aka THE FAMILY
(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.
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.
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.