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Death Wish (1974)
26th Feb 11
In the 70’s moviegoers at last learned the answer to two burning questions: 1) How do you get chubby Shelley Winters up a very tall Christmas tree on an upside-down cruise ship (c.f. The Poseidon Adventure for the results) and 2) What does Charles Bronson look like when he’s really really angry (answer : he looks exactly the same as when he’s quietly contented, but even if you’ve just committed a menial crime like stealing a Crème Egg from Tescos, he will shoot you in the face, twice).
Michael Winner, last seen plunging to his death on a stagecoach in John Landis’ Burke And Hare, has a few genuine embarrassments on his C.V., including the Michael Caine movie (Bullseye) that is shockingly worse than Jaws The Revenge on every conceivable level. He is also, however, the man responsible for awesome 70’s schlock-horror The Sentinel, a rollicking stand-out in that decade’s occult cycle and the only entertainment of the period to feature masturbating lesbians, real circus freaks and Jeff Goldblum in a contained 90 minute period.
Although, after the initial assault, Death Wish is no more violent than the average modern western (of which Winner made a few), it remains notorious for the censorship wrangles it encountered, the four contentious sequels it spawned, and the wave of vigilante flicks it helped usher in. If his later movies were arduous to sit through, Winner has always been a chap to rely on to defend cinema violence and take a stance against the moral crusaders whenever the media has worked itself into a “Ban-This-Filth” type frenzy. And the original Death Wish has a pleasingly gritty 1970’s ambience that extends to Herbie Hancock’s score, which instills menace even in the innocuous early scenes of Paul Kersey (Bronson) in bed with his wife or driving through New York City.
When revisiting Death Wish you realise that Winner - who made six films with Charles Bronson - was never a filmmaker to get bogged down in exposition. There’s just a few minutes of niceties and character intros before the audience is pummelled with one of the most distressing scenes of a movie decade full of such distressing scenes. Hope Lange sets the tone for Thankless Female Roles in Death Wish movies as Bronson’s nice wife, seen early on enjoying a nice holiday in Hawaii at a nice time of the year. Architect Bronson - a “conscientious objector” in the medical corps during the Korean War - is referred to by a work colleague as a “bleeding heart liberal”. The same colleague bemoans New York’s out-of-control crime rate, offering a simple solution : “stick ‘em in concentration camps, I say”.
The guy doesn’t realise that the mild-mannered Bronson, who became a major star at an unlikely age with this movie and then got typecast in vigilante roles in and out of the series, will soon follow the trend set by the hitherto pacifist likes of Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs and the Collingwoods in The Last House On The Left. Like those domesticated parents and husbands, and like Clint Eastwood’s then-fresh screen icon Harry Callahan, Bronson will be driven to extreme measures when the system fails him at a crucial point.
These days New York City in American mainstream cinema is represented most often in sentimental, romanticised terms whether it be by association with Woody Allen or 9/11. In Death Wish it is immediately established as an unsafe place to be at any time of the day. A very skinny, very young Jeff Goldblum (career soon to peak with The Sentinel, go check it out!) and his gang of callous thugs wreak havoc in a supermarket and decide to follow home two vulnerable female customers : Lange and her daughter.
The subsequent home invasion sequence is very brief compared to the assault / humiliation set pieces in Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave but it is suitably unpleasant and undeniably powerful. Beaten to the ground, mom is kicked repeatedly in the head as she powerlessly watches her daughter being stripped, spray painted on her bare arse, molested and raped. Goldblum, just a few cinematic months after Regan’s obscenities in The Exorcist added to that film’s shock value, shouts at Lange “Goddam rich cunt, I kill rich cunts!”. The upshot of all this outrage is Lange’s death in hospital soon after and her daughter surviving in an irrevocably traumatised state. The best reassurance the cops can offer Bronson when he asks if they will catch the gang of irredeemable thugs is “There’s a chance…”. Who knew that this throwaway solitary line will trigger an endless cycle of revenge movies.
Bronson, a largely unemotional and one-note figure in the sequels, and an unforgettable vengeance-seeking figure in the earlier Once Upon A Time In The West, underplays his then-established tough-guy image here. This ensures that, when he punches a would-be mugger in the street (his first action enroute to becoming The Vigilante), we can believe he needs a stiff drink right after. Bronson’s transformation into an avenging angel in this first chapter isn’t easy : the first “creep” he shoots down writhes around in agony rather than perishing instantly like a bad guy in a western. Our hero’s first response to his initial kill is to run home and vomit - about as human a reaction as you could conceive. The actor convinces here in a role that would later lapse into the realm of aged comic book hero, any emotional connection to the audience lost by the time his daughter gets raped again in the nastier, even more cynical Death Wish 2.
Winner presents a vividly, almost comically, grim vision of N.Y.C. as a wintry toilet on the verge of complete chaos. The cops are inept and ineffectual : in a bid to avoid other citizens following the trend set by Bronson, the commissioner unconvincingly asserts that murder is not the answer to the crime problem and lies by noting muggings haven’t gone down since the vigilante rampage. Police chief Vincent Gardenia - cursed with a bad cold and always puffing on a cigar - finds his bosses yearning to keep the crime statistics declining and unofficially wanting Bronson to continue his work. Other would-be victims begin striking back, with old women fending off attackers with hat pins. Typical dinner party conversations revolve around The Vigilante, including debate about whether or not he’s racist : “More muggers are blacks than whites…” posits one defender.
There is substantially more thoughtfulness about the state of contemporary U.S.A. in Death Wish than in its cartoonish sequels. A sequence in a fake Wild West town, with tourists cheering on a staged shoot-out, not only overtly makes the obvious parallel between modern New York and the Old West, but also unsubtly comments on how violence has become such an integral part of our lives, in entertainment and reality. In Tuscon, Arizona, Bronson learns that here, in “gun country”, folks can walk the streets safe at night : “A gun is just a tool, like a hammer or an axe…”.
Ultimately, Winner makes no secret of where his sympathies lie and how he wants the audience to feel about vigilantism : despite the greater efforts at presenting the bigger picture, the movie’s core entertainment value - and that of the films that followed from Death Wish 3 to Harry Brown - is in watching a fifty-something man wiping out the street scum we all wish we were tough enough to confront. Any ambiguity about Bronson’s actions, three years after Dirty Harry, has faded long before the jokey closing image, as the cops let him quietly disappear to Chicago.
For over two decades the BBFC refused Death Wish a video certificate, eventually letting it loose with an 18 rating at the end of the 1990’s, with cuts to the home invasion scene (including the removal of nudity and the paint spraying). These days, it’s uncut on DVD and even shows up in full on UK TV from time to time, where it seems disarmingly tame in comparison to, say, the TV series of This Is England, but still holds up and has that distinctively downbeat 70’s edge.