Saturday, September 20, 2014

In short: St. Ives (1976)

Former crime reporter, now hapless professional writer who doesn’t get his book done and recreational gambler who can’t win, Raymond St. Ives (Charles Bronson) is hired by the eccentric rich Abner Procane (John Houseman) to work as his middle man in re-acquiring Procane’s stolen journals. Rather curiously, the thieves asked for St. Ives by name, but Procane doesn’t seem all that distrustful about it, and St. Ives acts as if this sort of thing happened to him every day. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much his reaction to everything.

Unflappability is a useful trait to have for St. Ives, too, for the handover of the money the thieves demand for Procane’s precious diaries goes very wrong indeed, and dead bodies start to pop up around our hero with a certain disturbing regularity. Instead of getting dissuaded by this minor piling up of bodies, the intense interest of dumb cops Deal (Harry Guardino) and Oller (Harris Yulin), and the friendly persuasions of his old cop friend Blunt (Dana Elcar), or by various attempts on his own life, St. Ives allows himself to be drawn into the situation further and further, teaming up with Procane, his live-in assistant Janet (Jacqueline Bisset), and his pet psychiatrist Dr. Constable (Maximilian Schell) for some rather dubious plans.

Frequent Bronson director J. Lee Thompson does his best to help the actor transition into a somewhat different persona than his usual kind, the kind of charming rogue with morals you’d find Roger Moore overplay and have turn out as an insufferable smart-ass. Bronson is certainly willing (who wouldn’t be, in his case) but I don’t think he’s actually convincing in a role that demands more smiling and a very particular kind of swagger instead of dead-eyed glaring and quite a different kind of swagger. That could have been quite a problem in a more involved film but this Ross Thomas adaptation does hold deeper human emotions at arms length for most of the time and can therefore live with the central performance that is more trying to be convincing than it is actually convincing.

In fact, part of the film’s semi-comedic charm lies in the sense of old-fashioned stylization with a big nod to Old Hollywood Thompson tries to maintain, and often manages rather successfully to build, turning the film into one giant homage to film’s of an earlier time. And, while Bronson isn’t looking too convincing with his new persona, he still is fun to watch, enough so that I think it’s a bit of shame he only got to let loose this way very seldom during the rest of his career; I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more films of pseudo-Saint shenanigans had turned Bronson into as much of a pro in this kind of role as he seems have to been in doing his usual shtick.

Be that as it may, the film at hand is a sometimes charming, sometimes very 70s, piece of old-fashioned entertainment, the sort of thing I’d call “diverting” if that did not sound quite as damning with faint praise when what it actually means is that St. Ives fulfils its function as an escapist piece of entertainment excellently, and there’s never any shame at all in that.

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