Death Wish is one of the most politically odious films ever made, a movie that happily espouses a fascist, anti-poor message. It’s a film that doesn’t quite have the cojones to be full on racist, but you can sense it just under the surface; Michael Winner’s vigilante film knows just as well as we do that its multi-ethnic parade of scumbags, assaulters, rapists and muggers is just a put on to keep the NAACP off its back. It’s a vile movie, a revenge fantasy for white flighters, a kick in the teeth to a New York City already down on the mat.
I love it.
The movie is based on a novel by Brian Garfield - who hated the movie so much he wrote a sequel novel, Death Sentence, to better explain his position. In Garfield’s original novel the protagonist - a liberal CPA named Paul Benjamin - slowly morphs from victim to aggressor. It’s only towards the very end of the novel that Benjamin kills his first criminal, and by then it’s clear that he has transgressed, has crossed a line from decency to something else. Garfield’s book is a meditation on the concept of civilization versus savagery, and is as anguished about Benjamin’s descent into murder as the movie is sanguine about its protagonist’s.
Paul Benjamin becomes Paul Kersey in the movie (probably due to the fact that there was an actor named Paul Benjamin working often at the time), and the CPA becomes an architect. But the basics stay the same: Kersey is a liberal whose worldview is shattered when a violent gang assaults his wife and daughter. His wife is killed in the attack, his daughter left catatonic. Work brings him out to Arizona, where he meets an unbelievably stereotypical gun-rights hick (he has not one but TWO sets of cattle horns on his car), who puts a gun in his hand. A gun owned by a righteous Old West gunfighter.
Returning to New York Kersey begins a one-man war on crime, first killing criminals upon whom he chances and eventually putting himself in situations where he’s all but guaranteed to be attacked. As he mows down criminals, he catches the eye of the public and the police. He’s celebrated in the media as a man who is taking care of business, while the cops attempt to stop him.
Death Wish is one of the urtexts of Decaying New York. The 1970s were the worst decade imaginable for the greatest city; it’s all summed up in a famous Daily News headline “Ford To City: Drop Dead.” That was 1975, and New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. The federal government declined to bail it out. A shift in industrialization in America had hit the city’s wallet hard, and had sent in waves of Southern immigrants, largely black. On top of that, the general national economy was in the shitter. Crime rose as the city decayed, unable to meet the basic needs of its millions of citizens.
There was a sense that civilization had come to its breaking point. The filthy, crime-ridden streets of New York City were looking straight up post-apocalyptic. Movies like The Warriors and Escape From New York reflected this, but Death Wish really led the way. Death Wish posits a New York where it is impossible to walk down the street without being mugged, a truly hellish landscape of random crime. This is how the rest of America saw New York, as a city where frightened people kept their head down, hoping to not draw the attention of the predators that slunk in every alley and prowled every subway car.
What’s amazing about Death Wish is that the film basically ends halfway through. Once Paul Kersey makes the decision to become a vigilante his arc ends. There is nothing else that Paul learns. He never feels bad. He never questions what he’s doing. He’s never faced with a tough choice. He just kills some more people and then gets away with it.
In a lot of ways that’s what makes the film’s message so disturbing. Kersey quickly escalates from shooting muggers he happens upon to actually inciting muggings by flashing big wads of cash in a seedy restaurant, and the movie’s totally okay with this. If anything the film finds the police taskforce assigned to catch him to be more than a little ridiculous. While Kersey is played by the tough as nails Charles Bronson, Detective Ochoa is played by the always faintly silly Vincent Gardenia. And it’s Ochoa who has the arc once Kersey begins killing; he comes to realize they can’t bring the guy in and that the vigilante is doing what the police never could.
That’s very explicit - a lot is made of the fact that the crime rate drops immediately in the aftermath of Kersey’s new career. In a more decent movie, this would be the set up for some kind of a twist, but Death Wish is essentially indecent. Kersey’s simply helping the city by killing scumbags. This, the movie says, is the only answer.
