson, who calls him to put a stop to this asshole's plan before the telethon ends* (the bomb presumably set to go off at the end of the event.) Possibly, the villain's life was somehow ruined by a telethon - he was busy watching one when his wife was raped and murdered downstairs and he ended up being put in jail for her murder and now he wants revenge...on telethons! But actually the title's not a portmanteau word after all: turns out, "telefon" is actually the Russian word for "telephone" (who says you don't learn anything from Charles Bronson action movie?) The man making the calls is disgruntled former KGB officer Donald Pleasance, who hightails it out of the Soviet Union before they can "disappear" him and travels to the States with the intention of setting off dozens of sleeper agents to commit terrorist acts across the country. All of these operatives are Russians brainwashed over 20 years ago to believe that they're regular boring blue collar American citizens: only upon receiving the final ominous lines of the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are they "activated" to slip into zombie mode, move wordlessly to their target and destroy it. At this point, most of the targets are themselves merely disused or declassified government facilities of no current strategic value...Pleasance is just making the calls and reciting the poem to expose the original operation, thus embarrassing his former bosses and having a little sadistic fun. To stop him, Russia sends in Pleasance's Great Escape castmate Bronson.

The premise is clearly pretty stupid, and more than a little indebted to The Manchurian Candidate. I do like that the people are triggered to destroy abandoned buildings and silos (the one who actually gets a live target is blown to hell before he's anywhere near it.) It confuses the hell out of the government types trying to figure out why these attacks are happening, but that unfortunately opens up a lengthy subplot padded with some truly awful exposition and gags centered around and provided by The Enforcer's Tyne Daly. I know, Daly's more famous for being Cagney or Lacey or Kate or Allie or the Golden Girls or whatever, but I mention Enforcer since Telefon was directed by Don Siegel. Following the success of Dirty Harry, Siegel had aspirations to auteurism - complete with "signature" director's credit - but he was still very much the journeyman. It's easy to forget considering the prestige of Harry and The Shootist and career-high greatness of Charley Varrick, but he was ultra-prolific, so although his eight-movie output in the 70's was tame compared to the 15 he made in the 50's, he was still close to clocking in at a movie a year while pushing 70. Several had to be director-for-hire gigs, as was Telefon: Bronson's people brought him in on it and Siegel did what he could to improve the project, even hiring Stirling Silliphant to rewrite Peter Hyams' script (one of Silliphant's first screenplays was Siegel's The Lineup.) But there's only so much that can be improved about a bland, fictional Cold War thriller from that era - even noted directors couldn't make anything out of John Huston's The Kremlin Letter**, Michael Apted's Gorky Park or Mark Robson & Monte Hellman's Avalanche Express. The generic Robert Ludlum-type potboiler was apparently all the rage in Hollywood, and none of them have dated well at all. Seeing old computers in movies doesn't normally bother me***, but these Tyne Daly scenes really draw attention not only to how archaic the clunky Commodores she's typing on are, but to how outdated the characters themselves are behaving.

Introduced coaching a pee wee hockey league in Leningrad, Bronson drops his accent faster than the ref drops the puck, but that's fine: he's speakin' Bronson. Because he's playing a Russkie, he seems even colder than usual. He does have badass moments, but almost all of them are aimed at a harmless Lee Remick, playing an American agent who's been assigned to help him. "If you make an effort to contact anyone, I'll kill you," and "I would like to go back to Moscow remembering you as being alive" are just two of the pleasantries he throws her way when he isn't twisting her arm just to make a point ("You have a terrific way with women," she confirms.) Of course, Remick falls in love with him. And since Bronson's spy is such a frigid brute, his mind on nothing save the mission (and, presumably, his hockey team's playoff chances this season), Remick sort of becomes the lead character by default. Which is unfortunate. I hate to criticize an attempt to give a female character a prominent part in an action movie back when that kind of thing wasn't common - especially when I've already singled out Tyne Daly as being distracting and unattractive (oh, didn't I mention that fact?) - but as a woman-of-action, Remick is awful...woman-y. She proves her uselessness in the action department when she blows a chance to catch Pleasance on her own. She's standing around on the street, recognizes Pleasance - he's sitting right there in his car! - yet somehow fails to stop him from escaping. He's right fucking there! He doesn't know you're after him! Walk up to the car and blow his brains out, it's over! Instead, she waits for him to start driving away and attempts to t-bone him with her own car, and he easily makes his getaway.

On top of that, she's given some incredibly woman-ish "conscientious objector" moments. It's not very convincing when Bronson orders her to kill one of the programees, a priest, who's survived his sabotage operation and ends up in the hospital and she argues: "I'm not objecting on moral grounds, but I'm just not about to walk in there and ICE somebody without knowing there's validity and purpose to the act!" Even if that didn't sound like the worst line ever written with the purpose of having a person read it out loud, what kind of cutthroat assassins are the CIA employing when they can't even send one to Bronson who can indiscrimately murder a stranger on command? A mere decade after Patrice Lumumba? (They must have worked out that glitch since the 70's, otherwise there'd be a lot more nuclear scientists running around Iran right now.) Remick does end up being bullied by Bronson into murdering the hospital guy, but her obstinance ruins what could have been a cool conflict in the third act of the movie. In a nice parallel, when Remick calls to check in with her CIA bosses, they tell her to kill Bronson once the assignment is complete. That's right, they tell her to do it over the phone. The telefon itself! Just like Pleasance setting off the sleeper agents, a nice connection there. The problem is, there's never any possibility of Remick actually carrying out the order. We've already seen her skittish over the idea of killing a complete stranger - how are we supposed to believe she would ever think of turning the gun on Bronson when it's been established that she's turned on by his beastly behavior?

