October 15, 2010

Charles Bronson: Port of Call - New Orleans

by Allen Irwin

Violent City (aka The Family) (1970) – dir. Sergio Sollima

This week the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Weird Wednesday” series screened Violent City (1970) with Charles Bronson. The film was made just before Dirty Harry (and all of the knock offs that followed), setting one of a few precedents for the violent crime thrillers of the 1970s. Director Sergio Sollima and Lina Wertmuller collaborated on the script’s re-writes (it was brought to Sollima by the studio in a nuts and bolts version), adding some Euro-art sensibilities missing from many exploitation films of the period. Bronson’s Jeff Heston is a trained assassin constantly being double crossed by everyone in both his personal and professional life, a plot that takes more than a few drags from Out of the Past’s smoking cigarette. However, the film uses the revenging criminal motif, as well as Bronson’s typical stoicism, to explore more deeply the lifestyle of an assassin.

The film is one of the best-made efforts screened at “Weird Wednesday”, a feat largely due to Sollima’s slick direction and the brooding script. Bronson is the perfect actor to play Jeff, an aging, tired assassin of few words whose profession is subtly gnawing away at his conscience. There are long, nearly silent passages of the film that at first glance might seem to be prime spots for action music, yet their meticulousness and cool objectivity undermine any shallow excitement for which they might be mined. The film’s opening car chase is a prime example of this tendency. Using only car sound effects as soundtrack, the chase is not only more thrilling than pretty much anything in recent films, but it underlines the concentration it takes to maneuver a car at high velocity down narrow island roads. Later, the film observes as Jeff patiently waits for a target to circle round and round on a racetrack until he can get the perfect shot. These scenes, coupled with flashbacks of Jeff’s hesitation during a job and memories of his brief elopement with femme fatale Vanessa Shelton, sketch Jeff’s character as someone who is tired of the criminal life but can’t escape it. The finale cements this theme, where Jeff’s skills as an assassin make his final act as painful as it is inevitable.

The film’s setting in New Orleans gives it ample space to fluctuate between freshly built metropolis and ancient bayou, yet another reflection of its protagonist’s disjointedness within his own world. The overall feel of the film seems oddly similar to what I’ve read about The American recently in that it is concerned with observing its protagonist without direct judgment, focusing instead on his meticulousness and detachment in lieu of obvious emotion. While the slow pace drags at times, it is by and large a benefit that allows time for the audience to draw their own conclusions about Jeff’s decisions.

The great thing about the film is that, in addition to its “art” component, it is also very enjoyable on a sheer Bronson-fest level. Filmed in 70s-Vision, including the requisite amount of zooms and overexposed tropics, the aesthetic is one that I love. Whether it’s Bronson exchanging tough-guy lingo with fellow thugs or gratuitous displays of Jill Ireland’s body, all the staples of classic Italian cinema are here. If nothing else, watching Bronson frolic on a beach wearing long jeans is a singular pleasure.

Telly Savalas co-stars as a rich, scheming kingpin and employs an enjoyable amount of scene chewing. Bronson’s then-wife Jill Ireland plays Vanessa. Ennio Morricone provides a rousing score. Violent City is currently available from Blue Underground.

Rating: ****

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