The Film: 'Death Wish' (1974), Dir. Michael Winner
Starring: Charles "More Man Than You'll Ever Be" Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia and Baby Jeff Goldblum.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Wait -- I haven't seen it? But I've seen dozens of movies that have completely ripped it off, stealing everything that supposedly makes it work, most likely dulling its edges and making what was unique at the time feel woefully generic to a modern viewer. Doesn't that count? No? That's unfair? Okay, fine. I'll watch it.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: Charles Bronson is your average, ordinary man, a nice guy with a job and a family and comfortable home in a nice enough neighborhood. That is, until gangsters invade his house and murder his family and get away scot-free after a woefully apathetic and corrupt 1970s New York police force don't do a thing about it. What's a man to do? Well, that's obvious -- he buys a gun and takes the law into his own hands. And since he's Charles Bronson, he not only wins the day and devours an icy dish of bloodthirsty revenge, he does so in style.
Maybe I'm getting the little details wrong, but that's pretty much the plot of 'Death Wish,' isn't it? Although certainly not the first film to deal with a man on a quest for vengeance -- the western had been doing this kind of thing for decades -- it's undoubtedly one of the most famous films of its kind. The poster depicting a pistol-wielding Bronson is iconic and when you think of vigilantes running amuck in the nightmare that was 1970s New York (well, at least in the movies), you most likely think of 'Death Wish.'
But what kind of tone should I be expecting? This is a genre that got run through the wringer in the 1980s and the results weren't pretty. The sheer number of ordinary-man-loses-everything-and-goes-on-a-rampage movies is mind boggling and, let's not kid ourselves, most of them are pretty awful. They're silly and shallow and offer little-to-nothing to chew on. The concept of vigilantism is inherently cinematic (One man against the system! One man against the odds!), but most films that deal with the subject are just simple action movies. Sure, not every movie can be 'Taxi Driver' (which is, let's face it, the best vigilante movie ever made), but that film's depiction of a diseased mind going to war with the local criminal element brings true horror and craft to this genre, giving us something more to say than just "Badass!"
Is 'Death Wish' just a plain jane action movie or did the freewheeling, studio-hands-off spirit of 1970s film rub off on it, making it a film that justifies that iconic poster and is capable of inspiring actual discussion? Has it survived nearly four decades of cheap rip-offs and carbon copies? I'm about to find out.
Oh, and while I'm here ... there are five 'Death Wish' movies? How many families can this guy lose? There's a point when you have to realize you're a death magnet and just give up on that whole relationship thing. You won't have to do all that avenging if you just stop marrying people, Charles.
Post-Viewing Reaction: Action movies are, by their very nature, irresponsible. Sure, we love movie gunfights and car chases and stories of men and women standing up for what's right behind the barrel of a smoking gun, but is it the kind of behavior we'd tolerate in real life? We may love watching Detective Riggs and Murtaugh bicker and banter as they destroy half of the city on their quest for justice in the 'Lethal Weapon' films, but would we actually want those guys on our streets? If you value your safety and property, the answer is probably no.
I'm not going to decry Hollywood's romanticizing of violence -- because movie violence kicks ass -- but the actual nuts and bolts of getting in a gun battle or killing a man with your bare hands, well, I can only imagine what that actually feels like, but I'm pretty sure it's a terrifying, desperate struggle, not a fist pumping action beat. Selling violence as excitement makes for great cinema, but it does little to capture the harsh reality of it.
Which brings us to 'Death Wish,' which is a special kind of beast. Like much of its action brethren, it's ludicrously irresponsible, presenting a protagonist who finds fulfillment after the death of his wife by roaming around town shooting muggers to death, but at the same time, the film presents his situation as a genuine dilemma for citizens and the police. His actions have lowered crime rates and encouraged other potential victims to fight back, but he is breaking the law and committing murder. How could you possible arrest a man who's making headway in the war on crime when the men in blue have essentially stagnated?
The film ultimately seems to fall squarely on the "Rah, rah! Shoot them muggers, Chuck!" side of the argument, but to the film's benefit, it does makes the violence harsh and ugly rather than exciting. There is little that feels heroic about Paul Kersey's (Bronson) actions when we see them actually played out. No big shootouts, very little tough talk ... just a lot of shooting surprised-looking junkie criminals in the chest.
Let's get this out there: action heroes are fascist fantasies, which clearly presents exactly why fascism is such a problem. From the outside, it may look romantic, it may look like the best way to stay safe, but soon enough, you get sucked in and only then do you realize that you've made a huge mistake. One of the troubling things about 'Death Wish' is that the film directly confronts this accusation, rather than sidestep it like most action movies do, and finds Paul Kersey perfectly in the right. At the start of the film, Kersey is a bleeding heart liberal, but soon he "sees the light," picks up a gun and does a 180 in the personal beliefs department. Did director Michael Winner actually believe this or is he doing a fine job selling it? Either way, the film's decision to dwell on these aspects keep it interesting, fresh even, giving us room to condemn the film's slightly reprehensible message if we choose to.
Interestingly, much of Kersey's inspiration for his crusade comes from a business trip to Arizona, where a client takes him to see a Wild West stunt show and gives him a .32 pistol as a gift. It's a model he follows to the tee, even at one point telling a potential victim to "fill his hand," as if he's John Wayne getting ready to ride at him from the other side of an open field. Perhaps Kersey is less of a fascist and more of a cowboy? Or are the two interlinked at some subterranean level that is not instantly visible to the naked eye? Perhaps the dangerous streets of New York are comparable to lawless west, where men had to take matters into their own hands to preserve their existence. One man's fascist is another man's cowboy ... a message that feels just at home in a discussion about modern American politics as it does in discussions about 'Death Wish.'
Potentially dangerous message aside, 'Death Wish' is a helluva lot of fun. It's a breezy ninety minutes and while it's impossible to buy Bronson as a liberal family man, he remains unmatched as a silent, icy killer. There's an old adage that I just made up that goes something like this: "If you want a face that can sell years of weary, coldly suppressed rage, cast Charles Bronson." Because he doesn't look like a movie star and because he looks like a weirdo who'd break your jaw if you looked at him funny, there is a real threat in Bronson's performance, a reality that can only come with that mug. It's a shame that the four 'Death Wish' sequels -- I still can't believe they made five of these things -- seem to devolve into standard action movies filled with machine guns and explosions and action set pieces. The small scale, human violence here, coupled with Bronson's understated (although not actually good in the regular sense of the word) performance, makes 'Death Wish' a grimy, wicked little actioner that reeks of post-1960s disillusionment and 1970s desperation.
It's no 'Taxi Driver,' but it'll do.
Next Week's Column: To be perfectly honest, I was expecting the undisputed classic 'On the Waterfront' to be the clear cut winner for next week, but your votes proved otherwise. The John Hughes '80s favorite 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' was the winner by a landslide, so look for that one next week. In the meantime, peruse the master list and vote for what I should watch after that. Cast your votes in the comments or, if you prefer, vote by sending a message my way on Twitter!
'On the Waterfront'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'Return to Oz'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'