Monday, December 16, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: VIOLENT CITY (1970)

(Italy/France - 1970/1973 US release)

Directed by Sergio Sollima.  Written by Sauro Scavolini, Gianfranco Galligarich, Lina Wertmuller, Sergio Sollima.  Cast: Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Jill Ireland, Umberto Orsini, Michel Constantin, Ray Sanders, Benjamin Lev, Peter Dane, George Savalas, Goffredo Unger. (R, 109 mins)

Charles Bronson (1921-2003) was a late bloomer when it came to mega-stardom.  A working actor in movies since 1951, he became a reliable supporting actor throughout that decade, acting under his real name "Charles Buchinsky" until 1954.  With small roles in classics like HOUSE OF WAX (1953) and VERA CRUZ (1954), and countless TV gigs, he made his presence known and in 1958, got his first lead in Roger Corman's MACHINE GUN KELLY.  But it was still mainly supporting roles after that, though he found some degree of fame as part of ensembles in blockbusters like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).  Even as Bronson was co-starring in big-budget extravaganzas like BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), he was still doing TV guest roles and felt like he was spinning his wheels.  After two more supporting roles in the 1968 westerns VILLA RIDES and the French/Italian/Mexican co-production GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN, Bronson opted to test the waters of the European film industry and it proved to be the best move he could've made.  With his career stalled at home, European audiences embraced the veteran journeyman actor and turned him into a superstar.  1968's FAREWELL, FRIEND (better known these days as HONOR AMONG THIEVES) paired him with French icon Alain Delon, and he had one of his signature roles as Harmonica in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), a film that bombed in the US when released but is now considered one of cinema's essential westerns.  Over the next few years, Bronson occasionally dabbled in American films like YOU CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL (1970) or the British LOLA (1970), which gave the 49-year-old actor one of his strangest roles as a 38-year-old writer falling in love with a 16-year-old (Susan George), but his run of generally Italian and/or French films from 1969-73 made him the top box office draw in Europe.  Most of these films would open in the US--often belatedly--and some, like 1971's RED SUN and 1972's THE VALACHI PAPERS, would become hits, but never on the level that they did in Europe.  Bronson was the king of the European box office and by 1972, he gradually started to work his way back into American films with that year's THE MECHANIC and 1973's THE STONE KILLER.  1974 was the turning point of Bronson's career:  on July 17, MR. MAJESTYK opened, and a week later, the vigilante thriller DEATH WISH was released.  DEATH WISH provided a template for every vigilante film that followed it, and it became a blockbuster smash and a hot-button controversy that addressed very real concerns of crime in 1970s NYC.  Over two decades into his career and at 53 years of age, Bronson was finally a Hollywood A-lister, global megastar and, it's worth mentioning, aftershave pitchman for the Japanese market.

Telly Savalas' career path was remarkably similar to Bronson's in many ways, even intersecting in BATTLE OF THE BULGE and THE DIRTY DOZEN.  Savalas (1922-1994) was another jobbing actor who spent a lot of time in supporting roles and on TV and didn't even make his big-screen debut until he was 39 years old.  He got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 1962's BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, his fifth film, and even played nefarious 007 villain Blofeld in 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.  Savalas' Oscar nomination (he lost to Ed Begley in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH) kept him busy but didn't really open any doors to stardom for him, and he was back on TV the next year (though one of those TV roles was in the legendary TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Living Doll," where he's a cruel disciplinarian stalked by his stepdaughter's angry doll Talky Tina).  Usually cast as villains and psychos, Savalas was in constant demand but, like Bronson, grew frustrated with the predictability of the work.  He spent most of the early 1970s in Europe, where he still played villains and psychos (his performance in 1972's REDNECK has to be seen to be believed), but was granted the VIP treatment that came with being a big-name American guest star in European genre fare, which explains why a lot of aging American actors of that era (Joseph Cotten, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer, etc) logged a lot of time in Eurotrashy projects that were usually beneath them.  Savalas' career was all but dead in America until he took the lead in the CBS TV-movie THE MARCUS-NELSON MURDERS (1973), playing tough NYC cop Lt. Theo Kojak.  The movie was a ratings hit and it spun off into the hugely-popular TV series KOJAK, which ran from 1973 to 1978.  With his signature lollipop and his "Who loves ya, baby?" catchphrase, "Kojak" became virtually interchangeable with Savalas himself, and the actor comfortably coasted on that image for the rest of his career.

Bronson and Savalas becoming American pop culture icons at roughly the same time led to an extensive backlog of their European movies flooding US theaters and drive-ins as late as 1976.  That, coupled with the success of 1972's THE GODFATHER, led to the tardy US release of Sergio Sollima's VIOLENT CITY, a 1970 Italian/French gangster thriller that paired the two for the third time.  Retitled THE FAMILY, with one-sheet art blatantly copying the GODFATHER font, the film was given a small rollout in 1973, then expanded nationwide in 1974 to capitalize on DEATH WISH and KOJAK being all the rage.

