Coming on the heels of Chato’s Land and The Mechanic is the third collaboration between star Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner in rapid fire succession. Probably the lesser known of the Winner/Bronson collaborations if we factor in the Death Wish films Stone Killer is still a prime example of 70’s action cinema and thanks to it’s resurfacing on blu ray in recent months it’s ripe for rediscovery for both Bronson fans and beyond.
“That kid was only 17.”
“The gun made him older.”
Bronson is the weary detective who falls out of favor with the N.Y. police department following the shooting of a teenage suspect. He’s been tagged a “gun happy cop” by the media. He’s off to a new job as a LT. on the L.A. police force working for Norman Fell and assigned to his new partner, Ralph Waite. By chance during a drug bust on his first assignment he comes into contact with an old time mobster who claims something “big” is going done in the underworld.
Bronson writes it off to old time memories but when delivering his man back to N.Y. for extradition is shocked to see his prisoner gunned down in a brazen daylight hit. And so begins our mafia inspired cop thriller that stars Martin Balsam as a Mafia Don who has vengeance on his mind intent on taking out the heads of all the major families leaving himself atop the underworld as the most powerful Don on the continent.
There’s a big canvas at play in Gerald Wilson’s screenplay adapted from the book written by John Gardner. The books original title is interwoven in an exchange between Bronson and Waite. When looking over a corpse in the morgue, Waite asks, “What hit him?” Bronson’s reply is the title of the source novel.
“A complete state of death.”
When that body turned up at the morgue courtesy of another daylight hit, Bronson, has one name to go on and the one lead he has gets stronger when car thief and all around hood, Jack Colvin, is arrested. This in turn leads to Bronson and Waite along with a young patrolman played by up and comer, John Ritter, tracking down Paul Koslo who is mired in the mob and responsible for the latest killing.
While Bronson is piecing things together despite the buffoonery of his partner, Waite, Balsam has a military operation in play overseen by career mercenary Stuart Margolin and his army for hire. Margolin shines in this film as he did in most anything he appeared in whether it was in the pivotal role he played in Death Wish as the rancher who gifts Bronson a gun and telling him that, “muggers operating out here just plain get there asses blown off” to his long running role on The Rockford Files, this guy was a real pleasure to watch.
If you haven’t caught on by now, there’s an abundance of talent gathered together for Winner’s film. Along with fine character players like Fell, Kolso, Margolin and Waite we also have Charles Tyner, Robert Emhardt, David Sheiner and if you keep your eye peeled you can even pick out Angelo Rossitto who’s career dates back as far as 1932’s Freaks and some Lugosi programmers at Monogram.
The plot will culminate on the 42nd anniversary of a long ago mob war that Balsam seeks to take revenge on.
Car crashes worthy of John Landis, plenty of bloodshed and gunfire fill out the final half hour of Winner’s film that clocks in at a smooth 95 minute running time. Underrated? I believe so and it’s not the Dirty Harry wannabe it’s often accused of being. Especially upon it’s release in ’73. Not surprisingly critics generally overlooked a fine low key performance by Bronson. Having said all that I will grant you that the Norman Fell role feels a lot like that of Harry Guardino’s in the Siegel/Eastwood film of ’71.
Bronson fans should have plenty of fun with this one when it comes to connecting the dots concerning costars, trivia and Michael Winner.
Second billed Martin Balsam who had made his film debut in On The Waterfront was by this time an Oscar winner for 1965’s A Thousand Clowns. He would return for the Bronson/Winner cult favorite Death Wish 3. He’d also appear in the 1977 teleflick that Bronson headlined, Raid On Entebbe.
Ralph Waite was appearing in his third Winner film by this point. He’d already had roles in the superior westerns, Lawman (1970) and Chato’s Land (1972) The latter opposite Bronson. Waite’s career trajectory of playing low life hoods (Trouble Man), shady cops as he did here and violent tempered cowboys was about to take a drastic turn when he took on the role of the family patriarch on the hit TV series, The Waltons.
Then there is Paul Koslo. The more you watch this guy, the more you realize just how good he is at his job. Thanks to his role in Mr. Majestyk opposite Bronson he will always have a place in the hearts of Charlie’s fans. He’d turn up one last time with Bronson in the 1979 flick, Love and Bullets.
Perhaps the most notable bit of trivia in The Stone Killer has nothing to do at all with Bronson or Winner. It’s the fact that a young John Ritter has a small but noticeable role alongside Norman Fell, a seasoned veteran and member of the original Ocean’s 11. Fell would of course portray the landlord, Stanley Roper, on the hit series, Three’s Company, that essentially made Ritter a star.
Not to be overlooked concerning The Stone Killer is the screenplay by Gerald Wilson. He’d already delivered some great dialogue when writing the three previous Winner films, Lawman, Chato’s Land and Scorpio (1973). I’ve no idea why, but he more or less seems to have disappeared from the film business moving forward according to the IMDB. Pity if you take the time to listen to the spoken words. Especially in the two westerns he penned.
If you happen to pick up the blu ray edition from Indicator, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the on camera interview with Paul Koslo who’s acting career dates back to working in theater here in Stratford Canada in the 60’s opposite Genevieve Bujold, about 20 minutes up the road my residence. Bronson fans are bound to love the stories he tells of working opposite the mustached icon.
The movie poster does of course reside here in the vault at Mike’s Take and even I must admit that the tag line, “This Cop Plays Dirty” does little to persuade anyone that this isn’t a Dirty Harry imitation. Give it a try and see for yourself and hopefully come away enjoying the large roster of character players surrounding our legendary tough guy in the central role.