the cinema of charles bronson

~ intro 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.


j. lee thomspon, 1983.

~ by christopher funderburg ~

When Bronson made the late career switch from "all-purpose hard-as-nails tough guy" to "angel of righteous death," the philosophy of his films became explicitly reactionary. As large as Death Wish looms over his star persona in this era, it's not enough to say that he simply began embracing roles as a vigilante, a decent man pushed too far. Just as frequently, he played a cop (or even the patriarch of a whole family of cops) or a government operative (as in Telefon) - instruments of order, systemic agents. If the original Death Wish had an element of "sticking it to the man" in its portrayal of a victim rebelling against a corrupt and indifferent legal system, the sequel made sure to rectify that problem by featuring words of admiration and gestures of support from the police even as they sat in their offices trying to decide what's to be done about this Paul Kersey. It was only their noble oath to uphold the law and follow it to the letter that led them to curtail Kersey's righteous rampage - if they weren't on the force, in fact, they'd probably be out there doing the same thing their own damn selves!

As with the Dirty Harry series, the filmmakers themselves seem to have belatedly wised-up to the implications of the initial installment's inadvertent anti-The Man stance and used the immediate sequel to clarify the situation. Even the tacked-on fallen heroes roll-call and introductory platitudes about the San Francisco PD of Dirty Harry seem to indicate that director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood realized their film contained subtle, unintended overtones about police corruption and systemic indifference. With Magnum Force, Eastwood wanted to reassure us he wasn't in favor of either rogue police officers taking justice into their own hands nor implying that the SFPD was a collective of venal, lazy, serial-killer coddling fatsos. Death Wish II's notably less nuanced clarification boiled down to "no, no, don't worry, cops think this is awesome, too. They're just good guys who believe in law and order so much that they couldn't possibly do something as bold and unforgiving as bringing all these detestable creeps to justice via summary exeuctions."

Bronson's films in this late-career period are thematically joined by that kind of reactionary philosophy: it is the laws, written by out of touch liberals, that are the source of our society's ills. These laws are written not understanding the reality of crime, they tie the good guys' hands to prevent them from attacking the immoral elements of society and allow villains to hide behind legal theory as they menace their victims and spread their poisonous influence, always getting off on a technicality (oh man, do these creeps ever get off.) Interestingly, Telefon has a hint of admiration for Soviet Russia's totalitarian intolerance for disorder - although notorious for his portrayal of a man operating outside of the law to grotesque, excessive means, Bronson specialized in films that deep down believed that the police and government needed more power to crack down on creeps and pervs, less oversight in meting out punishment and delivering justice. In the sequels, Death Wish's button-downed family man Paul Kersey is not intended to be a sexy, dangerous rogue like Eastwood's Dirty Harry. You can't have a police force full of Harry Callahan's. But you sure could have one composed entirely of Paul Kersey's (the version of Kersey that exists in the sequels, anyway.)

That brings us to 10 to Midnight,* which is essentially Death Wish II but with Bronson as a cop. The plots of the two films are nearly identical: there's a creep out there who commits shocking crimes and avoids punishment by gaming the system, the creep(s) punitively goes after Bronson's family and makes the mistake of pushing our mustachioed hero too far. Wrong move, creep. 10 to Midnight pairs the actor with his soul-mate, the master of reactionary paranoia, J. Lee Thompson. Thompson was a British journeyman director (he made nine movies in total with Bronson) and worked in every genre, but his films that hit an audience with the most impact are ones like 10 to Midnight and the original Cape Fear: sleazy, primal films full of intimations that the world is lined with clever people who want to do heinous things to your wife and daughter but are too crooked and wily and remorseless to be stopped by anything less than violence delivered with an equally remorseless, grim focus.

It would be tempting to label the villains of his films (like Robert Mitchum's Cape Fear ex-con) as reptilian in nature and while there is something undoubtedly slimy and atavistic about these human beasts, they're also clever, thoughtful, calculating creatures: lizards with human brains. They slink into the shadows, lurk in the bushes and watch. They creep, but in service of a carefully-considered plan. In service of not only the pure pleasure of menacing the vulnerable, but also trapping them in a web of trickery that leaves them doubly violated by their inability to obtain justice. Sorry, ma'am, he didn't actually step on your property. We can't arrest someone for making creepy phone-calls. If he didn't touch your daughter, there's nothing we can do. It's his word against yours. And you, dear victim, are taken by surprised, panicked, off-balance and unable to contend with the creep's methodical intensity.