Opening with a killer Ennio Morricone score and an impressive Virgin Islands car chase that's hampered somewhat by some rear-projection work from inside the car that pays close attention to continuity but still looks a bit shoddy, VIOLENT CITY has professional hit man Jeff (Bronson) and his girlfriend Vanessa (Bronson's wife and frequent co-star Jill Ireland) pursued by hit men, with Jeff shot and left for dead by his friend Coogan (an uncredited actor whose identity has never been verified), who runs off with Vanessa.  Hospitalized and sent to prison, Jeff is eventually paroled and obsessed with finding Vanessa and Coogan.  He does this against the advice of his lawyer Steve (Umberto Orsini) and with the help of his smack-addicted hitman buddy Killain (Michel Constantin, dubbed by the gravelly Robert Spafford).  Coogan, a champion stock-car racer, isn't too hard to find and Jeff shoots out his tire during a race at Michigan International Speedway, causing a fiery crash and explosion.  But someone took pictures of Jeff in the act.  He's being blackmailed by the minions of New Orleans crime boss Al Weber (Savalas), who's been trying to lure the fiercely independent Jeff into his organization.  Jeff has no interest, but placates Weber by hearing him out only to discover that Weber's hot young wife is Vanessa.  Steve, who essentially functions as Weber's consigliere, knew this all along, and was trying to keep Jeff from finding out.

VIOLENT CITY finds Bronson in what would become his typical "vengeance" mode, but rather than taking out some punks who harmed his family and friends, a motif that would come to define his screen persona post-DEATH WISH, his Jeff is more of an enraged, heartbroken sad sack.  His quest for revenge becomes more of a suicide mission as he plots to take out Weber's entire organization, all as a buildup to his revenge against Vanessa.  Spaghetti western vet Sollima (THE BIG GUNDOWN, RUN MAN RUN) and his co-writers (among them a just-starting-out Lina Wertmuller) pull a nifty bait-and-switch by making you think Savalas' Weber is the antagonist, but it's really Vanessa.  Weber is just another of her victims.  Never a particularly strong actress and largely dismissed by critics because she was Bronson's wife and acted almost exclusively in his movies after she left MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. co-star David McCallum for him, Ireland delivers what might be her best performance in VIOLENT CITY.  Vanessa is revealed to be a classic femme fatale who destroys every man with whom she comes into contact.  Witness the way she turns the strutting, larger-than-life Weber into a cuckold in dorky Coke-bottle glasses that constantly keep sliding down the bridge of his nose.  Savalas plays this subtle shift beautifully, introduced with a completely self-aggrandizing monologue to Jeff and all but begging for his life when he realizes that he never really was in charge once he married Vanessa.  But Sollima saves the best for the climax, a beautifully filmed, mostly silent set piece with Vanessa and the bottom-feeding Steve--who becomes her latest doomed paramour once Weber's out of the picture--in a glass elevator as Jeff, now the subject of a citywide manhunt after Weber's murder, takes them out from the top of a nearby building...and calmly waits for the inevitable.  You could argue that Bronson is miscast in the role--he seems too old at times, especially when Weber and Killain both make references to his youth and inexperience in mob life; Bronson was a year older than Savalas and three years older than French actor Constantin.  Sollima has said that the script was first offered to Jon Voight, then riding high on MIDNIGHT COWBOY, but when he declined, it made its way to Bronson, with whom Ireland came as a package deal.  Putting Voight in the role of Jeff, things probably make a lot more logical sense, but Bronson obviously works because he's Bronson.

With its fusion of the gangster and film noir genres, its scenic New Orleans location shooting, and Morricone's memorable score, VIOLENT CITY easily ranks alongside Rene Clement's RIDER ON THE RAIN (also 1970) as the best of Bronson's star vehicles during his European sojourn.  It became a modest hit throughout 1974 in the US after being retitled THE FAMILY, and aired in prime-time on CBS in 1975 before becoming a regular late-night TV offering in syndication in the '80s.  After DEATH WISH, Bronson had the clout to make the kinds of films he wanted to make, which resulted in oddities like the romantic western FROM NOON TILL THREE (1976), which of course co-starred Ireland, but fans wanted him in DEATH WISH mode.  After a string of box-office disappointments like LOVE AND BULLETS (1979), CABOBLANCO (1980), BORDERLINE (1980), and DEATH HUNT (1981), Bronson relented and gave the fans what they wanted with DEATH WISH II (1982), and while he continued to make entertaining actioners for B-movie icons Golan & Globus (most notably 1985's insane DEATH WISH 3), he rarely exerted himself after that and as his fans got older, the action heroes got younger, and the movies got bigger and louder, nobody was going to see the geriatric Bronson in things like MESSENGER OF DEATH (1988) or KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS (1989).  After the drug overdose death of his stepson Jason McCallum in 1989 and Ireland succumbing to a long battle with breast cancer in 1990 at just 54, Bronson's heart really wasn't in movies anymore.  He went to the vigilante well one more time with 1993's tired DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH, and took a stab at being a character actor with a small role in Sean Penn's 1991 directorial debut THE INDIAN RUNNER, playing the father of the two protagonists (David Morse and a young Viggo Mortensen). Bronson only has a couple of scenes early in the film, but he's quietly powerful and undoubtedly drawing on his own grief as his character commits suicide after the death of his beloved wife.  It was the first time in years that he was actually required to act, and though his screen time was brief, it was enough to show that he still had it.  After turning down the role of Curly, the intimidatingly leathery trail boss in CITY SLICKERS--quite angrily, according to Billy Crystal--only to see Jack Palance get an Oscar for it, Bronson then appeared in a handful of made-for-TV movies, eventually retiring from acting altogether by the late '90s.  Always private even at the height of his fame, Bronson's final years found him completely off the radar, and only near his 2003 death was it revealed that he was in the final stages of Alzheimer's.  Bronson remains a screen legend, and while most of the films from his European phase have fallen through the cracks over the years (you don't hear much about COLD SWEAT, CHINO, or the underrated psychological thriller SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR these days), they were vital in challenging him as an actor and for establishing the Bronson that we knew for the last 30 years of his career.

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