A middle-aged husband and wife frolic on a tropical beach, very much in love and having a blast. As they fall into each others’ arms, the wife asks her husband if he’d like to go back to their hotel room. “What about right here?”, he slyly asks. She rebuffs hims gently, reminding him that they’re “civilized now.” With a small sigh, the husband responds: “I remember when we weren’t.” Far from being just a wistful rumination on the trials of aging and the permanence of love, however, this reminder of our civilization has a far different meaning: we are civilized now…but at what price? For, you see, this isn’t just any tale of love (whether found, lost or unrequited). This, after all, is Michael Winner’s incendiary, though-provoking Death Wish (1974), one of the most popular, bracing meditations on vigilantism ever brought to the big screen. While it may have eventually turned into a rather silly action franchise, the original film is powerful, painful and asks the kind of questions that we, as a society, don’t usually like to ask: How far would you go to protect your loved ones? How many would you kill to avenge them?
The husband in the opening, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), is a loving family man, architect and “bleeding heart liberal,” at least as far as his co-workers are concerned. He shares a modest little home with his wife, Joanna (Hope Lange), and has a grown daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), who’s happily married to Jack (Steven Keats). In most ways, Paul is living the American dream. He’s also living in New York City in the mid-’70s, however, several decades before Times Square morphed into a family-friendly playground. As his co-worker, Sam (William Redfield), is only too happy to point out, there were 15 murders in the city while Paul was on vacation: if it were up to Sam, he’d “put all of the underprivileged into concentration camps.” It’s a war-zone and they need more cops…but no one will pay for them. Paul brushes it all off, knowing in his heart that punishment and confinement won’t do anything to stem the tide: you need to attack the core problems, deal with the crushing poverty, disenfranchisement and isolation that lead desperate people to commit crimes. For Paul, there are no lost causes, just people who have given up the fight.
Paul receives the ultimate test of his convictions, however, when his wife and daughter become the victims of terrible crimes within the “safety” of his own home: after a vicious gang of punks (led by a very young Jeff Goldblum, in his first acting role, wearing a ridiculous Jughead hat) follow her and Carol back their place, the monsters beat Joanna and brutally gang-rape Carol. When Joanna ends up dying from her injuries and Carol is reduced to a catatonic state, Paul sees his entire world (and everything he believes in) come crashing to the ground. When the police tell him that there’s “always a chance” that they’ll catch the animals responsible for the crimes but “just a chance,” the message is loud and clear: in this world, you really are on your own. Paul decides to head out into the night, wielding a roll of quarters in a sock. After a would-be mugger receives a sockful of quarters to the face and flees (his expression is priceless), Paul suddenly feels like a million bucks: he’s been reborn, reconnected with his “primitive roots” and rampages about his home like a frat boy on a bender. Taking charge of your life, as we see, is a helluva drug.
After Paul’s company sends him to Tucson, Arizona, to work on a project, the next step in his “evolution” begins. Paul meets Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a well-spoken, folksy and intelligent local land developer who’s a study in contrasts. He’s an uber-wealthy individual who wants to keep as much of the desert intact as possible, even if it means cutting into his profit margin. He’s a plain-spoken, quiet man who becomes a friend (and father-figure) to Paul. He’s also, perhaps most importantly, an outspoken supporter of the NRA and a gun enthusiast. After taking his “citified” friend to a shooting range, Aimes is surprised and delighted to discover that Paul is actually a crack-shot: he did grow up a hunter, after all, even if he hasn’t touched a gun since his father was killed in a hunting accident. “Somebody once said he never looked back, because something was gaining on him. What’s gaining on you, Paul?,” Aimes asks, although we already know: Paul’s primal self is gaining on him…and looks set to take the lead.
Upon returning home, Paul opens a mysterious wrapped package from Aimes and discovers that his friend has given him a gun: time to hit the streets and take back the city. As Paul walks his own nightly beat of the city, baiting and gunning down the muggers, creeps and thugs who rule the night, the NYPD finds themselves with a bit of a problem: they seem to have a vigilante on their hands…and the locals love it. Soon, Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is in a bit of a bind: the crime rate is plummeting, civilians have become emboldened to take matters into their own hands (whether a hat-pin wielding granny or a mob of irate construction workers) and the unknown vigilante is becoming a bit of a folk hero. As the Police Commissioner (Stephen Elliot) and District Attorney (Fred Scollay) pressure Lt. Ochoa to “deal with” the issue, Paul goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, putting his own life (and freedom) in jeopardy, all in his desperate quest to clean up his city and bring some meaning to the pointless death of his wife and abuse of his daughter.
