Before I get to the article this week, I’d like to give special thanks to Cinefile Video for constantly providing me with DVD after DVD of films in The Series Project. They are one of the best video stores in L.A. and they’ve saved my bacon on numerous occasions. Go to their website and order a t-shirt, ‘cause they’re cool, and you need a t-shirt, and they deserve you’re money, and if you buy one of their t-shirts, you’ll be cooler.
I’m guessing it started with Dirty Harry back in 1971. Dirty Harry came out at a time when the economy was faltering, crime was up, and the Miranda laws had just been passed. Many people felt that Miranda laws, which gave rights to the accused, only allowed psychopaths to exploit the system to their advantage. After all, if a cop catches a bad guy doing a bad thing, and beats him senseless, the guy could get off scot free. Many would sympathize with the cop in that situation. Films like Dirty Harry provided a revenge fantasy for those who found violent action to be the only response in a crumbling world full of crime, newly lacking in all propriety. An entire subgenre of revenge/vigilante films cropped up over the next few years, all featuring violent men (and, indeed, sometimes women) who would take to the street with firearms in order to gun down muggers, rapists, and other bad guys they felt weren’t getting just punishment from the legal system. For superhero fans, you’ll note that The Punisher sprang from the violent 1970s trend of revenge fantasies.
The crown jewel in the 1970s vigilante film subgenre is clearly Michael Winner’s Death Wish, starring the permanently grizzled Charles Bronson. Death Wish, based on a novel by Brian Garfield, featuring a wronged architect and his newly-discovered violent tendencies, was a big hit in 1974, and spawned four sequels, ending in 1994. The novel also inspired a 2007 film called Death Sentence starring Kevin Bacon, but that was, technically, not a remake of the first Death Wish, so it will not be included in this Series Project. Although, as all thing are being remade these days, a remake of the original is in the works. I figured I’d better get cracking on this Series Project before Hollywood boorishly erases the memory of the original.
These films are violent, morally dubious, and diminish in reality as they progress. This week, I’ll be looking at Death Wish and Death Wish II. Next week, we’ll cover the completely bonkers period of the series, as Death Wish 3 flies way off the rails. Seriously. There’s like bazookas and stuff. Wait. There was a bazooka in the third Dirty Harry movie as well, wasn’t there? Parallels abound.
Death Wish (dir. Michael Winner, 1974)
The first Death Wish is surprisingly simple for a film as well known as it is. I was astonished at how straightforward the story is. It’s not even that emotionally complex, offering, as it does, a pointedly oversimplified moral of might making right. The only complex question it asks pertains to whether or not it’s right to kill people when murder is a constant threat. That’s the same argument people have for keeping guns in their homes. They claim it makes them feel safe in an unsafe world. I would argue that having the gun in the first place is what makes the world unsafe.
I know that’s a sticky political argument I just brushed up against, but Death Wish is very much a political statement. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a gentle man, called a “bleeding-heart liberal” twice in the film, who was raised by a pacifist mother and a gun-nut father. He doesn’t usually handle guns. Partway through the film, though, he is given a fancy revolver by an openly right-wing gun nut (played by Stuart Margolin), who acts as sort of an angel of mercy, providing him with the means to express his inner violence. There’s nothing wrong with a liberal that murdering a few muggers can’t fix. Death Wish cleaves to that old chestnut, “A liberal is a conservative who’s never been mugged.”
To the film’s credit, it does see Paul Kersey’s transformation from a gentle man into a violent vigilante as a somewhat dark one. The film is photographed in gritty greys and itchy browns. The score, by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, is intense and moody and only occasionally stoops to funk. “Stoops to Funk” is the name of my next record.
It’s a little jarring to see Charles Bronson playing a gentle architect. Bronson, in my mind, has a reputation as a grizzled badass, ready to shoot, and unwilling to put up with any bull. Seeing him play a happily married architect is about as cognitively comfortable as watching Arnold Schwarzenegger, an enormous Austrian, play characters will all-American names like John Kimball or Ben Richards. Paul Kersey lives in New York and blissfully builds new buildings, getting along with his boss and going home to spend time with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and married daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). Then, sort of out of the blue, a trio of thugs breaks into his apartment while he’s gone, rapes his daughter, and kicks his wife to death. One of the thugs is played by a young Jeff Goldblum, and it’s weird seeing a recognizable actor like Goldblum talk about painting his victim’s face. It’s pretty gross, actually. They also spray paint Paul’s apartment, and his daughter’s buttocks. It’s a brutal scene worthy of A Clockwork Orange. There was a lot of filmed rape in the 1970s, wasn’t there?
Paul Kersey becomes despondent. He sends Carol to a Catholic clinic, where she spends her days laying comatose, traumatized by the event. He begins carrying a sock full of quarters in his pocket. I think the sock full of quarters in an underutilized weapon. In both movies and in real life. All you need is a sock and about $40. Plus they’re fun to swing around. But get a high-quality sock. You wouldn’t want to spray a mugger with change. It’s around here that Kersey has his fateful encounter with Stuart Margolin, and is given his gun. It’s not long before Paul Kersey, architect, is prowling dangerous areas late at night, hoping to encounter muggers just so he can shoot them.
That’s the weird thing about Death Wish: Kersey doesn’t go after the men who killed his wife. Or even murderers in general. He goes after muggers. One of the muggers is played by an uncredited Denzel Washington, who was only 19 at time of filming. Four other fun cameos: a young Christopher Guest plays a rookie cop, Paul Dooley appears in one scene, Olympia Dukakis is a cop, and Al Lewis (that’s Grandpa Munster to you) plays a security guard. Over the course of Death Wish, Kersey kills nine people. The local law (represented by Vincent Gardenia) is incensed, but secretly approve, as his vigilante actions actually serve as a deterrent to muggers.
