The Stone Killer Review
Charles Bronson may have been acting since the 1950s, but his career didn’t reach a pinnacle until the mid-seventies, when he became a major box office draw. The Stone Killer - adapted from the book, A Complete State of Death, by John Gardner - was Bronson’s third collaboration with outspoken director Michael Winner. Released in 1973, it came out a year before what was to become one of Bronson’s most infamous roles; as vigilante Paul Kersey in the controversial Death Wish, again directed by Winner.
The film doesn’t stray too far from the standard template most Bronson movies tended to follow. Fans never expected him to deliver lengthy heartfelt monologues, indulge in witty repartee, or break into a song and dance routine. He would just be required to hunt down evil wrongdoers in his usual taciturn kick-ass style, before dispensing his own brand of justice – ideally all in a brutally efficient 90 minutes. Sadly by the 1980s Bronson seemed to be just going through the motions in a series of turgid Cannon produced thrillers. For the doubters out there who thought that Charlie was wooden and had become too old for all this action malarkey, there was one last surprise towards the end of his career. In 1991 he appeared in Sean Penn's crime drama The Indian Runner opposite Viggo Mortensen and delivered an excellent performance, finally getting some praise from critics for his acting abilities.
The Stone Killer sees Bronson cast as Lou Torrey, one of those maverick cops who doesn’t play by the rules and is in regular conflict with his superiors. I always remember the strange reverse zoom opening shot in the film, having first seen it many years ago on TV. We see a close-up of a branch with lush green leaves and birdsong in the background, suggesting tranquillity. The camera then suddenly pulls back, revealing that we are actually in the middle of a grimy street in Spanish Harlem with a major commotion taking place below as the cops apprehend a violent young thug who has just entered a building. Torrey is already on the scene when a patrol cop warns him, "kid's inside now - he's got a big gun”, to which old stony-face retorts, “And a small future!” before blasting the perp on a fire escape. It’s a slick pre-credits sequence that sets the scene nicely.
Unfortunately what follows is a convoluted tale about a mafia Don named Al Vescari (a miscast Martin Balsam) who is out to avenge the massacre of fellow Sicilian mafiosi at the hands of a rival crime syndicate some 42 years earlier (!). To carry out this deed, Vescari hatches an elaborate plan to train ex-Vietnam vets in the Mojave desert who will then assassinate the heads of all his rivals, with the intention of causing a major shake-up in the criminal underworld. Torrey stumbles across this master plan while investigating the slaying of a murderer, which it transpires has a connection. The narrative jumps back and forth between LA and New York, as Torrey gathers evidence and the pieces slowly fall into place.
The Stone Killer is only 95 minutes long, though it does at times feel longer. If you can get past the far-fetched premise, and Gerald Wilson’s screenplay could have benefited from some further fine tuning also. Some scenes in particular seem a little superfluous, like when Torrey visits an Ashram to interview a witness. It just serves as an excuse for Winner to parade some flamboyant characters without keeping the story moving along. In this bizarre sequence there's even a walk-on part for a camel! The film bursts into life during several exhilarating action sequences, expertly edited by Winner himself – who in fact cut many of his own films. These are accompanied by a suitably energetic score by the late great Roy Budd.
A highlight is a breakneck chase between Bronson at the wheel of an old Plymouth and Paul Kosolo’s hitman attempting to escape on a motorcycle. They careen through a market, burst through glass windows and bounce over train tracks during the destructive high speed pursuit. Equally well staged is a bloody shoot-out in the Mojave, full of exploding squibs and a vehicle crunching climactic showdown in an underground car lot. It is at its best when Bronson is allowed to show off his tremendous physicality. You can usually clearly see it’s him running, jumping and throwing kicks or punches. Impressive for an actor already into his fifties at this stage. There’s none of the hyperactive editing that was to become commonplace in more recent movies, allowing the star to be sneakily substituted for a stunt double. The film may be violent (it was originally an 18 on VHS but later downgraded to the current 15 rating), but it’s far less gratuitous than what was to come in some of the later Winner/Bronson collaborations such as the reprehensible Death Wish 2.
