Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974)

by Douglas Buck Volume 22, Issue 11 / November 2018 10 minutes (2332 words) Blu Ray

“Christ, I don’t know. There ought to be some way to get these animals off the streets before they can have a chance to do things like this. With all the technology we’ve developed you’d think there’d be some way to test them psychologically. Weed out the dangerous ones and treat them.”

“A couple of hundred thousand addicts in the streets, Pop – who can afford to treat every one of them as long as we go on spending seventy percent of the budget beefing up weapons to overkill the rest of the world?”

-bereft accountant Paul Benjamin and his fairly rational sounding son-in-law (though slightly off from the current numbers — US military spending is at 54% but it’s still to the staggering tune of 600 billion dollars a year… which equals a LOT of filthy, blood rich weapons dealers around the world) after the senseless and brutal attack on their family.

“These young scum grow up in a welfare state where they see that violence goes unpunished and the old virtues are for stupid pious fools. These radicals keep arsenals in their attics and advocate the overthrow of an economic system which has graduated more people out of poverty than any other system in history. They arm themselves to attack honest hard-working citizens like you and me, and to shoot down beleaguered policemen, and what happens? The public is propagandized into outrage over the behaviour of the police in defending themselves and the public!”

-senior accounting partner Ives, who manages to mash together, in one paranoid screed, progressive politics, loose parenting, street crime, the rise of radical organizations like the Black Panthers, the victimization of New York’s Finest and perhaps even a whiff of communism into one uninformed reactionary container ready to explode and take out all those poor innocents New Yorkers just trying to pay their taxes and live the American dream…

I remember quite clearly in the 70’s and into the 80’s grabbing the morning paper, Newsday, from wherever my father had cast it off before leaving for work… and turning with fascination to the daily tally of victims officially listed as having been murdered, or found murdered, in the previous 24 hours in New York City. The sheer mounting numbers (and the little blurb they’d have detailing each incident) fed both my slightly obsessive compulsive desire to catalogue things, and my morbid curiosity, dripping in sensationalistic presentation as it was (while disguised as valuable journalistic information, of course – not selling fear, at all… uh uh… we swear). At that time, over a thousand people a year were getting violently offed in the Big Apple.

I remember wondering, from the relative safety and comfort of my Long Island suburban hovel, why everyone seemed so obsessed about it though, acting as if they were under siege, when it was very clear the vast majority of the murders were taking place in primarily minority inhabited drug and crime infested zones like the Bronx and Brooklyn (which, I know sounds hard to believe, once was dotted with areas that looked more like war zones than living communities, without a single hipsterville of entitled trust fund kids anywhere in sight – hm… I wonder if we can get back to the way things were before?), not Manhattan, the land of the daily commuters, which is where anyone I knew who spent time in the city, if at all, was making his way through.

Other than revealing an embarrassingly clueless lack of compassion (and sheltered upbringing) on my part (I kinda hope I’ve had a bit of enlightenment over the years… and not in the direction of Paul Benjamin, aka, Paul Kersey in the movie), what it also indicates is the timely wellspring from which sprang Brian Aldriss’ original, somewhat underwhelming and fairly reactionary (whether he recognizes that fact or not) 1972 novel (well, more of a slightly inflated novella) Death Wish (from which the above quotes are from) and its 1974 cinematic incarnation, brought to life by the occasionally talented, late and – okay, not so great, but certainly unique in his, dare I say, oft-charmingly shameless and sleazy opportunistic way — director Michael Winner, who happily went even more zealous right-wing with the fable about a relatively successful white man who, after being shockingly victimized by some of the criminal thugs who menace the streets, breaking into his home and viciously assaulting his wife and daughter, finds his liberal shell peeling away as his helpless anger turns into a driving desire to reclaim the streets as a gun-toting vigilante.

The film is an anomaly from the usual book adaption in that instead of paring back the various events and subplots from the source, Death Wish, while holding true to almost the entire narrative of Aldiss’ novel and its slow psychologically evolving (or devolving) lead character, expands on it, adding in plot elements that while not always believable (I argued as we watched with one of my compadres the reality of there being a whole slew of international reporters – Italian, French, and so on – all excitedly reporting back from the City Hall briefings on the vigilante whose actions appeared to be singlehandedly lowering crime in New York, but afterwards thought – nah, if the rest of the world wasn’t really drawn in on the David Berkowitz Son of Sam shooting spree in the summer of ’76 in which the local newspapers all did their best to convince every city and nearby suburban dweller to be ‘gripped in fear’, they definitely wouldn’t have given a care about this guy), certainly ratcheted up the stakes.

For instance, the addition of the brilliant character actor Vincent Gardenia, clearly enjoying sinking his teeth into the weary, yet tough Lt Ochoa part (merely a mention in a newspaper clipping in the novel), playing it with an engaging, just slightly tongue-in-cheek manner while never transgressing into broad humor, struggling with a winter cold that won’t go away as he deals with the political pressure from up top to catch the vigilante, adds a grander scale to the story (as well as an effective antagonist), providing those familiar, yet still effective (because they’re undoubtedly true) glimpses at the higher rungs of (compromised) authority, with that gritty, cynical big city perspective in which everyone’s a cog in a higher wheel of political opportunism, including the cops — of the type American cinema in the 70’s nailed perfectly even in the most mediocre of efforts (of which this is certainly not one). It plays out effectively, even, again, if some of it I’m not sure quite reaches the level of believability (would the Mayor and Commissioner really want to have Ochoa capture the vigilante and blackmail him to disappear off to another city, because they don’t want a martyr on their hand? I mean, I’m not surprised by any level of corruption or opportunism – including murder – but the risk/reward just doesn’t seem close to worth it, as if they were caught being behind letting him go scott free, they’d be jettisoned out of public life in disgrace… and likely face jail time).

