Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Stone Killer (1973)

After a public outcry following his having killed a black teenager in actual self defence (!), experienced New York police lieutenant Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) loses his job (!) and moves to another big city police department “on the Coast” (that’s at least how all characters will describe the place). A couple of years later, a professional yet drug-addled mafia killer is murdered in Torrey’s custody while he’s bringing him from the Coast to New York. His following investigations put Torrey on the track of a plan to murder the heads of the Mafia. Mafiosi Al Vescari (Martin Balsam) has a plan of vengeance forty years in the making. In a stroke of genius, he has hired and trained a small army of military veterans, thrown away by society after using them, as his kill squad.

As I’ve explained a couple of times here, I’m usually not terribly satisfied with the filmic output of regular Charles Bronson director Michael Winner. However, there are a couple of films in his filmography where he used all his powers of cheap cynicism and his lurid sensibilities for good, resulting in films that are as good as anything in the crime, thriller and action genres they belong to. For my tastes, The Stone Killer is such a film. It is not quite as great as The Mechanic but still is a brilliant series of action scenes and more set in front of the backdrop of all sorts of grimy 70s places Winner grimed up a bit more.

There’s something more to the film, too, for while you can see the beginnings of the classic Bronson character he would increasingly live in after the first Death Wish, Torrey is actually an interesting mix of a character. There are elements of the Dirty Harry style cop who doesn’t seem to think twice about using violence to reach his goals, beating people up and getting into public shoot-outs, but Bronson also gives the character a world-weariness not based on the law not allowing him to shoot more people. As a matter of fact, this is a Bronson character who seems to support gun control (!!!), who tempers casual racism in his language (though he interestingly enough very consciously does not use the N-word, unlike other characters) with actually fair behaviour towards black people. The film even sees him having a decent relationship with the local Black Panthers, and usually preferring de-escalation as a police tactic. Why, the film even suggests Torrey is feeling bad even for the people he kills in self defence. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect in a Bronson/Winner film – even this early in their partnership – but it turns Torrey into a character who is more interesting than a perfect killing machine would have been.

Speaking of killing, the film is a rather interesting portrait of its time, not just because Winner shoots in quite a few authentic looking, atmospheric locations, and works from a script full of fantastic hard-boiled dialogue for his 70s character actors to chew on. There are also a lot of snide – this is still a Michael Winner joint – remarks about the mental health of US society of the time (with obvious parallels to the now, if you look for them), particularly in the film’s suggestion that shipping off a whole generation of young, poor people to war, letting them suffer through traumatizing events and teach them how to kill and then ignore their problems once they come back home, might just not be a terribly healthy idea, particularly not in a society quite this fixated on violent solutions to all problems. As it will turn out, in 1973, not even Charles Bronson’s violent solutions resulted in more than a change of leadership for the great and the corrupt.

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