Behind the Scenes: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969)

“Tedium in tumbleweed,” was the verdict of Time’s magazine’s critic. That was hardly the intention of Sergio Leone, Dario Argento (then just a critic) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution, 1964) after they met just before Xmas 1966 in a projection booth for a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and decided to try and write the quintessential western. This was a strange notion given that a) Leone had already revolutionized the western and b) on the completion of the last of the “Dollars” trilogy, had avowed to give up westerns and in consequence turned down Hang ‘Em High (1968).

When their six-month collaboration only produced 80 pages of script, Leone turned to Sergio Donati who finished it off in 25 days, adding such essential elements as the fly tormenting Jack Elam at the railway station, turning Morton into a cripple and giving him the motif of the ocean, and many others. Donati claimed, “The best thing I did was give a meaning to the story…This railroad which unites one ocean to the other is the end of the frontier, the end of adventure.” The completed screenplay drew on such influences as Johnny Guitar (1954), John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and a dozen pictures besides.

With a budget of $5 million, equally shared between Euro-International – flush from being the Italian distributor of German sex education film and box office smash Helga (1967) –  and Paramount at the height of its European investment cycle, it would be the most expensive movie made in Italy since Dino de Laurentiis greenlit The Bible (1966). Twelve times as expensive as Leone’s debut western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – the set of Flagstone alone cost more than that film’s entire budget –  it would be shot at Cinecitta in Rome as well as on location in Almeria, Spain, and the iconic Monument Valley.

“Creative geography” had been utilized to find a connection between the famed Western landmark and the new town of Sweetwater. Prior to filming, Leone had undertaken a guided tour of Monument Valley and returned able to pinpoint exactly where Ford had made use of the location in the ten westerns he had shot there. Leone was the highest-remunerated, picking up $750,000 and 10 per cent of the profits with Claudia Cardinale on $500,000, but the others nowhere near such salaries.

It was Bertolucci who had persuaded the director to give Jill (Claudia Cardinale) the pivotal role. In Leone’s previous films, women were side-lined. But now Jill would run the gamut of all the roles typically allocated to different women in westerns from the reformed whore, submissive woman, object of lust and chattel to the spitfire and woman who took charge. More, she represented, “the promise of the West.” She was central to the plot and sole survivor at the end after Harmonica (Charles Bronson) departed with Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) all dead.

When Leone wooed her for the role, he acted out the entire film in her presence, using the music to give her an insight into her character. “While I listened,” she recalled, “I understood every moment of the film shot by shot.” During filming of her scenes, Leone replayed her theme music. “This helped me concentrate, remove myself from the world.”

Although Leone and Clint Eastwood had fallen out during the shooting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the actor agreed to meet to discuss the role of Harmonica, but in the end Eastwood rejected the part, perhaps because the monosyllabic character was too close to The Man With No Name. Other names in the frame were James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven), Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963), Rock Hudson and Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966). The last actor Paramount was interested in was Charles Bronson who was regarded as nothing more than a steady supporting actor. Leone’s insistence was because the actor had a “face made of marble.” He would not be required to act much, just represent an immoveable object, capable of expressing the sadder side of his character through his harmonica.  

Henry Fonda was Leone’s first choice for the “ignoble assassin” but the actor prove hard to recruit, the director thwarted first of all by the star’s agent, then put off by the original script and only persuaded by old friend Eli Wallach that this might represent opportunity. However, when the actor came prepared he came prepared for the wrong picture, sporting the moustache traditionally worn by the villain, and, worse, concealing the baby blue eyes which the director coveted with dark lenses.

Although accepting the exceptional stage talents of Jason Robards whose only foray into the genre at that point had been box office flop A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Donati believed he had the kind of presence that did not “translate to the big screen,” especially lacking the kind of eyes the director required for close-up. Leone disagreed, believing he was tailor-made for the role of Cheyenne. The first interview was not a success, the alcoholic actor arriving drunk. Only warnings of financial consequence ensured the star remained sober during filming.

Shooting was scheduled for April-June 1968. The first scene on the agenda was the love scene between Cardinale and Robards, which accounted for two days shooting. Paramount’s eager marketing team promoted these as the first sex scenes the director had filmed, ignoring the fact that sequences showing Eastwood in bed with a woman had been shot for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although they had not made it into the final cut. It took four days to film the shoot-out at Cattle Corner, three hours alone devoted to capturing the drip of water onto Woody Strode’s head and hat. Composer Ennio Morricone had already written a theme to cover the period of the gunmen waiting, but instead opted for the exaggerated sounds such as chalk scraping on a blackboard and the insistent fly. A jar of flies were kept for this purpose but in the end only one sufficed.

