the cinema of charles bronson

~ intro by john b. cribbs ~
(you can tell by the use of
the word "obsidian")

In the latter half of his career, Charles Bronson became the angel of death of action cinema. He wore it on his face (next to the mustache): those worn features, greying, weathered, represented more than just a hardened resolve; they were a final, ruthless image inflicted on those unfortunate enough for him to have visited upon. In his films from the 1970's on, even before things turned nasty and guns were unholstered, the promise of an ordained darkness burned like obsidian within that cadaverous expression, the only emotion registering from those beady, unrelenting eyes. Laying the action movie emblems and politics of the Death Wish movies aside, at his bare essence Bronson embodied a tenacious emissary of inevitable evisceration starting in 1969, when his avenger in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West was described as having "something to do with death."

It was that very "something" that held a morbid curiosity even for those he hunted, like West's lifelong sinner Frank, who grungingly accepts his ultimate showdown with Bronson's Harmonica by uttering the self-assurance "The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cuz I know that now, you'll tell me what you're after." To which Harmonica responds: "...Only at the point of dyin'." A beautiful double meaning: we only learn the point of dying... at the actual point of dying. And for countless creeps and evildoers, Bronson was the grim messenger.

In this series, we'll be writing about movies from Bronson's post-West filmography. Although his earlier work as an essential member of ensemble action epics like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen is indeed significant and worthy of lengthy evaluation, I'm more interested in the last leg of his career when he was doing interesting work for directors such as Michael Winner and J. Lee Thompson. Like leather or scotch, Bronson got better with age, so while his "solo" work may not be as good as the group adventures from the 60's, what the action icon came to symbolize - a weatherbeaten grim reaper - is one withered grape that is ripe for interpretation.


michael winner, 1974.

~ by christopher funderburg ~

If this is what we're discussing, if this is the subject at hand, there's no getting around Death Wish. Honestly, in discussing Bronson's gradual transformation into the silver screen's very own angel of death, it's a little weird we didn't begin this series with it. Bronson's star persona has  become so tightly bound to the film that it's easy to forget that it changed his career; it wasn't a culmination of a life's work but rather an abrupt left turn. Because it's directly responsible for what Bronson became as a movie star, it's easy to lose sight of what the film actually is - and what it is is not precisely what it's purported to be. Director Michael Winner has periodically related the inception of his collaboration with Bronson on the quintessential vigilante picture thusly:

I told him I had a script about a guy whose wife and daughter are mugged and then the man goes out and shoots muggers. I mentioned that I’d had it for five years but no one seemed interested. Charlie said, ‘I’d like to do it.’ I said, ‘What, you mean you want to do this movie?’ And Charlie replied, ‘No, I’d like to shoot muggers.' (The Guardian, October 25th, 2011)

I think the public perception of Death Wish (and Bronson's artistic intentions in general) sync up with that little exchange: a cheap fantasy about shooting muggers made by an actor who spent the final 20 years of his career fantasizing about doing such things. But the original Death Wish, the inception of "Bronson as Angel of Death," the film by a goofy British fop of a journeyman director named Michael Winner and based on a pointedly anti-vigilantism novel by Brian Garfield, that original Death Wish is a far weirder and more complex movie than it gets credit for. Just think about the title for a moment: a phrase defined as "a suicidal desire, manifested by passivity, withdrawal, and absorption in nihilistic thoughts." That's a dark notion and one that has been drained of its literal meaning over the course of its pop-cultural life, an expression of black nihilism reduced to its surface dimension: an empty phrase with coolly dangerous overtones, something cold to reference before you ice a motherfucker, something about death.

But whose death wish are we talking about here? Liberal architect/conscientious-objector Paul Kersey, who loses his wife to murder, whose daughter ends up in a rape-induced catatonia? Maybe the distraught, ghostly daughter herself? The muggers who make the mistake of asking Kersey for his wallet? The death wish of a sick society that produces both a virulent criminal underclass and viciously implaccable Paul Kerseys? The death wish of a city like New York where the affluent and the desperate are packed on top of each other like sardines and the degenerates and the depraved share sidewalks with decent men driven mad with fear and impotent rage? Which thanatos are we talking about here? Let's back up and see where Bronson was as a performer before he took a ride with Michael Winner to Kennedy airport and told him he'd be up for shooting some muggers.

