The Five Best Charles Bronson Performances

The Five Best Charles Bronson Performances

During the early 1970s, Charles Bronson was the biggest star in the world–well, pretty much everywhere except the U.S. However, he quickly attracted the attention of American studios and became a box-office attraction stateside with such action films as Death Wish, St. Ives, and Telefon. Before his unexpected international stardom, he headlined quality low-budget efforts (Machine Gun Kelly) and made memorable impressions in supporting roles in movies like The Magnificent Seven. Sure, he starred in some stinkers in the 1980s, but let’s forget about those and focus on the five best starring performances from the underrated Charles Bronson:

1. Death Wish (1974): Morally repugnant? No. Ethically questionable? Probably. Highly manipulative? Definitely. This controversial vigilante drama may be difficult to watch at times, but it’s well-made and acted with conviction. Film critic Judith Crist noted Bronson’s “superb performance” as the everyman who gradually evolves into a one-man jury. Even Rex Reed wrote: “People who are tired of being frightened, endangered and ripped-off daily in New York City are going to love Charles Bronson in Death Wish as much as I do.” The less side about the Death Wish sequels, the better.

2. From Noon Till Three (1976): Playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses) wrote and directed this clever satire about celebrity. Bronson plays Graham Dorsey, a minor outlaw who spends an afternoon with an attractive widow (Jill Ireland–Bronson’s wife). Her later account of their romantic interlude–imaginatively enhanced–spawns a bestselling book, play, and song. She becomes wealthy and he winds up in prison, where no one believes that he’s the famous Graham Dorsey. Bronson creates one of his best characters in Dorsey, who is equally charming and conniving. Ireland gives her best film performance.

3. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western masterpiece is an ensemble piece about the final days of the Old West (though, with its three-hour length, each of the four main characters get plenty of screen time). Bronson is a standout as the enigmatic Harmonica, whose motive for seeking vengeance against Henry Fonda’s nasty villain isn’t revealed until the film’s grand showdown.

4. Telefon (1977): Bronson portrays a KGB agent who teams with an American spy (Lee Remick) to uncover a network of programmed assassins–apparently normal people who turn into killers after listening to Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Sounds preposterous? Perhaps, but it’s immensely entertaining and Bronson hits all the right notes as the dogged pursuer with a photographic memory.

5. Hard Times (1975): Bronson plays a drifter during the Great Depression who meets a hustler named Speed (James Coburn) and becomes a successful bare-knuckle fighter. It’s a quiet Bronson performance, but he and the fast-talking Coburn (along with Strother Martin as their “cut man”) make a fine team. TIME critic Jay Cocks called the film “a tidy parable about strength and honor” with Bronson’s “best performance to date.”

Honorable Mentions: The Great Escape (1963) and The Magnificent Seven (1960) (two excellent films placed here only because Bronson’s screen time is limited); Red Sun (a 1971 international Western more fun than it has a right to be); and Breakheart Pass (a 1976 Western mystery set on a train).

Remember the TV commercial with Charles Bronson?

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • Wayne P.

    Good list but would have to put The Mechanic (1972) right up there as well for its film genre-building impact.
    Chato’s Land, made that same year also and starring Jack Palance too, is no slouch when it comes to under-rated westerns either!

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.jodrie Brian Jodrie

    The Untouchables episode The Death Tree was good.

  • OZ ROB

    His physical attributes are are on full display in the role of Blue Cloud, a favorite of mine Samuel Fuller`s ,Run Of The Arrow,,1957

  • Max Steiner

    What? “The Mechanic” didnt make the list? Steve, if you’re reading this, then it means I didn’t make it back. It also means that you broke a filament controlling a 13 second delay trigger. End of game. Bang….your dead. One of my favorite scenes…ever.

  • William Sommerwerck

    “Best” is relative. Bronson was occasionally somewhat convincing, but he lacked the acting chops to deliver a memorable performance. As for physical attributes, I can think only of his large Eastern-European aureoles, probably the biggest in Hollywood history. Sexiness is more how you act than how you look, and — at least in front of a camera — Bronson was about as sexy as broccoli. However you choose to define the word, Bronson lacked charm. Actors as different as Cary Grant, Laurence Oliver, and Gabby Hayes had it. Bronson did not.

    As for “From Noon Till Three”… It is, indeed a clever satire. Unfortunately, it’s woefully miscast and — yes — misdirected. It’s the only time I’ve seen a director screw up his own script. Bronson’s performance is so flat and devoid of charm, that one wonders how Jill Ireland’s character (his real-life wife!) could have found him attractive (other than his presumably huge organ, the subject of an aguably misogynistic joke). Contrast their tepid “romance” with Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen’s.

