Charles Bronson Charms In Pair of Pre-(mega)stardom Euro-thrillers




Charles Bronson stars in two French-Italian co-productions released in 1970, both out on Blu-ray this April from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Bronson’s Euro-thrillers offer fans a pre-(mega)stardom look at the famously terse screen presence, in many ways solidified in the public consciousness by the actor’s onscreen transformation from humanistic family man to vengeance-seeking killer in 1974’s Death Wish. The many facets of Bronson’s talent and acting persona, however, were often overlooked in the wildly popular (and immensely profitable) variations and sequels to that deepening and hardening character, reflected as such roles wore on in the actor’s increasingly stone-set features, but the full range of the actor’s abilities are even more readily apparent in his many late 1960’s and early 1970’s (film) features made abroad. While the crystal clarity of character come through almost any Bronson performance, his European movies tended to foreground the economy, honesty, and “present”, “in the moment” nature of his tough-guy image with an added — and in no way contradictory — element of continental charm.

In purely Bronsonian terms, of course. Profiling other classic film stars, writers and critics tend to point out the mixture of personality elements that make leading actors as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift — among many others — individually and individualistically famous and screen-resonant for their intriguing and compelling contradictions and complexities. With Bronson, on the other end of the screen spectrum, what you see is what you instantly “get”: as strong and unwavering a line onscreen as a pulp hero leaping off the boldly illustrated page. Bronson is all Bronson, and for the initiated remains the total appeal of his more unambiguous charm.

Cold Sweat may strike one as the lesser of the two thrillers on a first viewing but may also linger in the memory as the more purely enjoyable. Based on the 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare by Richard Matheson, which had been previously adapted as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962, the present print used as source material for Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray transfer retains the onscreen French title of Des la part de Copain while the dialogue remains (mainly) English. Co-starring Ingmar Bergman muse Liv Ullmann, Cold Sweat — which received belated and limited distribution in the US in the mid-70s — details the sudden intrusion on commercial boat-pilot Joe Martin’s present life of his military-criminal past as Sgt. Joe Moran, an escaped criminal and getaway driver who betrayed a cadre of fellow soldier-thieves led by James Mason’s Captain Ross. Unwelcomely visited in his assumed new identity by promptly and fatally dispatched former associate “Whity” (Michel Constantin), Joe’s heretofore unknowing wife Fabienne, previously unaware of her husband’s real identity or criminal past, is along with her young daughter Michéle (Yannick de Lulle) quickly drawn into Martin’s violent resistance of the remaining quartet of crooks. In addition to Mason’s American Southern-drawling Ross, this not so internally cooperative gang — a veritable bucket of scorpions — also includes Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland as whiny hippy-chic Moira, Luigi Pistilli as taciturn Fausto, and Jean Topart as the odious and sexually-predatory Katanga in a plot that encompasses high-speed flare-rides over mountainous landscapes, a slow-bleeding gutshot wound-standoff at a remote cabin, and a full-body signal-flame leap off a mid-sea boat at the end.

Directed with stylish panache by veteran 007 action-maker Terence Young (Dr. No [1962], From Russia with Love [‘63], Thunderball [‘65]), Cold Sweat shows Bronson at his muscle-flexing best while remaining human and believable amidst the brutal mayhem. (The latter balance struck between character and action being something of a Bronson specialty.) Precisely the sort of “out of the past” storyline that had fueled numerous revenge-and-reprisal thrillers during the noir heyday, this twenty-year-later, sun-drenched, coast-of-France, mountains-and-maritime drama of a threatened family gains much for the unusual quality of its psychological realism, offbeat humor, and unexpected charm. Much of the latter, again, is due to an at times almost lighthearted Bronson performance, whose touching concern and protecting impulse towards his wife and adopted daughter is as strong as it is sympathetic. As straight-ahead and go-for-the-gut its bludgeoning deaths, machine gun-fire and wild grass-blazes are, a Bastille Day denouement of the happy-go-lucky Martins strolling blithely through a riotous carnival after having just heaved a flambéd baddie into the sea retains only the slightest degree of irony. Mostly, to its credit, Cold Sweat remains in surprisingly good fun for all its grisly elements, especially for those who enjoy their continental cocktails served with a considerably bracing twist.

