The Mechanic is a 1972 action-thriller that focuses on a hitman, his work, and the mentorship he forms with an aspiring assassin. The film has good performances and action set at a slower pace. Fans of Charles Bronson action films and suspenseful crime movies in general will likely admire the film, but its core content – the focus on a hitman – will have limited appeal.
The story follows Arthur Bishop, a hitman known as a “mechanic” who works for a shadowy group called “The Association.” Bishop is an expert at his métier, deadly and grisly as it is. Steve McKenna, the son of one of Bishop’s contacts, becomes increasingly disenfranchised with his life and friends and develops an interest in becoming an assassin. This results in Bishop training McKenna as an associate in the craft of assassination and targeted killings. However, The Association, does not approve of Bishop working with another man and exposing him to its business.
In general, The Mechanic has slower pacing. The beginning sequence may be prodding for some as it highlights the sophistication and tact Bishop employs in eliminating his targets. There are easier means, but Bishop’s skillful operations create complex results that would not lead investigators to conclude they were the work of an assassin.
The slow burn continues after the opening sequence. It is not until Bishop and McKenna start working together – and actually working, not merely training – that the pace begins to accelerate. I thought that this pacing decision, especially in the opening, effectively establishes the film’s tense and deadly atmosphere. Others may find it to be too inert.
Tonally, The Mechanic is, not surprisingly, characterized by its emphasis on criminal behavior and the related tension. The main distinguishing motif is the juxtaposition of new and old. Bishop is an older, experienced hitman who is training a young, naïve killer. Foreshadowing in the interstitials that show different “schools” of martial arts complements the theme. This device is effectual and speaks to The Mechanic’s notable writing and direction.
Unfortunately, there is one glaring scene that brings the pacing to a halt and should have been overhauled. When Bishop and McKenna are still acquaintances, the two go to the house of McKenna’s girlfriend, where she is attempting to commit suicide. Compounding this is the aspect that the woman is using her attempted suicide as a means of manipulating and testing McKenna to see whether or not he will save her. The scene is supposed to illustrate McKenna’s immunity to violence and aberrant events, but it is very strange and prolonged. There are much better ways to demonstrate McKenna’s hitman potential. What was used, however, is not the way to do it and should have been reworked at the script level.
The performances are great with Charles Bronson’s Arthur Bishop as the principal. Bronson expertly conveys Bishop’s methodical, calm, and collected demeanor. Before mentoring McKenna, while still independent, Bishop is a man of few words. This character choice and Bronson’s portrayal heighten the mystery surrounding the mechanic.
Bishop is not limited to being a predictable character. He suffers with his own issues and tries to synthetically suppress them vis-à-vis prescription medications. This affords the character more depth and dimension as he is not an invincible, perfect human who is not affected by his work. Although this is a nice touch, it is not fully developed. Once Bishop takes McKenna under his tutelage, it seems as though this dynamic is forgotten. Perhaps the friendship with McKenna was a natural antidote for Bishop, but it is a shame this trait was lost in the final cut. Today, it may very well be viewed as a trope as assassins and special agents are often depicted as suffering with their own issues and means of repressing them.
Jan-Michael Vincent’s Steve McKenna is a very arrogant character. Fortunately, he and Bishop, and Vincent and Bronson, have good chemistry. The scenes during which Bishop mentors and trains McKenna are well done and show the depth of Bishop’s knowledge and McKenna’s penchant for learning from and improving upon his teacher’s methods. As such, the new and old theme is masterfully encapsulated by the performances of both actors. Vincent also does a good job supporting Bronson while showing that McKenna is not simply a younger version of Bishop; the resulting distinction is appreciated.
The Mechanic has very impressive cinematography. Shots are intentionally composed and the creative use of depth of field and space are superb. The amalgam of shots, from close-ups and extreme close-ups to point of view shots to binocular and scope overlays are remarkable. There is one part in the third act in which the camera zooms in on Bishop. Though it is used for effect, it is not very smooth and could have benefitted from a reshoot. This scene notwithstanding, the cinematography itself, coupled with the great location shots and nice chase sequences, is a clear strength of the film.
The production design is also terrifically done. Bishop’s mansion is outfitted with antique weapons and classical sculptures and artwork. As with the contemporary trope of characters suffering from stress and anxiety, viewers today may see this as another cliché. If you put yourself in the mindset and context of the time in which The Mechanic was originally released, you may view it differently. Other estates in the film also feature great architecture and décor. These locations reinforce the fact that Bishop, his contacts, and targets have no shortage of wealth.
Jerry Fielding’s music is wonderful. The melodies assist in establishing and maintaining the suspenseful mood. In fact, Fielding’s compositions and their musical flare, specifically the piano and brass, are very Hitchcockian, adding yet another layer to The Mechanic’s strong presentation.
Michael Winner’s direction is pretty good. It would have been nice to have further explanation of Bishop’s internal issues and suppression, but the final cut allows the audience to make their own inferences. Nevertheless, I would have liked this to be fleshed out or, at the very least, addressed while Bishop works with McKenna. The scene with McKenna’s girlfriend should have been completely reworked. It may leave a negative impression and be what viewers remember of The Mechanic, which is unfortunate because the film is quite good. Despite these critiques, Winner’s direction shines in terms of the intentionality of the cinematography, strong performances, and commendable use of foreshadowing, which, as mentioned above, is a testament to the script.
In the end, The Mechanic is a good movie with acting and technical strengths. Due to the inherent focus on crime and assassination, The Mechanic will not appeal to everyone. On the other hand, if you do not mind a slower pace and you can get past the strange sequence with McKenna’s girlfriend, then you will likely appreciate what The Mechanic has to offer.
Distributor: United Artists
Production: Chartoff-Winkler Productions; Carlino Productions
Director: Michael Winner
Producer: Robert Chartoff; Irwin Winkler
Screenwriter: Lewis John Carlino (screenplay and story)
Director of Photography: Richard H. Kline; Robert Paynter (European sequences)
Editor: Frederick Wilson; Michael Winner (as Arnold Crust, Jr.)
Art Direction: Rodger Maus; Herbert Westbrook
Set Decoration: Robert De Vestel
Music: Jerry Fielding
Budget: ca. $10,000,000
Release Date: November 17, 1972 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: United Artists Corporation
Cast: Charles Bronson; Jan-Michael Vincent; Keenan Wynn; Jill Ireland; Linda Ridgeway; Frank DeKova
- - - - - - -
Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hours and 40 minutes (100 mins.)