Saturday, June 15, 2019

Messenger Of Death

Charles Bronson worked with director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) nine times, and MESSENGER OF DEATH may be the least of the lot. It was Bronson’s next-to-last collaboration with both Thompson and Cannon Films, which opened it in just 450 theaters to moribund business.

Nine women and children from the same Mormon family are murdered by a shotgun-wielding assassin. The lone surviving family member, husband and father Orville Beecham (Charles “Flat Nose Curry” Dierkop), refuses to identify the killer. Bronson plays Garrett Smith, a Denver newspaper reporter investigating the massacre, whose path leads to Orville’s father Willis (Jeff Corey) and Willis’ brother Zenas (John Ireland).

Both men hate each other passionately and blame the other for the murders. As the intrafamilial blood feud boils over into violence, Smith becomes a target for murder by mysterious employees of the Colorado Water Company, a corporation owned by one of Denver’s richest and most respected families, one with little connection, it would seem, to the wild-eyed Beecham clan.

An unusual action vehicle for Bronson, MESSENGER OF DEATH casts the stone-faced icon as a passive observer, fighting only when attacked. He doesn’t fire a gun at anyone, nor does he have much to do with identifying and apprehending the killers. In his most notable setpiece, he battles a trio of water trucks, but even there, Bronson plays the victim.

Though it’s more of a mystery thriller than action flick, MESSENGER OF DEATH is solid enough with an unusual setting and interesting supporting cast, but it doesn’t quite come together satisfactorily. Thompson and Cannon cinematographer Gideon Porath (AVENGING FORCE) do an outstanding job staging the opening massacre with dread and stark menace, using the Colorado scenery to creepy advantage.

As well, Robert O. Ragland’s score adds novelty, but MESSENGER OF DEATH is barely distinguishable from Bronson’s other Cannon pictures, except it’s classier. The screenplay by Paul Jarrico (TOM, DICK AND HARRY) holds little water, and the climax plays like MURDER, SHE WROTE with a line of red herrings gathered in a parlor waiting to be identified by a convenient witness. Themes of religious persecution and revenge add some flavor to the mystery.

Trish Van Devere (THE HEARSE), Marilyn Hassett (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN), Laurence Luckinbill (STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER), Daniel Benzali (MURDER ONE), Gene Davis (10 TO MIDNIGHT), and Penny Peyser (THE IN-LAWS) fill out the cast. Jarrico was blacklisted during the 1950s and ended up writing spaghetti westerns in Europe, making him perhaps the perfect scribe for a tale about persecution.