Thursday, October 4, 2007

Overlooked Classics: The Mechanic (1972)

There are several things that a person will probably think while watching the 1972 thriller THE MECHANIC, these include:

1. Charles Bronson is the greatest bad ass of the seventies and possibly ever.
2. Michael Winner was one of the most inventive directors working in Hollywood in
3. Jan-Michael Vincent should have had a much greater career than he did.
4. You will ask yourself, 'Who is Linda Ridgeway?"
5. You will ask yourself, 'Where is Celeste Yarnall?'
6. Keenan Wynn was one of the finest character actors ever.
7. Don't even think about crossing Charles Bronson, don't even dream it.

Michael Winner's THE MECHANIC is one of the great undervalued films from the early seventies. A rich, hypnotic character study of a hired killer whose life is quickly catching up to him. Shot on location in Los Angeles and Italy in early 1972, THE MECHANIC marked the second time that Winner would work with legendary star Charles Bronson after their inventive CHATO'S LAND from earlier in the year. The two would of course go down in screen history just two years after THE MECHANIC with the unforgettable DEATH WISH in 1974 and its first two sequels in the eighties.
THE MECHANIC started out life as first a story then a screenplay from talented Lewis John Carlino, the man who penned John Frankenheimer's masterful SECONDS in 1966. THE MECHANIC tells the tale of veteran hit man Arthur Bishop, a master shot and obsessive planner who is coming apart at the seams due to the stress of his job and the isolation that it has forced him into. He is having crippling panic attacks and he has entered into a sad relationship with a prostitute who he pays extra to pretend that she has missed him. Bishop takes on a protege, young hot-shot Steve Mckenna, who has the hunger for the kill that he lost years before.
The most remarkable thing about Michael Winner's THE MECHANIC is that it works as not only a thrilling action film but also as an incredibly successful character study. It is the kind of film that could have only come out of the seventies and it works beautifully throughout its 100 minute running time.

Winner has unfortunately been overlooked by many film fans due to the fact that his greatest and most inventive work has been his most little seen in this country. Chances are more people in America have seen his later disappointing eighties action films, rather than his sublimely intelligent work he made with Oliver Reed in the sixties. THE MECHANIC comes at an interesting time for Winner, and it shows him still at the top of his game, even though he was working in the Hollywood studio system rather than the great British tradition that he came out of.
Anyone who questions Winner's abilities as a director should watch the audacious dialogue free opening fifteen minutes of THE MECHANIC, in which we watch as Bronson methodically plans the killing of an old business man. It's a fascinating series of shots set to Jerry Fielding's unforgettable score that is perfectly rendered by Winner's obsessive eye. Bronson's silence has a pulverizing intensity to it and and he, and the sequence, is totally engrossing.

Bronson is incredible throughout the film and gives one of the great performances in his long and distinguished career. A commanding presence and really beautiful man, no one could play a killer constantly on the edge of a breakdown as laid back and cool as Bronson does here. His work in THE MECHANIC has real excitement to it and it is finally very moving, this guy may be morally bankrupt but there is a poetry in his corruption that is undeniable.
The film is just filled with great performances. The tragic Jan-Michael Vincent, here at the height of his beauty, is really good as the snide and conceited younger killer. Vincent brings a real cold menace to the part and he works very well with Bronson. A young and lovely Jill Ireland, as the prostitute that Bronson visits, only appears in one scene but it is one of the film's best and she is fine it. Her and Bronson work as well on the screen together as they did in real life. The great character actor Keenan Wynn is always memorable and his role here is no different. His death scene is one of the most brutal and disturbing moments in Winner's filmography. Striking unknown Linda Ridgeway appears in one of the film's most sinister scenes and THE MECHANIC is apparently her only onscreen role. I would love to know more about this memorable young woman. Beautiful Celeste Yarnall is listed in the opening credits but I can only spot her during one brief sequence, which makes me think some of her work unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor.
Fielding's score isn't among his very best but it is still top of the line, and it adds an even greater sense of depth to the film. Winner himself would co-edit the film with fellow Brit Frederick Wilson and their cutting gives the film a real rapid fire pacing. The film's memorable photography was actually shot by not one but two distinctive cinematographers. For the sunny blue sky baked California locations, Winner used Oscar nominated Richard H. Kline who would later give films like BODY HEAT (1981) and BREATHLESS (1983) a similar feel. For the Italian shoot, Winner brought in his old cinematographer Robert Paynter who would later hit cinematic gold with his work on SUPERMAN 2 and several of John Landis' best film, including AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) and INTO THE NIGHT (1985).

