Day 3 of Noirvember: Happy Birthday, Charles Bronson

If you know anything at all about Charles Bronson, it’s probably as the craggy-faced, mustachioed actor whose primary claim to fame was his performances as a vigilante in movies like Death Wish (1974) and its four sequels.

But prior to the crag and before the mustache, Bronson was known as Charles Buchinsky and his credits included a memorable role in the underrated 1954 noir Crime Wave. In celebration of Bronson’s birthday, today’s Noirvember post takes a look at this actor and his best film noir appearance.

Born on November 3, 1921 in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, the actor once described by a critic as “a Clark Gable who had been left out in the sun too long” was one of 15 children. His father was a Lithuanian immigrant and worked in the local coal mines – Charles joined him there during his teens, where he worked until he was drafted in World War II.

Bronson’s Ben Hastings is not exactly the ideal dinner guest.

After the war, Charles worked a variety of odd jobs in New York State, including laying bricks and picking onions, then moved to Atlantic City, where he eventually met some actors from a local acting group and signed on to paint scenery. Before long, he was acting with the group and, finding that he liked it, went to California and took classes at the famed Pasadena Playhouse. He made his screen debut a couple of years later in You’re in the Navy Now (1951). (He later said that he landed his small role in this Gary Cooper starrer because of his ability to belch on cue.)

Once his first part was under his belt, Charles didn’t want for work – he appeared in a slew of feature films and small screen productions, including an uncredited role in his first noir, The People Against O’Hara (1951); Pat and Mike (1952), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and House of Wax, the first in Vincent Price’s considerable horror canon. Then, in 1954, he returned to the shadows with a standout performance in Crime Wave.

Fearless and ruthless, and scary as hell.

Masterfully directed by Andre de Toth (Veronica Lake’s third husband, incidentally), Crime Wave stars Gene Nelson as Steve Lacey, an ex-con whose efforts to turn his life around are stymied when some pals from his penitentiary past escape from San Quentin. Bronson was fifth-billed as Ben Hastings, who leaves no doubt about his persona in the film’s first scene, when he unflinchingly kills a cop during a gas station robbery. (I love that most of the action in this tense and violent scene is accompanied by Doris Day on the radio singing “S’Wonderful.”) Along with “Doc” Penny (Ted de Corsia), Hastings shows up on Lacey’s doorstep, to the delight of neither Lacey nor his pretty young wife, Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) – of whom Hastings is unabashedly and creepily appreciative. Lacey’s former San Quentin chums hide out at Lacey’s apartment, with plans to force him into helping them knock over a bank and then use his flying skills to transport them to Mexico.

Did I forget to mention that Timothy Carey is in this film? (As if you needed another reason to watch it!) That’s him in the back, on the floor.

As Hastings, Bronson is a menacing and frightening presence, the sociopathic brawn to Doc Penny’s brains. Fearless and ruthless, and as hard-boiled as a six-minute egg, he was responsible for no fewer than two murders – and possibly more – during the course of the film. He was the epitome of a man with nothing to lose – and they’re the scariest criminals of all.

Charles (who changed his name to Bronson around 1955) went on to appear in such blockbusters during the next decade as The Magnificent Seven (1960); The Great Escape (1963); The Dirty Dozen (1967); and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In addition to his popular Death Wish features, he was seen in numerous action films, including Mr. Majestyk (1974), and westerns like Chato’s Land (1972) – which I remember seeing at the drive-in with my mom – and Breakheart Pass (1975). The actor died at the age of 81 in 2003; his last role was in a TV movie a few years before, in 1999.

I watched Crime Wave again to prepare for this post, and was once more impressed with Bronson’s performance and this film (which, by the way, stars Sterling Hayden as a no-nonsense, toothpick-chomping cop). If you haven’t seen it, you can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon Prime and YouTube – it’s worth the money.

Trust me.

And join me tomorrow for Day 4 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 3, 2019.

8 Responses to “Day 3 of Noirvember: Happy Birthday, Charles Bronson”

  1. Great feature on my all time favorite and not a film most are aware of I should think.

  2. Crime Wave is indeed “a dandy.”

    I’m impressed how Charles, like James Coburn, managed a burgeoning film career with some terrific guest appearances on television in the 1960s. Nice roles on The Fugitive, and the westerns like Bonanza, The Virginian, Rawhide, and The Big Valley.

  3. I haven’t seen the film but I’m anxious to see it after your review. People can watch this film for free on 123Putlocker.

  4. Bronson is one of the best. I love all his work, but I pass on the Death Wish series. And from I read he was a fine human being.

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