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Blu-ray Review: The Stone Killer

THE FILM  3.5/5

“We’re chest deep in water, screaming against the rushing tide.”

Star Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner team up again in The Stone Killer (1973), the tale of a tough cop (Bronson) up against a Mafia plot to avenge a decades-old massacre. The twist: the Don (Martin Balsalm) is using Vietnam vets as his hit men. John Gardner’s book was adapted by Gerald Wilson, and the score is from Roy Budd.

Charles Bronson worked with director Michael Winner a total of six times, with two of those collaborations resulting in critical praise (Death Wish, Chato’s Land) and the greatest movie of all time (Death Wish 3). Regardless of critical reaction, their six films together all offered six different experiences. Even though three of those films were entries in the legendary Death Wish franchise, they, too, managed to be quite different from each other, going from angry social commentary to out-and-out live-action cartoon. Simply, just because Bronson and Winner worked together six total times, it doesn’t mean they made the same kind of film over and over.

The Stone Killer, adapted from the novel “A Complete State of Death” by John Gardner, was the third collaboration between Bronson and Winner. Despite Bronson playing a cop (which he would do repeatedly throughout his career), it was the only cop he’d play during his run with Winner. But The Stone Killer didn’t feature your usual Ten to Midnight or Murphy’s Law type of cop, which meant that his role served as a conduit to action and brainlessness.  No, The Stone Killer actually boasts a layered and at times impenetrable plot, similar to other gritty ‘70s films like The French Connection or The Laughing Policeman (or 1968’s Bullitt, which according to even its biggest fans would admit that its plot doesn’t really make sense or come together by the time the final shot is fired).

On top of the machinations of the crimes being investigated, The Stone Killer laudably attempts to cast a light on the culture of New York and Los Angeles in the early ‘70s – the country was trying to learn how to co-exist with the ruined soldiers returning home from Vietnam; the hippy/free love movement was in full swing; a dozen different strains of marijuana were populating cities’ streets. Take all this, add in the Sicilian mafia and its various murderous plans, a nu army of disaffected Vietnam soldiers under the mafia’s thumb, and you’ve got The Stone Killer, an entertaining and thrilling hardboiled cop procedural with a complicated plot and an atypically ambiguous ending based more on implication than flat-out resolution. It certainly doesn’t end like this:

Throughout his career, Winner was accused of making films more visceral than thought-provoking (a sort of British, pre-CGI Michael Bay), and while he was fine with this label, it wasn’t altogether true. The Stone Killer may not be as heralded as other notable ‘70s flicks, and perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be when mentioned alongside the likes of Dirty Harry, but it does have merit. After exactly 20 years of Death Wish flicks, seeing a poster with Bronson grasping a gun has begun to mean something very different than originally intended, which is potentially what’s caused The Stone Killer to fall into obscurity.  There are some nice action sequences throughout, and the finale is certainly explosive, but otherwise The Stone Killer is cop Bronson chasing down leads, putting together clues, and dealing with the bureaucracy of working with not just one but two major cities’ police departments. As usual, it’s a joy to watch him in this kind of role (alongside frequent co-star Martin Balsam as Alberto Vescari, doing his best with a not-at-all-convincing Italian accent).

THE PICTURE  4/5

Considering its age, The Stone Killer looks pretty good in high definition. Every year of its 45(!) years is up on the screen in the form of heavy grain and somewhat faded or muted colors, but the image is surprisingly very stable, with few signs of print damage. (There is some minor wear in the top left corner of the screen during the sequence when Bronson chases down the wrong Wexton at a hippy revival.) Otherwise The Stone Killer presents a rather handsome image.

 THE SOUND 4/5

The Stone Killer‘s audio presentation won’t be competing with any modern blockbusters any time soon, but for what it is (and again, considering its age), it works just fine. Dialogue reads well without interference from the musical score by Roy Budd or other source ambience.

 THE SUPPLEMENTS 2.5/5

The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Audio Commentary with Bronson Biographer Paul Talbot
  • Isolated Music Track
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

 OVERALL 4/5

The only real stinker Charles Bronson and Michael Winner ever made together was Death Wish 2, an ugly film that sacrificed much of the social commentary of its predecessor while going out of it way to even further shock its audience. (Death Wish 3 utterly lacked substance, but it was so, so fun.) With that out of the way, the Bronson-Winner years yielded a handful of films that all had merit for one reason or another. Together, with The Stone Killer, they made their version of the urban western, with Bronson playing the strong and silent type. Its plot might not completely gel by film’s end, but it offers a rousing good time and a narrative that doesn’t make it fully easy for the audience to comprehend. Though light on supplements, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of their title can sit proudly next to their previous Bronson releases, offering great picture and quality audio, along with attractive cover art. Bronson grasping that gun has never looked so good.

(Thanks to Movieman’s Guide for the screengrabs.)

THE DISTRIBUTOR

Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.” 


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Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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