‘Are YOU going to eat that sausage?’ comes the rather polite lunch-table question from Mr Majestyk (Charles Bronson) near the start of Richard Fleischer’s 1974 action drama. He’s messing with the head of hit-man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) while the two of them are in jail; Renda rejects his advances by petulantly tossing the sausage in question onto the floor. For a Charles Bronson film, Mr Majestyk is pretty much chock-full of such surprises, and the main one is just how good this film is; there’s a reason by everything from Pineapple Express to True Romance pays homage to this film’s swaggering attitude.
Tough times call for tough types; my post-ironic viewing of Death Wish V; The Face of Death at the weekend was interrupted by news about a comedian I’d interviewed at a book festival. Tim Brooke-Taylor was ‘sadly’ killed by the virus as the news-outlets say, as if anyone was ever happily killed by a virus. Times change, and this didn’t feel like the time to view Bronson at his worst, but Bronson at his best, and Mr Majestyk’s appearance in the MGM catalogue provided an ideal pick-me-up.
Mr Majestyk came out in 1974 to strong notices and box-office, only to be eclipsed the following week by the release of Death Wish, the film which became Bronson’s signature role, but also sent him down a road of repetitious self-parody. The rot is nowhere to be seen here, Mr Majestyk is anything but your rote Bronson by-the-numbers revenge story. The script, later turned into a book, is by the great Elmore Leonard, and Mr Majestyk, cool as he is, is just one of a roster of memorable characters featured against a background of rural Colorado. Lettieri, the gangster’s gangster from The Godfather, makes a great match for Bronson in his last great role as the slimy villain Renda, who gets busted out of jail in a wild action scene with bullets and explosions everywhere.
The wily Majestyk takes advantage of the chaotic situation to send Renda back to the cops, and the scene in which Bronson coolly makes a couple of casual phone-calls from a convenience store to the cops and Renda’s mob connections is a delight for the way it’s so underplayed. Renda escapes with a little help from his squeeze Wiley (Lee Purcel) and throws in his lot with local hood Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo). Kopas has already ben humiliated by our favourite melon farmer when he tries to muscle in on his agricultural action and gets his own melons crushed as a result; this is why the phrase ‘doing a Mr Majestyk’ entered our language and means ‘standing up for yourself.’
“I just want to get a melon crop in!’ shouts Mr Majestyk in one of his few moments of exasperation here. The comedian I mentioned once published a page of identical pictures of Charles Bronson, with different emptions listed under each one; love, hate, joy, sadness. The gag was that Old Stone Face always looked the same, whatever the emotion of the scene was, but that’s not really true in this role, where the star smiles, laughs, and gives an untypically empathetic performance as a humble melon-farmer who cares about his workers. The bad guys, for sure, picked the wrong melon-farmer here; times are tough, and we’re all going to have to look within ourselves and find our own inner Mr Majestyk, for sure.