It’s all part of what makes Death Wish so unique. The film opens with Kersey and his wife coming home from a gorgeous, relaxing Hawaiian vacation. The picture postcard images are quickly replaced with the grey concrete and skies of New York City, where Kersey is informed by co-worker Sam Kreutzer of the latest crime statistics. There were some ungodly number of murders last week - 21 or something. Then comes this exchange:
Sam Kreutzer: You know, decent people are going to have to work here and live somewhere else.
Paul Kersey: By "decent people," you mean people who can afford to live somewhere else.
Sam Kreutzer: Oh Christ, you are such a bleeding-heart liberal, Paul.
Paul Kersey: My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged, yes.
Sam Kreutzer: The underprivileged are beating our goddamned brains out. You know what I say? Stick them in concentration camps, that's what I say.
In another movie Sam’s statement would be thoroughly refuted at the end. It’s a crazy statement, a totally over the top sentiment. But Death Wish being what it is ends essentially with Sam being right; the bleeding heart Kersey is not only proven wrong, he becomes the fascist tool of Sam’s impotent fantasy.
We could argue that Winner is in on it. The movie ends with Kersey leaving New York City at the insistence of the police; as soon as he gets to Chicago he sees a group of youths hassling people and he gives them a wink and a smile and points his fingers like a gun at them. It’s a moment that almost feels like the end of a horror movie, ripe with the promise that the monster will kill again... except that Kersey isn’t the monster. The moment rather plays like a small triumph; he’s cleaned up New York and now he’s going to help out Chicago.
Those toughs in Chicago are right in line with the film’s generally cartoonish view of criminals. One of them looks to have come directly from a production of Godspell; earlier in the movie one of the thugs who attacks Kersey’s wife and daughter is wearing a bona-fide Jughead hat (made sillier in the modern day by the fact that it’s a very young Jeff Goldblum). That trio of goons hops around a supermarket like five year olds on Pixie sticks, and when they get to the Kersey apartment the graffiti guy of the group just makes shaky lines with his spray can. Not only does he not tag, he actually says “Let me do a thing here,” as if screenwriter Wendell Mayes had no idea that there was something to call that. Just ‘doing a thing.’ Since Mayes was born in 1918, I suspect that he indeed had no fucking clue what youth culture, especially criminal youth culture, was about.
In many ways Death Wish is a hippie hangover movie. It’s set in the aftershocks of the Youth Revolution of the 60s, a time when social mores changed suddenly and drastically. The hooligans who attack Kersey’s wife and daughter are credited as “Freaks,” a nomenclature that calls back to the acid head days of the late 60s. The victims in Death Wish are older people, people who have seen society shift beneath their feet in truly disorienting ways. The aggressors are all young, dehumanized, extremist caricatures, with long hair and afros and often outrageous outfits.
Bronson’s perfect as Paul Kersey. His face, carved into his flesh like shrapnel wounds, is impassive and grim. His hair is like a Lego figure’s top, planted firmly in place. His eyes are lost in his squint, rendering him utterly unreadable, fully unknowable. He has that dad mustache stuck just about his thick-lipped mouth. He talks in a weird accent, like a meat packer or a guy who drowns people in Lake Erie. There’s a guttural Mid-Westernness to him mixed with an exotic Eastern European strain. He looks like he’s seen things. He looks like he will do things. Bad things.
Bronson’s career got started in Westerns, the film genre essentially eradicated by the Youth Revolution. Corny, square, racist Westerns were out, along with their ‘might makes right’ messages, becoming terminally uncool after Vietnam. It’s no mistake that Kersey’s weapon of choice was wielded on the frontier by another man making his own justice. This is the connection to the righteous past, the America that was, where chaos-sowing Indians could be put down and criminals were handily hanged. Kersey’s arc in Death Wish is the re-awakening of the Western hero, a return to the justice of The Magnificent Seven. Kersey doesn’t become uncivilized, isn’t degraded by his violence - he is purifying the lawless streets of New York City, pacifying it as surely as white men with guns had pacified the Apache.
