Bronson Just Wants To Get His Melons In.



Charles Bronson embodies the strong authority and deadly capability of the title character in director Richard Fleischer and writer Elmore Leonard’s 1974 thriller Mr. Majestyk, released by Kino Lorber on Blu-ray this December from a new 2K master.

In a 47-year career that spanned bit parts in films, TV guest spots, B-picture leads, A-picture supporting roles, European-production head-lining, and belated Hollywood stardom, the summer of 1974 saw the release of a pair of Charles Bronson films that delivered a seismic one-two punch to the box office both domestically and abroad. At the age of 52, and 23 years into his film career, Charles Bronson was suddenly propelled into the rarefied ranks of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Paul Newman as a screen presence who could sell a movie on the strength of his name alone, but who as yet would receive scant recognition from the critics for the artistry of that presence. Dismissed as workmanlike, solid, or merely effective, Bronson was somehow seen as less of an actor for the very realistic and naturalistic qualities he brought to the screen.

In addition, the two Bronson films released in the summer of 1974, Mr. Majestyk and Death Wish, were individually taken to task for their violent story-lines and revenge-driven themes. What such readings failed to take into account, however, was that the latter was a deeply complex and darkly satirical take on those themes, while the former was more a tale of survival and self-preservation than of pure vengeance. Like a swift and savage punch to the mid-section, or a rifle-butt to the more tender part of the male anatomy just below, the first of this pair, Mr. Majestyk, addresses violence and revenge in a deceptively straightforward manner of screen proficiency that precisely suits the realism Bronson effortlessly embodied.

Vince Majestyk (Bronson), ex-con and Vietnam War veteran, owns several hundred acres of watermelon fields on the outskirts of La Junta, Colorado. It’s Fall, the ripe crop is ready to be picked, and Majestyk is recruiting a crew of migrant workers at a gas station to help get those melons in. Past a tense but characterstically understated encounter with a station attendant, Majestyk convincing the racist gas-jockey in a strong but low-key voice to let the mainly Hispanic workers use the bathrooms before heading out to the fields, the bus to Majestyk’s farm is later stopped by a group of local shitkickers led by one shotgun-toting Bobby Kopas (Lee Koslo), who has his own ideas about who should get those Majestyk melons in. Disarming Kopas in the most emasculating way possible, and shooting out the pop music-blaring loudspeaker to the dirtheel’s truck, Majestyk demonstrates in about thirty seconds of screen time precisely who gets to dictate to Majestyk anything about his melons. (Namely, no one.)

That parenthetical is itself amply demonstrated over the next hour-and-a-half of screen time, where Majestyk, first arrested for that assault, then past an encounter in jail with mob hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) over a spilled plate of beans, turns into an escalating on-the-run hostage situation when a bus carrying him and Renda is attacked by Renda’s mob. The many off-road car chases and stand-off shoot-outs through mountain passes and over rocky terrain that follow further demonstrate in exponentially increasing terms the tragic folly of ever getting between Majestyk and his melons.

Moral of the story: don’t mess with Majestyk’s melons. Potentially dismissive viewers should be cautioned, though, from underestimating the unyielding strength – and resulting follow-through – of that central story-line. Elmore Leonard’s original script, which he turned into one of the all-time-great movie novelizations that same year, takes that bare premise and unleashes it on the cool, crisp Colorado mountain air of late Autumn, building to the film’s unforgettable image of Renda’s mob mowing down a full barn-stock of Majestyk melons with a hail of machine-gun fire. Tough but ineffective Lieutenant McAllen (Frank Maxwell), ruthless henchman Gene Lundy (Taylor Lachey), stylish and cooly distant gun moll Wiley (Lee Purcell), good ol’ boy-turned-mob stooge Bobby Kopas (Lee Koslo); as the characters, situations, and casualties ineluctably mount to violent extremes, there isn’t a moment, exchange, or story-beat that isn’t directly related to those Majestyk melons.

Likewise, the film’s elaborate action set-pieces – most memorably, the failed mid-town mob attack on the bus carrying Majestyk, Renda, and other inmates to the county jail; and, much later in the film, the Rocky Mountains-pass punishment taken by Majestyk and gal pal Nancy Chavez’s (Linda Cristal) Ford pick-up over the roughest terrain imaginable – occur on a direct line to Majestyk’s sole, melon-shaped concern. Director Richard Fleischer may not go so far as to suggest that Majestyk dreams in melons – although some viewers could suspect that he just might – but the melon monomania does make for an action premise unusually suitable to Charles Bronson’s straight-edge and hard-driving screen persona.

Blu-ray turns out to be a great format for home video mainstay Mr. Majestyk, whose four decade manifestations through Beta Max, VHS, and DVD have tended toward grit-and-grain in a visual presentations perhaps too redolent of the grit-and-grain mid-1970’s. Color timing in particular has stymied past video versions, and audio commentator Paul Talbot, author of the Bronson’s Loose books, points out possibly the perfect image test: the piercing green peering through Bronson’s squinting eye-lids. Talbot with his equally direct commenting style and well-researched observations – able to observe what time of day a scene was likely shot by the lighting level or able to point out the significance of a missing rear-view mirror in a car-interior – turns out to be the right sensibility for this particular job, and one might agree with Talbot that the film’s ultimate strength is that Mr. Majestyk in its scripting and filmmaking allows Bronson to be unmistakably Bronson.

Also included, like the Koslo commentary, from an earlier Blu-ray release, are 2015-recorded interviews with actress Lee Purcell and late cinematographer Richard H. Kline. Purcell talks about the opposing on-set behavior of self-contained Bronson and larger-than-life Al Lettieri, their contrasting characters and personalities undoubtedly carrying over to their memorable screen rivalry, as well as the open and collaborative spirit director Fleischer encouraged while filming. Kline certainly confirms the latter description in discussing his own working methods with Fleischer, and also how that openness extended to some unusual Bronson touches – the aforementioned rife-butt to the crotch, a fly-shooting tuck-roll through a bay-window – perfectly realized by Fleischer and his crew. Just as the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, Bronson at his Bronson-est undoubtedly makes the dramatic and action-packed most of a piercing green-eyed squint-glare at a pulp-and-seed-strewn mountain of blown-apart melons.

Images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and reflect the image quality of this Blu-ray.