Rider in the Rain lives up to its title in terms of both mood-soaked atmosphere and melancholy charm. The latter adjective, in fact, being the very character name of red-haired and pixie-cut gamin Marlène Jobert, whose Melancolie Mau is brutally attacked by, and who afterwards takes fatal shotgun revenge on, the title’s mysterious stranger (Marc Mazza). The traumatic home invasion, ugly rape, and justified self-defense-killing, dumping the body into the foamy sea after a tension-filled drive to the coast’s rocky cliffs, soon turns “Mellie”’s Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass world (a Lewis Carroll epigram in fact prefaces the film) into the upside-down realm of Hitchcockian suspense when an equally mysterious American named Dobbs (Bronson) intrudes in her life pursuing the now-vanished stranger. False leads, red herrings, rapid reversals, and confounding complications abound — culminating in a memorable and as it turns out entirely unnecessary plane trip to the Eiffel Tower, which includes a tortuous and torturous stopover at a brothel run by a mercenary madame (Corrinne Marchand) and her menacing gambler brother (Jean Gavin) — as the true and emerging characters of Mellie and Dobbs are gradually and tantalizingly revealed to the other. Cracked walnuts, broken window panes, matching travel satchels, brittle fingernails, the strewn stuffing of a ripped-apart mattress, a corpse-gripped lost earring — among many other plot, thematic, and visual details — story-crescendo to the satisfying and witty revelation of the ultimate Hitchcockian MacGuffin.

Which, without giving anything away, turns out to be quite literal. The oblique and elided summary above is probably the best way to relate experiencing Rider in the Rain, as its plot and character complexities unfold in watching with the charming yet offhand nature of a genre-refracted fairy-tale. Purple Noon (1959) director Réne Clément, with co-writer Sebastien Japrisot, applies an arch awareness of the standard twists and convolutions of the Hitchcock with a grounded approach to character foregrounding (again, literally) Frenchified mise-en-scene. The “Cheshire Cat grin” of Bronson’s Dobbs, as Jobert’s Mellie at one point describes it, is the light and airy surface of flirtatious romantic interplay against the action-drama’s truly sinister background and trauma-motivated underpinnings. Like the full posterboard ads of Bronson’s un-handsome but fascinating features splashed across Paris boulevards on the film’s release, Rider in the Rain offers an intriguing mixture of moody je ne se quoi with a memorably straightforward sucker-palm to the face.

Both Kino Lorber discs come with an appropriately complementary trailer gallery of Bronson features available from the label, all well worth checking out, with Rider in the Rain available in both its 114-minute English-language version and its simultaneously-shot, 118-minute French-language version. Howard S. Berger, Nathaniel Thompson, and Steve Mitchell provide equally appropriate commentary on each Blu-ray, their jazz combo-level riffing not only highly entertaining but characteristically passionate and knowledgeable. Cold Sweat in general has three-voiced ruminations on fascinating Bronsonalia relating to dummy-deaths and destructible men, the relationship between work-for-hire and artistic expression, along with a proto-Tarantinoesque approach to action and character development; while their Rider in the Rain commentary in particular addresses French style mixed with American thrillers, character subtlety within a meta-aware genre narrative, and the mutual growth and development, in terms of both story and character, of waiflike innocence measured against hardline experience. As most fans know, Bronson always delivered, even when the film itself may have failed him, and these pair of commentaries from an insightful trio admirably contextualize the workmanlike screen persona that could enrich compelling genre exercises and high-art thrillers alike.

Looking better than either may have ever looked chopped-up and edited-for-television — a late-nite pan-and-scan viewing on cable television back in the day better than no viewing at all, perhaps — Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays of Cold Sweat and Rider on the Rain now offer a fascinating new look, in both high definition and full aspect ratio, of pre-prime Bronson in an admirable and highly sympathetic European glow.

The images used in this review are credited, with exception to those film stills used for Cold Sweat, to DVDBeaver. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing Blu-ray copies of the film for review.