Mr. Majestyk: Elmore Leonard mixed colorful characters, quirky dialogue and explosive action in creating one of the best ’70s Charles Bronson Actioners

Mr. Majestyk (1974) is an action thriller written by Elmore Leonard and directed by Richard Fleischer. The film stars Charles Bronson as a Colorado Watermelon farmer who comes into conflict with gangsters lead by Al Lettieri.

So, after ‘breaking his back’ for more than two decades – starting out with bit parts, progressing to villainous parts, then supporting parts and finally the main lead in several European and American films – Charles Bronson finally attained superstar status in America with the release of “Death Wish” on July 24, 1974. Just like “Dirty Harry” had catapulted Clint Eastwood to superstardom three years ago, this tale of vigilante justice that proved to be similarly controversial and profitable as that Eastwood cop\vigilante thriller would make Bronson, who was already a huge international star due to his popularity in Europe and Asia, a bankable name in North America as well. And, again like “Dirty Harry,” the popularity of the film would spawn four sequels. But the quality of the sequels would go down considerably with each iteration, and the general perception that Charles Bronson’s films are dumb action pictures made without any serious or intelligent craftsmanship is mainly on account of those terrible sequels. His films, from a plotting\scripting point, are always considered inferior to the ones made by his contemporary action-stars like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. This perception maybe true for the majority of the films made by Bronson in the late ’70s and ’80s phase of his career, but from early to mid ’70s Bronson made some truly well crafted films that maybe predominantly Westerns and modern actioners, but were very well written, directed and performed; and some of them even made strong statements on contemporary socio-political issues. Many of them were also intended to experiment with Bronson’s image and expand his range as an actor. I have already written about “From Noon till Three,” “Breakheart Pass” and “Hard Times” that Bronson made during this period; all extremely well made films in which Bronson gave superb performances in roles that were a little different from the typical Bronson characters. Another one of my favorite Bronson films from this period is Mr. Majestyk (1974), directed by veteran action\adventure director Richard Fleischer. This is a very under seen, and underappreciated film that released just a week before “Death Wish”; and for my money, this is a much better and more interesting and exciting film than “Death Wish.” The film is based on an original screenplay written by the illustrious Western\crime fiction writer, Elmore Leonard. At the time, Leonard was making a transition from being a writer of Westerns to being the writer of Crime thrillers. Many of his Western novels\stories, like “3:10 to Yuma” and “Hombre,” had already been adapted to the big screen. Now, Leonard had also started writing original material for movies; he was just coming off writing the Clint Eastwood Western, “Joe Kidd (1972),” and “Mr. Majestyk” was also originally conceived as a vehicle for Clint. But after Clint went off to make “High Plains Drifter,” and couldn’t do the film, the script was picked up by producer Walter Mirisch, who convinced Bronson to star in the film.

As far as typical ’70’s B-actioners go, this is simply among the best. It has a well constructed screenplay, brimming with Leonard’s trademark quirky dialogues, that transcends its simple, predictable and even preposterous plot by concentrating on lively and thrilling interactions between its very interesting and colorful characters. The script provides Bronson with a unique character to play. Bronson plays Vince Majestyk, a Watermelon farmer in Colorado, who is in a hurry to harvest his crop in order to keep the farm financially solvent. Of course, the character has the other (usual Bronson) qualifications, like being an Ex-con, former Ranger, Vietnam-war-vet, divorced father etc. etc. But, at this point in his life, Majestyk is looking to lead a peaceful life. But, as it often happens in these cases, trouble comes looking for him- this time in the form of small-time hood, Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo),  who tries to muscle him into hiring his unskilled crew to harvest the melons. Majestyk runs him off with Kopas’ own shotgun and hires experienced Mexican migrant workers, including Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal), a crop picker who is also a union leader; Chavez and Majestyk are also romantically attracted to each other. Kopas brings assault charges against Majestyk, resulting in the farmer being arrested and through into jail before he can finish the harvest. Accidentally, lodged in the same jail is gangster Frank Renda (Al Lettieri). When Renda’s mafia associates stage a breakout for their boss, Majestyk seizes Frank and frustrates their carefully-schemed plan… He then offers to exchange the mafia thug for his own freedom… However, his own plan is ruined when Frank escapes from him. Frank swears bloody revenge on Majestyk, and spends the rest of the film hunting him down. But, as it happens in several Bronson films, Bronson’s hunted character soon becomes the hunter, as he draws the big-city hoods deeper and deeper into his rural territory, and finishes them off one by one.

Mr. Majestyk, despite its small-town setting and unique occupation for the protagonist, is certainly a typical Charles Bronson character(and film); Majestyk is a proud, weather-beaten, hard working, tough, honest men, with a wry sense of humor; less by design more by accident, he runs foul of some very dangerous people. After that, it’s a struggle for survival for Majestyk, who, after being wronged and hunted enough, decides to turn the tables and take on the role of the hunter; he lures his enemies deeper and deeper into his territory thereby gaining the upper hand in the battle. The subject is very similar to Bronson’s 1972 Western, “Chato’s Land.” This is also a trademark of Elmore Leonard as well; many of his stories , like “Valdez is Coming,” are about peaceniks going on a rampage of revenge when wronged. One of the critics who saw this film called it a ‘Melon’ Western, and it does definitely have a Western feel throughout, especially with the rocky Colorado landscape being story’s main backdrop. But where the film differs from other typical Bronson films from the time is in its intelligently constructed screenplay- it fully revolves around Bronson, but it does not idolizes him as a mythical superhero (nothing wrong in that too, it has its own pleasures) like many of his films does; at every point, the film tries to tone down his larger than life heroism to a believably acceptable level. We also see him make mistakes and acting rashly; his spur of the moment decision to capture and use Renda to his benefit proves to be a big mistake that alters his life completely. My only grouse is that they needn’t have given him the ex-ranger, war-vet pedigree, this would have been even more engaging\thrilling as a small-town yet resourceful Melon farmer outwitting the big-city thugs. 