In a way, Death Wish and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) are a matched-set: both came around early in the ’70s, when the crime rate in metropolitan cities was on the rise; both films spawned franchises that became, over time, increasingly silly and action-oriented; both films take extremely black-and-white views on criminals (spoiler: they all suck); and both films see pacifism and anything short of Draconian law enforcement techniques as wins for the “bad guys.” In many ways, however, Death Wish is the much more subtle and intriguing of the two (although I’ll go to the grave calling Dirty Harry one of the single best films in the convoluted history of cinema), mostly because Bronson’s Paul Kersey is much more sympathetic and “relatable” than Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan. While Dirty Harry is, for all intents and purposes, an “action hero,” Paul Kersey is a broken, sad man who’s attempting to regain control of his life. Whereas Dirty Harry comes into everything with a cynical attitude (when we first meet him, he’s got a sneer on his lips and an implied eye-roll that most teens would kill for), Paul actually begins in a place of love and acceptance, before being hardened and made “feral” by the evils of the world. At the beginning, there is no joy for Paul in killing the muggers: he celebrates clocking the first guy with his “club” but pukes his guts out when he actually shoots his first bad-guy.
Despite Paul’s initial reluctance to kill, however, it’s important to note one thing: at no point in time do the filmmakers ever hedge their bets or waffle on their initial premise. Death Wish is very much about what happens when “civilization” fails and “good people” are forced to resort to brutal tactics. Although the police are usually depicted as being fairly benevolent in the film (especially the character of Lt. Ochoa), they’re never portrayed as particularly effective. In this case, the message is pretty clear: buy into the fantasy about “law and order/punishment/rehabilitation” and get wasted or take matters into your own hands and survive. At the beginning, Sam’s hardcore conservative bent seems to be played for laughs (this is the guy who advocates putting the “less fortunate” into concentration camps, after all, which seems kinda…well…bat-shit crazy) but we’re later given a much more reasonable, well-spoken advocate for a similarly hard-line approach: Aimes Jainchill. Not only is Aimes one of the most well-spoken, charismatic characters in the film, he’s also an avowed gun enthusiast and avid supporter of the NRA. In one of the film’s least subtle scenes, Aimes takes Paul to an Old West gunfight re-enactment, where we get the necessary reinforcement about law and order back in the “good ol’ days.” As Aimes explains to Paul, the West is much safer than New York City: out here, you can just carry a gun and blow away the bad guys, before they get a chance to harm you.
This, then, becomes the true focus for the film: when society has degraded to the point where the traditional mechanisms of law and order no longer work, men and women must take the law into their own hands. At one point, Paul argues with his incredibly ineffectual son-in-law about the ramifications of self-defense versus “cutting and running.” “If we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when faced with a condition of fear, run and hide?” “Civilized?,” Jack responds. Paul snorts, derisively, shaking his head: “No.” The point is clear: you can only back away for so long before you get pushed into a corner. Paul has decided to be pro-active and shoot his way out of the corner.
While the film does nothing to obscure its ultimate premise, it actually functions as a more thought-provoking than didactic. For one, the film is quite clear to spell out the inherent limitations of revenge/vigilantism: namely, people are humans and humans make lots and lots of mistakes. It’s not difficult to cheer on the old lady who wards off a would-be mugger with a hat-pin but it becomes a little fuzzier when we get to the construction crew that chases down and enthusiastically “subdues” a would-be purse-snatcher. This, of course, is the gray line between legitimate “policing” and “retribution.” It’s quite interesting to note, in addition, that Paul never actually gets to kill the punks who destroyed his family: he shoots several people in the course of the film but we never get to see him take revenge on those particular individuals. In a way, perhaps this is the film’s most subtle critique against vigilantism: ultimately, it can do nothing to bring back the dead.
