Sunday, January 15, 2012

MR. MAJESTYK (1974): Elmore Leonard and Melon Farming

Many early reviews of Mr. Majestyk seemed put-off by the film because it lacked social dogma.  Yet critics that didn’t outright dismiss the movie upon its release found the low budget film to be entertaining and unpretentious.  It was based on a novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard before the novelist was particularly famous.  The movie only deviates once from the novel in any major way (one of the major characters, Bobby Kopas, does not get himself blown away like he does in the book), and that deviation was actually an improvement.

The movie is more than a simple and violent story.  Mr. Majestyk is a character study.  It’s a study in that it contrasts the character of three different individuals:

1.      Vincent Majestyk (Charles Bronson): a melon farmer and former war hero who has endured hardship throughout his life, who craves simplicity and who would like to get ahead in life through hard work and the true companionship he finds from his co-workers on his small melon farm.
2.      Frank Renda (Al Lettieri): a hit man, who has probably also endured hardship throughout his life, and takes his bitterness and regrets out on the remainder of the world by taking his revenge on anyone that tries not to let him get his way.
3.      Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo): a down and out and emasculated loser who desperately wants to make something better of his life, but who does not have the courage to make ends-meet legitimately.

Only one of the three characters will ever be happy with what he has, and therefore the other two try to thwart him in any way they can.

Majestyk meets Renda in jail.  Majestyk was provoked into assaulting Bobby Kopas and is thus sent into lockup while his melons are waiting to be picked.  Renda is quite understandably in jail for a murder, though we already suspect that the authorities are never going to make any charges stick against him.  Kopas meanwhile is licking his wounds after being humiliated in a fight with Majestyk.

An attempt to break Renda out is made that goes badly wrong.  This ultimately results in both Majestyk and Renda fleeing, but with Renda dependent upon the whims of Majestyk as to where they go.  Majestyk wants to use Renda as a bargaining tool with the authorities so that he can get out of jail and get back to finishing processing of his melons before the growing season ends.  Unfortunately, Majestyk outthinks himself and Renda escapes through the assistance of Renda’s love interest, Wiley (Lee Purcell).  (Wiley is essentially treated by Renda as a fifth-rate person, but she remains loyal to Renda until it’s fairly obvious that Renda has met his match dealing with a baffling melon farmer.)

Renda, in the meantime, was so offended by the way Majestyk belittled him and treated him while they were on the run that he decides his next hit is going to be on Mr. Majestyk.  Renda drives off many of Majestyk’s workers, threatens various contractors not to do business with him, shoots up some of his melons and eventually breaks the legs of one of Majestyk’s best friends.  Though there should be some consolation in knowing that he has brought hardship and hurt upon his adversary, Renda remains unsatisfied because Majestyk shows no signs that he either fears or respects Renda in anyway.  In a face to face confrontation when Renda tells Majestyk that he is going to kill him, Majestyk responds (since he has nothing to lose) by punching Renda in the face.  Majestyk then tells Renda to go talk to the cops if he wants to press charges.

Though essentially a loner, Majestyk really is not in this fight all by himself.  Many of his workers respect Majestyk so much that they continue to work in the face of some very real threats.  And Majestyk meets up with a beautiful migrant worker by the name of Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal), who in her own way is every bit as tough as Majestyk, and who in just a few days falls in love with the man.  In a pursuit through the mountains with Majestyk and Nancy on one side and Renda and his henchmen on the other (also joined by Bobby Kopas who doesn’t do much to help Renda’s cause), Majestyk ultimately becomes the pursuer while Renda is the pursued.  Majestyk kills Renda and his men, spares the lives of Wiley and Kopas, and waits for the incompetent police to arrive.  We are to assume that Majestyk and Nancy finish up on picking their melons and settle down to a somewhat satisfactory life alternating with long years of labor and struggle.

Many characters in the film appear to have little or no acting experience, but the acting of the three leads is sufficient.  In fact, the character of Renda might be almost incomprehensible to most film goers if not for the acting of Lettieri (who unfortunately died shortly after this movie was released).  Paul Koslo as Kopas was perfectly cast as a heel.  For Bronson, the film had an unfortunate side effect in that it led to him to starring in the Death Wish films that forever typecast Bronson into one particular role (a role that really was very different from what we had here). 

As for the criticism that the film did not raise social consciousness, it would be interesting to consider how many books and films would have no merit whatsoever if this was the sole criteria for judging a work of art.  The director of this film, Richard Fleischer, had already tried his consciousness-raising a few years before in a film called Che!  That ludicrous attempt to glorify a historical figure that we would all be better off remembering as a murderously idealistic clown, should have warned the critics that most of Hollywood was hardly equipped to put out a respectable “message film.” 

However, there is far more to the film that these ill-witted critics originally could fathom.  Elmore Leonard’s novels, I believe, are better than those of Larry McMurtry – another writer whose fame is essentially due to his works being adapted by the film industry.  Leonard comes across straight forwardly and this makes his stories fit easily upon the screen.  In the case of Hombre, the book is better than the film.  Paul Newman was badly cast as the lead in that movie.  In the case of Mr. Majestyk, the film is better because actually seeing the main character in action makes the individual more understandable.  If Majestyk were only a loner as is implied by the early criticism, he could just as well have pursued the path of Renda.  But Majestyk found warmth and humor in his relations with the migrant workers he did business with and thus we have sympathy for those migrant workers as well.  The message is just not forced, and the story is not reduced to social issues alone.

Mr. Majestyk is far from a perfect film, but it triumphs over so many other clumsy Hollywood attempts to appear relevant.  Mr. Majestyk is a film that can be enjoyed in subsequent viewings without the viewer having to pretend to having really enjoyed what he or she has seen.

January 15, 2012 

© Robert S. Miller 2012