What makes casting Bronson so effective in these kind of roles, pitted against this kind of enemy, is his preternatural calm. Even in his vengeance fueled rampages, he seems totally in control of himself, unflappable and self-disposed. 10 to Midnight becomes the story of two masters of self-possession at the top of their game, battling it out for dominance. A pervert with a God complex versus the Angel of Death. That the serial killer in 10 to Midnight can manage to get Bronson on the defensive is a testament to his power and dangerousness; he's not preying on some teenage girl (although he does plenty of that), but backing into a corner our stone-faced personification of justice. J. Lee Thompson is an expert at pushing these buttons, although I'm not sure how much craft or artistry they actually take to press. A large part of the effectiveness of 10 to Midnight is its brutal simplicity; its well-worn structure playing like folktale where the details may change from telling to telling, but the overarching thrust remains. Murphy's Lawmeet Death Wish II. You might remember him as 10 to Midnight. It's the kind of simplistic non-art that Joseph Campbell made a career out of explaining.

The most interesting part of 10 to Midnight can be found in its striking portrayal of a serial killer and his methods. Bronson spent the latter part of his career bullying the boogeymen of suburbia: not only serial killers, but inner city minorities with headbands and boom-boxes,** communist sleeper agents, and pornographers. Bronson played the role of the last barrier between the swelling depravity in America of the late 70's (that spilled into the early 80's), white flight in human form. Notably, Bronson never meaningfully took on two of the most common 80's action villains: gigantic greedy corporations and foreign military forces/terrorists. He's purely an isolationist with no concern for economic injustice; he's the last man keeping it together in a wasteland of boarded up storefronts, wrapped up in his family life, thoroughly disinterested in joining a Delta Force and refighting Vietnam. The closest he came to breaking the mold was hunting down a Nazi doctor (now working for the U.S. government!) in The Evil that Men Do, but there’s something about so uncontroversial an adversary that it doesn’t feel related to the international conflict scab-picking of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris - in fact, his mission of vengeance is motivated by the death of an old buddy and not some outrage at the Nazi war criminals who escaped to South America.

He's not traumatized by the past, but he is deeply suspicious of what the future holds and losing what he's built, losing the foundation of order on which America is constructed. Who needs brown-skinned savages from Southeast Asia and the Middle-East to obsess over when we have so many right here at home in Chicago and San Francisco? Of course, more pertinent to 10 to Midnight is the suburban obsession with serial killers, an obsession which really boomed in the late 70's. The turning point*** in our national obsession with this specific brand of mass murder seems to have come in the form of Ted Bundy. In addition to being a prolific maniac, Bundy also used his good looks and upper-middle-class background to his advantage – he charmed his victims to their doom. Using his bright smile along with the oldest trick in the book,** ** Bundy would lure women into his trap of psycho-sexual torture. He didn’t kill prostitutes or poor people, but regular attractive suburban women. He trolled parking lots and malls. He twice escaped from prison to commit additional assaults and murders - not even incarceration could stop his rampage.

More importantly, low-class tabloid journalists and low-rent talk-show hosts of all stripes realized they could get rich off of these guys after Ann Rule wrote a biography about Bundy in which she pals around with him and doesn’t initially accept that he’s a killer. He charms her and the result is a smash hit. Her book, The Stranger Beside Me, gave form and market power to the true crime genre's serial killer subdivision and it has been thriving in semi-legitimacy ever since. Bundy’s good looks and charm worked with Rule’s book to make him a media sensation, but of a different sort than those killers who came before him – this man wasn’t a paranoid schizophrenic like the schlubby, off-putting David Berkowitz who claimed to be acting on orders from his neighbor's dog or a greasy, thick-glasses pedophile like the maniac of the popular imagination. Bundy was a celebrity. A bona fide star. But also a symbol of the moral rot lurking in the so-called "normal" people of America. A symbol of suburbia’s sick underbelly, of a world where you could no longer trust your neighbor not to be peeling the skin off of women in his basement. The advent of the "he was a quiet man." "He never gave us any problems, he seemed normal to me."

