Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) ****

This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.

Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of  “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.

And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.

Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.

It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.

Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.  

And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.

But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.

Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.

He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.

It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.

Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.

Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).

Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.

Books by Brian Hannan – The Gunslingers of ’69 – The Western’s Greatest Year

While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.

So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.

I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.

Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.

Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.

Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.

Behind the Scenes: Isadora (1968)

“Only Vanessa Redgrave could portray the full range of emotions in the tour de force title role performance of Isadora,” runs the opening line to the sumptuous 52-page program (cover shown above) that accompanied the film.

Programs like this were part of the package for a movie intended for roadshow. I’ve no idea how many Universal printed but most were shredded since after an initial launch in Los Angeles, the movie was not shown in roadshow in America (though it was overseas). It was also drastically cut from 168 minutes to 138 minutes.

Redgrave had been on the cusp of major stardom after an Oscar nomination for Morgan!(1966) and box office breakout Blow Up (1966) but under-performing Warner Brothers’ musical roadshow Camelot (1967) and flops Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) had put a dent in her surge to the top of the Hollywood tree.

Directed by Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, and Morgan!), the movie was filmed entirely on location – 72 of them – for six months. Main locations in Britain were Oldway Mansion in Devon and the British Museum.

Different rooms and aspects of South Lodge mansion in London, once owned by the Royces of Rolls-Royce fame, provided backdrops for scenes set in Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago and Boston. Yugloslavia doubled up for France and Russia, the Berlin Opera house represented by National Theatre in Rijeka, and the resort of Opatija on the Adriatic standing in for Nice.

The film was produced by the Hakim brothers, better known for arthouse picture like Purple Noon (1960) and Belle de Jour (1967). Jason Robards, on the first of two European excursions that year (the other being Once upon a Time in the West), played one of her many lovers. According to Robards, the art of acting “is an intuitive process; any actor can prepare only so much for any given part and the rest must come from a deep resource within him.” Although Redgrave received an Oscar nomination, the movie made a huge loss.

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