Denver, Colorado. The family – wives and children all - of Orville Beecham (Charles Dierkop), member of a Mormon splinter sect who think Utah-style Mormonism is just too gosh darn modern, is murdered by a shadowy figure with a shotgun. The police as represented by Chief Barney Doyle (Daniel Benzali) haven’t got a clue beyond putting Orville in custody for a time.
Fortunately, experienced, public-minded - and as it will later turn out
two-fisted - reporter Garret “Gar” Smith (Charles Bronson) takes an interest in
the case. At first, his investigation points in the direction of a religious
feud between Orville’s father Willis (Jeff Corey) and Willis’s brother Zenas
(John Ireland). At least, these two guys loather each other so much they believe
the other responsible for the murders; and seeing that their respective –
hopefully fictitious - versions of Mormonism put a heavy emphasis on smiting
evildoers violently to save their souls, Gar suspects there just might be a
bloodbath in the making. Quite unlike most other Bronson characters, Gar is set
against this sort of thing and does his best to prevent further violence. He’s
particularly keen because he suspects somebody else is using the family problems
for their own nefarious plans. Hint to other potential conspirators: don’t
repeatedly send your own company water trucks to murder a journalist, especially
not one played by Charles Bronson.
For the standards of a late-period Bronson movie, Messenger of Death
is strikingly original. Not only isn’t our hero a crazed vigilante, he also
isn’t killing anyone at all during the course of the film. The film’s first half
or so even sees our hero putting all of his effort into understanding a
situation to prevent further bloodshed! Basically, this is bizarro Bronson
land where everything you thought was true about Bronson characters is
If you’ve watched enough Cannon era Bronson, this J. Lee Thompson film is a
bit of an oasis of sanity, with Bronson presenting a laidback confidence that
makes Gar actually rather likeable, even suggesting a degree of personhood. He
even seems mildly shaken up by violence. And while the conspiracy plot makes
only a tiny amount of sense, it does so in low-key conspiracy thriller way
instead of your usual Cannon craziness, certainly making the film less
uproariously entertaining than the norm but providing a more human-sized kind of
thriller that has its own charms.
As a director, Thompson seems rather more at home here than in Death
Wish land. He’s not turning out a particularly energetic film (though there
are two fine action scenes and a handful of solid suspense sequences in the
movie), but there’s a relaxed rhythm to his work here that fits Bronson’s
performance. Messenger of Death feels like two elderly gentlemen who
know each other’s strengths and weaknesses quite well are making a somewhat
friendlier film than anything they’ve done in quite some time, and enjoying
themselves doing it.
As an admirer of the Thompson/Bronson films, I’m pretty happy about this.