Powerhouse Films have released The Stone Killer as a region free dual-format edition, forming part of their limited edition Indicator series with only 5000 copies produced. Presented in 1080p in the correct 1.85:1 ratio, the BD has been sourced from an HD master provided by Sony, which shows no discernible signs of damage. There is generally only a very fine level of grain throughout, so it’s definitely up to the usual high standard that we have come to expect from Powerhouse Films. Winner favoured location shooting for the Stone Killer and those many exterior scenes exhibit bright colours and an excellent level of detail.
As you would expect from a film of this era there is also plenty of drab, dark brown and beige on show, ranging from those 1970s threads worn by various characters to the wood panelling décor inside the buildings. Acceptable levels of contrast are maintained during the slightly darker interior scenes, such as those taking place in a bar. Skin tones appear natural looking and the close up detail shows off every line of Bronson’s craggy countenance. In my opinion, the image quality here is superior compared to some of the other vintage Bronson movies that have emerged on Blu-ray in other countries. For example, Koch Media’s recent release of Breakout for the German market was marred by some slight damage, most noticeable at the beginning of the film. However, it’s also fair to mention that this transfer is not as stunning as Eureka’s 4K restoration of Hard Times - another early Bronson vehicle from Columbia’s back catalogue.
The soundtrack has been re-mastered in the original mono and is free from any detectable pops or crackles. The dialogue has a consistently good level of clarity throughout and the audio really bursts to life during the many action scenes with the copious thunderous gunshots and screeching car chases. Powerhouse has also thoughtfully provided an option to enjoy Roy Budd’s terrific funky score on an isolated track. I’ve always been a huge fan of the British born Jazz pianist and film composer and loved his score for movies such as Get Carter and The Wild Geese. Even if you hated the Lewis Collins SAS thriller Who Dares Wins – and it was slated by the critics - you can’t deny that Budd’s rousing score is highly memorable.
Overall the new Powerhouse edition is a significant improvement compared to the previous R2 DVD released some years ago by Sony and Mill Creek’s more recent lacklustre budget priced offering in the US. This release may lack the eye popping colours and detail that a full 4K restoration might have offered, but it is still a solid effort.
Mr Blonde: Paul Koslo on The Stone Killer (approx. 17 minutes) - Koslo is one of those great character actors who cropped up in so many movies, particularly during the early 70s, so it’s a treat to get a brand new interview with the charismatic actor who is now well into his seventies. He’s on top form and full of anecdotes, like revealing how he got off to a bad start with director Michael Winner by inadvertently sitting in his chair or recalling how Bronson came across as a loner who discourteously refused to have his picture taken with a fan.
Gallery - A terrific collection of 75 behind-the-scenes stills and other publicity material associated with the movie. Includes rare archival materials from the personal collection of director Michael Winner.
John Player Interview with Michael Winner (64 mins) - Winner passed away in 2013, so here we get an archival audio interview with him conducted at the National Film Theatre in 1970 with Margaret Hinxman. Winner was always a larger than life raconteur with strong opinions, so expect an entertaining chat on this track. He was frequently lambasted by the critics for his directorial efforts – sometimes this was well-deserved, though he never seemed to take any of the harsh criticism to heart. He may have been forgiven for unleashing the shaggy dog tale Won Ton Ton on the world, but never for Death Wish 2.
Collector’s Booklet - The well researched glossy 40-page booklet is packed with stills and articles. This includes a new essay by Paul Talbot, author of Bronson's Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films and Bronson's Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson. There are also some archival reviews of the film - often negative.
Audio commentary - A new and insightful commentary with journalist and critic Nick Pinkerton.
Original theatrical trailer - You can't beat a vintage 1970s trailer - though some did ramble on for too long. Luckily this one does an efficient job at selling the movie.