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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
St Ives was the first fruit of what turned out to be a fecund
collaboration between tough-guy actor Charles Bronson and veteran
British filmmaker J Lee Thompson. Based on a novel by Ross Thomas (The
Procane Chronicle), St Ives is clearly a contribution to the 1970s
neo-noir cycle, the Watergate-era revival of the hard-boiled detective
story. It's not a major contribution to the genre it pales beside The
Long Goodbye, Chinatown or Night Moves but it's an entertaining
watch, well cast (including a cameo by genre veteran Elisha Cook) and
it leaves a subtly bitter taste in the mouth.
Raymond St Ives (Bronson) is a retired sports writer and wannabe Great American Novelist who agrees to act as a go-between for a rich old villain Abner Procane (John Houseman channelling Sydney Greenstreet) who has had his memoirs stolen. St Ives is dragged into a world of swank mansions, sordid downtown locations, corrupt cops, petty criminals who meet nasty ends and, of course, a femme-fatale (Jacqueline Bissett) who is looking out for herself. This last character doesn't subvert the genre expectation in the post-feminist way of Chinatown, nor are the Bogart/Bacall exchanges between Bissett and Bronson entirely convincing (there is an air of pastiche here).
The film is set in Los Angeles and it is no coincidence that Procane spends his time watching old silent epics as a form of (American) dream therapy, an escape from his neuroses; even his criminal scheme takes place at a drive-in cinema. There's a subtext involving old Hollywood being used as a screen which hides the sordid realities of contemporary American life the climax involves the rich old man's screen being rolled back to reveal his friend and psychiatric as the prime mover of a plot against him, a plot motivated by envy, greed and Oedipal hatred. The final has Bronson refusing four million dollars ("it's expensive being honest") and handing over the cash and the femme-fatale, leaving both in the hands of an 'honest' cop, his honesty held in the balance as sex and filthy lucre present themselves as temptations to climb into the 'bucket of faeces', as the cop had previously described the world of criminality. The ending presents us not with the happy denouement we first saw Procane lulling himself with in front of a silent film but an ambiguous moment of ever-present inducement to dirty one's hands with ill-gotten gains, the truth of the American dream.
In this refreshing change of pace for Bronson, he portrays a novelist
and former crime reporter on the trail of stolen file belonging to an
eccentric John Houseman. As Bronson pursues the pilfered files, a
number of bodies turn up dead, with no apparent suspect other that St
Ives !. Each time he is cleared, inching closer to recovering the files
and nabbing the culprit ! Jacqueline Bissett is the beautiful assistant
to Houseman, whoi seems to take an immediate liking to the frustrated
novelist. Dana Elcar turns in his best performance ever as the Police
Captain trying to make sense of it all .
A great cast, likable performance by Bronson and an interesting ending make this an enjoyable film effort. Highly recommended for Bronson fans.
Charles Bronson stars as the title character in this twist-laden tale
of intrigue. Raymond St. Ives is a crime writer who's currently in need
of some cash. He's hired by a devious career criminal, Abner Procane
(John Houseman), who's written down several journals of his misdeeds.
It seems that Procanes' journals have been stolen, and he needs St.
Ives to act as a "go between", or deliver money to the thieves while
retrieving the incriminating documents. But nothing goes as planned,
and St. Ives, an inquisitive sort as well as a cool customer, becomes
determined to find out what he's gotten himself into.
Even speaking as a fan of Mr. Bronson, it's really the supporting cast that brings this one to life. Bronson is fun, but the other parts are very well cast and each actor gets a chance to make an impact. Houseman is utterly delightful, looking like he's having a high old time playing such a likable scoundrel. The incredibly beautiful Jacqueline Bisset plays his associate Janet, and Maximilian Schell his psychiatrist. Harry Guardino, Harris Yulin, and Dana Elcar play assorted detectives (Elcar has the most priceless line reading in the whole movie), and Michael Lerner, George Memmoli, Dick O'Neill, Elisha Cook Jr., Val Bisoglio, Burr DeBenning, and Daniel J. Travanti fill out the rest of the main cast. One great joy is in seeing future stars Robert Englund and Jeff Goldblum (Goldbum having made his film debut in "Death Wish" as one of the muggers) as two of the young hoods who accost Bronson at one point.
The story itself, based on a novel by Ross Thomas, does keep the viewers on their toes while they work, like Bronson, to figure out what's what. Director J. Lee Thompson, who would work with Bronson again throughout the 70s and 80s, handles it all with finesse, with fine cinematography by Lucien Ballard and equally fine music composed by Lalo Schifrin as additional assets.
If you're fan of Bronson, Houseman, or Thompson, then by all means give this one a viewing.
Seven out of 10.
