THE MECHANIC (1972 Version): The Existential Gloom In A Hitman’s Heart

Schlock fans revere Charles Bronson, with good reason.  Whether he was in a top-shelf attraction or a cut-rate programmer, he could be relied upon to deliver the kind of cool, stoic presence that only an old school tough guy can summon up.   The less imaginative dismissed his stone-faced, internalized approach as non-acting but the savvy understand that a real tough guy never shows more than he needs to.  Better yet, he could display subtle levels within that persona if the material gave him the right opportunity.

Bronson never had a better vehicle than The Mechanic.  Other films might have been more popular or made more money but this film had the smartest script and offered him his best-ever role.  In it, Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, a career assassin who works for an unnamed crime syndicate.  He keeps the rest of the world at arm’s length and devotes himself to his work, working out the variables of his assassinations with a scrupulous eye for detail and a flair for devious tactics that make his work invisible and clean.  His skills are laid out before the audience in a stunning, dialogue-free sequence that opens the film, devoting a whopping fifteen minutes to a killing that is painstakingly designed to look like an accident.

Unfortunately for Arthur, he is getting older and his work is taking its toll on him (a memorable sequence involves him having a panic attack).  The world is also changing around him and not for the better: proof of this fact arrives when he is asked to assassinate his mentor, Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn).  Arthur does as he is told with his usual cool efficiency but he decides to break from his norm afterwards by taking Harry’s son, Steve (Jan Michael Vincent), under his wing.  Steve may even be more cold-blooded than Arthur and this fascinates the older man, inspiring him to teach Steve the tools of his trade.  They become a team as the film works its way towards an ending that reflects its stark view of life and mankind.

Like the film’s hero, The Mechanic delivers the goods but does so in a manner informed with a steely intelligence.  Lewis John Carlino’s screenplay works in everything the action fan wants from a film like this – a cool hero, gunplay, car chases, elaborate assassination setpieces – yet he also adds elements that subvert the formula.  Despite Arthur Bishop’s perfection as a killer, he is dogged by loneliness and repressed fear.  His job – and his brilliance at it – ensures that he will never be able to overcome those troubles.  Even worse, the world he is in offers him no escape valve – the people around him are either faceless sheep/victims or lethal opponents.  The plot reinforces the feeling of existential dread created by the aforementioned elements, building itself around the idea that once a person’s character is set in place, it cannot be escaped – and fate will collect its price from us all.

The Mechanic‘s quietly doomy approach is suited nicely by the performances.  Bronson anchors the film, using his naturally reserved quality to give the audience the sense of a man who is quietly calculating every move and watching each person with suspicion.  However, the script allows him to show cracks in this familiar facade and Bronson takes to them with subtly-deployed skill.  The best moment of his performance comes when we see Bronson’s reactions to an anecdote about his childhood told by the elder McKenna.  Though he says nothing, his haunted expression and frozen body language relay the lifetime’s worth of anguish his character carefully keeps under wraps.

The underrated Jan Michael Vincent provides a  strong contrast, presenting us with a character whose easy charm and all-American looks conceal an amorality that is all the more frightening because it is so casual.  Keenan Wynn rounds out the film’s central trio, with a gregarious turn as a loud but secretly desperate veteran of the crime biz who is feeling his age all too acutely.  It’s also worth noting that Jill Ireland has a role here, as she did in virtually all of her husband Bronson’s films from the 1970’s and 1980’s – but she’s not mere window dressing this time and her role actually enhances the film’s portrait of its main character.

The final piece of the puzzle is Michael Winner’s direction.  He worked frequently with Bronson during the first half of the 1970’s and, even though the first Death Wish is their most popular teaming, The Mechanic is the definitive Bronson/Winner collaboration.

This is because it is the perfect marriage of Winner’s directorial skill to Bronson’s onscreen persona: Winner developed a knack during that era for making films that delivered action and suspense in a style that had visual gloss to spare yet had a dark worldview and the occasional flash of grotesque humor (see also Scorpio and The Stone Killer for other examples from this period).  Carlino’s script provides the perfect vehicle for the aforementioned techniques and Winner drives it home with ruthless precision.  The director’s work is aided nicely by gorgeous photography – Richard Kline handled the U.S. locations while Robert Paynter shot the Europe-set sequences – and Jerry Fielding’s edgy score tops it off with an final elegant yet icy layer.

In short, The Mechanic is much more than just a vintage Bronson programmer:  the existential bleakness that runs through all its elements make it an experience that is likely to leave you with a chill after its finale deals you the final punch.

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