    “From Noon Till Three” is one of those rare films that fails because of the poor performance of the star. True, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but had Grahm Dorsey been played by someone with even a bit of style and wit, the film might have worked. It ought to be remade, simply because the first version was so poor.

    • Jan

      Since you are a male, I can somewhat understand your confusion about Bronson being sexy. As a female, all I can say is GRRRRRRRRRWOW!

      • williamsommerwerck

        There’s no question Bronson had a fine physique, and — without his mustache — was pretty good-looking. But he doesn’t //project// sexiness.

        • williamsommerwerck

          Google “Morgan Curran”, and look at the material for the male Morgan Curran, who’s a New York sandhog.

        • Wayne P.

          Hey guy, shouldnt a female be the best judge of any so-called ‘projected’ sexiness in a male actor…after all, she is the woman in this discussion isnt she?

          • williamsommerwerck

            Well… uh… I like guys, too. Is a male’s perception of sexiness different from a female’s? I don’t know.

  • Terry

    My vote goes for his performance in “The Dirty Dozen!”

  • doc

    Don’t forget the watermelon farmer Mr. Majestyk or the original Mechanic.

  • Dan

    Ah, the hard times link above is pretty funny (and wrong)

  • Sam

    I’d like to add ‘The Valachi Papers’ and ‘Red Sun’

  • jumbybird

    I wouldn’t mind a Bronsonathon… I haven’t seen him in a long time.

  • Roger Lynn

    death wish 2 was also great,,Ten To Midnight was excellent,-The White Buffalo was awesome,Murphy’s Law was great and my all time fave was Telefon

  • http://www.facebook.com/constantine.santas.9 Constantine Santas

    “Handsome/ugly” (or vice-versa) Bronson is the image of physical charisma–he had only a bit less of that of Burt Lancaster. Rather small, powerful, confidently strutting, he was my favorite action star of his time no matter what the film. The idea of Bronsathon is appealing. TCM is the only place this could happen.

  • nicolas

    This article is way off when you see that he mentions Telefon and St Ives. Telefon should have been a good movie but is not considering the talent of Don Siegal in it. Bronson did not apparently get on too well with the director, and he had no chemistry at all with Lee Remick. Has no one here ever seen any of Bronson’s European films except for ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’?. See ‘Farewell Friend’ (Adieu L’ami French) his first foreign film where he stole the film from Alain Delon. Also the film that made him a star in France, ‘Rider On The Rain’, uneven film, but saved by Bronson’s star making performance. Also need to see ‘Violent City’ (Also known as The Family) his most interesting film with Jill Ireland, a gangster film combining Othello with Out of the Past. Of course “The Mechanic”. Sad that film didn’t make him a star in the US, instead ‘Death WIsh’ did, which while good, sent him on the wrong path in his acting. His performance in ‘White Buffalo’ is also good, I think Jammie Fox wearing those sung glasses in Django Unchained was a homage to Bronson from this film, White Buffalo I think is the most underated film of all time. Finally ‘Cabo Blanco’. a film hardly released in theaters in the USA, and really rushed because I the studio was going through problems, but you see Bronson could have played romantic leads even in his late 50′s, and for me brings back somewhat his better European era of films.

    • Romantickitty

      I thought the chemistry between Charles Bronson and Lee Remick was quite good. In spite of the differences between him and the director, I felt it was a very good film.

      • nicolas

        As I told someone else here, I guess I’ll have to see TELEFON again. It has been over 30 yrs that I have seen the film.

    • R.B. Armstrong

      Yes, I’ve seen your European films, but still think his performance in TELEFON is superior in films like RIDER ON THE RAIN, in which he’s pretty much (an important) supporting character.

      • nicolas

        I guess I’ll have to see TELEFON again. I saw it in the theater when it came out, and really did’t think he was all that good in it. It has been over 30 yrs that I saw it.

  • JoAnne McMaster

    I had such a crush on him as a teenager. There’s something to be said about animal magnetism. It isn’t how “pretty” you are (Brad Pitt does nothing for me); but how well you can take care of a woman – in all areas. He had something…..

  • Crutch

    I am surprised of “From Noon til Three” @ #2!!! My favorite Bronson flix though I’m a big fan of most his movies. Too bad it’s not on DVD! Though I cheated!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.french.94 Ken French

    ut of the ordinary for him, but his late-career performance in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner as the main character’s widowed father (filmed not long after Bronson lost his wife) is very moving.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daisy-Brambletoes/846520385 Daisy Brambletoes

    Sorry, I’m not a Bronson fan. Ask my husband. 8^)

  • P.J.