In many respects, this is a bad movie to launch the Bronson series with. He doesn't even do much until the end. He sends a woman to perform his hit at the hospital. He does chase down an agent at a hotel, but the guy crashes his car - Bronson just shoots him afterwards. He takes out Pleasance at the end (in a phone booth, the irony!) but he isn't even introduced until almost half an hour into the movie. So he's pretty much outsourcing his duties as messenger of death in this movie ("phoning it in" you could say), but Siegel still focuses on the death sentences handed down to various programees by spending a good stretch of screentime following their post-activation missions. The first two deaths alone take up almost a full 20 minutes - they're so extended and detailed it's like Bela Tarr directing the pre-titles cold opening of a Bond movie. Later in the film, seven minutes of movie has elapsed from when a woman answers the phone to her blowing up a power plant: she drives to the desert (traverses roads with her station wagon, drives off-road), walks around in a robe, up a flight of stars (all in a slow, hypnotized type of walk), finds a rock, dusts off a some kind of map, follows it to another patch of dirt, digs up the dynamite, pulls out the primer and drops the plunge...all in real time. But it's so much more compelling than the stuff with Bronson and Remick (needless to say it's far more riveting than the "Tyne Daly makes the computer screen do funny stuff" sequences), probably because Siegel is much more interested in these everyday people whose lives are interrupted by orders to go and blow something up. Are these folks innocent? Technically they're Russian agents, but those past lives are long forgotten. Interestingly, several of them get their fatal phone call in decisively unsentimental moments, arguing with the wife or yelling at the kids to shut the hell up, supposedly a typical scene from their frustrating, go-nowhere existences. Who are these people? Siegel seems to ask. Is it part of the programming that they should live humdrum, unfulfilling lives (presumably so they wouldn't stick out in society and somehow blow their "cover"?) Siegel must have decided to show them in unflattering moments to lessen the harshness of their programmed suicides, otherwise why not have them right in the middle of a wonderful moment that's tragically cut short by their sudden transformation into walking timebomb?

It could be the director's intention is simply to point out the randomness of death: anybody can walk in front of a bus, or have a piano drop on him, or turn out to be a Soviet sleeper agent triggered to blow up a refinery RIGHT NOW. We're all as vulnerable to our fate as the victims in the movie are to Pleasance's heavily-accented poetry, unable to control when and where that phone call will be made. The most weirdly intriguing shot of the movie is an overhead shot of the robed housewife doing a terrible job digging up the dynamite, almost as if her "American persona" is floating above her own body, defenseless to stop what she's doing. Drawing her scene out really provides a sense of the pathos that could easily be lost beneath the central plot - the race to stop Pleasance - even if it seems almost like it's meant to be comedic, like something from the Seth MacFarlane school of "it's funny cuz it's stretched out interminably" type humor, or a Naked Gun-type joke.

Which brings me to the single weirdest thing about Telefon: its connection to The Naked Gun. To demonstrate the way the gimmick works, a KGB general offers Bronson some tea. He buzzes in a minion - once he's set down the tray and turned to head back to his doubtlessly tedious communist-oriented paperwork, the general recites the Robert Frost verse, causing the minion to freeze and his eyes to glaze over. The guy walks to a drawer, pulls out a gun, aims it at Bronson and repeatedly pulls the trigger. The chamber's empty and the weapon clicks harmlessly again and again; failing to eliminate his target, the guy puts the piece in his mouth and tries to blow his own brains out with similar failed results. While soldiers whisk the hapless lab rat away,**** the general grins as Bronson composes himself:

General: Have you ever seen drug-induced hypnosis?

Bronson: I think I just did.

Anyone familiar with The Naked Gun will recognize this as the scene where Ricardo Montalban reveals his fiendish plan to cohort Pahpshmir by having his brainwashed secretary fire an empty gun at him, transplanted more or less exactly from Siegel's movie right up to that two-line exchange. Was Telefon well-known enough that anybody would get that the Naked Gun scene was...not even a parody, but a straight lift from it? Its obscurity makes me think that they just outright swiped it, figuring nobody would know, but it's Naked Gun...those are supposed to be parodies, right? More than anything, it's just weird that the Zucker Brothers remembered a scene from this obscure Bronson movie so clearly. Maybe it was on tv while they were writing the script and they just got lazy. I bring it up because it really threw me when the scene came on, and I'm genuinely curious how many people seeing it for the first time immediately thought to themselves, "Ha! It's that scene from Telefon! Too much!" But on its own, the Telefon scene is another reflection on the randomness of death: the minion is programmed to be ready to blow his brains out, just as Remick should theoretically be prepared to pop Bronson as soon as the order is given. That she escapes the control of her supervisors (although, as pointed out, not dramatically) and runs off with Bronson argues that there may in fact be a point to dying, for those with the power to break their programming.

