Charlie Bronson cashed in big with this lightweight action thriller co-starring Jill Ireland and Robert Duvall. Did Duvall get involved because the original concept was a serious look at political scandals between big business, the CIA and Chile? The clues from the real source story are still there.
Region B + A Blu-ray
Koch Media / Explosive Media (De)
1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date January 17, 2017 / Der Mann ohne Nerven / Available from Amazon.de EUR 15,99
Starring: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Sheree North, John Huston, Jorge Moreno, Paul Mantee, Emilio Fernandez, Alan Vint, Roy Jenson, John Huston.
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editor: Bud Isaacs
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by: Howard B. Kreitsek, Marc Norman, Elliott Baker suggested by the book Ten Second Jailbreak by Warren Hinckle, William Turner, Eliot Asinof.
Produced by: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Directed by: Tom Gries
Charles Bronson seems to have been an unhappy camper for most of his acting life. The un- pretty boy who made good, Bronson won a shot at his own TV series in the ’50s and was one of the better candidates for macho stardom in the character actor lineups for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Although highly recognized and liked, his American star didn’t soar until he came back from European triumphs in Once Upon a Time in the West and Lola (1970). As Bronson became a bankable name, the producing team of Chartoff and Winkler tried him out in some tough-guy action pictures, usually co-billed with the love of his life Jill Ireland. The most notorious of these mostly violent hits were Death Wish, while Walter Hill’s superb Hard Times had perhaps his best acting performance. Between them came the Chartoff and Winkler Breakout, a lighter action comedy based on a true rescue of an unjustly imprisoned American, who in 1971 was sprung from a Mexican jail-fortress in a daring daylight raid. Although the film is a somewhat ragged item, its engaging, classy cast raised its profile considerably.
International tycoon Harris Wagner (John Huston) wants his son Jay (Robert Duvall) out of the way for shady business purposes, and so enjoins an operative (Paul Mantee) to frame him for a murder. The killing is actually carried out by the warden of a Mexican state prison, J.V. (Emilio Fernández). Although Jay and his wife Ann Wagner (Jill Ireland) are in Chile when the murder takes place, a crooked judge condemns him to a long prison sentence. Harris gives Ann his blessing to attempt a jailbreak. She searches out Nick Colton (Charles Bronson), a pilot and adventurer known for taking on risky jobs. Nick tries twice to help Jay escape, and the failures convince him that someone is tipping off the authorities. He finally enlists his buddy Hawk Hawkins (Randy Quaid), the ‘adventurous’ cop’s wife Myrna (Sheree North) and helicopter pilot Harve (Alan Vint) in a wild bid to pluck Jay Wagner out of the prison yard, while the guards are distracted.
Breakout and Breakheart Pass were both directed by Tom Gries, who in the middle 1970s was reaching his peak of activity. Designed as program action picture to pull in the enthusiastic popcorn crowd, Breakout departs from Charles Bronson’s sober revenge pattern for a lighter touch of the kind also seen in Burt Reynolds movies. This time out he’s the jokey daredevil-for-hire Colton, a desert rat and a bush pilot who gulps down beers and amuses himself playing the rogue with Myrna, a former flame, now the hot-to-trot wife of a local cop (Roy Jenson of Chinatown).
Colton may behave as if he’s pulling con games on his friends, but he’s actually honest with Ann, loyal to his buddy Hawk and on the level with Myrna when they go to Mexico to pull off the caper. The joke is that when they’re far away from the cop husband, Myrna is outraged that Colton hasn’t asked her along for a quick roll in the hay. Of all the beauties promoted to compete with the bombshells of the 1950s, Sheree North is perhaps the most talented and versatile. An excellent actress, her feature appearances were directed toward ‘sexy’ parts and uninteresting bimbos, typecasting that she finally embraced in revealing pictures like The Gypsy Moths and Charley Varrick. She did marvels with characters given names like, ‘waitress.’ Here Ms. North brings her fussy, pouting Myrna to life, even considering the low level of comedy.
Jill Ireland had for four years been a fixture in most Charles Bronson movies, but their screen pairings seldom paid off as well as their devoted marriage. Ireland’s Ann Wagner is a fairly charmless frustrated wife, hiring and firing Nick Colton. Their interplay never really clicks, which robs the film of what was supposed to be an almost poignant dimension. Colton retrieves Ann Wagner knowing that when he succeeds, he’ll lose a woman he’s become attached to. Neither performance has any depth, so the slight sigh Colton gives at the finish generates little effect.
