Forgotten Films: Mr. Majestyk (1974)
Well, I’m not saying that cultists have forgotten this film — the title always hovered in my cine-DNA although I never actually saw it except random clips via late-night tube. So I did an interesting comparison test: I read my first Elmore Leonard novel (hey, betta late than neva): “Mr. Majestyk,” from 1974, about a Vietnam vet melon farmer who gets sidetracked by feds, hicks, rustlers and hitmen as he attempts to save his dying crop. I read the book in one sitting, seeing exactly what people see in Leonard’s work, a fast-paced clever tale with excellent dialogue among misfits and criminals; I see why Tarantino is a fan (note the poster on Bud’s wall in KILL BILL VOL. 2) and it made me eager to delve further into his ouvre. Actually, Leonard’s book came after he wrote the lean script the same year, directed in crisp, no-nonsense form by Richard Fleischer, one of the most stolid, style-less directors in Hollywood history. Sometimes that can work with a tight minimalist script, and I think Fleischer does well here overall, although it’s missing that auteur spark that would have given the film a personal edge lacking; had Don Seigel or Robert Aldrich been at the helm, this could have been a small 70’s classic.
Charles Bronson is a curious actor who made himself memorable from his first starring role in Roger Corman’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (1955) and tough guy icons in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). He turned down Sergio Leone’s offer to appear in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), eventually wising up to do ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969) and it took him until almost age 50 to become a bona-fide, box-office star with DEATH WISH (1974). And you can’t talk about the 1970’s action genre without referencing Bronson, although some of his films of this era almost look like documentaries given the cynical, naturalistic style of the day. Vince Majestyk reads on the page as Bronson would play him on the screen (and ironically, the role was intended for Clint Eastwood) and his stoic, stone facade serves him well as the farmer who just wants to cultivate his melons.
Leonard gives Majestyk a simple goal, which becomes funnier as the danger increases, represented by a local punk named Bobby Kopas (dependable character actor Paul Koslo) and a cold assassin named Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) who vows vengeance after crossing paths with Majestyk. Fortunately, our hero gets support and eventually love from one of his laborers, a defiant woman named Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal). The plot culminates in a car chase/shoot-out at Renda’s mountain hideaway, and the film version is fairly faithful to the book, including the best part which is Leonard’s great dialogue: “You make sounds like you’re a mean little ass-kicker,” Majestyk tells the weaselly Kopas. Better still is Renda’s put-down of poor Kopas. My only complaint is that Letteri plays Renda like a ripe goombah whereas the novel version is cold and calculating. The relationship betwixt Majestyk and Chavez is obviously better developed in the book and their scenes together are not as compelling nor well-directed. However, the action scenes are dandy, with some terrific shotgun blasts in the mix. And Charles Bernstein contributes a catchy, fantastic theme. MR. MAJESTYK represents the counterculture anti-hero of the 70’s and it was fun to read, then watch. If you haven’t done either, what are you waiting for? Those melons won’t pick themselves…