The Mechanic (1972)

Directed by Michael Winner

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Arthur Bishop (Charles Bronson) is the sommelier of death in The Mechanic.  He’s a contract killer who somehow attracts our empathy because of his loneliness and the tireless commitment to his job.  He’s an assassin, sure, but he goes to such great lengths to make sure his targets die in what look like natural-ish accidents.  He has perfected the fine art of murder, and we get so lost in his process that we may forget what he’s really up to.

There isn’t a lot of nuance to this film.  We meet Bishop, a morally compromised hermit, but the story doesn’t explore much about his psyche beyond his loneliness.  He lives in a large mansion, working mostly at night, where he will put on some operatic music and prepare for his next assignment like he’s studying for the SATs.

It’s clear that Bishop is good at his job, but he’s not one of those James Bond/John Dillinger/Jesse James types, rather he’s something more haunted.  Bishop will call attention to these figures later in the story, using them as an example of how people who live outside our normal societal rules are idolized.  He may think of himself as one of them, but The Mechanic makes sure we see just how sad he is, whether or not he realizes.

The main example of this is a prostitute he hires to pretend to be a long lost love.  She writes him love letters in which she yearns for his return like a 1940’s era housewife awaiting her husband’s return from war.  When their night is over, any possible romantic spell is broken when she tells him how much he owes her.

The bulk of the story here deals with Bishop becoming a mentor to a young would-be assassin named Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent).  Their relationship is overtly meant to be of the father-son variety, and it’s this decision to bring someone new into the fold that jeopardizes Bishop’s life.

See, he’s an assassin, but he’s incredibly good at his job, and many of his targets are old men.  None of them pose much of a threat to him, and the movie’s conflict comes in the form of his agency seeking revenge simply because he took Steve under his wing.  They will send wave after wave of unnamed assassins after them, at least after Bishop and Steve nearly botch one of their hits, and that’s basically the whole story.

This all happens in the last third or so of the film, I’d say, and while the action is particularly noteworthy (a series of practical explosions and Bullitt-like car chases), the most compelling parts of the story deal with Bishop’s and Steve’s budding relationship.

So Bishop is a loner, we’ve established that.  He meets Steve because the young man is the disaffected son of one of Bishop’s targets.  He recognizes in Steve the same disassociation that a job like his own requires.  He will push the boy to see if he really has it in him to perform a job like this, and it leads to one of the harder to stomach scenes in the movie.

Steve is called to the house of a friend of his, a young woman who strongly fancies him.  She announces her intention to commit suicide, and her hope is that Steve will stop her.  Bishop comes along too, and as the woman cuts both of her wrists, they simply stand by observing as she gets colder and groggier (God, even now I’m getting a little queasy talking about it, I have a hard time with blades in movies).

So Bishop is there to calmly tell the girl, depending on her weight, how long she has before she passes out.  Time passes, she loses consciousness, and the men leave.  Bishop now knows, for whatever reason, that Steve’s sociopath-ness means he’s good for the job.

This is a B movie, I suppose, so certain things get a pass.  Like, Steve sucks, let’s just put that out there.  He doesn’t just suck in a sociopath sense, but he also sucks in the classic 80’s movie way.  He’s the villain in The Karate Kid, the douchy son of wealth whose family vacations in Aspen three times a year, the Kiefer Sutherland character in Stand By Me, the bully in Footloose, etc.  He’s just not a good guy, and yet he’s the guy our hero becomes smitten with.

This should clue us in to how the story will inevitably turn in the third act, and the only real rousing moment of the film is the final beat of the story.  I guess your movie should end with a bang, and this one certainly does, but there’s something frustrating about being asked to root for someone like Steve for as long we do.

As Bishop, Charles Bronson is a fascinating figure.  He doesn’t express much, which is good, because he’s not really asked to.  He has a hardened face, heavy creases and hair that looks like he’s been stuck on an island for sometime.  He has very captivating eyes that offer the most impact when he’s just looking at things, and for much of the beginning of the film that’s all he does.  If you recognize him, it’s surely from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

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Those eyes seem to say so much, and in that Leone film he is mostly ever silent.  His character’s name is “harmonica,” and I can’t remember any of his lines of dialogue, if he has any.

That face is used to The Mechanic‘s advantage here too, I mean just look at this guy…

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…is he smiling?  Is he mad?  Did he just witness someone key his car?  Who the hell knows.

So the best parts of The Mechanic follow Bishop in action, preferably silently.  He’s much more interesting when we don’t know what he’s up to until his plan falls into place, as with the movie’s first dramatic sequence.  It’s compelling in the same way Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul often are, usually with the Mike Ehrmantraut character.

Up Next: Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Camera Buff (1979), The Train (1964)

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