Today we don’t hold Bronson as one of the great actors (despite Sergio Leone singing his praises), but his performance in Death Wish has an unexpected poignancy. Bronson usually played men of stone, characters who stomped through movies, but Paul Kersey is a guy who has pain... at least for a little while. It’s fascinating to see Kersey deal with the aftermath of his wife’s death; by giving us just a little bit (perhaps all he was capable of?), Bronson shows us deep wells of agony. He’s a member of the Greatest Generation, a taciturn cohort who kept their pain to themselves as they suffered the Great Depression and WWII. Bronson is, in many ways, their self-image, the tough man who goes to work right after the funeral. So when he cracks, even a little bit, it’s powerful. Bronson doesn’t need histrionics to play the emotion.
In fact Bronson’s grounded, bordering on affectless performance centers the movie. He’s the calm stone around which all the anarchic criminals dance. He’s the stolid face of serenity in defiance of the mad modern world. Everything has gone to shit around him and yet here he is, the granitic heart of reason. For Death Wish is a movie where the only reasonable response to the troubles of the modern world is to pick up a gun and thin out the predators.
Bronson’s performance anchors the film, but in 2012 Death Wish is notable for a number of actors who appear in minor, sometimes uncredited roles long before they were famous. Jeff Goldblum is the first face to jump out at the modern viewer, perfectly identifiable beneath that silly crown cap, his face a sweaty, bug-eyed mess. He’s got the physicality of a hyperactive praying mantis, all legs and arms and neck, careening about the screen as if unwilling to let one inch of the scenery go unbitten. He’s full of extraordinary energy; even if Goldblum hadn’t gone on to be someone, he’d be eternally memorable from this one role.
Harder to spot is Denzel Washington, making his uncredited film debut. He’s one of a trio of alley muggers beating up an old black man (this is part of the film’s attempt to be racially progressive. The old black man stands up for the white guy who just gunned down three black youths - you know Kersey must be righteous). Denzel has a tire iron, and he gets shot right in the heart.
That scene, by the way, is among the most troubling in the film. We can agree with Kersey’s initial motivation, as he simply stumbles upon a truly vicious mugging. And the scene is set like a Western, with the players approaching each other not down a dusty frontier street but a gritty city alley. Yes, Kersey outguns them, literally, as none of the three have a firearm, but there’s a sense of justice there - these bullies have met a bigger bully. Where the scene gets strange, and discomforting, is when one of the three muggers attempts to run. Kersey shoots him right in the back.
Paul Dooley and Olympia Dukakis both make minor appearances as cops as well; Dooley, who would go on to appear in some seminal 80s films like Sixteen Candles, actually has lines. Dukakis is just a cop in a squad room.
The final future famous person is Christopher Guest, whose appearance is almost utterly distracting. While Goldblum’s moment is very obvious to the modern viewer, everything about his sequence is so insane (“Goddamn rich cunt! I kill rich cunts!” is an example of his dignified dialogue), Guest shows up in a quieter role, as a beat cop who comes upon an injured Paul Kersey at the end of the film. It’s the quiet nature of Guest’s part that makes you begin to think something incredibly funny is going to happen, like he’s playing it all deadpan until something truly ridiculous breaks out. Every line he says gets run through a Waiting For Guffman filter in your head, and you parse every turn of phrase as a possible put-on. It doesn’t help that Guest looks swamped beneath an enormous NYPD cap.
Death Wish isn’t a particularly great movie, cinematically. I’ve read that Michael Winner chose his shots on the day, did little to no pre-planning, and preferred to get things done in two takes, if that. It’s a workman approach to the process, a blue collar filmmaking that might appeal to the very people who ate the movie up. As a result of Winner’s essential disinterest in art, Death Wish is a wildly uneven movie, one that has serious lulls as the main story chugs along in between moments when the film is actually engaged.