As a kid growing up in the suburbs in this era, I can tell you that the fear of serial killers was almost palpable. At any moment, a man in a windowless van was going to drive up while you were playing in your driveway and snatch you away to his torture basement. Beloved neighborhood party clown John Wayne Gacy would invite you over to his garage to look at his paintings and show you some magic tricks and, WHAMMO, he would slip some handcuffs on you and literally rape you to death. Serial killers provoke some particularly suburban anxieties with their ability to prey on children left alone in a spacious backyard, their opportunity to sneak into your hedge and peer into your bedroom window, the labyrinth of yards and parks and wooded areas through which they can creep. When the lights go off in suburbia at midnight, you can see the stars. But you can't see the man in the black hood, lurking, watching, waiting. Creeping. Knife in hand.

It's ten to midnight.

What Thompson's film gets right is it depiction of a serial killer. It's a strange fact that reactionary films - certainly the over-heated, hysterical and paranoid films in which Bronson came to specialize – these philosophically repulsive films get the details correct when it comes to serial murder in a way less morally reprehensible films don't. (Also, it's a wonderful mirror to just how wildly wrong they get street crime and bandana-wearing youths.) There's no shortage of the malevolent past-time of serial murder being depicted in le cinema – the go-to gag being that there are more serial killers in the movies than in the history of the real world – but it's surprising just how infrequently anything resembling reality appears on-screen.

Even a film revered in part for its research like Silence of the Lambs only gets it half-right: Ted Levine's Gary Heidnik-aping Buffalo Bill uses Bundy's broken-hand method of predatory deception, but Anthony Hopkin's lordly Hannibal Lector resembles no human being on the face of the planet, let alone the kind of sad, depraved mess that commits this sort of crime. His haughtiness (a common characteristic of killers) is warranted in the film, but almost never warranted in the real life: he has almost super-natural powers of prediction and his theories on Buffalo Bill are the kind of utter bullshit that leads the F.B.I. to waste time on the worthless activity of "profiling." He's purely a fantasy creation and I think those involved in the production would agree – his performance and depiction drift into the baroque, with his signature restraint mask and giant bird-cage cell.

If you look to more purely "crowd-pleasing" thrillers like Seven or Kiss the Girls, you'll find even less of a relationship to recognizable reality. And remember that slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th are technically about serial killers and decidedly aspire to provoke suburban anxiety. Again, none of these films are aiming for a realistic portrayal – something like The Bone Collector (or Psycho) intends to be nothing more than a Hollywood entertainment with a particularly unsettling bad guy. What sets 10 to Midnight apart from a fanciful work like Hitchcock's (supposedly but not really based on Ed Gein) classic can be found in its obsession with getting the details of its killer correct.

The final showdown in a dormitory for nursing students pointedly recalls the Richard Speck massacre, the killer's oily charm and interactions with the women in a movie theater are pure Ted Bundy, his total nudity while committing the crimes and scrubbing of the corpses to avoid leaving evidence an extremely common method for killers as is his targeting of sexually-engaged couples on remote lover's lanes (the Zodiac & Texarkana Phantom most notably.) He puts together an extremely plausible alibi by acting like a memorable creep to a pair of young women before and after a movie while sneaking out of the theater during the show – there's nothing unlikely or fantasical in his strategy (in comparison to, say, "seven deadly sins" theme-killings.) He suffers from impotence and sexual dysfunction, probably the most common characteristic of serial killers – Berkowitz, Gary Ridgeway, Henry Lee Lucas, Andre Chikatilo, etc. It would probably be easier to list the notorious serial killers that didn’t have problems with their junk.

In one the sharpest moments in the film, the killer gets furious when Bronson's character informs him how many boyfriends his promiscuous victim had – the killer's insecurity, jealousy and romantic incompetence clash with his deluded self-image as a God-like arbiter of life and death. Released in 1983, 10 to Midnight connects and reacts to the burgeoning serial killer sub-culture in ways that few films have before or since. I think Thompson wants to get the details right, to eschew exaggeration, because he's trying to make a point, because he's a true believer. He wants to warn his audience: evil is real. Speck, Chikatilo, Lucas, Bundy. Richard Ramirez. The Hillside Stranglers. Evil is real. There is an evil in this world unworthy of the defense of liberalism, unworthy of a place in a free society, unworthy of the protections of the law; there is an evil demanding to be served justice without mercy.

