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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Stone Killer (1973) review


Charles Bronson (Lt. Lou Torrey), Martin Balsam (Al Vescari), Jack Colvin (Lionel Jumper), Paul Koslo (Alfred Langley), Norman Fell (Captain Les Daniels), David Sheiner (Guido Lorenz), Stuart Margolin (Mr. Lawrence)

Directed by Michael Winner

The Short Version: Charles Bronson's on a Winning streak with his third film for director Michael Winner. Now in 'Tough Cop' mode, Bronson makes your day in a film that punches the clock as a quasi DIRTY HARRY (1971), while working overtime as a Mafia thriller. It's a convoluted, if violent tale of mob vengeance that crams a multitude of themes and cultural variance into a 95 minute running time. Nowhere near as linear or as orthodox as Siegel's iconic 'angry cop' classic, it's still incredibly stylish and raw all at the same time. THE STONE KILLER is bloody, occasionally grotesque in its violence, and features more variance in locations than Pam Grier's costume changes in FOXY BROWN (1974). As a bonus, there's some superb dummy deaths for mannequin masochists.

New York detective Lou Torrey is transferred to LA after a chase with a teenage criminal ends in the boy's death. Once there he immediately finds himself embroiled in a hot case after arresting a former hitman named Armitage. Learning he's wanted for murder back in New York, Torrey is then assigned to extradite him back to the Big Apple. Upon his arrival, Armitage is inexplicably gunned down outside the airport. Before he was snuffed out, Armitage loosed his lips on a future hit of some significance. This bit of info leads Torrey into a complex conspiracy involving Vietnam vets and a mobsters revenge for a 42 year old vendetta known as The Night of the Sicilian Vespers.

Bronson gets Dirty in this violent cop thriller from soon-to-be DEATH WISH director, Michael Winner. Interestingly, the controversial British filmmaker had just done a Wild West version of DEATH WISH with Bronson laying down Indian law in CHATO'S LAND (1972). While that was a warm-up for the iconic, modern-day vigilante favorite, Winner next turned Bronson into a hitman with THE MECHANIC (1972).

Following up his tale of an assassin and his young apprentice, Winner does an immersive, if convoluted, imitation of Siegel's DIRTY HARRY (1971). But whereas the Eastwood classic is far more linear in its narrative, Winner's film requires your undivided attention. This is one of those movies where you want to make your snacks BEFORE you sit down to watch it. 

Based on John Gardner's book, 'A Complete State of Death', this cinematic adaptation begins on very familiar ground, with Bronson uttering Callahanian dialog while his superiors rub his excessive style the wrong way. In the book (what few details I've gathered about it), Torrey's first name is Derek, and comes from Scotland Yard. The storyline is a bit different and sleazier than its celluloid counterpart.

The plot literally thickens after ten minutes when new characters are introduced--some of whom are quickly killed off in hails of machine gun fire. At the thirty, we've got Vietnam vets, flamboyant hitmen (like MR. MAJESTYK's Paul Koslo), and Bronson as the chisel-faced cop trying to put the pieces together... just like the viewer will be doing if you're not paying close attention. And if that weren't enough, there's a hippie commune and black panthers added to the mix. Soon after, it becomes clear the heart of the film lies in a 42 year old Sicilian vendetta for a massacre that occurred in April of 1931.

With an epic number of characters to contend with, Gerald Wilson's script is a little too ambitious for a 95 minute movie. It feels a bit thin in places, especially considering it's crowded with every crime trope and social strata of the time period. Some of these feel arbitrary, and do nothing to make the film less confusing for anyone that may have ADD.

The picture, enterprising in scope as it is, could've used a bit more meat on the bones. For example, the film touches on the damage done to those who have returned from the war. The usage of 'Nam vets is integral to the storyline, but we get little insight into these men; and not much more as to why Vescari chooses them for his revenge other than referring to them as 'Stone Killers', or outsiders.

Delving into Mafia traditions and how they've regressed over the years, a little more elaboration into Vescari's disenchantment with changing syndicate customs would've given that character more weight. Played by Martin Balsam, the film revolves around his deep-seated vendetta; yet secondary villains tend to dominate the film with Balsam's Vescari popping in on occasion to remind you who the real bad guy is. One of his character's best moments is inside a church where a lies during a confessional; this leading into an ambiguous ending.

Balsam played another mob boss that same year in Alberto De Martino's outstanding IL CONSIGLIORI (COUNSELOR AT CRIME); one of many THE GODFATHER-inspired movies coming out of Italy at that time. Two years earlier, Balsam was essaying the role of a jaded policeman in Damiano Damiani's genre classic CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971). In 1985, Balsam would turn up in another Bronson movie, DEATH WISH 3; in that film, the two men have a grand rapport between them. Surprisingly, neither men share a scene in THE STONE KILLER.

Unlike Eastwood's Callahan, Bronson's Torrey has a somewhat better grasp on his temper. Often phlegmatic, quick-witted, and a bit philosophical, Torrey is a multi-faceted personality. Bronson himself is more or less interchangeable from his other Winner roles, yet the 1970s provided him with a far greater selection of differing roles than the 1980s did.

Despite being made so soon after Siegel's movie, Winner's pseudo-duplicate feels less like DIRTY HARRY than later Bronson coppers like the grandiosely sleazy 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983) and MURPHY'S LAW (1986).

Prior to this movie, Bronson starred in THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972), another De Laurentiis production based on a novel, and a film that was specifically about the code of the Mob. It's recommended as well.

The action sequences are well done if few and far between during the first seventy minutes; after that, things pick up considerably, culminating in an eye-opening, vicious denouement packed with blood squibs and bodies spiraling from high altitudes. If you're a connoisseur of dummy deaths, THE STONE KILLER has some of the finest examples of mannequin abuse in all of cinema history.

Additionally, one of the film's greatest assets is the variety in locations. There's a new one seemingly every couple of minutes. Winner and his crew revel in the grime and chipped paint of urban cityscapes; the colorful, cramped environs of local dives; and even the open isolation of the desert. As complicated as the narrative can be at times, it's multitude of settings gives the picture an ambitious scope.

On a minor note, if you're a fan of the comedy series THREE'S COMPANY, two of that programs stars are in this movie--a young John Ritter and Norman Fell.

Fans of Charles Bronson and 70s crime pictures are the prime targets of THE STONE KILLER. Next to the films it emulates like DIRTY HARRY (1971), THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE GODFATHER (1972), it's fairly obscure; and that's a shame, as it's just as stylish and well-made as those movies, if a little too ambitious for its own good.

This review is representative of the Twilight Time bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1; region A; isolated music track; audio commentary with Bronson biographer Paul Talbot; original theatrical trailer. Limited to 3,000.

1 comment:

JMR777 said...

I saw this on TV many years ago, its a shame it has fallen off the radar. I rank it among Bronson's best since as you mentioned he plays a multi-faceted character instead of the stereotypical 'kill all the bad guys then kill the boss bad guy' that seemed to be the formula Hollywood favored in the 1980's for him and other action stars.

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