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Machine Gun Kelly (1958)

Between 1951 and 1957, screen icon Charles Bronson, appeared in everything from uncredited bit parts in Cukor’s The Marrying Kind to playing Igor in House of Wax to appearing as Native Americans in Drum Beat, Run of the Arrow and Apache. It was in 1958 that he graduated to leading man status in a quartet of “B” flicks led by this Roger Corman production that fit nicely with the image that Bronson would carve for himself over the next thirty plus years.

For the record, the other three starring “B” features Bronson made that year were When Hell Broke Loose, Gang War and Showdown At Boot Hill.

Corman who directed as well as produced begins the film with a well orchestrated heist that sees Bronson gun down a security guard as he makes his getaway with gang members Jack Lambert and Wally Campo. They ditch all the weapons aside from Bronson’s signature piece and hand off the cash to Morey Amsterdam in a passing car. We’re also introduced to Susan Cabot during the getaway who stars as Bronson’s gal who oozes sex appeal and she knows it keeping Bronson on the edge of a jealous rage throughout the film’s 80 minute running time.

The gang lays low at Frank De Kova’s road side gas station and it’s here we’ll see the sadism in Bronson’s lead character as he torments and picks on Amsterdam, an easy target who attempted to skim some money from the heist’s take. Picking on Morey is going to come back to haunt him towards the end of the film when little Morey will seek some retribution of his own.

Stir crazy sets in while the gang lay low and there’s a struggle to become the alpha male between Bronson and Lambert but for now Lambert is willing to concede leadership to the man holding the gun with a thirst for violence. Still, there’s the planning of the next heist to perfect and it’s during the meticulously planned robbery that things fall apart leaving Campo dead and Lambert separated from the Bronson and Cabot and looking for revenge as he rightly blames Bronson for the death of his partner.

With a jazzy score credited to Gerald Fried, Bronson and Miss Cabot lay low at a bordello run by her Mother, Connie Gilchrist, who isn’t shy at standing up to her no good intended son-in-law. She actually gets in a few jabs at Charlie. The likes of which we wouldn’t see again until Kathleen Wilhoite laid him out with one tongue lashing after another in 1986’s memorable Murphy’s Law.

Still, Bronson’s quick to tell Cabot where her Mother’s concerned, “You tell your old lady keep her wisecracks behind her teeth or she’ll be wearing false ones.”

More or less just starting out, composer Fried, would go on to a lengthy career in film and TV and an eventual Emmy Award for his score on the superior Roots miniseries in 1977.

If Bronson is to remain alive he’ll have to beat Lambert to the the trigger and that’s just what he does using the weapon that he’s made his own in the newspapers. Bank robberies are one thing but Bronson and Cabot are about to put themselves in much deeper water with the law when they take on Richard Devon as a new gang member and plot a kidnapping.

The mark is a young schoolgirl played by Lori Martin. She’s the daughter of a wealthy man and at the time of the kidnapping Bronson and Cabot are forced to take along the little girls nurse, Barboura Morris to cover their tracks. Judging by her short list of film credits, Miss Morris, was a regular in the Corman universe appearing in a number of his directing efforts. Teenage Caveman, A Bucket of Blood and The Haunted Palace among them.

Admittedly this leads me to wonder where the hell Dick Miller was when Corman made this black and white release for A.I.P. Don’t know Mr. Miller? Look it up.

I’ll leave the outcome of Corman’s film to you but if you’re curious how close this film is to the actual events in the career of George Kelly, I suspect it’s a Coles Notes version. In real life Kelly, the one time most wanted man on the FBI’s top ten list would die in Leavenworth Prison in 1954 not quite living long enough to see his story immortalized on screen.

Roger Corman speaks highly of his leading man in his engaging autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. Corman …. “the black and white film’s real power and dramatic complexity came from the performance of the rugged actor I hired for his first starring role, as Kelly-Charles Bronson.” Corman was also happy with Susan Cabot who would also star in his 1959 cult favorite, The Wasp Woman.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Corman discovered Charles Bronson but there’s little doubt he offered many up and coming actors and directors a chance to make good. Names like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante and Ron Howard jump quickly to mind.

According to legend, it’s this movie that indirectly led to Bronson’s breakthrough in Europe. Kelly did well critically overseas and it’s because of his admiration for the film that Alain Delon asked for Bronson to costar with him in the 1968 runaway Euro-hit, Adieu l’ami aka Farewell Friend. Next up was Once Upon a Time In the West and certified box office pull for the now mustached tough guy. Delon would again star with Bronson in the entertaining 1971 western, Red Sun.

A nice piece of useless trivia I picked up on this long overdue revisit was that the little girl Bronson and Cabot kidnap in the film, Lori Martin, is the same young actress who Robert Mitchum would set his sights on when she played the daughter of Gregory Peck and Polly Bergen in the harrowing Cape Fear. Sadly Lori is no longer with us. I’d be most interested in hearing her recollections of making these films at an early age with these screen legends.

One more minor league connection. Actor Frank De Kova would again appear opposite Bronson in the1972 fan favorite The Mechanic as the mob boss Bronson must report to who enjoys painting and putting forth subtle threats while feeding his chained leopard.

I’m still awaiting this Bronson classic to receive a proper release on DVD or preferably blu ray. As it stands I’ll hang on to the VHS tape I bought years ago as part of the Drive-In Classic series that also put out I Was a Teenage Werewolf starring Michael Landon. Another cult hit that deserves a proper blu ray restoration.

If nothing else this film offers up one of the more famous Bronson film posters. One that you can catch on the wall in the background at Jack Rabbit Slims while John and Uma sip on that five dollar shake. No I don’t have the one sheet but I do have the original 1958 insert framed and proudly hanging here in the home of Mike’s Take.

9 Comments »

  1. I too recall reading that this was a smash hit in Europe, the French in particular thought it was spectacular. Given that France is where Bronson began his Euro Cinema career, I would say that story may be true. I forget exactly what some of the French critics said, but I think they praised its (for the time) stark realism and trying to stick close to the true story of Machine Gun Kelly. Finding actors to play real life gangsters tends to be tough, I think Warren Oates came the closest when he played John Dillinger as he did look a lot like the man, though Bronson does come in a close second.

    • It was a good role for Bronson at just the right time. He’d made a good name for himself by this point as a character player and deserved a shot at starring roles even if they didn’t take just yet. I’ve always wondered had he grown the mustache a few year earlier than 1968’s Villa Rides if it might have sped up the road to stardom.

  2. I took notice of Charles in Drumbeat, where he showed himself admirably. Personally believe The Magnificent 7 and The Great Escape shot him to stardom. As regards Machine Gun Kelly, I have yet to watch it.

    • For sure, The 50’s mainly set him up as a solid character player but those two titles you mentioned put him in movies that were big hits. I’d add The Dirty Dozen to that list as a trifecta for him.

  3. It certainly took Charlie long enough to break through and certainly the Europeans took more quickly to his monosyllabic brooding presence. But I think he also aged well. He was never in the Jeff Chandler category but as he grew older and the world came to appreciate what the likes of Lee Marvin could bring to a picture attitudes in Hollywood to leading men changed.

    • Yes the late 60’s and 70’s were a great era for the leading men who didn’t have Clark Gable/Rock Hudson good looks to name a couple. It was a time that cinema was cranking up the violence and the hardened faces of Bronson, Marvin, Coburn, Hackman and others were perfectly suited to it. Thanks for stopping in, I’ll be back to look at other things on your own site.

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