THE MECHANIC is a fully realized and thought out work and Bronson's attention to detail and obsessive planning pays off wonderfully in a surprising final moment that is one of the great endings of the seventies. Like I said from the get go, don't even think about crossing Charles Bronson.
One of Michael Winner's great works opened up to mostly positive reviews just before Thanksgiving in 1972. It did okay but not spectacular business but it paved the way for DEATH WISH, a film that would go through the roof for Winner and Bronson two years later.
THE MECHANIC is thankfully available from MGM in a very sharp widescreen transfer. Unfortunately, outside of the original theatrical trailer, no extras are on the disc. Winner's film has influenced several filmmakers including Luc Besson, John Badham, Quentin Tarantino and most recently Robert Rodriguez; whose great MACHETE trailer in GRINDHOUSE paid tribute to THE MECHANIC'S original promotional catch-phrase. Winner's picture is a fine film and the entire cast, especially the awesome Charles Bronson, deliver some of their best work. Give the DVD a look if you haven't seen it.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

Hey Jeremy. This is an outstanding review of "The Mechanic." It's one of the best films of the 70's. I love it. Charles Bronson is my favorite tough guy bad ass actor. The man just oozes machismo. Bronson's a legend in my book. This film, along with Death Wish I through III, blew me away then and now. It was great to learn more about the history of how "The Mechanic" came about. This is Bronson at some of his best. He had so many great films throughout his long career. He made such a cool killer. I always rooted for him no matter what type of role he was playing. Jan-Michael Vincent was magnificent here as well. They worked well off one another. It's a shame that Vincent self destructed over the years and ruined a promising career. I love the ending of this movie. It doesn't get much better than that. Again, great review for a great movie. Bronson was, is, and and always will be the man!

Cinebeats said...

The Mechanic is one of my favorite Bronson films and I really enjoyed your overview of it. Lots of great background info here that I didn't know before.

I really love the way the film wraps up at the end. It's a great suspenseful action film. Very entertaining and well done. Jan-Michael Vincent is a rather tragic character. I grew-up with the guy on The Banana Splits show and in Disney movies, so I've always liked him, but he really fell apart later on like a lot of child actors. He's great here though with Bronson!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith...I agree totally about Bronson. I love watching the guy and wish God still made guys like him. It is a shame about Vincent isn't it? What a talented young man he was, a real tragedy...

Thanks Kimberly,
I am glad to hear that you admire the film as well. It is that rare breed of action film that doesn't exist too much anymore.

I appreciate both your comments.

aaron said...

I"ve just finished reading "Bronson's Loose Again: The Making of the Death Wish Films", so this was indeed a treat to read as Winner and Bronson were very much on my brain.

The scene from THE MECHANIC that really gives me the willies is the one in which Bronson/Jan-Michael Vincent watch as that lady commits suicide in the bathtub; it was about a graphic a scene as I'd witnessed when I was a young one, and it's really stuck with me.

And as much as I admire Winner, I've read that Monte Hellman was originally going to direct the film? That would have been outstanding!

Anyway, great work!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Aaron,
Wow I had no idea that Hellman was going to direct this...that would have been something else and would have made a much different film.
Thanks for the nice words and I agree with you about the suicide scene, it is one of the most chilling moments in the film...hey is that Death Wish book worth reading? I have been really curious about it...

aaron said...

The "Death Wish" book is about as exhaustive as I'd imagine one could get, but fairly short (under 200 pages) -- I polished it off in an evening.

The author Paul Talbot earns real praise for the chapters on the sequels, as he doesn’t skimp with anecdotes, production histories, critical receptions, and interviews with the all of the key living individuals (Brian Garfield, Michael Winner, etc.) It's really a lot of fun, and I'd recommend it for those that get a kick out of the Bronson persona.