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A triple bill of ’70s Charles Bronson: the man, the myth, the mustache

Starting this Friday, July 16, UW Cinematheque kicks off a short Friday series that shows there’s more to Bronson than just “Death Wish.”

Photo Collage: Bronson’s range in costume. Clockwise from top left, Bronson is seen in “Mr. Majestyk“ (1974), “From Noon Till Three“ (1976), and “Hard Times“ (1975). Bronson plays a Vietnam vet-turned-watermelon farmer in “Mr. Majestyk,“ wearing a brown newsboy cap and rugged blue button-up shirt. In the Western romantic comedy “From Noon Till Three,” Bronson, dressed in a black outlaw tuxedo, dances with co-star Jill Ireland. Onlookers press against a chain link fence enclosing Bronson as he squares up against his opponent in a bare-knuckled fight in “Hard Times.”

The summer schedule at UW Cinematheque always has some treats for fans of 1970s action films, and this season they’ve curated a trio of 35mm presentations—Mr. Majestyk (1974), Hard Times (1975), and From Noon Till Three (1976)—celebrating the 100th birthday or centennial of one of that decade’s biggest stars, Charles Bronson. Born into a family of Lithuanian-American coal miners in 1921, Bronson served in World War II and studied painting before taking up acting because “it seemed like an easy way to make money.”

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Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in Westerns and war movies but didn’t really break out as a leading man until heading to Europe in the late 1960s. Roles like the harmonica-playing gunman in Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) helped make him an international movie star. Returning to Hollywood with an established fan base, Bronson was able to focus on vehicles tailored to his physical prowess and minimalist acting style. His role as an assassin in Michael Winner’s The Mechanic (1972) cemented his on-screen persona as a taciturn, mustachioed killing machine, one that he’d be typecast in for the rest of his career. While Bronson’s filmography varies wildly in quality, UW Cinematheque has selected three of his best performances to show there’s more to Bronson than just his most recognizable Death Wish (1974).

Written by great pulp fiction author Elmore Leonard and directed by Richard Fleischer, Mr. Majestyk (1974), screening July 16 at 5 and 7 p.m., is a tongue-in-cheek play on genre tropes and Bronson’s own macho persona. Bronson plays Vince Majestyk, a Vietnam vet-turned-watermelon farmer who just wants to get his crop harvested. After beating up a local hoodlum (the delightfully slimy Paul Koslo), Majestyk gets sent to jail, where he quickly runs afoul of mafia hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri). Foiling Renda’s attempted jailbreak, Majestyk attempts to use the gangster as a bargaining chip with the police, but Renda escapes and becomes obsessed with getting his revenge. When the mobsters beat up his farmhands and machine-gun his melon crop, Majestyk is forced to confront Renda head-on.

Filled with car chases, fistfights, and Leonard’s trademark flair for theatrical dialogue, Mr. Majestyk manages to be a rollicking action film while also having fun with the ridiculousness of its “they messed with the wrong guy” premise. Only an actor as stoic as Bronson could pull off Majestyk’s countless lines of dialogue about melons with a straight face, and his ability to play such a silly role seriously makes the film work. 

Mr. Majestyk was unfairly overshadowed by Bronson’s next film, Michael Winner’s incendiary Death Wish, originally released a mere 12 days after Majestyk. The vigilante revenge film struck a nerve with moviegoers, finally making Bronson a bona fide movie star in the United States. That film’s success at least gave him a chance to take risks with his next projects, which resulted in two of his most unusual performances in Hard Times (1975), screening July 23 at 5 and 7 p.m., and From Noon Till Three (1976), screening on July 30 at 5 and 7 p.m.

Writer-director Walter Hill’s feature debut, Hard Times, is set in Depression-era New Orleans, where aging drifter Chaney (Bronson) teams up with wily street-fight promoter Speed (James Coburn). Although they distrust each other, neither can resist the chance to make some money in the world of underground boxing. Speed’s wheeling and dealing coupled with Chaney’s fighting ability quickly makes their partnership a success.

Chaney plans to leave town as soon as he’s saved up enough money; but when Speed gets in over his head with the local loan shark, Chaney has to risk betting his own savings on one last fight to save his friend. Here, director Hill establishes the themes and storytelling techniques he would use throughout his career, exploring the tenuous bonds between characters fighting for survival and stripping his narrative down to the bare essentials. Hard Times is maybe the closest to an autobiographical film as Bronson ever made, having hopped trains and worked in the mines during the Great Depression. While his lines are scant and curt, Bronson plays Chaney with a world-weary realism not seen in his other films, and it’s truly one of his best dramatic performances.

Frank D. Gilroy’s From Noon Till Three, by contrast, is a remarkably odd chapter in Bronson’s career—a light romantic comedy set in the Old West. After his horse is injured on the way to a bank robbery, outlaw Graham Dorsey (Bronson) is left behind by his gang and turns up at the home of wealthy widow Amanda Starbuck (Bronson’s then-wife and frequent co-star Jill Ireland). The two improbably fall in love over the course of three hours, but after the bank robbers are caught, Dorsey is forced to flee with a posse on his trail. Eluding his pursuers, he nevertheless ends up getting thrown in jail in a case of mistaken identity. Starbuck, believing him dead, turns their afternoon romance into a best-selling novel. When Dorsey is released from prison, he finds that he’s been turned into a larger-than-life folk hero, and realizes Starbuck as well as the rest of the world prefer a dead legend to a live man.

Adapting his own novel to the screen, Gilroy lets the film play as broad comedy until the third act, as Dorsey is slowly driven insane by the maudlin popular song based on Starbuck’s novel. Bronson was never known for his range or comedic touch, but From Noon Till Three shows his subtle ambitions as an actor. It’s easy to see why an intensely private celebrity like Bronson would be drawn to a story about the dangers of myth-making and having your personal life exposed to the public eye. The movie flopped, though, and Bronson then reverted to the typecast characters audiences expected of him, appearing in Death Wish sequels well into his seventies.

With a leathery, inexpressive face and stilted speech, Charles Bronson was an unlikely movie star. But his quiet charisma and imposing physical presence helped lay the foundation for the modern action movie genre, and more, as the UW Cinematheque showcases across three Fridays this month.

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