The level of brutality in the assault scene on the two women (something not shown in the book, as the narrative stays entirely within the perspective of our protagonist) remains disturbing even for today, let alone how it must have been received back in 1974 (I remember the furor it caused quite well, in fact). While it’s a little iffy on what we see done to them from the three thugs (including a very young un-credited Jeff Goldblum) would lead to the death of the mother, the images of her beaten and stunned, on the verge of passing out, as she catches brutal glimpses (and we, through her swirling eyes) of the assault on her daughter (with a profoundly eerie soundscape by Herbie Hancock) is disturbing stuff. Also surprising that, while there is a level of luridness, Winner manages to restrain his naturally lascivious inclinations. As graphic as it is, the discomfort of the scene mainly arises from the brutal horror of what we’re witnessing.

Vincent Gardenia (left)

Perhaps the most effective part of the entire film is just how good Charles Bronson is in what starts as an atypically mild-mannered role for him as the architect Paul (changed from an accountant in the book, which was another good idea as having the traumatized architect looking at plans for a future, almost utopian community of the rich out in the Arizona desert has a nice thematic resonance, where in the book, the over-present discussions on accountant issues during the same trip feels like nothing more than uninteresting filler). Even if you’re someone who goes full man-crush with Bronson (okay, I’ll raise my hand), with his impressive presence and chiselled-from-rock physique (and an impressively full and puffy head of hair for a fifty-four year old) he always brought, you still got to admit — the guy can be awkward at even the simplest of line readings (hence his usual approach of ‘the less dialogue, the better’) and often struggled to reveal much emotion through that stone face.

Yet, watching his initial suffering through the disbelief of the attack, on into growing rage, and then slowly taking the law into his own hand (with the scene of him clumsily breaking the sock of coins as he triumphantly swings around in his apartment after confronting his first mugger out on the street by hitting him in the face with it is perhaps the most memorable, amusing and human moment in the entire film) to actually arming up as a killing vigilante (which takes an impressively long amount of screen time getting to – considering that I, along with a small coterie of fellow film travelers, plan to now delve into the entire five film Death Wish franchise — and whatever related offshoots that arise along the way – it’ll be interesting to see if they dare take the same path of slow build in the recent Bruce Willis remake though I’m guessing they won’t and that also – largely because it’s directed by that Trump-sized con artist and showman Eli Roth himself – the entire venture will be vacuous and despicable), he not only achieves a level of pathos and vulnerability (even in the later scenes, where his character is feeling so ‘mythically’ empowered in his vigilante role he quotes western movie clichés, just like the old movie style ‘gunfight in the OK Corral’ he watches earlier re-enacted while in Arizona – another really smart addition allowing a some interesting resonating notions on the dividing line between the myth of the iconic American individualist cowboy gunman and the reality of the nervous modern urban white man way out of his element), but constructs a nice arc with his character, without overdoing the softer mild-mannered early stages of his character (though I’m not sure Bronson would be capable of overdoing that part if he wanted to without falling into parody) nor losing the humanity during the later transition into street fighter cleverly evading the cops on his tail (something Bronson could easily have simplified but fortunately didn’t).

An interesting (and somewhat daring, as it’s obviously more true to life, but dangerously close to being possibly unsatisfying from a story-telling perspective, something I’m sure Winner and the execs considered and is why they beefed up the Ochoa part) decision is how, neither in book or movie, does the Paul character ever confront the original attackers who broke into his home and took his wife and destroyed his daughter’s life. In the book, we never even see who they are. In the movie, we see them do their horrendous acts and they’re gone, never seen again.

With little to no perspective (other than that lip service quote delivered by Paul’s son-in-law from the novel presented above) on the economic conditions and repressions towards minorities that breed crime infestation in the first place (and also positing a world where right-wing vigilante justice would lessen crime rates, as if urban crime is a matter of choice and simple bad behaviour, rather than arising from victimizing despair, desperation and lack of hope), Death Wish, both book and film (though Winner pumps up the gun-toting excitement for sure, which I guess is what so disturbed the author Aldiss whose book, while embedded with an underlying reactionary quality, admittedly reaches a more ambiguous conclusion on the meaning of Paul’s vigilante path, leaving the gunman free on the streets, so flush with power he’s now shooting simple unarmed car thieves, where in the film we end on the audience-rousing Bronson finger-point), certainly is right-wing fantasy material. It’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ tale, trading on middle and upper-middle class fear.

A dialogue scene here and there doesn’t quite work (“Dad, calm down!” the son-in-law firmly puts his foot down in the waiting room even though Kersey is not only understandably upset, but nowhere near out of control) that likely stems from Winner not taking the time to get it right, but it’s small potatoes against what does work right in the film. It’s agit-prop, for sure, yet it’s undeniable that the film (more than the book) is effectively constructed, with an admirable performance by Bronson at its heart (with the simple yet brilliant addition of having him been a ‘conscientious objector’ in the Korean War) and a gritty urban New York setting all around it. It also contains that true iconic ending images, with Bronson’s Paul cocking his finger like a gun about to shoot, in American 70’s urban crime film history – one that concretizes Paul Kersey’s full transformation into the fantasy figure he imagined out there in the Arizona desert while watching the gun-fights replicating the individual justice of a bygone era — that’s both chilling, amusing – and deeply narratively satisfying — all at the same time.

Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Volume 22, Issue 11 / November 2018 Film Reviews charles bronsoncrime filmvigilante cin