The Savage Stack - THE STONE KILLER (1973)

Michael Winner and Charles Bronson deliver a pre-DEATH WISH fascist fantasy that owns your Christian ass.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The twenty-seventh entry into this unbroken backlog is the pre-Death Wish Bronson/Winner ode to police brutality, The Stone Killer

Vietnam played a large part in molding Charles Bronson’s '70s/'80s tough guy image. Starting with the heroic half-breed chronicle, Chato’s Land (’72), director Michael Winner got a feel for Bronson’s ever-evolving Western machismo (all Brillo pad hair and craggy virility) before transporting the cowboy to modern day with The Mechanic (’72). In it, Bronson’s a rigid, hired gun that takes on a protégé, resulting in a combative conflict of interest. In-between that brutish actioner and the next Bronson/Winner collaboration was Mr. Majestyk (’73) – a backwoods war film where Charlie plays a ‘Nam vet just looking to live out the rest of his days in peace as a melon farmer (but the local mafia aren’t fixing to leave him alone). It’s a ridiculous premise rendered legitimately riveting by Bronson’s enigmatic “stone face” persona.

For The Stone Killer (’73), Bronson continues to work in the aftermath of ‘Nam, battling a team of soldiers turned hired killers, collectively looking to wreak havoc upon syndicate leadership across the US. His Lt. Lou Torrey is a no-nonsense gunslinger (as if he played any other kind), in trouble with the public and his superiors thanks to his trigger-happy methods against potential collars. Torrey’s not a racist, but there’s certainly a nihilistic misanthropy he displays toward the communities he’s supposed to be defending. Now, it’s just Torrey’s luck that the men who were sent halfway around the world to kill Charlie are coming home and getting paid by crime lords to do their dirty work. In a time when Earth’s nothing more than a cesspool, Torrey’s the one guy attempting to stay squeaky clean. Winner again is the consummate anti-humanist, giving us a Paul Kersey prototype who just happens to have a shield with which he can justify his brutality.

Charles Bronson has a screen presence whose appeal is difficult to precisely pin down, but that’s what makes him so special. There’s flatness to his line delivery that feels naturally disinterested, while simultaneously intriguing. The actor enters every scene like a judgmental father, uneager to discover just what nonsense the kids are up to this time. Bronson’s manicured mustache and wrinkled mug have seen all sorts of pain the universe can dish out, but somehow, everything keeps getting worse. There’s world-weariness to each of his characters that feels as if they’re natural extensions of those Old West spaghetti assassins, and the loafers he wears now somehow had the miles off those dusty boots transferred to them. In The Stone Killer, Bronson owns an archaic fire and brimstone worldview that doesn’t quite gel with Miranda Rights and due process (not to mention the bad optics of a white man in power shooting numerous black and brown kids). This volatile dinosaur existing amongst puny modern men is terrifying for both the populous at large, as well as the righteous death dealers Bronson portrays; as he clearly comprehends that he’s a killer out of time.

On the other hand, Michael Winner knew exactly who he is, who he hated, and how to apply that white-hot nastiness to just this side of competent B-Grade moviemaking. Graduating from British film and television with honors in hired gun work, Winner's workmanlike tendencies built a sturdy well to quench his rather insatiable thirst for ultra-violence. His partnership with Bronson was Winner’s most fruitful artistic collaboration, as he discovered a blunt instrument through which he could channel gleeful indulgence in human damage. Winner's most notorious years were when Cannon Films brought him and his savage muse to their disreputable stable, updating the Death Wish saga they began in '74 to the ludicrous standards of an action cinema scene that minted Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone as its oiled marquee idols. However, Winner and Bronson's movies weren't entertaining in the same fist-pumping sense as their peers. These were raw, grimy exploitation pictures with mean steaks injected into their take-no-prisoners set pieces; cheapies that wanted to punish their target audience via rigid adherence to unrepentantly fascist politics.

The Stone Killer is Patient Zero of this “sick of it all” epidemic that would infect the next two decades. Opening with the shooting of a young Puerto Rican boy, Lou Torrey shrugs off the act of excessive violence (his third incident of its kind) and heads from Los Angeles to New York. Upon arrival, Ol’ Stoneface begins investigating a string of mysterious, connected killings. The investigation brings him to Don Alberto Vescari (Martin Balsam), who is utilizing unstable veterans to settle a Sicilian blood feud. Like some of the best exploitation movies ever made, The Stone Killer is actually about exploitation itself, and it’s up to Lou Torrey to pull out his .45 and start laying out all who’re both perpetrating and commissioning these war crimes on American soil. Winner, of course, revels in this nation gone to hell, staging large caliber shoot outs with impish abandon, as Bronson peers down at corpses and marvels at the “complete state of death” that hit them*. Torrey’s methods are despicable; punching suspects in interrogation rooms before adopting a “shoot first, ask later” MO on the streets. But in a world gone mad with combat, it takes moral soldiers to clean up these scum-littered streets.

During the final moments of The Stone Killer, Bronson delivers his message directly to all those who disagree with his characters’ methods. Quoting statistics regarding how many needless murders and assaults occur in New York City alone, he multiples those numbers by Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, outlining an American syndrome that requires a vaccine. Like Marion Cobretti after him, Lou Torrey is that cure. The Lieutenant turns to the camera and states (with trademark frankness): “Christians, you have five minutes.” To live in the United States of Bronson, people need to reject the notion that they can just turn the other cheek and keep on keeping on. It’s a philosophy that would follow the tough guy into his most famous role the very next year – as Paul Kersey ponders what it means for a society to collectively live in fear, and how he doesn’t want to be part of that world any longer. The pioneer days have given way to a wasteland, where only a gun and the indiscriminate ability to fire at your enemies will protect you. We’re not civilized anymore, and the Winner/Bronson combination transformed this perceived lack of decency into a problematic genre revolution they were fine with championing**.

*Adapting the title of John Gardner’s pulp source material into a tough guy quip.

**Great story about Death Wish – it was originally set for Sidney Lumet to direct and Jack Lemmon to star in. When Lumet left the project for Serpico, Lemmon dropped out and the script found its way to Winner. At the end of The Stone Killer, he described the screenplay to Bronson as a movie about an everyman who defends his wife after muggers assault her. Bronson said he’d “love to do that”. Winner was thrilled after he thought Bronson agreed to do the movie, to which Bronson replied, “no, shoot muggers”.

The Stone Killer is available now on DVD and to stream.