Bronson always had a stoic, merciless presence as an actor and while his natural emotional inscrutability lent itself to his late-period persona as the messenger of death, early in his career it had been applied to a variety of types - most frequently salt-of-the-earth loners at home in the wilderness. Death Hunt, Chino, Canto's Land, Cabo Blanco, The White Buffalo, even Mr. Majestyk employed him for characters deeply connected to the land or  other unforgiving natural environments; his default inhuman coldness casting animalistic, even animistic, shadows. His dark features and stoicism lent themselves to "ethnic" roles that saw his preternatural calm in an almost mystical light, his coldness a key facet of his Otherness. Combined with his movei-star charisma he was frequently positioned as the mountain-man that straddles the border between hero and native. It's hard to remember a time when he could be cast as a monosyllabic spirit-creature of a man, so completely did his late-period films recast him as the most American of ideals: the fully-assimilated next generation child of immigrants.

His requisite mustache, cloudy brow and dull monotone couldn't have been further from the strapping blue-eyed go-getter of the popular cliche of A Real American, but in his later films, his no-nonsense dedication to the American ideals of law-and-order, justice, freedom and a certain brand of "leave me alone, I'll leave you alone" family-man attitude represented an even truer and more recognizably real version of a run-of-the-mill patriot. His Kersey and Kessler and Donato are the sons of immigrants, recognizably "ethnic" men nevertheless proud to call themselves American and willing to defend American liberty at gunpoint if need be; willing to chase injustice into the darkness and hunt it down like a dog in America's honor, in honor of America's ideals, in the name of protecting something bigger than himself. A family man. A protector of his family, of the ideal of the American family. Death Wish set Bronson on the path to this rigid star-persona, but truthfully, the film itself isn't really what it's remembered as being. Death Wish isn't about a man who only wants to enter his house justified. It's about a man with sick soul who becomes a media sensation and loses himself (and possibly his mind) in the process. Death Wish isn't what we mean when we talk about Death Wish.

The nature of the larger series is at fault. The following four films are exactly what they are popularly remembered as being: outraged, single-minded vengeance tales that play to their audience's most simplistic fantasies, ugly absurd little provocations that scramble guilelessly to prey on our basest impulses. In fact, Death Wish II pretty clearly serves as the departure point for Bronson as a movie star as far as becoming the angel of death caricature; it really is the film folks like Vincent Canby and the perpetually clueless Roger Ebert accused Death Wish of being. A weird pseudo-remake of the first film, it drains any of the nuance out of the original story and ups the ante on grotesque crimes like gang-rape while giving Paul Kersey even more puerilely clever tactics for blowing his targets to smithereens.

After Death Wish II in 1982, Bronson began to repeat himself over and over, starting immediately with 10 to Midnight the following year (Death Wish… versus a serial killer!), Death Wish III (the notoriously cartoonish, vulgar and lurid take on the basic Death Wish premise), The Evil that Men Do (Death Wish… versus Latino thugs… and a Nazi torture-doctor!), Murphy's Law (Death Wish… but he's a cop, so don't worry there's no element of moral ambiguity), Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (Death Wish… versus sex traffickers!) and then finally the crummy, dispiriting Family of Cops series. There are a few small departures - hilariously, his Messenger of Death has the most explicitly Death Wish-aping title of the bunch and concerns avenging a brutally slaughtered family… only Bronson plays a Mormon-sympathizing investigative journalist!

But overall, Death Wish II cast a die around Bronson that he made no apparent effort to break out of. Before Death Wish II, he played a variety of types, in a variety of stories - the change following II really is startlingly abrupt. Consider this: the same year as Death Wish II, he played a quiet, animal-loving mountain-man backed into a corner by a vengeful dog-fighting impresario.* It's impossible to imagine Bronson taking on such a role in such a story after he made his decision to embrace the media-caricature built up around him in the wake of Death Wish. Pre-Death Wish II, he played Indian Chiefs, treasure-hunters, sailors, soldiers, farmers, cowboys and mountain men in as many different kinds of adventure and action tales as could be thought up. After Death Wish II, he almost exclusively played avengers in stories about families tested by tragedy. Even his 1991 version of Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, he's bound by a sense of tradition to pay honor to his dead wife by avenging a traumatic loss (of a little girl's belief in Santa.)