Although length became an issue outside of Italy and Parisian fist-run cinemas, Paramount was already planning for a 150-minute picture. In the end the 168-minute Italian cut was shaved by 24 minutes for the U.S. release, outside of a roadshow the longest western sent into general release, and therefore a risky prospect. The idea that Paramount got cold feet over the American release does not stand up. It was part of a major promotion on a huge sign above Times Square that promoted four of the studio’s upcoming offerings – the others being Goodbye, Columbus, True Grit and Those Dangerous Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.  It was launched in New York on Memorial Day (not as big a box office day then as now but still a major U.S. holiday) in first run cinemas two weeks ahead of the rest of the country.  

In fact, its first week’s box office there ranked it the western of the year so far, beating The Stalking Moon, 100 Rifles and Support Your Local Sheriff. The New York figures were actually the best results for a western for the entire year with the exception Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit, outgrossing the likes of the more critically-successful The Wild Bunch and more marketing-friendly Mackenna’s Gold. However, its initial New York audience appreciation was rarely not matched elsewhere, Boston being one exception.  Some cinemas found it difficult to market, the Berlin Drive-In in Hartford, for example, tying-in with country-and-western music on a local radio station. While some smaller cinemas called for another 30 minutes in cuts, others proclaimed “this is what the public wants.” Once upon a Time in the West  finished tenth for the year among westerns and a disappointing 47th overall in Variety’s annual rentals chart.

While it also flopped in Britain and, given the budget, proved a disappointment in Italy, not on a par with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it posted 14.8 million admissions in France, making it the seventh-best performing picture of all time. By 1984 it ranked eleventh on the all-time German rental champs list, above Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In Switzerland in 1987 it came eighth on the all-time chart, easily the oldest title on the list. It was a video “blockbuster” in German homevideo setting a new sales record in 1984.

However, for such a commercial and critical failure, reassessment in the U.S. was not long in coming. In 1973, the Beverly Canon in Los Angeles launched its new “Classics At Midnight” programme with Once Upon a Time in the West, Harold and Maude and Repulsion. The prospect of the first showing in the U.S. of the full-length version captured all the headlines at the 1980 New York Film Festival. There were occasional revivals: in Toronto at Easter 1973 and Washington and New York among others in 1984, and Washington in 1985.  

It was named the best western ever made by British newspaper The Guardian newspaper and film magazine Empire. In the Sight and Sound once-in-a-decade Critics Poll in 2012 it placed third in the western category behind The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). With the results of a new poll out this year I wonder if it will ascend to the top spot.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019); Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (Faber and Faber, 2000); Christopher Frayling: Once Upon a Time in Italy (Thames & Hudson, 2005); Christopher Frayling, Once upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (Reel Art Press, 2019); “Huge Sign on Times Square Plugs Paramount Product,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, pA2; “West Tie Up With WEXT,” Box Office, June 16, 1969, pNE2;  “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pA4; “The Big Rental Films of 1969,” Variety, January 7, 1970, p15; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, July 6, 1970, pA3; “Beverly Canon To Offer Midnight Classics,” Box Office, April 13, 1973, pW1; “Scorsese Speaks on Saving Prints,” Variety, October 8, 1980, p6;  “CIC Video Preps Low-Ticket Bow for Raiders,” Variety, March 21, 1984, p47; “All-Time German Rental Champs,” Variety, March 7, 1984, p336; “With Plenty of Film Buffs, NYC Is Reissue Heaven,” Variety, December 12, 1984, p74; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, October 1, 1985, p43-44; “All-Time Swiss Top Ten,” Variety, October 21, 1987, p498.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the West, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character performs more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out west, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realize she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in Flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-ups don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

One final point, Once Upon a Time in the West was reissued not as some kind of retrospective for the director but in memory of the composer.  

Ennio (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

I became an instant fan of Ennio Morricone after watching dance troupe Pan’s People performing on BBC TV’s weekly Top of the Pops to Hugo Montenegro’s version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it topped the singles charts in Britain in 1968. Sure, there had been successful theme songs in the charts before like Shirley Bassey’s rendering of Goldfinger, but never a pure instrumental and not a wailing guitar. This is quite simply an extraordinary documentary, and although it comes with an indulgence of anecdotes, what is considerably more compelling is the concentration, in accessible fashion, on the artist’s compositional skills. I could have watched four hours of this, never mind that clocking in at 156 minutes it’s already on the lengthy side for a documentary.

Morricone should never have been a film composer or a composer of any kind. He was too poor. His father was a trumpet-player and Morricone only took up music, designated instrument the trumpet, because his father believed a good trumpet player would always make a living and provide for his family. He was not a good trumpet player. At least, not at the start. Given that once orchestras and dance bands went out of favor, trumpet playing would have been a precarious existence, it was lucky his father’s insisted he also study harmony and composition. He won a place at a conservatoire, where the pupils, all except him, were the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite. And a conservatoire in those days was academically inclined, intending to produce classical composers and players, not people who would work as arrangers and composers of pop songs or commit the unpardonable sin of writing for the movies.