I'm not sure why Charles Bronson chose to star in "St. Ives" during the peak period of his career, since it's far from the tough guy roles that made him famous. Maybe he liked the promised change of pace. I do admit that Bronson is fine in the title role, more of a troubleshooter and go- between instead of a violent individual. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by material that's kind of lacklustre. The movie as a whole lacks edge. I know this is more of a mystery than an action exercise, but a little more action would have sparked things up considerably. It doesn't help that director J. Lee Thompson makes the entire movie look and feel more like a made for television exercise rather than a theatrical movie. This isn't actively awful, but I would only recommend it to die hard Bronson fans.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If the truth be known -- and the truth, as ever, is pretty murky in
this Raymond Chandler rip off -- Raymond St. Ives, the writer who is
hired out of nowhere as a private eye, is merely a nom de plume. The
character's real name, well, almost real, is Charles Bronson. He's the
taciturn, muscular guy who can be thrown into an empty elevator shaft
by three hoods, save himself after falling down a few floors by
grabbing a cable and sliding to a halt, haul himself up to a doorway
into an empty warehouse, and deck the three armed goons who still
pursue him. The thugs include Robert Englund, later to surpass himself
as Freddie Kruger, the mad killer of the "Friday the Thirteenth"
slasher movies, and Jeff Goldblum, ditto, as neurotic scientists.
Bronson is hired by the immensely wealthy John Houseman to recover some stolen journals. Houseman's mistress, Jacqueline Bisset, is thrown into the mix so she can pop into bed at one point with the protagonist.
Why -- you ask? -- did Houseman hire Bronson, a not-too-successful novelist and ex crime reporter -- to act as a go-between who delivers the forty million dollars in exchange for the purloined letters? I don't know.
But the plot, such as it is, follows Raymond Chandler rather closely otherwise. It's as complicated as a Rubik's cube. I admit I was lost now and then. A couple of cops are corrupt. People double cross each other all the time. Bronson keeps stumbling across dead bodies, a habit that doesn't endear him to the police.
Bronson also knows a lot of louche people and bounces from one to the other in his search for the solution to the various mysteries. Bronson asks one of his friends: "Do you know a guy named Parisi?" The friend replies: "You'll have to see Boykins about that." Bronson goes to Boykins, who tells him: "I didn't do the job but I know Finley wasn't in on it, but Pedo can tell you more than I can." I have the names mixed up but I don't care any more than the writers cared.
I think one of the biggest turn offs is the production design. Bronson is described as living in "a cheap hotel." I found the apartment rather charming, a hell of an improvement over this abandoned railway car that I live in.
And wardrobe and make up have done their best to turn every character into a simulacrum of a rich Hollywood actor. The rich Hollywood screenwriters who assembled this kaleidoscope of mysterioso doings have no idea of what it's like to be less than rich. The grease monkey under the car has four precisely applied and somewhat becoming oil marks applies to his face and forehead. Everyone dresses in suits and ties except the goons who wear tatters and wool caps so you'll know they're goons. Bronson, the down-on-his-luck writer, drives a Jaguar. Everyone else drives a boxy-looking American car at least forty feet long.
A gimcrack job, and a disappointment considering who was in front of the camera and behind it, many of them seasoned professionals like J. Lee Thompson, Lalo Schifrin, Lucien Ballard. Why does it look so much like a cheap television movie set in Los Angeles?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ross Thomas was one of America's great thriller/mystery/political
skullduggery writers. He wrote 20 books under his own name and five as
Oliver Bleeck. One would think he'd have been fertile ground for
Hollywood to till. In fact, only one of his books made it to the
screen, The Procane Chronicle under the Bleeck name. The movie St.
Ives, directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Charles Bronson, is the
result. We can see why Hollywood never tried again. It's not that St.
Ives is a poor movie. With Thomas' clever, twisty plot largely in tact,
the last half of the movie moves briskly along. However, Ross Thomas
and Charles Bronson make highly unlikely partners. Bronson's stoic,
strong, silent guy-who-can-take-care-of-himself is not a good fit for
what remains of Philip St. Ives' (now renamed, for some reason,
Raymond). The second and more important drawback is that a movie of
reasonable length will have a hard time coherently taking us through
the twists and corners, the under-handed dealings, the false leads and
the intelligent style in a Ross Thomas plot.
Ray St. Ives used to be a big-time crime reporter. Now he's trying to be a novelist. He lives in the cheap Hotel Lido and brews chicory coffee in an old Bunn coffee maker. St. Ives gets an offer. The eccentric, wealthy, 65-year-old Abner Procane (John Houseman) had five brown, leather-bound ledgers stolen. The thieves want $100,000. For acting as a go-between, St. Ives will be paid $10,000. All Ray has to do is be at a certain laundromat at 2 a.m., give the money and get the ledgers. When St. Ives shows up, however, the only thing he finds, crammed into one of the dryers and slowly turning on the spin cycle, is a man with a broken neck.
So after he leaves the police station, he reports back to Procane with the money but with no ledgers. He meets once more Procane's zaftig assistant, Janet Whistler (Jacqueline Bisset), and Procane's friend and psychiatrist, Dr John Constable (Maximilian Schell).
