Charles Bronson had a long and successful working relationship with British director Michael Winner. Their six-film partnership began with the 1972 western Chato’s Land and was cemented with The Mechanic (1972), with Charles Bronson playing a veteran hit man, and the box-office smash Death Wish (1974), the defining urban revenge film of the 1970s and the film that catapulted Bronson to superstar status in his fifties.
The Stone Killer (1973), their third collaboration, arrived in theaters less than two years after Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) and turned the maverick cop into a cultural icon. Bronson plays New York police detective Lou Torrey, a loner cop in the Harry Callahan vein who prefers confrontation to dialogue. Bronson was 51 when he shot the film and while his craggy face betrays his age, he’s very much the man of action on screen, running up staircases, climbing down fire escapes, chasing suspects through streets and alleys, and in one scene leaping straight up into the air and onto a table from a standing start, as graceful as a cat. After killing yet another suspect in a shoot-out, he resigns and relocates from the Big Apple to the LAPD, where he’s partnered with a slow-witted bigot (Ralph Waite of The Waltons) and uncovers a conspiracy that leads to highest levels of the mob.
Michael Winner is best remembered stateside (as much as he’s remembered at all) for directing Charles Bronson to vigilante stardom in “The Mechanic” and “Death Wish” (to name just two of their many collaborations). But before he crossed to pond for Hollywood, Winner was a British director whose stock in trade was comedy and satire, sixties style. He was pretty good, too, if inconsistent, as films such as “The Girl Getters” (available from VCI) and “I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname” (Anchor Bay, currently on moratorium) attest. More evidence arrives in two recent MOD releases.
The 1965 “You Must Be Joking” (Columbia Pictures Classics) is a scavenger hunt comedy by way of a military farce made by a director under the influence of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The script suggests “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” redesigned for a youth audience, with a small company of authority figures stripped of their authority and pit against each other in a race through London to collect five random object by hook or by crook. It’s a test designed by an off-kilter army psychiatrist (Terry Thomas, of course) to test the ingenuity and creativity of aspiring leaders for the new modern army. Along with all the British caricatures (Denholm Elliot as a cool aristocrat who swills cocktails while his servants chase down the objects, Lionel Jeffries as the drill sergeant of a career soldier, Lee Montague as the apoplectic army engineer) is Michael Callan as the American army’s contribution to the contest, who gets help from his swinging British girlfriend and a sexy French pop star. Old school British humor and contemporary cultural satire rub shoulders throughout and Winner never seems to know which audience to favor. A dryly witty scene set in a record company autograph mill where a staff of little old ladies sign fan pics of teen idols is followed by a tone-deaf parody of the Beatles movies featuring a phony band chasing our American con man across London in a bit closer to “Carry On” than Richard Lester, even with his freeze frames and snappy transitions. Mostly it works, a mix of mod culture in respectable society with a stiff upper lip deadpan to the slapstick.