Is street murder justified if it actually reduces crime? I would say no, but there are plenty who would disagree with me. Of course, the long-term effects of Kersey’s killing spree are never talked about. Like what if the muggers only become more violent as a result of a more violent populace? There’s a scene wherein an old lady fends off some muggers with a hat pin. Everyone’s in on the game. Odd that this universe should feature no criminals other than street muggers with knives. I understand that New York was a dangerous place in the 1970s, but surely there weren’t that many muggings.
Charles Bronson is pretty awesome. His face is pinched and folded, and contains decades of life hidden in it. When it comes to movie badasses, it may have started with Clint Eastwood, but I think it was perfected with Charles Bronson. There is not a trace of weakness in him. His only emotions are rage, and the occasional introspective wince, and he remembers his past. Paul Kersey is not as strong a cultural force as, say, John Rambo, but he’s still plenty awesome.
Death Wish ends with Vincent Gardenia finally catching up to Paul Kersey’s killing spree. The cop knows what he did, but allows him to go free, provided he never comes back to New York. The cops only halfway approve of what he did. He’s not a hero, necessarily, but he doesn’t go to prison. Classic ‘70s moral ambiguity. It’s a slight film, but it packs a punch. It’s well known to my generation thanks to incessant reruns on TV with all the bloody and nude bits cut out. I never watched it on TV as a kid. Indeed, I didn’t see it until just now. It felt like a nostalgic trip nonetheless.
A few years would pass, and the series would immediately become goofy.
Death Wish II (dir. Michael Winner, 1982)
Just like Dirty Harry and Rambo before him, Paul Kersey’s reputation amongst film-goers was what essentially did him in. As early as Death Wish II, audiences expected Kersey to be a hard-hearted badass with a tendency to kill going in. It doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that Paul Kersey would continue being a vigilante in his new hometown of Los Angeles, but audiences demanded the same hardass they saw before. So Paul Kersey’s organic story is left behind in the wake of goofy (but certainly very enjoyable) action schlock. This is a crap movie, but it’s very fun.
Here’s a good indicator of the mood change: The previous film was scored by Herbie Hancock. Smooth jazz, a little funky, a lot moody. This film was scored by Jimmy Page. Lotsa rock and squealy guitars.
Death Wish II was given an “X” rating by the MPAA back in 1982, and while it would be an “R” film today, it’s still plenty violent, and has shots of pubic hair for good measure. So Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson, looking a little craggier and little greyer) is now living in L.A., and is dating a pretty blonde co-worker named Geri (Jill Ireland, the chick Spock fell in love with in that one episode of Star Trek). Geri and Paul look after Carol (now played by Robin Sherwood) who is finally coming out of her shell two years after the trauma she suffered in the last film. She can speak a few words now, and is capable of going outdoors. While on a trip downtown, Paul is beset by a gang of generic thugs who take his wallet. These thugs are not so much the rough-hewn muggers of ‘70s New York, and more cartoonish ‘80s punk rockers. Amongst them is Laurence Fishburne. Paul beats up the thug without much of a thought, and continues on his day with his girlfriend and daughter.
The thugs, meanwhile, go through Paul’s wallet, find his house, break in, rape his poor maid Rosario (Silvana Gallardo), and wait for him to get home. The thugs end up kidnapping his daughter, taking her to an abandoned warehouse, and raping her too. Dammit. The ‘70s rape wave continues. When Carol flees the rapists, she throws herself out a window, and impales herself on a spiked fence. Ew. Yeah, that’s pretty violent. This time around, Paul Kersey actually knows which thugs did this to his family, so he goes into vigilante mode immediately. He rents a hotel room on Figueroa and prowls the streets at night looking for the thugs. He finds them easily, and blows them away using the same gun he had from the first film.
Death Wish II is no longer a sticky moral film, and is clearly and openly irresponsible about how much it roots for Kersey in his quest. He’s not a tortured man anymore. He’s a proper action hero. To reiterate his past, Vincent Gardenia shows up a second time to inform the LAPD just how dangerous Kersey is. Gardenia will be shot in a bizarre shootout between Kersey, the thugs (who are trading drugs for guns), and a mysterious third shooter who sits in a tree.
There are many “cute” comic moments wherein Kersey has to hide his life as a vigilante from Geri. He goes on dates with Geri, and even proposes marriage, all while trying to hide his bodily injuries from her. There’s a scene where Paul suggests a fancy dinner to Geri, all while quietly bleeding from his hand onto the floor. The tension in the scene doesn’t come from Geri’s finding out, and he having to confess to his violent wrongdoings, but more from the fact that Geri might find out, and she’ll get pissed and leave him. Stopping his mad vengeance is not an option. She’ll eventually find out and leave him anyway.
The climax of Death Wish II takes place in a hospital where the final thug is being kept for “psychiatric evaluation.” Shades of Dirty Harry there. Kersey poses as a doctor, complete with a fake badge and stolen white lab coat, and doesn’t shoot, but electrocutes the bad guy. Harsh, man. Just like at the end of the first Death Wish, Kersey is given leave to go. Well, he’s given a three-minute head start by an orderly who knows who he is. Geri did leave him, but otherwise we see no consequences for Paul’s actions. He is a stand-in for all our own vengeful fantasies. Which could, I suppose, be said of any violent action hero. Modern man feels increasingly powerless, so why no lose ourselves in elaborate vicarious fantasies of committing violence to solve our problems? As action badasses go, Paul Kersey is pretty first rate, and I would never impugn Charles Bronson as a screen presence.
But Death Wish II is pretty silly.
And the films will get sillier from here. Be sure to tune in next week for the bonkers odyssey that is Death Wish 3, and the sad sagging into the 1990s. Vengeance!