After appearing in bit parts in TV and films during the first half of the 1950s (including the 3D classics House of Wax and Miss Sadie Thompson), Charles Buchinsky became Charles Bronson around 1955, but it wasn’t until 1963 when The Great Escape finally started to push the actor to supporting roles, and eventually leading man status.
Bronson had co-starred in the test pilot drama X-15 (1961) – one of Richard Donner’s first feature films before The Omen (1976) and Superman (1978) pulled him from TV – but when he started earning top billing around 1970, the squinty-eyed actor was 49, and for the next 20 years remained an international box office star. His later work for Cannon may not have flexed his dramatic skills, but the still-buffed actor proved a mature actor could curry a screen persona that rivaled pretty boy studio proteges.
From Noon Till Three (1976), new on Blu from Twilight Time, represents Bronson the creative gambler; having proved his worth in action, crime, and western films, he tackled stoic variants with interesting spins, and Noon may be his least appreciated, oddest, and most unique, since it draws from all three, packs them into a western model, and shows Charlie shooting, laughing, romancing, swimming, and feeling swell.
Leap ahead 10 years, and we have Murphy’s Law (1986), also on Blu from TT. It’s a generic Cannon actioner that should be a formulaic mindless thriller with has-been actors slumming it, and to an extent the slumming is there, but Bronson doesn’t sleepwalk through an easy role. He does several stunts, looks like crap, and transcends the generic dialogue by giving a familiar archetype more depth than what likely lay in the printed page.
The strange thing about Bronson’s late career – the 1980s, when he was in his 60s – is that many of his films are still compelling and fun, which runs contrary to the rule of aging stars in generic fodder aimed at the international market who just want recognizable faces shooting guns. Bronson appeared in crap, but he was often more interesting than the aging stars that outranked him in box office stature or lengthy studio careers.
Chato’s Land (1972) should be nothing more than a politically incorrect, sadistic revenge saga in which white actor Bronson plays an indigenous American killing redneck bastards, but the actor’s minimalism and superb physique counter-balance the sadism and sleaze endemic to a Michael Winner film. It’s one of Bronson’s best performances, and in relating back to Noon, shows the actor could defy critics by taking a challenge and succeeding.
I remember when the teleplay Act of Vengeance (1986) was shown, several critics applauded Bronson’s rare break from formulaic work, portraying a real-life union leader targeted for murder. He also appeared in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner (1991), but his theatrical swan song ended up being the Toronto-shot Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), which fulfilled the need of home video rental shelves but dignified no one.
Toronto also served as the generic U.S. suburban backdrop in Family of Cops (1995), a slick TV movie by Canada’s Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood) which had Bronson playing a too-proud father who presides over a ‘family of cops’ and has to deal with a rebellious daughter (Angela Featherstone) who soon becomes a rookie blue. The two sequels were generic and marked Bronson’s career end in 1999, but regardless of their quality (both are pretty meh), they capped one of the most unusual careers in Hollywood.
Struggling in film and TV for almost 20 years, Bronson became an unlikely international star, and long after his career gambles ended by the late 1970s, he continued to work and transcend Cannon’s need for sexy product. (It’s also worth pointing out that the studio provided a career safety net for Winner, where he made several films, including two Death Wish sequels.)
Bronson’s middle career in the 1970s contains his most daring choices, whereas the late career stuff from the 1980s offered his most fun (if not the greatest amount of guilty pleasures), and the consistency over that roughly 25 year period resides in an amiable personality that belied his tough screen persona, which more often than not was synthesized in that patented squint, and what TT’s film historian Julie Kirgo refers to as Bronson’s “Tartar eyes.”
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Category: EDITOR'S BLOG