Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Murder is Only Killing Without a License."

There are several things that a person will probably think while watching the 1972 thriller The Mechanic and these include:

1. Charles Bronson was American cinema's ultimate badass.
2. Michael Winner is one of the most underrated directors in recent memory.
3. The lengthy and almost silent opening sequence is one of the seventies best.
4. Keenan Wynn's reputation as one of the finest character actors ever was
well-deserved, and Jan-Michal Vincent deserved a much more distinguished career
than he was granted.
5. 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, The Mechanic is a terrific thriller boiling over with intensity, style and sheer go for the throat nerve.

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, as well as 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, before being transformed into one of the early seventies most exciting films. 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. Looking for a change, Bishop takes on a protege, young hot-shot Steve Mckenna, who has the hunger for the kill that he lost years before but he soon finds that this new direction is perhaps not the right one.

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. Experimental in its approach and surprising at every turn, The Mechanic is a near Avant-garde work that many have mistaken for just pulpy entertainment.

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 and collapse that is undeniable. Bronson handles the difficult role like an aging boxer with his talents still in full capacity, and his performance is a beautiful thing to watch.

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. Beautiful Celeste Yarnall is listed in the opening credits but she can only be spotted 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 work 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).

A perfectly balanced work that literally opens in oppressive silence before ending in an explosive bang, The Mechanic is a fully realized and thought out work that climaxes 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.

***This piece, with these new screen shots, has been revised from this older one I put together in 2007.***


The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Agreed on all counts.
Glad you didn't touch the dummy-death -- we Macistes are just now toiling over the delicate fabric of very carefully crosshatched thematic intention with this one!

Also happy to hear you applaud Michael Winner. Nice piece, JR!

Ivan said...

Good write-up to one of my faves. This flick ain't just avante-garde, it's existential!

And I finally saw Chato's Land this weekend: WOW! (And an ending that's almost as good as The Mechanic's).

Glad to hear Winner's getting some love--I had written him off, allowing myself to be swayed by the telepathic pressure of the normals, but in the last few years, I've been going through his movies, and he's got some great underrated stuff in his resume!

(It's a mess, but I have to recommend Winner's The Sentinel--it can be as disturbing as a Coffin Joe movie or "Freaks.")

Keep up the good work!

Jeremy Richey said...

Awesome...thanks and I can't wait to see your upcoming post on it. Oh, and I am always willing to applaud Winner here. Thanks again...

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Ivan for the nice words. I know Winner has some stinkers in his canon, but there is some great stuff as well. I think THE MECHANIC is one of his best....probably my second favorite film of his after I'LL NEVER FORGET WHAT'S HIS NAME.

loosefocus said...

hey this turned up today at the guardian

Jeremy Richey said...

Oh cool, thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read the article. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more soon.

Ivan said...

I just finished that Guardian article: wow, when I grow up, I wanna be Michael Winner!

rohit said...

Nice one..(:

Amanda By Night said...

I really liked the Mechanic for all the reasons you stated, great cast and the pacing is incredible. It's slow, but methodical and it's like every camera shot means something (which you captured beautifully). My father looked a little like Bronson, so after he passed away, I really got into watching Bronson movies. I was a little late to the game, but I'm a fairly passionate fan...

This was great. Thanks for all the wonderful stills. Stunning.

btw, I don't think I knew Winner did the Sentinel. I love that movie and have been wanting to rewatch it.