Craftwise, Death Wish is gritty, tightly paced and well-acted. Bronson, obviously, is one of the chief draws here and he manages to blend just the right amount of “average, everyday Joe” with “steel-eyed, flinty killer.” There’s a reason why Bronson has always been considered one of the “old guard” of classic cinematic tough guys, along with Clint Eastwood: there’s a vulnerability to him that’s never completely subsumed by the fire inside. He’s the epitome of the retired gunslinger, called back into battle for “one last fight,” and his world-weariness marks a potent contrast to wise-cracking action heroes like Bruce Willis or Ahnald. The rest of the cast provides able support, with Vincent Gardenia being nearly a match for Bronson, as the equally world-weary but much more cynical Lt. Ochoa. His police-station address to his officers as the vigilante story blows up across the city is great (“We want to tell the American public that we’re looking for this vigilante and have definite clues…we just don’t want to tell them that we have about a thousand definite clues.”) and Gardenia goes a long way towards putting a human face on the issue of law enforcement.
Unlike many popular “action” films, there’s a dark, disagreeable heart that beats deep within Death Wish. The film is not simply one visceral thwarted mugging after another and, on occasion, can be downright difficult to watch. In particular, the scene where the punks bust into the apartment and attack Joanna and Carol is almost impossible to sit through: the rape scene is just as terrible, violent and graphic as any that came before or after (in particular, I was reminded of the rape in Irreversible (2002) and the pain and fear is almost too “real” for a fictional film. Similarly, many of the scenes where Paul “defends” himself are skewed to be more about chaotic activity than cinematic “badassery” – Paul is no trained killer, after all, but just your average dude.
For all of its lasting power, there are still several issues that I have with Death Wish. While the film is always careful to take a more even-handed approach, there really aren’t any viable viewpoints on display, save the call for vigilantism. The police are never portrayed as effective (at one point, they seem to send a whole squad-room to tail Paul, which seems a little stupid since, you know, there’s all that other increased crime to deal with) and any arguments for pacifism pretty much begin and end with the cowardly Jack, one of the most simpering creations in modern cinema. There’s also no blurring of the line regarding Paul’s actions: even if he baits his victims, each and every one of them obviously has it coming. At one point, Paul even steps in to prevent a group of men from assaulting another: his vigilantism is always more effective than law-and-order, mostly because the argument in the film is so one-sided.
From a filmmaking perspective, I found the film’s score (composed, conducted and performed by Herbie Hancock) to be rather underwhelming and, occasionally, completely baffling. Whereas something moody and bluesy, like the score for Dirty Harry, would have helped to pull out the emotion, Hancock’s score is too often experimental and propulsive, sort of like discordant cocktail jazz. While I have nothing but respect for Hancock, I can’t help but feeling this wasn’t his finest hour. There were also a number of scenes (in particular the repellent rape scene and the Old West shootout) that seemed to go on forever: whereas there’s probably a spurious claim to be made regarding the overall impact of the rape scene, the shootout scene makes its point early and then beats it into the ground for what seems like an hour. It went on for so long, in fact, that my mind wandered from the actual film and began to consider the intense irony of veteran Western actor Bronson appearing in a film where he played a modern man watching an Old West gunfight. As a rule, the scene’s not working if you have the opportunity to ponder the metaphysics of the actor involved, rather than the actual scene, itself.
Ultimately, Death Wish is one of those rare films that’s managed to lose very little of its original power as the passage of time puts it more and more in the rear-view mirror of life. Unlike the increasingly insipid (if much more action-packed) sequels, the original Death Wish is a film that asks some very serious questions (In an increasingly “civilized” world, what happens when you need to become “uncivilized”? When does “retribution” become murder? If the police can’t protect you, does that mean you get to do whatever it takes to protect yourself? Can criminals be rehabilitated or is a bullet to the brain the best we can hope for?). If the movie already has its answers lined up (the film makes no bones about the fact that it is, in some ways, a love letter to the NRA), it at least has the courage to ask them in the first place. If you’re one of the people who grew up thinking that Death Wish was simply a one-dimensional, gunpowder-scented, revenge fantasy, you owe it to the film to give it another look. Regardless of which side of the law-and-order debate you land on, Death Wish has been fostering conversations and discussions for the past 40 years: as our “civilized” society keeps evolving, I can only imagine that it will continue to be relevant for the next 40 years, as well.