Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pre"Kersey" To Death Wish

In 1974, Charles Bronson became a late-in-life movie superstar on the basis of DEATH WISH, a monster Paramount hit in which the actor portrayed Paul Kersey, a liberal architect who picks up a gun and shoots punks dead to protect his family from street vermin. DEATH WISH made money all over the world and became one of the most-imitated films of its day, inspiring FIGHTING BACK, FIGHTING MAD, STAND ALONE, BREAKING POINT and dozens more, not to mention four DEATH WISH sequels.

Bronson was 37 years old and not yet a movie star when he landed the lead role in GANG WAR, produced by Regal and released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. What's curious about GANG WAR in retrospect is the way it anticipates DEATH WISH, still sixteen years down the pike. As ordinary schoolteacher Alan, Bronson witnesses a gangland slaying in a parking lot (located close to Los Angeles’ famous Capitol Records building) and reports it to the police. Though initially reluctant, he identifies the killers, who are arrested and held with no bail on murder charges. The cops assure Alan his identity will remain unknown to the public until he testifies at their trial, but a mole within the department leaks his name and photo to the press, as well as to mobster Maxie (John Doucette), for whom the killers work. When Maxie uses violence in order to ensure the witness’ silence, Alan decides the best defense is an effective offense, and uses his unborn child’s college fund to purchase a gun.

While the story is simple enough, director Gene Fowler Jr. (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) and writer Louis Vittes’ approach isn’t, playing several scenes in long, unbroken takes and giving the performers more to do than just follow the plot from point to point. Dependable Kent Taylor is touching as an unhappy, broken-down mob lawyer, and Doucette, normally confined to simple heavy roles, hams it up as a rough-around-the-edges gangster looking for respectability from his civilian neighbors. Fowler shot GANG WAR in widescreen Regalscope, and its black-and-white photography looks quite nice in the letterboxed print shown on Fox Movie Channel. With so many noirs and B-pictures of the 1950s receiving stellar DVD releases recently, one holds out hope that Fox has similar plans for GANG WAR.

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