The heavies in “Mr. Majestyk” are interesting personalities. Frank Renda is a menacing, near-psychotic criminal who obsessively pursues his prey, whereas Bobby Kopas is just a sleazy and cowardly small-timer who thinks he’s a big shot, but who gets kicked around by both Majestyk and Renda. The contrasting nature of Majestyk’s interactions with Renda and Kopas are in keeping with their respective personalities and provides the most entertaining, well-written moments of the film. Majestyk and Renda, though sworn enemies, are mutually admiring of each other, while they both relish humiliating Kopas. The protagonist and the two antagonists have their own obsessive motivations that drives them – while Majestyk wants ‘to get his melons in’ at any cost, Renda wants to escape from prison, and Kopas wants to avenge his humiliation – and the events in the film are an organic product of these motivations coming into conflict with one another. This is really great writing for any film, leave alone a B-actioner, and that’s why the film remains very interesting throughout; one has to thank Leonard for this superb construction. The film also gets some strong social commentary going in its initial portions dealing with immigrants and labor issues, where it positions Majestyk as a champion of migrant workers. We see him intervening in a standoff between the workers and a gas station attendant in the former’s favor when the latter denies the use of the toilet to the migrants. This is also rather unusual for a Bronson film, and though this social subtext is jettisoned later on for a furious battle of egos between Majestyk and Renda, it provides an interesting dimension to the film that makes it relevant even today.

But in any Bronson action film, the chief attraction is the action sequences; and even though “Mr. Majestyk” isn’t a non-stop action-fest, there are some truly well staged explosive action sequences in the film. The prison-escape sequence, the Ford pick-up chase through the desert (one of the best chases in films) and the climatic shootout are the best of the lot. But the most famous sequence in the film is not an elaborately staged action scene involving Bronson and his adversaries, but the one were Renda and his men barges into Majestyk’s farm and machine guns his hundreds of stocked water melons- the ‘reddest’ and most visually delightful shootout without a single drop of blood being shed. The film is directed by the very talented & prolific journeyman director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer, who started his movie career in the ’40s, was the son of the great animator/producer/director Max Fleischer. In a career spanning more than four decades, Richard Fleischer had tackled genres ranging from historical to film Noir to Sci-fi to musicals; but he was most adept at making star-studded, big-budget blockbusters, mainly historical & Sci-fi, like Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and  “The Vikings.” With “Mr. Majestyk,” he proved that he can tackle a modern actioner pretty well. Fleischer manages to keep a steady pace throughout and his handling of action scenes are dynamic and effective. It helps when the director and writer are in perfect synch as to what kind of film they are making; there is absolutely no pretentiousness, no superficial attempts at making anything artistic or layered here; as in a good B-movie, what you see is what you get; no shaky camera moves, no jumbled editing, the film is very cleanly and straightforwardly shot and edited, and just concentrates on making a very good action thriller- in which it succeeds tremendously.

Of course, Bronson is responsible for much of that success. It is impossible to imagine anybody else, even Clint, pulling off this role the way Bronson does. He was 53 when he made this film, and man, like Renda says about him in the film- ‘He can move.’ Just take the climax scene, in which we see Bronson flying through a cabin window and firing with his shotgun. Bronson’s violent spree always results from a loss of some kind; here it’s the loss of his business, and his grief is the triggering point for the action that follows; and Bronson has the ability to portray that vulnerable side that make his grief (and the subsequent actions) believable. The film also features a strong supporting cast, of which Al Lettieri is the stand out. His gangster, Renda, is a hulking vicious brute who, surprisingly, has a very pretty, tender girlfriend, played by Lee Purcell. Renda goes to any extend, even putting his girlfriend’s life in danger, to kill Majestyk; and Lettieri is truly terrifying as this cunning, amoral gangster. Lettieri, who achieved fame rather late in his life – with his portrayal of the antagonist Virgil Sollozzo in “The Godfather” – would die just one year after the release of this film. But within the short time span , he managed to give memorable performances in films like “The Getaway” and “McQ” as well. Paul Koslo, who was in Leonard’s “Joe Kidd” also, perfectly plays the cowardly Kopas, while Linda Cristal imparts the character of Union leader turned Bronson’s love interest and ally with lot of dignity. The film has a good score by Charles Bernstein and very good location photography by Richard H. Kline, who specialized in shooting genre pictures, and was also a regular DP for Fleischer’s films.

2 thoughts on “Mr. Majestyk: Elmore Leonard mixed colorful characters, quirky dialogue and explosive action in creating one of the best ’70s Charles Bronson Actioners

  1. I’ve always felt the uniqueness of the film were the contrasts between the hard cold eyes and intimidating demeanor of Al Lettieri versus the nonplussed attitude of Bronson. Bronson just would not be intimidated and the way he manhandles the hulking Letteri is almost comical. It’s the juxtaposition of these two main characters that make the film an entertaining curio.

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    1. Yes that scene were Bronson kidnaps Lettieri come across as funny. For Bronson, getting his melons in becomes an obsession, hence he goes to any lengths, including manhandling such a hulking brute.

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