So, if Death Wish isn't Death Wish II (or Murphy's Law) and doesn't quite resemble the notion of it built up in the popular imagination, just what is it? Pared down to its very-est basics, the plot of course resembles its descendants like 10 to Midnight,** but one of the things that distinguishes Death Wish from its imitators is that it doesn't feature a concrete villain (even as its sequels do.) For that reason (almost certainly by design), it follows Bronson's character through a pretty weird arc of development. One of the first things that makes Death Wish's plot stand out is that Kersey doesn't get revenge. The police never figure out who committed the crime*** and after the gang's inciting home invasion assault, they're never seen or heard from again. Bronson's revenge is generalized and, therefore, queasy. It's not clear that the muggers who try to steal his wallet on the train deserve the death penalty and I'm not sure Winner wants us to believe they do. Kersey doesn't bring his wife's killers and daughter's rapists to justice and there are intimations throughout the film that his erratic behavior is causing his daughter's delicate post-trauma condition to worsen.

It's not a story with a specific villain, but of a man living in a world where "villain" has become a free-floating, all-encompassing concept - a perpetual foggy night that hangs over a seedy Gotham. Kersey's gun is not pointed at someone, but rather anyone who makes the mistake of associating themselves with that cloud of evil. The film ends with Kersey more or less coming to an understanding that he's out of control and moving to Chicago to try to start over after the police run him out of town.

The tension of the plot comes not from Kersey's quest to "get the men who did this" but struggling with his natural liberal/pacificistic understanding that becoming submerged in an ocean of aimless anger is no way to live, that being a rage-fueled murder-machine is just dying in slow motion - his cloudy understanding of his own sickness slams violently against his (deeply sympathetic) implacable rage at the random evil of the world. He puts himself in dangerous situations and knows it's only by luck that he gets never killed - he gets slashed viciously across the back while trying to execute a duo of muggers, men he's never before seen in his life, one of whom he shoots in the back from a distance of 30 yards. The death wish of the title clearly belong (at least in part) to Kersey: a good man with his life shattered by a random crime, a man unable to return to his stable existence as an architect, husband, and father; a man with nothing to live for, a man unable to find justice, a man just a little too content at risking death-by-slash-wound in a Brooklyn subway station while shooting petty criminals in the back over stolen wallets.

There are two major running themes in the film that don't directly relate to the plot. The first concerns a motif of Old West imagery and references. There's a weirdly extended sequence of Kersey watching a Wild West stunt show at a dinky tourist trap in Arizona. Kersey heads out to the scenic sunny Southwest after the rape/murder to get his mind off of the tragedy by working on a new housing development. It's here in Arizona that he's given as a gift the gun that will travel back to NYC for mugger-murder - but more importantly, a certain Old West, "cowboys taking care of business out on the wild frontier" mentality begins to seep into his head. He repeats the dialog from the stunt show at the end of the film when the police warn him to leave NYC or risk being busted; they want him out, he queries "By sundown?" But it was the rowdy outlaw, not the virtuous sheriff, who uttered the line in the stunt show.

Kersey doesn't identify with the forces of law and order attempting to tame the old west, but the lawless hot-heads quick to brandish their steel in the name of whatever and whenever and any reason you got; in his own mind, Kersey is one of the shootists, not the sheriffs. The final image of the film sees Kersey, newly arrived at the airport in Chicago, pointing his fingers like a duelist at group of delinquent youths and doing an impression of the gunfighters of yore. There's no reason to think that Kersey represents law, order or justice; he's pretty clearly just another manifestation of the lawlessness and chaos in the wild west of America's urban decay in the 70's. He's a one-man lynch mob, the gunslinger who decides what punishment fits the crime and then takes raging, disproportionate justice into his own hands. And the sheriff wants him out of town by sundown. Any reasonable sheriff would. It's no way to live. It's a great way to die.

