06 March 2008

Movie Review: The Mechanic

The Mechanic (1972)
Directed by Michael Winner. Starring Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Frank DeKova.

I’ve previously posted about Michael Winner’s 1978 film version of The Big Sleep, which surprised me with its quality. Relative quality. I don’t have much affection for Winner as a director—although I steer clear of the obvious ironic value of his name—and have never loved anything he’s done. He was an important genre force in the late 1960s and ‘70s, and directing 1974’s Death Wish cements him forever in the pop-culture portrait gallery, but I find his work usually flat and limited, never willing to go the extra level of entertainment value. Films like Chato’s Land and Lawman just sort of sit there, taking up time and not giving back much. Yes, even Death Wish falls into that category for me: the reactionary shock value it once had has worn off, and the other controversial films about violence that came out in the early ‘70s—A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs—far exceed it in artistic merits.

Looking over Winner’s film catalog, I think his best work is another Charles Bronson suspenser, The Mechanic. If made a few years later, Richard Fleischer probably would have directed it. The Mechanic is typical of the “action movie” fare of the time that played in theaters for one week engagements before moving on to the next grindhouse. The genre of “action movie” didn’t yet exist; instead there were thrillers, adventure films, and tough guy pics, and The Mechanic does a bit of all three. Bronson plays a hit man who specializes in kills that look like accidents or natural causes, so there are a number of suspense sequences watching him set up the kills. Two genuine action set-pieces break out in the second half of the movie: a motorcycle chase through southern California hills, and a shoot-out on a twisty Naples road. But most of the film centers on Bronson’s clipped and taciturn performance as philosophical killer-for-hire Arthur Bishop and his tense relationship with young protégé Steve McKenna, played by Jan-Michael Vincent. Vincent is sometimes wooden up against Bronson, but he does portray a hip nonchalance and immorality that contrasts with Bronson’s professionalism. Ultimately, the movie delivers the goods on their relationship in a finale that make the whole experience—slow parts and all—worth it. The last ten seconds really make the flick. And I do mean the last ten seconds: credits were a fast experience back then.

Winner seems to take some risks in the filmmaking, which isn’t his usual style. The opening sixteen minutes unspool completely without dialogue as we watch Bishop set up one of his kills. It’s one of the best planned sequences Winner has done.

Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland pops into the film for one scene. She nearly made a career of appearing in Bronson films, and once remarked that the reason she did so many movies with him was because no other actress would work with him. Her scene here is a strange one, but it does say a lot about Bishop.

The score comes from frequent Winner-collaborator, Jerry Fielding. Fielding also had strong working relationships with Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, and the score here has some similarities to his score for The Wild Bunch. Some of the motifs sound almost the same. Not that I’m complaining... Fielding is always robust and thrilling, and he died too young so I’ve learned to treasure any score from him.

By the way, Michael Winner directed his last film in 1999, and is today a popular London restaurant critic.