Charles Bronson remembered
By coincidence, I saw Charles Bronson’s greatest film for the first time in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, just a week or so before his death at the weekend. Bronson was not a great actor, in the histrionic sense (he had no range, subtlety or wit), but he could do something just as difficult and (in the hands of the right director, like Sergio Leone) just as good. He could *be* on screen. He embodied in himself an image, a screen persona with consummate comfort, as if he was just being himself. And if you doubt that even literally playing yourself on screen is not as easy as it looks, check out Brett Favre in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY or Monica Lewinsky in her SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE appearance.
Bronson’s character, which almost never changed, was taciturn and brooding like John Garfield, stoic and tough like John Wayne. He followed trails blazed by Clint Eastwood, both in Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and then later in the urban-vigilante genre. He was a man you didn’t wanna mess with, but was righteous enough not to mess with you for no reason. In other words, it was an image of pre-therapy masculinity. This summa cum laude graduate of the School of Hard Knocks (in real life as well as a screen persona) had all this chiseled onto a face that was perhaps the ugliest ever on a Hollywood leading man. But that leather face was perfect for Leone’s grubby, dusty, gorgeously-lit and -framed pictures. And the harmonica.
Besides being raw material for the virtuoso Leone, Bronson was also good in solid unpretentious 60s action films like THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE (the latter of which is one of the few films I remember seeing and liking quite a bit before the cinephilia bug bit in the late 1980s). I also think the first DEATH WISH film is not bad (it got boring by repetition; the reputation of the original ROCKY suffers for this same reason). But Bronson’s great late role is his lead character in the Walter Hill tough-guy picture HARD TIMES. The climactic bare-knuckle-boxing fight at the end could star nobody else but Bronson, because it *was* Bronson. Its virtues were his virtues. It’s an aging man, scrapping through the Depression with nothing but his bare hands, and doing it with no histrionics or self-analysis. The fight is shot like no other climactic fight that I can recall. It takes place in real time, with no music and not much editing or any form of flash. There’s a lot of grunting and pushing, and is grubby and tough. The fight has both a logical trajectory and is competitive enough for long enough (and then increasingly less so) that you see how difficult it is to beat up somebody who’s just as tough as you. And it ends as it does because of an understanding of masculine honor and virtue. You may lose the game, but there’s still honor in playing by the rules. Don’t pretend you won’t lose though. Bronson finally lost the game of life, like we all do … eventually. RIP.