Imagine a movie produced in the wake of both recently-beget Dirty Harry and The Godfather franchises, only constructed like a big-screen two-parter of a classic police procedural show like Hawaii Five-O. Now add United Artists’ recently-crowned action movie king, Charles Bronson, place him in-between a venerable assortment of established and future TV veterans alike, and then drizzle the whole project with a funky score from Roy Budd. Et voilà, ladies and gentlemen ‒ the perfect recipe for Michael Winner and Dino De Laurentiis’ early ’70s action vehicle The Stone Killer!
One of six memorable collaborations betwixt Bronson and his future Death Wish director Michael Winner, this wild and wooly ride from Columbia Pictures (who inherited the title from United Artists) finds Bronson as hard-nosed New York City cop Lou Torrey. Torrey doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s quite good at pulling triggers ‒ as we discover in an early sequence that would be shown as a pre-credit prologue today. After our tough-as-nails anti-hero guns down an underaged thug (I think people were shocked by it back then) and is transferred to L.A. as punishment, he winds up returning to The Big Apple with a wanted prisoner, former mafia assassin. Alas, someone has other ideas, and promptly guns Torrey’s prize fugitive down.
But that’s not the only suspicious killing to take place within the early half of The Stone Killer ‒ a term applied not to Bronson’s emotional acting range so much as it describes a specific kind of remorseless Mafia-hired gunmen depicted in the film. Except that there are an awful lot of baddies causin’ trouble on both coasts in this extremely enjoyable fast-movin’ film which doesn’t feel the need to apologize for its own narrative shortcomings. (Then again, what kind of an idiot expects an apology from a Charles Bronson movie?) As the body count continues to rise and Gerald Wilson’s screenplay sporadically clues us in as to what’s going on, we slowly learn the brain behind a rash of underworld violence is attributable to guys in the underworld.
But mostly just one guy: the great Martin Balsam, who co-stars here as an old-school Sicilian mafia boss (complete with “accent”) who has been holding a grudge against his fellow mob leaders ever since they assassinated a bunch of his old friends 42 years ago. Yes, you read that right ‒ 42 frickin’ years. I mean, I’ve held onto some unhealthy umbrages for entirely too long, and I think Marty could do with a visit to a therapist (so long as it isn’t Billy Crystal, right?). But it’s the ’70s, long before anyone really started to take counseling seriously, he has to hire a group of kill-crazy mercenaries trained by The Rockford Files‘ favorite guest star/director, the great Stuart Margolin. You just might stoop to saying they’ve been “Tetched by an Angel.”
And then there’s the amazing supporting cast: Jack Colvin, aka Bill Bixby’s nemesis from The Incredible Hulk; Paul Koslo, aka Creepy Heath Ledger Prototype; Normal Fell, aka John Ritter’s neighbor on Three’s Company; and the vastly underrated talents of David Sheiner, who could very well be enjoying his meatiest big-screen role ever here as a good guy for a change. Indeed, the scenes where he and Bronson interact are worth their weight in gold. Several other familiar faces also pop up, including The Waltons‘ patriarch Ralph Waite, Alfred Ryder (who appeared in almost every single TV show produced throughout the whole of the ’60s and ’70s), and some handsome young newbie who calls himself John Ritter as a greenhorn cop.
Presented by Dino De Laurentiis’ production company and loosely based on John Gardner’s 1969 novel A Complete State of Death (which featured a Scotland Yard inspector of Italian heritage), The Stone Killer may not be the most lucid production I have ever laid eyes to, but it certainly met with the expectations any good classic Charles Bronson film fan should have: it’s heavy on action, light on plot, and its brisk 95-minute runtime is perfect for anyone in need of a quick fix aboard the Chuck wagon. Sadly, few studio execs agree with that assessment, to wit The Stone Killer only made its domestic widescreen home video debut in 2011 (!) via the special-order Sony Pictures Choice Collection series of Manufactured-on-Demand titles.
Thankfully, that ghastly oversight has been rectified by Twilight Time, who have added this neglected selection from the Sony library to their own line of Limited Edition Blu-ray releases. Presented in its intended theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, The Stone Killer arrives on home video in High-Def for the very first time in a darn nice 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode, which gives Director of Photography Richard Moore’s wide assortment of shooting locations ‒ from the pre-Disneyfied streets of New York City and Los Angeles to a remote lodge out in the Mojave Desert ‒ a proper chance to shine. The monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack delivers like a Charles Bronson bitch slap to the kisser, and English (SDH) subtitles are included.
Special features for Twilight Time’s release of The Stone Killer include an isolated music track in DTS-HD 2.0, an audio commentary with Bronson biographer Paul Talbot (who even divulges many differences between the movie and its original literary source, which is very nice to hear), and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Even though The Stone Killer doesn’t sport the easiest plot to follow, Columbia’s preview might give away a little too much of the story to anyone who hasn’t already seen the title before, so please take note. Julie Kirgo provides the well-written liner notes for this release, which is limited to only 3,000 pressings from Twilight Time, so I wouldn’t advise waiting 41 years like Martin Balsam’s mafioso boss to pick this one up.
In short, The Stone Killer may not be as well-made, hard-hitting, and/or as coherent as would be Bronson’s next collaboration with Michael Winner ‒ 1974’s Death Wish ‒ but it is an early ’70s action flick starring Charles Bronson just the same, which means it’s A-OK in my book right there. The great supporting cast is a total hoot, there are lots of thoughtless action scenes completely devoid of contemporary computer enhancement, some good ol’ funky music, and numerous looks at two vastly different American cities before the horrors of urban renewal removed so many charms. Plus, if you keep your eyes and ears peeled, you might also spot a rogue drunken Shelley Winters in there. Honestly, who can say “No” to all of that?