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Bronson's gifts: a glorious toughness and 'the right face at the right time'

The late actor, whose work ranged from genre to genius, dominated scenes, wordlessly evoking nobility in westerns and 'guy' films.

September 06, 2003|Stephen Hunter | Washington Post

His face looked like someone had used a steel chisel on a wall of anthracite a thousand feet beneath Pennsylvania. It was cracks, rips, cuts, lumps, bumps and raw, worn, workingman's fatigue.

Yet you did not look away. You could not look away. Charles Bronson, who died last weekend at the reported age of 81, always projected the charisma of ambiguity: Was he an ugly handsome man or a handsome ugly man? You were never sure, so further study was obligatory.

Whichever, he was all man, that was certain. He oozed male life-force, stoic toughness, capability, strength.

The coal miner's son, the tail-gunner, he somehow fought his way to superstardom in the '70s. It kind of went away, but he didn't much care. He had a great American life, became famous, made tons of money, dozens of crappy movies, a few good ones and maybe even a masterpiece. He had three wives and a batch of kids. Who'd a thunk it would happen to a kid named Charlie Buchinsky, one of 15 kids of a Lithuanian coal miner, born dirt-poor with zero prospects in a one-horse mining town called Ehrenfield, Pa.?

But like so many of his generation, the mortal storm called World War II changed everything. When he came back from Army Air Forces duty, he had seen things and met people, and he had dreams. He knew he didn't have to use the pick against the coal wall for a living and end up with lungs full of black dust and hands that never, ever would be clean.

Who knows where the bug came from? But there he is, in 1949, enrolling in the Pasadena Playhouse with some kind of performing aspiration. You can see how a Roy Fitzgerald would head to Hollywood, with dreams of becoming Rock Hudson, but a Charlie Buchinsky? Who could Charlie Buchinsky become?

And how they must have laughed at him, all the pretty blond boys, the blue-eyed girls, the tan, the sleek and the lovely, and how sure they must have been that the world belonged to their beauty and grace and not to this interloper from the under-chambers of Pennsylvania whose face, even then, looked like pemmican and walnuts.

But he began to get work, not in spite of, but because of, that face. The camera loved it; it could not be ignored, and in his apprenticeship roles -- usually a goon or a convict or a servant, some minor stock figure -- he still registered. I happen to remember it from a particularly brutal '50s crime melodrama called "Big House, U.S.A." (1955), in which he's a convict involved in a breakout, but that's just one of dozens. He even got into a few A movies: You can see that mug put to fabulous advantage in "House of Wax," in which his stoic henchman's gravitas contrasts with the showy, effete dementia of mad artist Vincent Price.

For a decade, that was his life: He was a natural for the genre films, always a sergeant in the platoon, a second lieutenant in the cavalry, a cop on the take, an Indian on the run, a minor thug. But somewhere along the line, he began to pick up technique.

He never became a great actor, but he knew exactly how to dominate a scene quietly. He came to stand for working-class stolidity. He was the man with the name ending in a vowel (exactly as his name had ended, until he changed it to Bronson in mid-1954) who never left the position, never complained, never quit, never skulked. He simmered, he sulked, he bristled with class resentments, but he hung in there, got the job done and expected no thanks. His nobility was all the more palpable for never having to be expressed in words.

The roles got bigger and bigger until, by the late '50s and early '60s, he was a dependable, welcome presence in the boisterous "guy" movies of the time, like "The Magnificent Seven" or "The Great Escape," both of which were made by John Sturges and probably contained his greatest character work. In "Seven" he was magnificent, a craggy, windburned warrior, aware that his charisma attracted the love of children but wise enough to know it was a false charisma that taught false lessons.

His one masterpiece arrived in '68, when he took the magnificent ruin of his face, his reined-in macho, his strength and agility to Spain for Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." There, following a route pioneered by Clint Eastwood, he stood for Leone's romantic notion of anonymous justice, a man without a name but with a hell of a mug and a fast gun-hand, alone in a turbulent land, standing for quiet justice. His big showdown at the end against the sinister Henry Fonda is one of the great moments in the western genre.

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