Some of those scenes are the killings Kersey commits when he gets back to New York, but the most fascinating for me might be the sequences in Tucson. Sent there by his bosses to get out of town, Tucson is where Kersey acquires his gun and finds his purpose. But what’s interesting - and one of the few hints that Winner is having us on - is that Kersey gets his inspiration in a fake Wild West town, watching a put-on Wild West show where bandits get their comeuppance in the dirt street. Is Winner commenting on Kersey’s quest, showing it to inspired by phoniness?
That scene is followed by a scene at a gun club where Kersey shoots a target with amazing accuracy. There’s winking going on here - one of the posters on the wall of the gun club appears to be for Winner’s own Western, Lawman*, whose villain has the last name Bronson. That’s a righteous revenge film as well. Is Winner telling us that he thinks the whole thing is silly? In the film's final shoot out Kersey has completely become an Old West gunfighter, telling the thug who shot him in the leg, “Fill your hand,” which the post-60s kid doesn’t even understand.
These scenes that pop stand out amidst valleys of disinterest. It’s unclear why Winner even has the son-in-law character (Kersey’s only remaining non-vegetative familu) in the movie; his whining doesn’t present an interesting counterpoint to Kersey’s transformation into a vigilante. He’s there just to feed Kersey the line “We have to let the cops handle this!” The one good scene featuring the son-in-law comes when he visits Kersey for dinner and finds the man, who has begun killing crooks, in the highest of spirits. There’s music on the record player, the living room has been repainted a vulgar color and Kersey is cooking up a storm. He’s not grieving, he’s working out his issues with bullets. It’s a good, funny, weird moment.
The music on that hifi comes from Herbie Hancock, who Winner found when his girlfriend gave him the seminal album Head Hunters (just to add a layer of oddness to it all, Winner’s girlfriend was on Sesame Street, whose neighborhood set looked like Paul Kersey could have been walking down the sidewalk - perhaps gunning for a Grouch). Hancock’s score is discordant and atmospheric, especially in the frantic final number, Fill Your Hand. It’s the sound of madness on the 2 train.
That music plays perfectly over Death Wish’s nightmare New York, created not just in content but in image. Cinematographer Arthur J. Ortiz, who would shoot some other wonderful street-level New York City stuff in movies like Serpico and Next Stop, Greenwich Village, makes the city almost impressionistic. City blocks end in blackness, like every scene is caged by encroaching darkness. Every location scene is so textured you can feel the dirt between your fingers.
Death Wish was a huge success, and spawned a series of sequels. It rocketed Charles Bronson to the top of the B-movie business. Bronson and director Winner had made a trio of films before Death Wish, and together they would bring back Paul Kersey two more times. Winner went out on top, with the totally gonzo Death Wish 3 (which certainly deserves its own write-up); Bronson came back for two more, bringing the series to five entries. The very weak Death Wish V was Bronson’s final theatrical role, and it was released 20 years after the first film.
It’s interesting that Death Wish can be read as a response to another movie, and not just a riff on Westerns. The assault on Kersey’s family echoes the Singing In the Rain assault from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s film was released only a year before Garfield’s novel and three years before the film; Winner must have had that movie on his mind when he staged his home invasion. In Kubrick’s movie Mr. Alexander, the novelist whose wife is raped, gets his revenge on Alex. In Death Wish Kersey never finds the men who killed his wife, but if he did it’s hard to imagine the revenge sequence having the same queasy feeling as A Clockwork Orange’s. Where Kubrick argues that chaos and crime are an inextricable part of free will, Winner isn’t interested in high-falutin’ philosophy and argues that chaos and crime can be stamped out through judicious use of violence. Alex’s mental neutering is a horror in A Clockwork Orange; in Death Wish it would only make him an easier target for Paul Kersey.
Critics hated Death Wish, but the movie spoke to audiences. It’s not hard to see why. Even now it’s easy to get sucked up into the macho mythology of the vigilante gunslinger; the movie presents no competing theories on how to deal with the problem of crime. Nobody talks about bad schools or troubled social services or a class system inherently designed to keep people down while dangling gold and goods just in front of their faces. The criminals are just thugs, bullies, assholes, unrepentant monsters as facelessly disposable as Indians in Westerns or zombies in the modern day. Kersey’s first kill is a junkie in the park, a guy who is obviously going through some serious withdrawal, and the film flirts with making you feel his pain, but it settles on just letting his detox pains signify him as a crazed other.