    How about a film called “The evil that men do” when Bronson disarms a guy twice his size by grabbing him by the groin and squeezing until he passed out. An observer comments: you’ve got strong hands. Nah, Bronson replies, he just had glass chandeliers…

  • fargonetoo

    I definately disagree with your choices. I don’t measure great performances by time on the screen but by how well they acted. The Great Escape and Magnificent Seven are two of my all time favorite movies which I watch over and over again. The other films you mentioned won’t even watch the whole way through.

    • Romantickitty

      I’ve also watched The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven over and over. Love those movies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Fuko45ee Gerald Davis

    “Hard Times” should be higher thatn #5!

    • R.B. Armstrong

      Perhaps, you are correct. I enjoy it with every viewing and Bronson, James Coburn, and Strother Martin are a great team.

  • Old_Politico

    When I was young, Charles Bronson was the unlikely action film leading man.The Mechanic and Telefon, to my mind, are brilliant. If Mr. Buzinski didn’t get better material, that’s not entirely his fault.

  • duckman

    I have a question for true Charles Bronson fans. May be you can help me out. I would say that back in the late 1950′s or early 1960′s, Charles Bronson was in a sci-fi flick (maybe a television movie) where he’s stationed at an outpost either in the artic or antartica. This beautiful dame from another planet arrives as a scout to search for a new cold place for her people to live. It seems they need cold to survive and her planet was starting to warm up. (GLOBAL WARNING?) All is well until Charlie finds out these aliens want to take over the earth. One scene I distinctly remember is when Charlie kisses her and is immediately frozen solid. The gal was nice enough to thaw him out. I’m an old man now and haven’t seen this flick since I saw it so many years ago. Anyone with information can get back to me at duckman_iac@yahoo.com. I hope this site allows me to post my e-mail address. MUCH THANKS!

    • williamsommerwerck

      I’ve checked IMDb, and can’t find a Charles Bronson movie even remotely resembling the film you describe.

      • duckman_iac

        Left a reply for you here William Sommerwerck, but it seems to have disappeared. If it does show up, the Charles Bronson movie I was looking for is called DEEP FREEZE. It was a TV movie from 1956 (not 1954 as I mentioned in the earlier message.) You can find it on IMDb under Charles Bronson movies. It’s the third listing down in the 1956 listing of his films. It’s in small print under Warner Brothers TV movies. Thanks for writing!
        Duckman_iac

        • williamsommerwerck

          I found it. It is not, technically, a movie. The IMDb listing doesn’t tell us much about plot, etc. Interesting, though.

    • duckman_iac

      The movie I mentioned above was called DEEP FREEZE (1956) from Warner Brothers. Look for it on IMDb under Charles Bronson movies. It’s in small print under Warner Brothers TV movies. It’s the third 1956 listing. Much thanks to SMOKEY JOE for all his help! Duckman_iac

  • JOEYT

    What about The Dirty Dozen?

  • JOEYT

    Valachi Papers

  • JOEYT

    Breakheart pass was a crappy movie with a dumb plot, wasn’t that Archie Moore with a hatchet?

  • SLH

    The only Charles Bronson Movie I have ever watched all the way through, Lola, love it !!

  • John Harrill

    Rider on the Rain was my favorite. Marlene Jobert was fantastic in that one!

  • Araponga

    “You brought two too many…”

  • Ken

    Did I miss “The Evil That Men Do” somewhere?

    • Rich

      I’m a Hard Times fan myself–Bronson facing a dangerous life without flinching. Here’s a piece of trivia: Bronson got his start in the movies getting beat up by Katherine Hepburn! A Tracy/Hepburn movie (“Woman of the Year?”) in which she plays a tennis pro who rescues Tracy from a mugging by throwing a couple bad guys (including Bronson) around like sacks of potatoes. Check it out

      • Rich

        “Pat and Mike”, actually, the Tracy/Hepburn movie and Bronson beatdown

  • Romantickitty

    I very much appreciated his performance in The Great Escape, as Danny, one of the Tunnel Kings.

  • laustcawz

    How about Bronson (under his original name, Buchinsky) as the mute sculpting apprentice Igor in the 1953 Vincent Price classic “House of Wax”?

  • Lyger

    Remember him as Igor with Vincent Price in 3d House of wax

  • D.C.

    Bronson’s supporting role in the Dirty Dozen. The Mechanic was Bronson teaching Vincent how to be a proper hitman and also as union candidate of a fact based movie in Act of Vengeance in which Keanu Reeves had a small role as one of the hitman sent by Wilfred Brimley’s Tony Boyle character.

  • Burl A. Morgan

    Hey, what about Death Hunt. He was great in this flick. Watch it and see and great role for Charlie. He plays well against Lee Marvin in this show.