Sharing scenes only with Jill Ireland, Robert Duvall almost seems to be in a different movie. The classy, in-demand actor was at this time still playing featured support instead of leads. His Jay Wagner is something of a one-note character, that goes to prison a determined man, but loses hope as the rescue attempts fail. To me it looks as if Duvall is playing as if he thought he was making a straight drama. His scenes have none of the humor seen in the rest of this Charlie Bronson action romp.
Randy Quaid seems to be present for a paycheck and to stretch his repertoire beyond classy auteur-type pictures. It’s one of the few shows in which Quaid is not asked to play slow-witted, which is a nice twist.
Did the Bronson and Ireland teaming produce any memorable pictures? From Noon ’til Three could have been a classic had the husband & wife team performed with a little more finesse. Better direction would also have helped. Breakout is not much of a recommendation for them or for director Tom Gries, who handles much of the action logistics well enough but does little of interest with the characters. Superfluous characters clutter up some scenes. Ann Wagner is often accompanied by a colorless lawyer (Alejandro Rey) who serves no function in the plot. A sad sack convict who befriends Jay Wagner has little to do except set up an impressive stunt fall from a helicopter. Likewise, familiar faces Paul Mantee and Alan Vint are given purely functional parts to play.
Breakout is really a producer’s picture, a product made for a price that has all the right elements to succeed regardless of quality. Chartoff and Winkler go to the trouble to film in Arizona, Mexico and then in rural France, where a vintage hilltop fortress stands in for the massive Mexican prison where Jay Wagner is held. This provides Tom Gries with some problems — the villainous warden played by the legendary Emilio Fernández may not have been taken to the French location.
The exact reasons for Jay Wagner being framed are not clear, leaving John Huston’s generic scenes as a ‘bad CEO’ looking like big-star filler. This is unfortunate because the real case Breakout is based on is quite a shocker. A helicopter was used to spirit one Joel David Kaplan out of a Mexican prison. He was the nephew of a tycoon once investigated by congress, and the frame-up may have been something to do with sneaking CIA money to Latin America. As the movie’s Jay Warner is arrested in Chile, the implication would seem to be that the John Huston character was aiding the CIA’s effort to overthrow Salvador Allende. In the finished film the connection is all but buried. Was it dropped as Breakout morphed into a simpleo action comedy?
The show is rated PG, yet has scenes of lecherous Mexican guards feeling up various women that enter the prison for visitation. The conclusion features a convincing, unpleasant gore effect of a man being shattered by a large airplane propeller. Although the flying action is good, the snatch-rescue right out of the prison is a complete bust. Hawk and Myrna put up a sexy distraction — her fumbling around partly topless is funny — but it couldn’t get the attention of guards in the part of prison where the helicopter sets down. Colton and his copter are parked in the prison yard for what seems forty seconds, not ten. The guards don’t show up until the takeoff, and then they can’t hit the helicopter when it’s only a few feet away. I think it might have been funny, and more realistic, if the guards were just so surprised to see the helicopter land that they do nothing – they might have thought it has come to pick up the warden. The real Joel David Kaplan snatch was apparently the first time anybody had tried such a stunt.
In his career bio Bronson’s Loose Again! author Paul Talbot explains that Breakout was the next Charles Bronson movie since his big hit Death Wish. Michael Ritchie was the first director attached, until he realized he’d have no control over casting, and that Bronson would carry ultimate power on the set. Tom Gries was the replacement. Although some executives thought the finished film un-releasable, Columbia pushed it strong in saturation bookings across the country. It proved to be one of the actor’s most popular pictures and did particularly well overseas. Just the next month, the experimental saturation release scheme was applied to Universal’s Jaws, maximizing that blockbuster’s take.
Breakout is a picture for Bronson fans, not one of his best but a featured title from the decade when his star vehicles were doing big business world-wide.
Koch Media/Explosive Media’s Region B + A Blu-ray of Breakout is a fine encoding of this handsomely mounted production. Fans might want to take a look just for the production trappings — Chartoff and Winkler engaged the great Jerry Goldsmith for the active, effective score. Ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard isn’t tasked with many artistic lighting situations, but his Panavision lensing is attractive at all times.
This German-produced disc is labeled Der Mann ohne Nerven / Breakout. It plays perfectly in Region A machines despite being listed as Region B. The only thing Region A viewers must do is manually choose the English track from the menu. Otherwise, get set for a heap ‘o Deutsche sprechen. A trailer and a lengthy gallery of international ad art are the extras.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Region B + A Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Sound: Excellent German and English
Supplements: Trailer, still and ad art gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English & German (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson