Monday, April 6, 2009

The Mechanic

There’s a lot of things to like about “The Mechanic” (1972), the Charles Bronson flick where he plays an existential hit man.

When I was a kid and saw “The Mechanic” (1972) on TV, I thought it was one of the greatest movies ever. It was a kid’s idea of an adult movie, with its hit man anti-hero – amoral but still very cool and wait until you see the house he lives ine; dialogue full of philosophical discussions that struck me as very mature and sophisticated, and boasting a twist ending that made this impressionable youth go “Wow!”

As an adult, much of “The Mechanic” now strikes me as more than a bit pretentious, but I still respond to it.

The great Charles Bronson plays Bishop, a “mechanic” - a hired hit man - and one of the best in the business. Upon receiving his next assignment, he posts information on his targets on a huge bulletin board and reviews the information while dressed in a robe, smoking a pipe and listening to cassettes of classical music.

He takes on a protégé named Steven (Jan Michael-Vincent) to show him the ropes. Steven is the rich, spoiled son of Bishop’s latest target (Keenan Wynn). There’s no love lost between Steven and his dad, and Steven doesn’t seem that upset that Bishops offs his dad. Does Steven see Bishop as a surrogate father? Does Bishop take in Steven as atonement for his dad’s death? These questions are hinted at but its up to us to come up with the answers.

One stateside mission leads to an exciting motorcycle chase with a great scene of a motorcycle and its rider driving off a cliff and landing with a massive splat before bursting into flames. Sure hope that was a dummy strapped to the motorcycle.

A later mission takes them to Italy for a mob hit, concluding with a very exciting shoot out sequence on a roadway against the cliffs of Italy.

Mission accomplished and Steven grows to really like his new job. Will the relationship continue or will Steven supplant Bishop as the newer and better Mechanic?

Some critics see an undercurrent of homosexuality between Bishop and Steven. I don’t, I see two lonely souls grasping for some kind of human contact, and as I said earlier, a burgeoning father/son relationship.

There’s a genuinely odd scene where Bishop visits a prostitute (Jill Ireland) and she reads him a fake Dear John letter describing why she can’t see him again. Afterwards, she tells him he owes her an extra $100 for the time and effort it took to compose the letter. Yep, Bishop has some serious self-image issues.

I was also amused by the assortment of movie posters that grace the walls of Ireland’s apartment. For a hooker, she has good taste in movies. There are framed reproductions of many classic movies, including “San Francisco” (1936) and “The Black Cat” (1934).

I remember those posters. The set designer didn’t have to go far to get those, most likely just to the local drug store.

Back in the 1970s, when the nostalgia boom was huge, an enterprising company reproduced some old movie posters and sold them in stores. My buddy Mike and I would ride our bikes to Evan’s Drug Store in downtown Riverdale and scout out the selections. How about that, a drug store in a small town in Illinois selling old movie posters?

The posters were rolled up and covered in cellophane with the titles affixed at the end. But we could see what the posters looked like thanks to the picture on the cardboard display case that showed all the posters available in the series. The problem was, Evan’s Drug Store only carried certain titles, not all of them. I would have killed for a “Black Cat” poster, but Evan’s didn’t carry that one.

I picked up a couple of them that I hung on my closet doors. I had a fabulous “Beau Geste” (1939) and because I wanted a John Wayne poster at home I picked up “Three Texas Steers” (1939). In fact, this is the exact poster.

I didn’t see those two on Ireland’s apartment, but a lot of the other posters in that series were hanging on her wall. The production designer probably found them at a local store in a one-time buying binge, had them quickly framed, and voila, lots of quality-looking poster art for an incredibly low amount of money.

(It was years later that I finally saw “Three Texas Steers”, one of the Three Mesquiteers movies starring John Wayne, Ray Corrigan and Max Terhune. When company would come to visit, my dad, ever the jokester, would tell them the poster came from my Max Terhune collection. For the uninitiated, Max Terhune played Lullaby Joslin in the Three Mesquiteers series, a ventriloquist who traveled the range with a dummy named Elmer. Who says all westerns are the same?)

“The Mechanic” is halfway over before the first large-scale action scene takes place (the motorcycle chase). Director Michael Winner stages the big action scenes for maximum excitement. You actually have an idea of who is chasing who. I hope the director of the next 007 movie will look to movies like “The Mechanic” for inspiration and not the God-awful “Quantum of Solace.”

Composer Jerry Fielding contributes one of his best scores, drenching the proceedings with a feeling of melancholy and sadness.

Some friends of mine are astonished at my fondness for Bronson, but he really is one of my favorites. The man has enormous screen presence and charisma. I think he would have made a great silent movie actor. Those eyes, and that face, express so much with no verbalization. I wish there more like him.

Rating for “The Mechanic”: Three stars.

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