Color, 1975, 95m.
Directed by Tom Gries
Starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), MGM (DVD) / WS (1.85:1)

Breakheart Pass1975 was a very busy year for Charles Bronson thanks to a trio of solid crime films: Breakout, Breakheart PassWalter Hill's superb Hard Times, and the unusual Breakheart Pass. This one's a bit different as it combines the modern Bronson action with the Western formula that established him in the '60s, all with a dose of great character actors and one of composer Jerry Goldsmith's strongest scores of the period. The end result is a fascinating genre mishmash (sort of like the period train noir The Tall Target) mixing shoot 'em up and whodunit in equal amounts. On top of that it was adapted from his own novel by Alastair MacLean, whose work had already produced some fine albeit underrated '70s thrillers like Fear Is the Key, When Eight Bells Toll, and Puppet on a Chain. (Lorenzo Semple, Jr. chipped in as an uncredited co-writer, too.)

Here Bronson stars as John Deakin, a prisoner being transported through the Rocky Mountains on a train loaded with medical supplies for a disease outbreak at a military station. As the train barrels into Indian country, some of the passengers start to disappear and may be the victims of a murderer on board. False identities and double crosses abound as Deakin becomes drawn into the puzzle and has to contend with a colorful array of characters including the marshal who hauled him in (Johnson), a shady governor (Crenna), an austere military daughter (Ireland, the real-life Mrs. Bronson), and an irate commander (Lauter). Of course, there's also a chance that our hero might not be entirely what he seems either as the train and the plot barrel to an action-packed finale.Breakheart Pass

The combination of western, whodunit, and snowy locales is a potent one, not surprisingly turning up again in 2015 in Quenin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. Train fans in particular have always gotten a kick out of this film, which features painstaking attention to the details of locomotive operations of the period and, more importantly, sports one of the greatest "fights on top of a speeding train" scenes ever filmed (between Bronson and real-life prizefighter Archie Moore). Interestingly, Ireland and Bronson have far less interplay here than the rest of their collaborations; however, that would be remedied the following year when they paired up yet again for the fascinating From Noon Till Three. This would also turn out to be one of the last feature films for director Tom Gries, who had proven his Western mettle with films like 100 Rifles and Will Penny (not to mention a slew of TV work); he pretty much stays out of the way and lets the actors and stunt men do their jobs, which works just fine. Perhaps more notable behind the camera is cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who had worked on some of Sam Peckinpah's biggest films and, weirdly enough, followed up this one with Drum.

Ballard's ace lensing is ably served by the Kino Lorber Blu-ray, which is filled with rough textures and earthy tones. The source material was kept in great shape and looks quite authentic here, effectively emulating the look of a nice new print. It's several miles better than the DVD, of course, and fans of Bronson, MacLean, or anyone else involved should be more than happy with the presentation here. The DTS-MA 2.0 mono audio sounds crisp enough and does justice to Goldsmith's score, though fans should also check out the stereo soundtrack album for a really powerful experience. The theatrical trailer is the sole extra.

Reviewed on September 11, 2014.