I didn't realize Telefon was directed by Siegel until reading his autobiography a few years ago. That book is full of the director's juggling of celebrity egos, with everyone from Steve McQueen to John Wayne giving him a hard time, and his Telefon star was no exception. Bronson refused to shave his trademark stache, informing Siegel "No moustache, no Bronson." That's an understandable ultimatum, but during production the actor also refused to kiss Lee Remick, posing as his wife, when his character arrives in America, explaining that he - Bronson - never kisses his wife at the airport. So his argument wasn't even that he didn't think the character wouldn't kiss his wife (a moot point anyway, since the character is himself undercover) but that he, Charles Bronson, doesn't kiss his wife at the airport (and the female lead wasn't even being played by Jill Ireland, his real-life spouse and frequent co-star.) Hm...did Bronson understand that he was ACTING? I mean, one assumes he wouldn't do a lot of things his characters have, unless the accusations of right wing fanaticism thrown at him after the Death Wish films were true, and he honestly would be willing to shoot a man with a bazooka in a small apartment from five feet away. In that case, this would be a reversal of John Wayne refusing to shoot guy in the back in The Shootist because "John Wayne wouldn't do that"...by not smooching Remick, Bronson is essentially admitting he's a fighter not a lover. Not many of his directors would disagree with that, and maybe it's something Don should have determined and moved on to the next set-up (he ended up telling Remick to do the kiss, the resulting awkwardness of which actually works really well in the movie.)

Superficially at least, the central idea of the film seems to share connections with Siegel's Body Snatchers - American citizens being replaced by mindless automatons casually murdering their way across the country, the idea that your neighbor may be somebody else entirely, the fallout from Cold War paranoia. In Body Snatchers, the telephone operator has already been replaced by a pod person by the time Miles tries to call out of town for help: the power of communication, specifically the marginalizing of those who find themselves powerless reaching out across the cold sea that is the American phone system, is a minor theme in both movies. Siegel does spend an inorbinate amount of time chronicling the plight of the programmed, and by having them give up the lives they've settled into in the States by being forced to bomb old, abandoned targets he's acknowledging - as he did in Body Snatchers - the empty victory of assimilation. But Telefon is bloated and largely missing that masterful Siegel touch. Although it takes place centrally in the U.S. and is essentially a road movie, its opening in Russia (shot in Finland) sets a bleak, detached tone that crosses the ocean with the hero and seeps into the boring scenes set at the offices in Langley. Like his protégé Peckinpah (whose final film The Osterman Weekend also deals with the CIA and Soviet sleeper agents), Siegel was meant to tell American stories with American characters like Harry Callahan, Walt Coogan and Charley Varrick. He never really clicks with his leads in Telefon, although that may explain why he gives so much attention to the minor characters who leave their families to set off on pre-set suicide missions (ironically, these characters were originally Russian.) Siegel makes up for the script's problems with little moments of humor like a good suspense sequence where the guy Bronson's chasing is on a direct line elevator going to the ground floor, while he's on one packed with the most people that can possibly fit on an elevator going one floor at a time (ah, the days before cell phones.) Although it's not a highlight for the director or star, the movie's not a total wash. It might even be worth remaking, if only to play with the idea of the brainwashed sleeper agents: maybe one of them turns out to be a Hollywood celebrity (tell me George Clooney wouldn't jump at that cameo?) They should at least think about it for Salt 2 or something.

Two more notable things about Telefon. While shooting in Helsinki, a young Renny Harlin was there watching Siegel and Charles Bronson working. Afterwards, he immediately announced to his friends that he was going to be a film director. This is relevant since Telefon is based on a book by Walter Wager, whose 1987 spy novel 58 Minutes would become the basis for Die Hard 2: Die Harder...he also wrote the novelization of Raw Deal, which isn't so much relevant as it is awesome. Also, the braided wedding bands worn by Bronson and Remick in the film are the same as those worn by Walter Matthau and Jacqueline Scott in Charley Varrick. Maybe if Bronson knew that, he would have lowered himself to allowing Remick a nice little loving peck at the airport.

* Actually I know for a fact this couldn't happen, since I worked one afternoon in high school on a televised pledge drive where I was one of these background "phone people" and learned that they are just living props, instructed to pick up the receiver every few minutes and pantomime speaking to a charitable party on the other end before hanging up and starting over again.

** Although Jean-Pierre Melville called Houston's movie "masterly" and saw it as "establishing the standard for cinema"??? Maybe I need to see that one again.

*** The one case I can think of where that really works well is in John Carpenter's The Thing with MacReady playing chess against the computer, because it feels like where they are they're just completely out of touch with the world - then he breaks the computer, so they're even more out of touch!

**** I thought it was pretty funny that the general lets the guards take the guy away without explaining anything, just leaving him to be shipped off to Siberia or whatever when he didn't do anything wrong (we do see him later in the movie, so I guess it all got straightened out.)

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