By Paul-John Ramos (New York, USA)
If you’re wondering about the subtlety of this film, there is an opening scene in which the protagonist, a detective played by Charles Bronson, chases a gun-carrying teenager onto a fire escape and shoots him dead.
Heavy-handed and entirely of its time, The Stone Killer was one of countless films modeled on the 1971 classic Dirty Harry, in which a detective toes the border that separates law enforcement from sociopathic behavior. Harry and the succeeding line of police and vigilante films were a reaction to social upheavals that were turning American life inside out: there was Dirty Harry’s own sequel Magnum Force, the southern tale Walking Tall, and this adaptation of the John Gardner novel A Complete State of Death that proved something of a training ground for director Michael Winner and Bronson before their 1974 smash Death Wish.
The Stone Killer, like most Winner-directed films starring Bronson, has met its detractors but also gained notice in DVD journals and through on-demand television. While highly violent and never reaching above the level of potboiler, it is an entry that offers a quaint antihero and a popular storyline featuring good (however marginal) and evil. The film even received a strong review from Roger Ebert when it first appeared and has maintained a cult following years after its release.
The film opens in New York City with Lou Torrey (Bronson), a hardnosed detective, getting thrown off the force for killing a fleeing teenager who had shot an officer in a botched robbery attempt. Through connections, he is taken on by the police in Los Angeles County, reporting to mild-mannered chief Les Daniels (Norman Fell).
Torrey makes a narcotics arrest in L.A. involving one of his past New York collars and is told while extraditing him that a major hit will take place. Before finding out who, where, or when, the collar dies in a drive-by shooting when coming out of the airport. With American police precincts already under siege, most of his colleagues don’t seem to care very much but Torrey pursues a string of leads, driving all over California and revisiting New York, in order for the hit to be stopped.
The hit has been commissioned by Al Vescari (Martin Balsam), a mafia don who wants payback for the murder of his fellow gang leaders 42 years earlier. Vescari, who is a remaining member of the old mafia guard that was unseated by those killings, has engaged soldier-for-hire Lawrence (Stuart Margolin) to wipe out his rivals. Lawrence plans to use well-trained men who have returned from the Vietnam War in less than savory states of mind.
For how much is remarked about American society, The Stone Killer doesn’t say very much beyond the obvious. We are reminded of the period’s growing racial tensions, its rising crime rates, and the general feeling of chaos that swept over the nation; but these are just comments loosely sprinkled around the film’s running time. The film is a pulpy thriller that clings to an average citizen’s fears about the new American landscape and the unpleasant conflicts resulting from it. It acts as a kind of release valve for the stresses building up in a typical American soul, with composer Roy Budd’s soundtrack actually echoing this in repeated sighs of brass.
While The Stone Killer takes its mild licks at social commentary, most of its impact comes from simply using the people and places of early 1970s America as a backdrop. Torrey, determined to break the case, moves through a variety of settings that illustrate the period’s neuroses: there is an overworked and inept police force that often chases after the wrong suspects; there are radical minority groups (including the Black Panthers) and the hippy community, the latter of whom Torrey visits in Carmel; and there is the domestic backlash of Vietnam, many of whose soldiers are in need of psychiatric treatment.
It is pretty obvious that a film casting Bronson in this type of role will be filled with bullets, punches, and unpleasant human beings. Torrey is a 1970s cop-antihero in the Dirty Harry mold who beats up suspects, produces a high body count, and seems to travel all over the place on very little sleep. This film, however, has an edge that few modern-day actioners (or any titles for that matter) are able to match. Though filled with political incorrectness and trashiness, The Stone Killer has certain honesty in carrying out its proceedings.
The proceedings go quite well until the final scene, one in which Vescari goes to church for penance; it feels like a quick grasp at philosophy that doesn’t come off and hurts the story arc. Torrey, sitting in a car outside, tries to connect the Mafia to rising crime rates in American cities and the Roman Coliseum, an analogy that makes vague, if any, sense. It all feels tracked on when this film’s intentions are unmistakable in the scenes that come before: The Stone Killer is a straight-up action film with the early 70s as its vehicle.
The Stone Killer was made during the early period of Winner’s American films, when he was working with larger budgets, better casts, and a greater amount of artistic care. One can never expect Oscar-worthy performances or technical work in his movies, but what we do have in The Stone Killer is a solidly-paced pulp actioner with recognizable faces dotting the screen. The story, while run-of-the-mill for its time, is strangely compelling and helped by reliable performances from the cast. Winner, as usual, does his best work in the action scenes, which are feverishly paced.
Bronson, though lacking the panache of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, is perfectly suited to the role of a cold-blooded hunter who has left normal living behind. The script makes it just about impossible for Martin Balsam to play his Mafioso role without stereotyping – he even mentions spaghetti vongole in his description of the 1931 killings – but he is restrained and has enough personality to carry the scenes that run parallel to Bronson’s.
Stuart Margolin, who would play a key supporting role in Death Wish, gives a slithery performance in which even the smiles can’t detract from his character’s murderous behavior. There is a long list of veterans seen here, including Ralph Waite as Bronson’s racist partner in L.A., Paul Koslo as one of Lawrence’s young recruits who moonlights as a trombone player, and Jack Colvin as a play-it-safe car thief who is actually one of few sympathetic characters from the lot. John Ritter, just 24 at the time, plays a naive uniform cop who is made to accompany Torrey.
The Stone Killer was shot in Winner’s familiarly subdued print, handled well by cinematographer Richard Moore. The mentioned soundtrack by Roy Budd (Get Carter) is a remarkable mix of classical orchestra, jazz, and psychedelic rock that aids the story’s pacing and might be the best feature of this entire film. The cinematography, music, and locations combine to make The Stone Killer a sort of western-urban crime film with funky elements.
There were more than enough films in the 1970s that took Dirty Harry as its cue but only a few were even partly successful. Despite its muddled ending and the usual scenario of shoot first and ask later, The Stone Killer is a fast-paced 95 minutes that offers a kind of blood-stained snapshot of life in this country five decades ago. Winner’s and Bronson’s films create strong reactions on both sides of the fence, but those who are already fans should not be disappointed.
The Stone Killer was a topic of home video blogs that asked if the film would ever appear on DVD. For whatever reason (perhaps copyright), it languished for years in VHS-only obscurity until Sony Home Entertainment released a bare-bones disc in 2011. Unfortunately, The Stone Killer is cleanly presented in widescreen but nothing except the film is included.
Sony has retained the original mono track and the disc does not offer a menu; the movie begins playing upon start-up and scene stops, which are haphazardly placed, can only be reached through the forward and back buttons. There are no extras, not even the theatrical trailer, and the dust jacket has mistakes in its plot description. It’s unfortunate that Sony is willing to release discs as if weekend interns assembled them, but fans of 1970s action and Charles Bronson have waited just about as long for this film as Martin Balsam’s character has waited to take out his enemies. At least we have it now.
Rating: ★★½ out of 4