The second recurring theme considers the mass media reaction to New York City's unknown vigilante. Throughout the film, massive billboards for magazines like Time and Harper's loom over Kersey as he wanders the street looking for trouble; billboards highlighting provocative cover stories on the nameless, beloved killer of creeps. The mass media stokes the fire of paranoia in people like Paul Kersey, making it seem like the crime against his family is not an isolated tragedy, but an evil that surrounds him at all times. The men who killed his wife are not the men who threaten him with knives in the park, but in the media's depiction they are all part of the same urban crimewave - the media wants us all to fear for our lives at every moment, to know that violent crime is on the rise.

The media's sensationalism luxuriates in the lurid details of awful acts and with solemn "thought-provoking" glee posits that no one is safe in their own home.  The media's image of a heroic vigilante shadows Kersey throughout the film; on the billboards under which he stalks, in cocktail party conversations discussing the unknown hero, in the police's decision to merely run him out of town for fear that the media will turn him into a martyr if they decide to prosecute him for, you know, mass murder.

The specter of news-media haunts the film, never more than a few scenes go by without Winner showing a magazine cover about the killings or letting a radio report waft over the soundtrack or framing one of the billboards to loom large. In one notable instance, the director even takes the time to linger on a t.v. news-program segment about a little old lady inspired by Kersey to take on her assailants with hat-pin. That Kersey becomes a media sensation is a crucial part of his story - undeniably, this is a film about how the media creates and then exploits a culture of fear. The role of the media in Death Wish is also the source of the negative critical reactions to the film, mainly because Winner doesn't exactly present a coherent critique of the media machine. In Death Wish, the media is present and part of what's happening, but the biggest idea that an audience will come away with about the media is that it helps get the word out about Kersey and in doing so inspires the populace to imitate him - which puts fear in the hearts of muggers and makes Kersey untouchable to the police. The media is the agent by which Kersey becomes legendary.

It's hard to believe that Winner is in favor of exploitative think-pieces luridly poring over the details of urban decay while simultanously rubbing their figurative chins thoughtfully over the grotesque response from "good people" that urban blight generates... but that's what the film leaves us with. Death Wish's detractors accuse it of encouraging vigilantism and that notion comes almost entirely from the mass media motif: in the world of Death Wish, Kersey as a media figure is a revered hero and a force for good, if not entirely without controversy - a folk hero, in other words. And what's cooler than an outlaw rebel? The media in Death Wish responds to Kersey as Bronson responded to Winner: shooting muggers? Sounds great!

In fact, without the pervasive presence of the media and the role it plays in the film, Death Wish would pretty clearly be the story of a sick man losing his mind in the wake of a brutal crime committed against his family. From the beginning, the film presents Kersey's actions as excessive and unhinged - the activities of man becoming unrecognizable to his remaining friends and family. Sure, Kersey's son-in-law (who emphatically calls Kersey "dad" every goddamned sentence) comes across as both sniveling and callow, but he also seems to be getting the proper care for his wife and is rightfully disturbed by Kersey's post-killing celebrations. After taking down a random creep, Kersey is prone to cranking jazz music and giddily slamming down belts of scotch (insofar as Bronson has ever been "giddy.") Kersey is clearly a man not dealing properly with a tragedy and, in the end, he pointedly finds no justice for his murdered wife nor respite for his ruined daughter. On personal level, it's hard to say Kersey accomplishes anything good at all - his goodness exists exclusively on a macro-level present only in the media's breathless tracking of it.

The final shot depicts Kersey still indulging his fractured response; he ends the film a mentally broken man, obsessed with a vague, ill-defined vengeance that can't be sated. He risks his life for no clear purpose and puts himself in harm's way despite his daughter needing a father more than ever - he's got a death wish alright and it's hard to believe Winner thinks that's a good thing. The portrayal of mass media in the film complicates the issue because we overhear characters enthusing about his good work and learn that the crime rate in NYC has even gone done in response to his activity. That's where Winner trips himself up; it makes the film genuinely a weird experience but also so tough to read. On the one hand, Kersey never comes off as heroic; his aping of the of the wild west show meets the definition of psychotic in that Kersey has clearly begun to misunderstand the difference between fantasy and reality. By contrast, within the world of the film, the media mythologizes his good deeds - a classic case of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance's ironic dictum to "print the legend."

