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The Quiet Assassin in The Mechanic

Hitting centre frame in a jolt that would welcome a boisterous cheering of dedicated fans, the opening image of Charles Bronson in full close up – that introduces us to this tightly conceived, tautly directed assassin-themed action thriller – is an astounding image of virile masculinity, profound machismo and hardened reasoning. In Michael Winner’s The Mechanic (1972), Bronson epitomizes the stealthy, no-nonsense action hero who bounces from calculated vigilante to hardboiled straight shooter with equal precision and dedication. His association with director Winner proved to be cemented in provocative outings such as Death Wish (1974) and here in this precursor to that celebrated work, the collaboration is driven into a remarkable coldness that harbours an expression of ultimate disdain for humanity – which is something that needs to be celebrated (at least in culturally significant periods of time). By the time The Mechanic hit theatres, action movies were responding to antiquated notions and concepts of masculinity and fervently opposing the idea of this being something simplistic and one note. How these incredibly inspired films managed to support the importance of “the sons of the renegade cowboys that came before them”, was by turning their vigilantes, assassins and rogue cops into complicated but silent steady wolves – mirroring the frustrated argument that men should reclaim their status as aggressors with a cause. Charles Bronson is most certainly built upon that ideal – a man with a job to do and a job that he will take care of without fuss or questioning.

Something that is wonderfully engaging about Charles Bronson throughout his career (a varied one by the way, as many film scholars might misconceive) is the fact that he really does not have to rely on dialogue to “speak”. His expressions, mannerisms, physical prowess, panther-like movement, sturdiness and stoic delivery, lends itself to the world of hyper-masculinity and unapologetic magnetism that paints up a character free from the social constraints or cultural norms. Here in The Mechanic, this is most significant. The opening sequence is entirely played out in silence – there is not one word of dialogue uttered. This lends itself to be a progressive action-based segment of the film that is an offering of excellence in staging, camera movement, performance in what is essentially mime, sound design and musical interludes. This curtain raiser has Bronson set up an assassination and the payoff is an outstanding achievement in building tension, but on top of that the film heavily pays tribute to a poignant and even beautiful take on both Eastern and Western hired assassins – and the film will aesthetically and thematically enlist a lot of subliminal Japanese imagery and concepts. However, the film is still an American product from an English director, and also very much taps into the Italian Poliziotteschi genre of filmmaking with its complex set-ups and wild action sequences (a whole chunk of the film will be set in Naples and be the place of Bronson’s poisoning and death). In may regards, Bronson represents a bridge in a cultural gap: here is a European man in America, who is a left over cowboy from a bygone era, now taking on roles as vigilante and assassin or stoic and shiftless hardened cop. In The Mechanic, Bronson is a devoted hired-gun and when he engages in his duties to serve the cagey assignments he is saddled with , he does it in prolonged silence which adds to the intensity of his cause and cements the predisposition that when you’re Charles Bronson, you don’t need to do much talking.

The opening scenes of recession-era Los Angeles is now romanticised as a place far from what it is today and there are some lovely touches for nostalgia fans with Tower Records in the background at one point, reflecting a golden hue onto the neon-kissed streets, with Bronson prowling the night. This backdrop is a perfect environment for our quiet assassin who spends his time studying his victims, plotting explosives, mastering the craft of long distance shooting, secretly drugging victims and double crossing supposed friends. Opposed to the grim streets he navigates is his house – a mansion in the Hollywood Hills – which is a place of luxury and decadently dressed. Even when he “works” from home in his maroon velvet dressing gown, we get the impression that the man hedonist, someone who likes the good things in life, but completely comfortable with taking life when need be.

The two hitmen (played by Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent) study their prey.

