Country: United States
Director: Michael Winner
TRASH CINEMA ESSENTIAL MOVIE
After so many Death Wish movies and their imitators, there is a tendency to write off the original Death Wish as a ham-handed exploitation picture, a clumsy attempt to cash in on the anti-crime hysteria that was rampant in the early 70s. There’s some truth to that assessment (Death Wish is certainly nothing if not a blunt instrument), but it’s far from the whole story.
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), by his own admission, is a man whose heart bleeds for the underprivileged, who believes in the rule of law. When Kersey’s family becomes a victim of the descent into lawlessness gripping New York City, that is only the first of many events which gradually transforms him into a vigilante (that’s not exactly a spoiler, I hope).
If you checked out the trailer, you’ll notice that the ad campaign for Death Wish makes the movie seem like a simple celebration of vigilantism, but Death Wish is much better than that.
True, Death Wish is often crude and exaggerated, and it is right wing propaganda, but it also functions as a convincing depiction of the emotional journey of Paul Kersey. The script by Wendell Mayes, from Brian Garfield’s novel, also hits on all of the salient sociological and psychological points. It’s hard to believe now, but in the early 70s, all anyone could talk about was crime, especially in the big cities. (I had an uncle that lived in Manhattan who put three locks on his door, including a dead bolt, and a crossbar mounted in the floor. Burglars broke in while he was at work, anyway — through the wall.)
Screenwriter Mayes captures most of the points of the debate, of course heavily weighting the pro-gun side. The script would have us believe that crime in the cities is the result of nothing more complicated than human nature, a combination of the natural result of overcrowding and the prohibition against carrying a gun, which makes self-defense impossible against armed criminals.
At one point, Kersey’s one-man crusade inspires other citizens to imitate him by taking the law into their own hands, successfully repelling criminals by somewhat less violent means. If the script had been a little more honest, there would have been at least one story about someone who resisted a criminal and got shot for his trouble, but never mind. Death Wish was designed as a propaganda flick, not as a sober and evenhanded examination of the issues surrounding vigilantism, remember?
I also enjoyed the script’s eye for politics, and how such a situation would play out in the police department, the mayor’s office, the press, and in the public sphere. On the one hand, Paul Kersey makes the cops and politicians look ineffectual, but on the other hand, the public adores him, and the crime rate is dropping like a stone. How the politicians handle this dilemma rings true, at least to me, but then again, I’m a pretty cynical guy.
Last but not least, scriptwriter Wendell Mayes does a great job of dramatizing Detective Frank Ochoa’s (Vincent Gardenia) hunt for the vigilante. The cat and mouse game between Ochoa and Kersey is never less than intelligent and riveting. The script, and Bronson’s performance make it perfectly clear that while Kersey’s emotional trauma has made him mentally ill, it hasn’t impaired his logical faculties.
Director Michael Winner captures the siege mentality of New York City in the early 70s. There are some clumsy edits here and there, but we should not discount the energy of his filmmaking and the amount of tension he manages to wring out of the scenario. Michael Winner is not afraid to go big with his emotions. This is hot button filmmaking at it’s finest. I particularly liked the way Winner had one of the muggers at the beginning of the flick compulsively spraypaint everything he passed, like a feral cat marking it’s territory.
Aiding Winner in maintaining the florid atmosphere is an intense score by Herbie Hancock. The only thing that has dated in this superb score are the ARP synthesizer strings. Hancock would have been better off using real strings, but the rest of his keyboard arsenal is put to effective use, and he himself plays beautifully.
In short, if you don’t mind the departures from strict naturalism, (the muggers are rather Goya-esque, especially Jeff Goldblum, who is truly scary), Death Wish pumps up the blood almost as much as the picture must have done back in 1974, indulging the audience’s own death wish.
Almost anyone who has had much to do with the legal system, either as the member of a jury, a defendant, or a plaintiff, recognizes that the justice system seldom leads to justice (although it’s certainly better than no justice system at all). It’s a nice fantasy to imagine that righteous men armed with guns could create a safe world, and Death Wish asks us to imagine ourselves as one of those men. It’s an irresistible fantasy, and Michael Winner plays it to the hilt.
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