I think it's fair to justify the media motif as Winner being realistic about how such a media portrayal would spring up around a nameless vigilante in NYC in the 70's. There's an honesty to the motif that makes me willing to cut it a break and not simply read it as a meta-commentary reflecting the filmmaker's own feeling on Paul Kersey. That is, I don't think Winner included secondary characters' enthusiasm for Kersey actions and news reports' roundabout valorization of him as a way of making clear that he himself, Winner, thinks Kersey is awesome. I think the valorization functions just as much as a solution to narrative problems as anything - it's a way to get Kersey out of town without having a tragic ending such as his incarceration or execution.

The public support for Kersey and the dropping crime rate feel like a convenient out to the problem of how to end the film without necessarily jeopardizing its corwd-pleasing appeal - imagine its commercial prospects if it featured a bummer of an ending where he never finds his wife's killers and then gets killed. Personally, I think the film would be a true classic if Kersey simply had his death wish fulfilled, especially at the hands of the police. Halfway through the film, Winner kicks a parallel plot into gear concerning the police efforts to find the vigilante and put a stop to his shenanigans. The pointed irony is that the cops assemble a room full of detectives and officers to hunt down Kersey after doing almost nothing to find his wife and daughter's assailants - the cops go harder after the guy who makes them look bad than the real criminals out there. It's honest in the same way as the media motif as well as almost a coherent idea in the exact same way.

But Winner doesn't exactly portray the police in a bad light and presents their activity with a certain passivity that belies his reluctance to paint police bureaucracy as a real scourge - Kersey is, after all, committing a ton of murders and, realistically, the police wouldn't simply turn a blind eye. The police have a funny function in Death Wish seemingly born of Winner struggling to find a consistent conflict in the second half of the movie (Kersey wandering into harm's way and then blowing his faceless aggressors to bits gets old real quick)** **, while refusing to committ to Kersey's obvious destiny of annihilation. The films generates dramatic tension by having the police pursue Kersey and come this close to catching him, but at the same time they also end up being the agent by which he is allowed to escape to Chicago and not have to face up to the aftermath of his killing spree. Their police work is strictly a catch-and-release operation. Like its handling of the mass media, Death Wish seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to the police: it's a muddled critique that pulls its punches - and pulls its punches for the sake of narrative expediency. Yes, he puts some interesting thematic ideas in play, but he's most concerned with making sure the audience feels satisfied with their Hollywood Entertainment. You get the gist of what Winner is after, but the film seems unwilling to commit to either the idea that the police are failing at their job as protectors of the innocent or that Kersey is out of control, that the media exploits crime or that it is a positive agent in spreading the legend of Kersey.

The answer is that it can be both, the film can be holding two ideas in its head and contrasting them. But the film lacks an intellectual crispness that make me want to give it that benefit of the doubt. Bronson undoubtedly had a strong hand in fashioning the finished product and, I think that at the end of the day, his fantasy of the satisfaction to be found in shooting muggers crept into the film. Death Wish is a smart movie that defies expectations but it suffers from a wobbly tone and an indistinct moral compass. The false bottom "happy" ending stands in for the film's overall problems; initially it presents Kersey as escaping his demons and starting a new life only to punctuate the movie on a final shot that more or less smirks "… or maybe he didn't escape those demons at all! He still clearly fantasizes about shooting muggers." It's a milquetoast take on the idea that Kersey can't escape his pain - the movie provides no real resolution to Kersey's complex, his death wish goes unfulfilled but also unconquered. Is that how we're going to exit this story? With Paul Kersey as the kind of guy who fire blanks at his t.v. when Kojak's on? Again, it's not an awful ending - I appreciate its ambiguity and uncomfortable weirdness - but the narrative and moral shortcuts Winner takes throughout the film dull the impact of its ambiguity.