Please note that Bronson’s veteran cop Leo Kessler (his name even recalls Paul Kersey) decides to plant evidence to implicate the killer because he can't otherwise make his case. When he loses his job after getting caught engineering the frame-up, the film plays the moment like an injustice has been perpetrated against Kessler, not the man he was attempting to send away for life on fraudulent evidence. To Bronson and Thompson, this new evil justifies any response we can muster to stop it - victims of prosecutorial malfeasance are not victims at all, they're clever, immoral exploiters of "loopholes."

Kessler wants to defend his daughter, a nurse in the aforementioned dormitory, from the wrongfully exonerated but nonetheless "framed" killer and that feeling of wanting to defend wives and daughters is an essential component of the mood of the era: serial killers don't go after men as a rule (in the rare cases where they do target men, it's generally homosexuals like Jeffrey Dahlmer and his lobotomized victims.) The person in need of protection is not Bronson himself, but his loved ones. This is the essence of Thompson’s reactionary tendencies: they emphasize the sanctity of the family unit. Part of what makes his Cape Fear so memorable is its portrait of a family under siege, of familial bonds tested by evil. In 10 to Midnight, it is a widowed father and a grown daughter, a fragile family unit already under duress. In fact, even when Bronson’s characters are single or have girlfriends, they're never on the make because they're family men in the core of their being. There's a funny contrast between the hysteria 10 to Midnight wants to evoke in its audience and Bronson's passionless demeanor (a central feature of his star persona.) His role is set in stone and he is plagued by no doubts. He is a father, he does a father's duty.

As in the Death Wish and Family of Cops series,*** ** he is defined by his familial bonds, by his fatherly duties, and carries them out with a certainty and calm bizarrely at odds with those films' lurid, panicked tones. Maybe more than any star in history, Bronson played characters who were what they were - no character arcs, no emotional development. Can you imagine a movie involving Bronson having an epiphany of any kind beyond "the damn system isn’t going to do anything?" The power of Bronson's stories are derived from the ways in which they set his rigid star persona against depravity – and the nature of the depravity he faces: systemic, moral, psychological, philosophical.

In 1983, it would have been difficult to find a more appropriate kind of depravity for Bronson to be set against than a serial killer. A serial killer's evil and American culture’s twisted fascination with "that sort of thing" being a flawless example of the "new crime" and its enablers debasing the country (according to men like Bronson and Thompson.) He comes for your wives and sisters and daughters and gets off on a technicality. He's a pedophile, a homosexual, a clever man if not an outright intellectual. There is something unholy about the villain in 10 to Midnight, without being the killer demonic or supernatural. He's a little man playing at usurping God, gaining his power by disrupting the natural order. Thompson's films insists that when true evil reveals itself, it must be confronted with unflinching righteousness and order. Bronson, through the utter consistency of his roles, signaled that he wanted his audience to consider what they would do in the face of such inhuman villainy. When their time came, would they would hem and haw and nervously rub their hands together while fretting over due process or would they act accordingly to restore the natural order of the universe.

It is 1983, such villainy is ascendant. It is coming to your home in the suburbs, slithering into the soul of a nation. What will your role be? In 10 to Midnight, Bronson knows where he stands. He is the Angel of Death. He is above the laws of man. He takes those whose time has come.

~ AUGUST 8, 2012 ~
* I should probably point out the tagline for 10 to Midnight is “Forget what’s legal… do what’s right!”
** Poor Laurence Fishburne.
*** It’s like “the tipping point,” only it’s a concept that has existed for centuries and isn’t self-congratulatory sophistry spouted by an ethics-deficient corporate shill.
** ** He would wear a fake cast on his hand to appear harmless and ask women to help him with some menial task that he couldn’t do because of the hurt hand.
*** ** And in the Thompson films Murphy’s Law, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects and Messenger of Death. For 17 years, Bronson’s characters were defined first and foremost in terms of their family. Assassination, The Evil That Men Do and the t.v. movie The Sea Wolf are the only films in the era from Death Wish II (1982) through his final film Family of Cops III (1999) where he stars in which he isn’t defending/avenging/working with a member of his family (although, in Evil That Men Do, his contract killer assembles a surrogate family as cover for his excursion.) Even in Yes Virgina, There is a Santa Claus, he plays a reporter given a special assignment to get his mind off of his recently deceased wife. It’s the one movie I can think of where he avenges his dead wife by helping a little girl to believe again. In Kinjite, he makes a guy eat a watch.