By the time St. Ives goes through this one more time with the switch in a men's restroom, he's been Bronson-beaten and Bronson-victorious in an abandoned warehouse, gotten on poor terms with two cops, found another cop dead with an ice pick in the chest and finally returned those ledgers to Procane. St. Ives has also learned that Procane is not just an eccentric old gentleman who loves to watch The Big Parade. He is an elegant and supremely talented big-time thief. And one of the returned ledgers has had four pages torn out, the meticulous plans Procane developed to relieve some very wealthy business interests of $4 million. No spoilers here; this is just set-up for the main event.
It all starts to come together in a drive-in theater one evening where the $4 million will be exchanged, where the ones who stole Procane's plans will act on them, and where Procane, St. Ives and Janet Whistler will be waiting to interfere as much as possible. With the exception of a few deaths, a couple of betrayals and a lit pool with one person oozing blood and life, it all works out as planned.
Ross Thomas' books are such a pleasure to read because they are well and pungently written, we can savor the plot twists and we can enjoy the personalities of the characters that Thomas builds for us. Thomas also had a knack for coming up with memorable names. Some I enjoy are Otherguy Overby, Morgan Citron, Anna Maude Singe, Ben Dill and Velveeta Keats. His people are usually a bit cynical -- or at least supremely realistic -- about what they might encounter. The plots almost glow with the hypocritical nature of some of the people we meet. But try capturing that in a Hollywood movie without losing the intelligent style. The movie St. Ives proves it is just about impossible.
For those interested in value, The Procane Chronicle sold for $5.95 hardback when William Morrow & Company issued it in 1973. You can find, sometimes, a first edition in fine condition with dust jacket equally fine for about $280. If you collect first editions of Ross Thomas, the $280 is not bad.
Bronson fans may appreciate this (as noted throughout the comments),
but Ross Thomas/Oliver Bleek aficionados will be disappointed. None of
the superb dialog, efficient language, or 'wisdom' of Thomas' work cuts
through the movie. This is especially true if you know the book from
which it is based ('The Procane Chronicles').
One of the things that makes Thomas an excellent read is his ability to not spell out the motivations of every character. Often, the reader is left to piece things together. In the context of the movie, however, it just doesn't work...Bronson's motivation never really makes sense (in the books, his reluctance to participate is interesting, for example).
I was compelled to finish watching it, however. I had hoped for more. I suspect I will enjoy other Bronson films quite a bit more, as my expectations will differ.
It was 1976, Bronson had just scored one of his bigger creative triumphs
with Hard Times late the past year and had effectively changed pace earlier
that year with the satirical, western set From Noon Till Three and the more
traditional western mystery Breakheart Pass. As the titular mystery
writer/troubleshooter, his performance is more loose in the style of some
his better efforts.
A good cast surrounds him, most of whom play some part in the intrigue. It's not classic mystery or classic Bronson, but is easy to enjoy even for non-fans. Check out the late stuntman-extraodinaire Dar Robinson in one of his few acting appearances and a pre-Freddy Robert Englund (who had one of his best roles that same year in Stay Hungry).
Although little loved by fans of Ross Thompson's novel, St. Ives is an entertaining thriller with largely unrealised aspirations to being seen as a throwback to Warners' 1940s detective movies. Charles Bronson's the heavy gambling retired crime writer and would-be novelist of the title, hired by John Houseman's gentleman crook to act as go-between for a series of incriminating volumes only to stumble across dead bodies in tumble dryers and burglars who've taken the shortcut to the sidewalk via the window. It's not an action film, an elevator shaft fight and a climactic shootout notwithstanding. Instead it's a slightly quirky number full of neat little touches, be it Houseman watching The Big Parade and Birth of a Nation because, as his analyst Maximilian Schell explains, "Films really are dreams, especially old movies, and Abner loves them. They're good dreams for Abner. They're splendid, splendid therapy," Elisha Cook (no longer billed as Jr.) turning up as a hotel clerk who can even sleep through a shootout in the lobby or an amusing scene where a drop-off in the toilets in Union Station turns into a quirky discussion of restroom quirks. With some surprising faces popping up in the cast (Daniel J. Travanti, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Englund among them), it's an enjoyable 90 minutes that aims to be nothing more than a good night out at the pictures, and in this case that's enough.
I used to live down the street from Ross Thomas in DC and never had the chance to meet him. According to a story in the POST, Thomas and his wife went out to Hollywood to see the filming. Bronson told him "I didn't read the book." Thomas replied "That's OK. I didn't see your last movie." Bronson was not Thomas' or my idea of the St. Ives character. St. Ives was a thinking man's detective with a wry sense of humor. Bronson was capable of wry humor but he was miscast if you had read the books. I think it was the Thomas novel filmed which is a shame. I think Charles Durning starred in a made-for-TV movie where he played a similar character who is a professional go-between.
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