In the scene where Bronson pays a visit to Keenan Wynn, the back and forths shared by these two legends of the silver screen is made all the more engaging because there is an underlying sense of dread that exists, where you honestly think there shouldn’t be. In fact, the scene reads as a “breather” after such an explosive (literal in that matter) opening sequence. Keenan Wynn somehow made a career as an actor playing small but memorable roles in varied films from the wartime romance The Clock (1945) to lending his voice to Rankin-Bass seasonal animated features like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) and more contemporarily in films such as Orca (1977). Here in this Winner film, Wynn gets to be double crossed by Bronson and the character’s friendship with Bronson’s deceased father sits as the backbone to something that will simmer and blow up in the face of our designated anti-hero. Starring as Wynn’s cold-hearted, icy son is the handsome and athletic Jan-Michael Vincent (a young variant of Bronson in many regards) who hits the nail on the end as a troubled rich kid who is not only sociopathic but manipulative, a great inside foil for Bronson and set up as both an instant adversary and also prescribed protégé for the film’s head assassin. Along with this strained and worrying relationship that is formed between Bronson and Vincent is the aesthetic of Michael Winner’s film and his choice of visual cues that inform us of what is not said, what is to come and what the results really can sustain. With the use of jarring zooms through the film, Winner establishes urgency and realization and when he has his camera close in on Bronson or the damage Bronson does it is a hearty response to his action anti-hero taking care of business with swift precision. Polar to that artistic choice, Winner has Bronson subdued in many scenes, lost in though or in memory of his dead father or even studiously static in his studying of his victims which is almost always done to chamber music – a calculated mind work-out to discordant chords that ring out and offer off-beat resonance. Clearly the arts is engrained within the film’s fabric as Bronson is engulfed by the chaos and demonic madness of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and offering an insight into a man’s mind that may ultimately snap because of the repercussions of long-time servitude to violence, Winner delivers editing choices that cut to and fro from various images that imply Bronson’s mental anguish (that he conceals throughout the film). However, this is never dwelt upon, as with Bronson, there is no time to “talk things out”. When he sets up Keenan Wynn at the beach front, he plays it out like a cat and mouse game, toying with Wynn’s fragile mind, and when he finally kills him, he does it upfront – as if doing thing honestly and with reason, suffocating him with his mighty hand dressed in a Giallo-style black glove (more harkening back to Italian cinema).

The film has three set-pieces that systematically follow one another and somehow sit outside the chain of events that will close the film which will solely be invested in what is established in the beginning; that is, the revolutionary handle on the role of assassin by Charles Bronson and then the eventual “partnership” and then betrayal at both ends of him and Jan-Michael Vincent. These thee sequences capitalize on the film’s subtle interest in culture, belief systems and the roles of order and chaos. Bronson’s visit to Jill Ireland (of course, the duo would be married at the time of the film’s release and worked on multiple films together) is a haunting and melancholy moment in the film. It is fleeting and in and out, but it does offer a glimpse into Bronson’s assassin and how he is so far removed from what would be considered “real life”. Ireland plays a call girl and she lives in an apartment which highlights her movie obsession. Her walls are decked with film posters ranging from the monster movie masterpiece King Kong (1933) to the Joan Crawford noir Two-Faced Woman (1941) and Blood and Sand (also 1941), an action adventure film starring matinee idol Tyrone Power. Ireland’s prostitute is another escapist who lives vicariously through make-believe, and this is her coping mechanism, much in the way her client – a hired assassin – deals with life’s way of dealing multiple facets of inconsideration through acts of prescribed violence. She makes up letters that recites them to him (to which he responds positively) and her flair for the dramatic paints a distorted picture of a world she has made up – by living out fantasies that she enacts in her work as a prostitute.

A Japanese one sheet for the film.

A far more noisy counter to that unsettling scene is the crashing and boisterous party that wild rock’n’roll friends of Jan-Michael Vincent throw at his late father’s manor. Amongst such maddening frivolity (Bronson later refers to them as “freaks” when he lists the character profile of Vincent through voice over) a phone call emerges from a young girl who wants to kill herself which leads to the third installation that reads like a vignette that is integrated to propel the two male leads into a soulless vortex of self-harm and unified aggression. When Jan-Michael Vincent decides to “help” his “sometimes” girlfriend, he takes Charles Bronson with him and we land in this hippie’s apartment where we slowly understand the film’s vested interest in Eastern philosophy and response and responsibility when it comes to ritualistic violence. The girl is dressed in a kimono and this self-inflicted mutilation (the slitting of her wrists) is indicative of Japanese-style self-torture and mutilation. She also wants the men to watch, a perverse form of Kabuki, and when she has the calm cool words of wisdom spoken to her by Bronson, she starts to learn about her body and the ramifications of suicide. The way the men deal with this girl’s flippant take on killing herself is astoundingly profound, and will eventually fuel the way they take on “jobs” together and then ultimately end one another’s life.

Jan-Michael Vincent says “I’ve always been interested in primitive rituals”, and this is in response to his father’s funeral, however, it does more than that: it comments on Michael Winner’s critique on culture as a violent expression of the human condition. When the two assassins walk through a wax works and note that killers are presented and represented as heroes, it is a thorough symbolism that goes beyond methodical acts of murderous rampage, it is a measuring point of a society gone to ruthless amounts of disengagement, detachment, frailty, egocentricity and disloyalty. This is what The Mechanic does best – it fragmentizes the distance between self-harm, perpetuated acts of malice and designer careers that allow for such cathartic and quiet slaughter.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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