Ranking an Action Icon: Charles Bronson’s Best in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s!

By: Anthony Francis

Charles Bronson was one of a kind. Exuding an undeniable screen presence as a “tough guy actor” (although he could be much more than that), Bronson was unmatched in his time and there shall never be another. He was and is a true icon. 

Bronson’s stone-cold face and steely glare fit perfectly in the Western genre and served the actor extremely well when playing the tough guy hero (and sometimes antihero). The actor was not matinee idol handsome, to be sure. His look was weathered and suitably well-worn but still handsome in his own way and with a physique that made women swoon and men jealous.

He was an actor that was not without the occasional sense of humor on screen (even when he publicly admitted to being a bit of a sourpuss in real life), but it was in theperformances that highlighted his cold stare and slow movements where Bronson found his mojo as a leading man and earned the status as a true cinema legend.

Beginning in the 1960’s, the actor was an integral part of many classic box office hits. As he moved into the 1970’sand on through the 80s, Charles Bronson became a top box office draw and legendary leading man. Though he occasionally branched out into genres other than Action films and Westerns, these would be the two genres for which the actor is known best.

In each decade, the cinema icon was involved in some of the best entertainments of their respective eras and amassed a hugely impressive body of work.

To make a full list that properly ranks Bronson’s filmography is nearly impossible, so the best way is to do it by decade.

My Top 3 Favorite Charles Bronson Films from the 60s, 70s, and 80s-

The 1960s:

1. “Once Upon a Time in the West”- Sergio Leone’s masterpiece is the finest tale of revenge ever put to film and one of the best (if not THE best) Western ever made. As “Harmonica”, Bronson is focused and stoic, as his powerful blue-green eyes burned hotter than the Spanish sun and helped to make the character one of the most memorable gunslingers in cinema history.

2. “The Magnificent Seven”- A towering Western Action film of the highest order and in a cast full of top actors, Bronson stood tall as “Bernardo”, a gun for hire who joins the seven to help a group of farmers fight back against Eli Wallach’s Mexican bandit and his men. Charles Bronson added soul to his character when he is befriended by some young village boys who look up to him. His character is not capable of handling their admiration, as he has lived a life of loneliness and violence, the unfortunate life of a gun for hire. It is excellent work from the actor in a film that shines excellence in every moment. John Sturges’s film is a timeless classic and Bronson played an important part.

3. “The Dirty Dozen”- Bronson is Joseph Wladislaw, an Army prisoner set to be executed for killing a cowardly medic who was retreating down the hill as his fellow soldiers were being slaughtered. Bronson is chosen for the team due to his character being fluent in German. The film was another great ensemble piece and again, the actor stood out with a memorable performance. This time, it is the cunning and courage of his character that is a main reason the dozen makes it out mostly alive.

The 1970s:

1. “The Stone Killer”- My favorite Michael Winner film and my absolute favorite film Charles Bronson made during this decade. The film and Bronson’s character (hard edged detective Lou Torrey) are tough and violent and stop at nothing to get their man and keep the New York streets safe. The actor is perfect for the role. This one is often overshadowed by the success of Winner’s “Death Wish” the following year, but (although I love “Death Wish”) I find this film to be the superior work. Its action is tight and exciting, and Bronson is truly commanding in the lead.

2. “Hard Times”- Walter Hill began his career as a director with this two-fisted character tale of two men (Bronson and James Coburn) trying to survive the depression through scams and street fighting. Coburn is the manager and Bronson the fighter. The fight scenes are expertly choreographed and Bronson’s chiseled physique (he was 54 at the time!) is a sight to behold while his well-worn performance suits the material perfectly. Bronson looks and feels quite authentic going fist to fist with his bare-chested opponents and brings a humanity to his character in the quieter moments.

3. “Mr. Majestyk”- one of the great Bronson-starring films. The icon plays Vince Majestyk (one of the great character names), a melon farmer (of all things) who goes up against the mob. The action scenes are big and exciting and director Richard Fleischer directs with old school professionalism from an excellent Elmore Leonard screenplay. Bronson shines as he takes down the division of organized crime that threatens his business. Chuck is tough as nails and refuses to downplay his tough guy image even as he is playing a normal business owner. His scenes of action are well-designed here and show off his skills in many exciting moments.

The film also holds my favorite Bronson line and perhaps my all-time favorite piece of tough guy dialogue. After being threatened by a baddie (the great Paul Koslo), Bronson looks at him undaunted and says, “You make sounds like you’re a mean little ass-kicker, only I ain’tconvinced. You keep talkin’ and I’m gonna take your head off.” Classic Bronson moment and an unforgettable exchange.

The 1980s:

1. “10 to Midnight “- in the 1980s, Charles Bronson was in his Sixties. He was older but not slower. For much of the decade, the actor teamed with director J. Lee Thompson for a series of low budget Action films for Cannon Studios. These films were full of action but sleazier than any other movie the actor and director had previously been involved with. This one is the absolute best of the lot and Bronson’s best of the decade. He stars as Detective Leo Kessler, a cop trailing a serial killer who is dodging conviction due to a backwards court system. Bronson is almost tougher than he had ever been, and his character’s pursuit of his prey is a pure thrill ride. Thompson’s film gives Bronson some of the best dialogue of his career and contains one of the best characters the actor has ever played. This is a tight Action/Thriller with excellent work from our leading man.

2. “Borderline”- In the most overlooked film of Charles Bronson’s career, our hero plays a border patrol officer who stumbles upon murder and corruption. Director Jerrold Freeman infused the film with a good deal of great action, but it must be noted that Freeman and Steve Kline’s screenplay is also very well done and gives Bronson a chance to give another solid performance. A true undervalued gem of an Action film.

3. “Death Wish II”- Michael Winner and Bronson reunited for the 1982 sequel to their classic 70s film. This time we find Paul Kersey in Los Angeles, once again seeking revenge on thugs that have killed his daughter. This one is even more full of violence and shootouts and is perhaps the sleaziest of Bronson’s 80s output. The action is almost nonstop and is quite bloody. Winner turned this one into a Grindhouse-tinged thriller as vulgar and violent as any film of its day. Bronson is once again perfect as Kersey. This time it has become almost a duty to rid the streets of the punks and vermin that make 82 Los Angeles a dangerous place and our (anti) handles it with skill.

About The Author: A long-time film connoisseur and son to a father who ran a movie theater, Anthony Francis rightfully grew up to be a journalist, filmmaker, writer, and film reviewer. His latest reviews/interviews/articles can be found at screencomment.com

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