Morricone, always prolific, started working as an arranger of pop tunes for the RCA label in Italy and then for RAI, the Italian state television. But he was also an innovator and many of his songs began with a distinctive sound rather than the music being merely a backdrop to the song. He founded an experimental music group, making music out of anything but a musical instrument. You can see the benefits of that inquiring mind from the first 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), for me his compositional masterpiece and my favorite western.

When he started working for Sergio Leone, he realized they had once been classmates. Leone came to him because Morricone had already written music for Italian westerns. Of course, the collaboration became legendary. As you will be aware, Leone liked the music recorded before filming began and played it during filming. While an interesting approach, I always thought it odd, until I witnessed, here, Robert De Niro making an entrance in one scene of Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

While his themes were often complex, he had a genius for catching the ear of the listener. Many scenes showed Morricone with voice and fingers tapping out a theme you will instantly recognize because all his best work was instantly recognizable. Although an extremely shy person, he was not above walking out – or threatening to do so – if a film was not going according to plan, if a director insisted on making a change or incorporating other material. Nor, for such a genius, was he full of self-confidence. Eventually, he relied on his wife as a listening board to decide if his work was any good. For what he called the “triumphant” scene from The Untouchables (1987), where cops brandishing shotguns prompted by Sean Connery burst in on bootleggers, he supplied nine ideas for director Brian De Palma, who proceeded to use the one Morricone considered the weakest. Other times, he was the one suddenly requiring an extra piece of work, calling upon Joan Baez to supply lyrics at the last minute to his theme for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) that became the memorable “Here’s To You.”

One of the most enjoyable elements of the movie is seeing concert renditions of his themes, “Here’s To You” with a massive choral ensemble making the hairs on the back of your head stand on end. You could probably make a case for Morricone reinventing the chorus, paving the way for such practitioners as Hans Zimmer. Until then, there was many a heavenly chorus, but Morricone found better use for a chorus. And you could also argue that he influenced the likes of Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 1999) in using female opera singers to introduce a completely new sound to movies. 

One of Morricone’s stated aims was to use music to bring something else out of a scene, not to merely provide a relevant sound. So for the death of Sean Connery in The Untouchables or the baby carriage scene his music goes completely against what you are watching but nonetheless adds a deeper understanding. We also see how he folds different themes into the one piece of music.

There are a number of very moving sequences, when Morricone, for example recalls his father – he would not use a trumpet in his compositions until his father died – or when he explains his hurt at being made to feel an outcast by his classical peers, and there is one extraordinary moment when one of those who has disdained him writes a letter asking forgiveness for having so under-rated his work. And certainly there is clear petulance at being passed over for the Oscar for The Mission (1986), a piece of work that director Roland Joffe said made the movie a completely different experience. Morricone complained that half the music that won Herbie Hancock the Oscar for Round Midnight (1986) was actually old, rather than new, music.

My favorite anecdote is how Gillo Pontecorvo, hearing heard a piece of music Morricone had composed for The Year of the Cannibals (1970) promptly stole it for his own Queimade/Burn (1969) before settling, after an argumemt, for a similar piece. Actors, composers and directors in the anecdote queue include Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, 2015) , Clint Eastwood, Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971), John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Oliver Stone (U Turn, 1997) Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket, 1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, 1976).

Morricone’s film music changed over the decades. Following the westerns were giallos, marked by dissonance rather than melody, then Hollywood came calling. I hadn’t quite realized what an audience Morricone commanded – over 70 million albums sold. He had hit singles In Italy –  A Fistful of Dollars ranked fourth in the charts, For a Few Dollars one place below, “Here’s To You” also fourth. In Britain, “Chi Mai” reached the second spot; in France “Man with Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West went to number one, as did “Chi Mai” while “Here’s To You” was at number two. And, of course, his music has been adopted by a host of rock bands, most notably Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, who has a special place in the Morricone catalog thanks to Cinema Paradiso (1988), has produced a magnificent tribute to the genius. In my half century of regular cinema going, there are four composers I rank above all the rest, John Barry, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone, but of them all, the latter is the number one for not just his enormous output – 500 scores including 29 in one year – and his wide range of melodies, but because they are so many memorable pieces. Once Upon a Time in the West is never off my CD player and especially gets worn out in the car. For sheer enjoyment this is an undeniable five-star treat. 

I am sure this will end being streamed somewhere but I urge you to try and catch it at the cinema, the effect will be lost on the small screen of the massed choruses or Morricone conducting in vast amphitheaters.

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.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.    

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