Friday 16 May 2014

Movie Review: Violent City (1970)

A revenge thriller set in the murky world of professional assassins, Violent City is a competent Charles Bronson vehicle, combining sharp action with a dark plot and fatalistic outlook.

Assassin-for-hire Jeff Heston (Bronson) is vacationing in the Virgin Islands with glamorous girlfriend Vanessa (Jill Ireland). They are suddenly pursued by assassins in a prolonged car chase, which ends with Heston shot and left for dead by Coogan, a former business partner. To add insult to Jeff's open wounds, Vanessa flees the scene with Coogan.

Jeff recovers and endures a stint in a grimy prison after being framed for murder. Once released, he sets out to seek revenge on Coogan, an amateur racing driver, but Heston is then blackmailed by New Orleans crime boss Al Weber (Telly Savalas), and Vanessa surprisingly pops up again as Weber's wife. Weber wants Jeff to work for him, but Jeff has other ideas, and the city is about to become a lot more violent with the control of a criminal empire at stake.

Directed by Spaghetti Western veteran Sergio Sollima and with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Violent City (also known as The Family) is a European production which mixes Hollywood-style action with the higher continental tolerance for cerebral reflection. Call it a Spaghetti Urban, and the results are mixed. There is an occasional whiff of an econo-thriller trying hard to be bigger than the budget and talent involved, but the overall package delivers most of the required hard edged entertainment.

With Steve McQueen having set the standard for modern car chases two years earlier in Bullitt (1968), Bronson gets his own Mustang to play with, and damn if the opening supercharged chase sequence doesn't hold its own in the all-time tire squealing stakes. Gunning down the twisty narrow streets of a Caribbean island at ridiculous speeds, Bronson leads his pursuers on a breathless race that climaxes with a dazzling climb up a long, steep set of stairs.

The other action scenes are all quite good. Jeff carefully hunting down Coogan on the race track is a well-crafted exercise in patience and imperfection, while the climax featuring an outdoor elevator brings the Spaghetti Western love of drama in death to the fore.

With Bronson effectively delivering his typical stone-faced persona, Jill Ireland supports her husband with plenty of sexy sass, Vanessa emerging as a much more complex character than the initial playmate-on-a-yacht scenes suggest. As the film progresses Sollima mixes in film noir elements, Jeff gradually realizing that the forces aligned against him are much larger than he thought, and that his heart is parked in the wrong place. Vanessa's ever-shifting allegiances and Weber's attempt to recruit Heston evoke the spirit of Out Of The Past (1947). Telly Savalas adds smarmy polish as Weber.

In the traditions of the morally ambiguous Spaghetti Westerns, there are no heroes or well-meaning characters in Violent City. The objectives are all about seizing power, gaining control and eliminating your enemies, and in a city this violent, every well-executed revenge killing is just a prelude to the next death.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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