Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Twilight Time - THE MECHANIC and THE TRAIN on Blu-ray ""

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Twilight Time - THE MECHANIC and THE TRAIN on Blu-ray

THE MECHANIC (1972; Michael Winner)
Charles Bronson is one of the great American actors and one of my favorites. His craggy lived-in face is something from a bygone era of casting when much more weight seemed to be (consciously or unconsciously) placed on the amount of character that could be brought by faces alone. Men like Bronson, Warren Oates, Lee Marvin and others carried a sense of their life experience with them in their faces. Bronson in particular had this mysterious lone-wolf quality about him that allows for him to do so much with very little - just his looks, sparse word choice and whatever he could carry off via his eyes. He's well-suited to playing a cold-blooded hit man as he does here. And in addition to that, when you throw a young Jan-Michael Vincent into the mix as Bronson's protege/adversary, it really rarely gets any better. Vincent is another favorite actor for me. He isn't typically as emotionless as he is in this film, but he pulls it off perfectly. 
Michael Winner is a director I like quite a bit and his talent as a filmmaker is never more on display than in this movie. From its exquisite 16-minute dialogue-less opening right on through to its fantastic ending, it is truly one of the best films of the 1970s. Winner was a man of artful simplicity in terms of the structure of a lot of his films. He used a lot of short scenes with a quick pace for the most part in his general approach. It seems an obvious thing, but this approach really makes for enjoyable, engaging movies ultimately. Also, and in THE MECHANIC in particular, he shys away from the conventional camera setups of two-shots and so forth. Very rarely are two characters who are speaking to each other framed in a standard two-shot here. More often, Winner cuts around to close-ups and some more angled shots as well as inserts and slow pans across a scene. On top of Bronson, Vincent and Winner's great work here, THE MECHANIC is also a neat portrait of Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The L.A. as location part of the picture isn't emphasized in a remarkably ostentatious way, but it serves the film well as a solid backdrop and there are lots of interesting and memorable locales used throughout. 
The long and the short of it is that THE MECHANIC is not only probably Michael Winner's best film (in a career full of highlights well worth remembering), but it is one of the great films on the 1970s in my opinion. If you only ever see one Charles Bronson film (and by the way if that's all you see you're crazy because he's amazing), make it THE MECHANIC.

Special Features:
-This disc has a nice audio commentary track with the film's cinematographer Richard H. Kline and Nick Redman. This is another of those tracks that while it has  a scholarly way about it, it also offers insight into Michael Winner himself, as Kline has a good amount of memories of working with him. Being that Winner is a director who is reputed to be something of an occasional tyrant on his sets. As is often the case, Kline expresses a healthy amount of respect for Winner and his talent as a director. Further, Kline had apparently also known Bronson for a long time (since his 'Buchinski' days) and has kind things to say about him as well.
Kline is surprisingly spry and with it as far as his comments especially as he is 88 years old (I really had no idea in listening to him speak). Redman also touches on some of Kline's many many other credits which was neat to hear him mention - he shot several other films for Winner-(including the amazing DEATH WISH III) as well as many with Richard Fleischer, and some with Robert Wise and Brian De Palma plus tons more.

THE TRAIN (1964; John Frankenheimer)
Like THE MECHANIC, THE TRAIN is very much up there among the upper echelon of my absolute favorite films of all-time. I was relatively unaware of the "guys-on-a-mission" genre as it were until Quentin Tarantino started to emphasize his fondness for it in the late 1990s ( with particular regards to films like WHERE EAGLES DARE and DARK OF THE SUN). Once I became aware of them I began to seek as many of them out as I could. That impetus in combination with my "discovery" of John Frankenheimer around the same time (via my first coming across THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and SECONDS) brought about a lovely intersection of both things in THE TRAIN. The guys on missions in the best of these films were often on missions based on wartime activity. Men following orders seems a perfect setup as to the why aspect of what makes them driven to do what it is they need to do. The phrase 'tour-de-force' is perhaps bandied about a bit more often than it should be (and I am guilty of this myself). When you look at Lancaster's performance in THE TRAIN you can see just exactly what that phrase should quantify. Not only is it a fantastically nuanced piece of acting, but on top of that, it is a remarkably physical performance which Lancaster carries off with utmost tenacity and just plain guts as to be exemplary on an all-time scale. Lancaster is an actor I came to early in my life (via FIELD OF DREAMS and TOUGH GUYS). I must say I didn't "get" him and found his acting to be kind of hokey or something. I couldn't put my finger on it but it seemed off to me somehow. Years later I started to see movies like THE TRAIN, THE SWIMMER and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and it all started to make sense. Lancaster is one of the greats. 
Frankenheimer is one of the greats too. He's just one of those no-nonsense directors that brings a fierce energy and dynamism to just about every scene he put to celluloid. THE TRAIN is a perfect example of this in that as much as it has some action to it, there is a lot of groundwork to be laid at the front half of the movie that is frankly very talky and yet so perfectly and subtly frenetic in not so obvious ways as to really keep things moving. It's an amazing example of this outstanding slow-burn tension that ramps up in the most calculatedly exquisite way as to make it truly one of the best films of this type ever made. This is the kind of movie that just gives me chills when I watch it. It is so much an outstanding example of cinematic storytelling and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Buy this Blu-ray. Now.

Special Features:
Another solid commentary track from Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and also Paul Seydor. This track gets right into the nuts and bolts of the production and how Frankenheimer replaced Arthur Penn after 10 days partially because of Lancaster's wishes for the film to have a bit more action to it. Also they make it known that the film is based on the memoir of a woman who catalogued and made note of all the artwork that the Germans stole (putting herself in a good amount of personal jeopardy). It's a wonderfully affectionate track overall, packed with detail and astute observations galore. Great discussions of Frankenheimer, Lancaster and all the other principals as well find their into this very lovely discussion. Like Frankenheimer's film itself, the commentary has a energy to it and that can only be brought across by three people talking excitedly about a fantastic film that they love. This track is certainly in the running for my favorite commentary of the year. 
(And P.S. - Redman makes an announcement about Frankenheimer's BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ coming out from Twilight Time later this year within the track which is a great piece of news.)
Also included here is an older commentary from Frankenheimer itself which is not surprisingly a treasure in and of itself. Frankenheimer is very screen - specific and his comments are somewhat spare. Normally this bothers me as it smacks of a director not knowing what to say and leaving dead air. Frankenheimer is clearly watching the film as he comments and lets certain scenes play whilst waiting till the end of them to comment. What he has to say is fascinating on a thematic level as well as in regards to the technical details. You can get some sense of his skills as a director based on how he speaks about the process. He has this confidence about him that is not off-putting, but rather gives the sense of a seasoned professional talking about his craft. Good stuff.

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