by Don Stradley
Charles Bronson was 55 at the time of “St Ives” (1976). He was just a couple years past his star-making turn in “Death Wish”, and was enjoying a surprising run of success. I say surprising because Bronson had, after all, been little more than a craggy second banana for most of his career. Now, inexplicably, he had box office clout as a leading man. In fact, Bronson reigned unchallenged for a few years as the most popular male actor in international markets. Yes, even bigger than Eastwood, Newman, Reynolds, Redford, or any other 1970s star you can name. Many of Bronson’s movies were partly financed by foreign investors, for even if his movies didn’t score stateside, they still drew buckets of money in Prague or Madrid. Some have suggested that his popularity on foreign screens was due to how little he said in his movies (there was never much dubbing required in a Bronson flick). I tend to think international audiences simply liked what Bronson was selling: straight forward toughness. Because he was much older than his peers, he didn’t play up the counter cultural smugness or cynicism. No, Bronson was a shear, undiluted bad-ass. And that sells anywhere.
So what, I wonder, did the global movie goer think of “St. Ives”? It was a change of pace for old Charlie, for he talks more here than in “Mr. Majestyk,” “The Stone Killer” and “Hard Times” combined. He’s also not blowing his enemies away, or beating them senseless in an alley fight. Even the veins in his neck seem relatively docile in this movie. He plays Raymond St. Ives, a former L.A. newspaper columnist who lives in a fleabag hotel. He sleeps late, gambles what little money he makes on football, and is supposedly working on a novel. We never see him writing, but every time someone greets him they say, “Hey, how’s the novel going?” That’s how we know. (The adverts for the movie also showed Bronson smoking a pipe, yet he doesn’t smoke a pipe in the movie. Since he spends a lot of time at a deli, a more accurate poster would have shown him eating a pastrami sandwich.)
When he’s not being a lovable slacker, St. Ives occasionally “helps” people, ala Travis McGee. The connections he made during his years as an ambulance chaser now assist him when he needs help tracking down a shady character. When he’s hired by a wealthy old windbag to retrieve some stolen documents, he soon finds himself knee deep in dead bodies, and crooked cops. John Houseman plays Abner Procane, the aforementioned windbag. Procane sits in his mansion, weeping over old King Vidor movies, while a mysterious coterie of people bustles around him, including a personal psychiatrist who massages his back. He’s mum about the contents of the documents, but he’s willing to pay a lot of dough to get them back. Since St. Ives is not close to finishing his novel, he takes the gig. As the movie’s tagline read: “He's clean. He's mean. He's the go-between.”
The screenplay by Barry Beckerman was based on a novel by Ross Thomas, and it tries hard to ape the old Raymond Chandler style. Unfortunately, it’s neither tough enough to be “hard-boiled,” nor dark enough to be “noir.” It’s simply the sort of convoluted “who done it” that was rampant as the mid-1970s went nutty with detectives. Not only was every TV network saturated with investigators of every ilk, but the big screen was hit with dozens of features, including “The Long Goodbye” (1973), “Chinatown” (1974) remakes of “Farewell My Lovely” (1975), and “The Big Sleep” (1978), plus lighter versions of the genre such as “The Late Show” (1977) and “The Big Fix” (1978). “St. Ives” fits into the list somewhere, if only because it was probably made to catch the wave created by “Chinatown.” It’s not nearly as good, but it has many fine moments and is more watchable than you might think.
First of all, the film looks great. Cinematographer Lucian Ballard, who worked with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah, finds the right tone for an LA where it’s always just past sundown, a low rent LA of crowded diners, crappy motels, and garages where cars are outfitted with armor plating. Also, J. Lee Thompson, a versatile and underrated director (“Guns of Navarone” “Cape Fear”) moves the story along at a brisk step. There’s a great scene early on where Bronson is thrown down a freight elevator shaft and has to scramble his way to safety before he’s crushed; it’s as intense as anything Thompson directed in his long career.
The cast features a pleasing collection of journeymen and fringe contenders, including the likes of Houseman, Maximillian Schell, Elisha Cook Jr., Michael Lerner, Harris Yulan, Harry Guardino, Daniel J. Travanti, and Dana Elcar. You’ll even see Jeff Goldbloom and Robert Englund as hoodlums who learn that one shouldn’t mess with Charles Bronson, even when he’s not in vigilante mode. Jacqueline Bisset is here, too, for movies of this sort require a femme fatale. She doesn’t quite cut it – she’s too urbane - but her wet t-shirt scene in “The Deep” was coming up soon and all would be forgiven.
“St. Ives” loses steam during a second half mired in car chases and dreary detective work. Lalo Shifrin’s scratchy guitar and bongo soundtrack fails, too, sounding more appropriate for an episode of ‘Baretta’. There’s a decent shootout at the end, and a couple of twists that we don’t see coming, but nothing in the film’s second half lives up to the promise of the first, when Bronson was discovering bodies stuffed into dryers, and Houseman was huffing and puffing like Sidney Greenstreet.
The movie flopped when it was originally released in the late summer of 1976. Audiences and critics alike couldn’t quite accept Bronson as a thinking, methodical character. One newspaper headline roared, “Is Bronson Going Soft?” Bronson couldn’t win. His violent movies were criticized for playing to the rabble, but when he tried to change, reviewers seemed indifferent, or in some cases, downright disappointed. “Bronson,” wrote a Pittsfield MA critic, “should be ashamed of himself.”
Bronson appeared in a few movies during this period that seemed to be a conscious break from his usual fare. There was “Breakheart Pass”, an interesting murder mystery set aboard a train in the 1800s, and a comedy western called “From Noon Till Three.” But as usually happens when a well-known star tries something different, these movies were a hard sell. LA critic Charles Champlin called “St. Ives” “competent but uninspired,” and said that Bronson, “continues to be a strong and attractive figure, even when he has as little to do as stroll through this charade.”
Was Bronson disillusioned by the cold reception given to “St. Ives”? If the movie had been a success, would he have considered playing more characters like Ray St. Ives, a fellow described in The New York Times as “….the kind of private-eye role that Humphrey Bogart used to do." I’d like to think that if this film had been a success, Bronson might have continued to evolve as an actor, rather than spending his later years grinding out the “Death Wish” sequels.
What I like best about “St. Ives” is that Bronson seems to be having fun. And he’s not half-bad. He was certainly not a Neanderthal who couldn’t handle dialog. He speaks the one liners and wisecracks with a surprising dryness, such as when some thugs rob him of 50 bucks and complain that he doesn’t have more money on him. "It only took you five minutes to get it," Bronson says. "That's $600 an hour..." Good stuff. Bronson may not deliver it the way Richard Dreyfuss would have, but Dreyfuss probably couldn’t climb out of an elevator shaft.
Still, there’s a telling moment late in the movie when Bronson pulls a gun. His eyes turn black and the gun seems an extension of his arm. While watching this scene I was reminded of something I once read about Buffalo Bill Cody – that his popularity was largely due to his looking better on horseback than any other man. And Bronson, too, I could argue, simply looked better with a gun in his hand than any other actor. And he didn’t need the comically huge hardware of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, either. Bronson looked dangerous even with a small pistol. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would resume making violent pictures and leave the more subtle characters behind. But in “St. Ives”, he was compelling without leaving the streets awash in blood. Bronson was better than anyone knew.
“St. Ives” is available as part of the Warner Archives streaming service.