Charles Bronson gets the opportunity to play against type, as both a sly comedian and a romantic lead, in the self-consciously odd 1976 western From Noon Till Three.
Written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer-winning playwright behind The Subject Was Roses and The Only Game in Town, From Noon Till Three initially plays out as one of those hogwash Hollywood romances where a gruff, earthy man makes a prim, uptight woman fall in love with him by sheer force of will. But, in the film's trickier second half, it manages to deflate and subtly criticize the tropes of this type of Taming of the Shrew knock-off.
In the beginning, fate flings together Bronson's two-bit outlaw Graham Dorsey with Amanda, a pretty young widow played by Bronson's actual wife and frequent costar, Jill Ireland. Graham is supposed to take part in a bank robbery with his gang, but his horse breaks a leg. The gang stops by Amanda's impressive old mansion to see if she has a spare horse to buy (or steal). Amanda lies about owning a horse, and Graham, who has had a foreboding premonition about this job, plays along with the lie. He plans to lay back at Amanda's and have the gang pick him up when the job is done, in roughly three hours.
Well, if you've seen the poster art on the Blu-ray cover, you pretty much know where this is headed. Graham forces Amanda to open up rooms in her mansion that she has kept closed since her husband died, as a prelude to opening up her heart to him. Well, sort of her heart: more like her pants. For his part, Graham fondles, cajoles, and eventually connives to get Amanda into a compromising position. For viewers weary of cinematic rape culture, it might be cold comfort that Graham and Amanda come together only after he lies about being impotent and she obliviously offers to help, but hey, at least he waited for consent. Bronson's uncomplicated, cocksure attitude cements his performance here as being from a bygone era, but his sense of humor is warmer and far less prickly than Clint Eastwood's when Eastwood is being "fun."
After Graham and Amanda's roll in the hay, the mismatched couple realize that they really like -- and maybe even love -- each other, but the affair is cut short. News comes that the gang of robbers has been captured and, though Graham is honestly just fine with that, Amanda guilts him into riding toward town to save his colleagues. Along the way, Graham swaps clothes with a con man to avoid a posse, only to wind up tossed in prison for the con man's crimes. Granted, the con man got it worse: he wound up dead.
At this point, the film starts to mutate into something unexpected. Amanda believes the love of her life is dead, and she commemorates her epic romance in book form. The book becomes an international phenomenon that inspires songs, plays, tourism, and merchandising. Naturally, word gets back to Graham that he is now essentially Rhett Butler before Rhett Butler, and once he is freed from prison, he goes to visit Amanda at her mansion once again.
There's just one problem: Amanda doesn't recognize him as the man in the story. The man in the story is taller, more handsome, and more dashing. And soon, all sorts of people from Graham's life no longer recognize him as himself. They too have replaced their mental picture of him with that of an idealized dead man. Ireland, who is hamstrung by the relatively flat nature of her character in the early going, really gets to shine in these later scenes. When confronted with the uncomfortable truth, Ireland elegantly demonstrates how Amanda must temper her sentimentality with cold pragmatism. Bronson is arguably better in these later scenes, too, as his character is forced into an unlikely existential crisis, unable to prove he is who he is.
The way that the actors rise to meet the material and get just a wee bit out of their comfort zones is one of the key pleasures of From Noon Till Three. Longtime fans of Bronson and Ireland might be surprised, but it'll be a good surprise.