We want to see bad guys get it. It’s enjoyable. We live lives where the bad guys don’t get it, and we spend our days frustrated at what seems like a real paucity of justice in the world. The legal system is slow, and it feels stacked against the victims. The truth is that we don’t want justice, we want vengeance. You see it time and again with high-profile crimes, the kinds that get Nancy Grace’s seat all soaked, the kinds where we’re all judging from a distance, sure that we know better than the jury. The legal protections put in place to keep us safe from lynch mobs become the enemy, which is a completely crazy way of looking at it, but we’re not rational when it comes to this stuff.
Death Wish hits us right in the part of the brain that we inherited from the small mammals who shared the land with big, scary predators. The little monkeys of that time must have hooted in happiness when a saber-tooth tiger sank into some prehistoric peat bog, just as we hoot in happiness when Paul Kersey mows down junkies and creeps. The mental process here is exactly the same as in Nazi Germany - those being killed are not victims, but rather some kind of monster, an aggressor.
I still love it. It’s cleansing to watch films like this. Even the most high-minded liberals among us will, when faced with a crime committed against them, feel the tug of the primitive bloodlust. It boils up on its own; you want to hurt those who have hurt you. Watching a movie like Death Wish is a wonderful way of working through those feelings, of having a surrogate take action in a fictional environment so that we can try, best as we can, to keep the civilization thing going.
Of course the line between reality and fiction can be blurred. A decade after the release of Death Wish the crime rate in New York City had not improved - it had gotten much worse. While the economy had rebounded (the rise of the financial markets in the early 80s paved the way for a 90s renaissance), the city’s decline continued apace. Taking the subway was essentially a managed risk - you knew there was a better than average chance you’d be assaulted in some way, you simply weighed it against the need to get someplace, be it for work or for fun.
Bernhard Goetz was one of the millions who took the train every day, one of the millions feeling the oppressive weight of fear and crime. One day Goetz, a weedy nerd type, snapped, shooting four alleged muggers on the subway. One of them he shot in the back. Another he shot twice (missing once), by his own testimony saying to the man ‘You don’t look too bad., here’s another.’ Bernie Goetz was Paul Kersey come to life.
And like Kersey, Goetz became something of a folk hero. An all-white jury acquitted him of attempted murder charges (he served a few months for having an unlicensed handgun). In 2001 he ran for Mayor of New York City, in 2005 for Public Advocate. He still pops up in TV shows and movies every now and again. Time has been less kind to the men he shot; one of them committed suicide last year on the 27th anniversary of the shooting. Real life is rarely as satisfying as the movies.
Death Wish is in the early stages of being remade by Joe Carnahan. As is usually the case in these remakes, Carnahan claims his version will stick closer to the book. That’s often a load of crap, but it’ll be interesting if the filmmaker sticks to that statement. Garfield’s book doesn’t lionize Kersey the way the film does, so Carnahan’s version could be fundamentally different, thematically. I'm also interested in how a 21st century Death Wish handles New York City, now one of the safest big cities in the world. Even post-Disneyfication, the city does maintain a mythological edginess, so perhaps Carnahan will set it in an alternate reality version of New York.
In that alternate reality perhaps a different version of Death Wish made it to screens. Originally Sidney Lumet was to direct, and he wanted Jack Lemmon to play Paul Kersey. The image this brings to mind is instantly 180 degrees from the hardness of Bronson, the casual violence of Winner. But that hardness, that casual violence, is what makes the movie work. We come to Death Wish with the baggage and neuroses of modern life, of city living, of a world gone mad all around us, and the film kindly accepts our most morally repugnant fantasies, relieving us of the guilt. Paul Kersey is our sin eater.
* Caught by Christopher Sorrentino, whose Deep Focus book on Death Wish is required reading.