I'm not averse to unresolvable irony in my Death Wish movies, I'm just unwilling to give the film the total benefit of the doubt. Really, if the film didn't contain the (absurd) nugget that crime has gone down because of Kersey, I would be willing to accept a lot more ambiguity. But how is ambiguity possible when Kersey's activities demonstrably work towards the public good? The film's driving moral tension relies on the queasy excesses of his actions and their inability to sate his misery and frustration - if Kersey is inarguably a do-gooder on any level, then that undercuts what's most compelling about the film's moral stance. His mental breakdown and increasing disconnect from reality (in favor of Old West theatrics) seems like a reasonable sacrifice for a decrease in crime and a growing sense of safety amongst the public. If there were no drop in crime in NYC and he was simply offing street thugs (and becoming beloved for that activity) while losing his mind, it would be much more engaging portrait of morality, justice and the human need for vengeance. Instead, at every turn, the film undermines its own ambiguities and ends up with a red-on-red situation, irony piled on irony to an indistinct effect. There's a weirdness to it all as a result, but it's hard to tell exactly what to make of it. That the sequels increasingly embraced a lack of ambiguity in regards to Kersey's moral righteousness makes it hard to give the original film the benefit of the doubt. Death Wish is not Death Wish II, but it's also not hard to see where the grotequesly simplistic sequel came from.

I try not to read biography into art, but in the case of Winner and Bronson making Death Wish, it's difficult not to do so - not only because of the anecdote opening his article. Winner is a foppish British dandy who has enjoyed a second career in the U.K. as goofily aristocratic t.v. personality, the image of him gunning down muggers in 1974 Times Squares a delightful absurdity. Winner can't possibly be in favor of living in an Old West free-for-all or even up for romanticizing the U.S.'s hootin' cowboys heroes. Sure, he might be sympathetic to Kersey's tactics, but it's impossible to imagine he identifies with the character's actions in any meaningful way. Bronson, remembered now as somewhat of a Right Wing Icon, shares a political complexity with the progenitor of the similarly-maligned vigilante cop, Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan is an obvious precusor to Bronson's Kersey and both actors came to symbolize the supposed political agendas for which their characters stood. Bronson and Eastwood, Callahan and Kesery, both became convenient shorthand for a certain brand of slick, exploitative Hollywood Fascism - a worldview that to this day draws scorn from countless critics.

But as I pointed out in my 10 to Midnight piece, both Death Wish and Dirty Harry have significant anti-authoritarian streaks. They articulate ample outrage at the most venerable of Rightwing institutions: the police. Bureaucratic, hypocritical, ineffectual and deaf to the pleas of the innocent, the police forces in both films are presented as almost as bad as the rapists and murderers to whom they display crushing indifference. It might not be the driving force of either film and it might not even be intentional, but the anti-The Man stance is there.

Additionally, Bronson hailed from a small mining town in Pennsylvania and in one his few late-career departures he played Union reformer Jock Yablonski in a made-for-HBO t.v. movie.*** ** Bronson's sympathetic portrayal of a noble leader of a coal miner's union reflects his childhood as the son of a coal-mining Lithuanian immigrant and doesn't quite square with his status as an UltraConservative icon. Of course, Jock Yablonski still fit the Bronson mold of "a decent man pushed too far" and the film focused on union corruption and the plot to assassinate Yoblonski,*** *** so it's not like he set out to reinvent himself as the face of union boosterism. Still, the film's sympathy for worker's rights and the importance of strong unions simply doesn't have a place at the table in conservative politics. Death Wish comes from two men, Winner and Bronson, whose personalities just don't fit quite neatly in the box built around the film. Naturally, the film contains loose ends that don't reconcile with the popular conception of Death Wish, one that imagines a film presenting a laudable vigilante hero, a pussy liberal pacifist who when tested by hellfire sees the righteous light and cowboys up.

But let's wrap this up (in 8 paragraphs and 1,500 words) by discussing fantasy versus reality for bit - after all, it is one of the main themes of the film in question. What makes Death Wish's critique of mass media so muddled is that whatever Death Wish is, it is the same kind of mass media as the tabloids and nightly news reports it incoherently critiques. There's a level on which it shares the same perspective on crime as those mass media sources; it works from the same set of assumptions about "what's a-goin' on in these dark and scarifying times."

Crime was on the rise in New York in the 70's and verged on epidemic levels in urban centers. But Death Wish, like Time magazine and the six o'clock news, misrepresented the nature of that crime. The implicit idea, which can be traced by to the Manson murders in 1969, saw crime in the 70's as not only more prevalent but somehow different. It wasn't just that murder rates were up, it was that the nature of murder was supposedly changing: remorseless thrill killers and savage minorities were going to creep into your very home, invade your castle and rape your wife and daughter. A new breed of criminal was afoot and no one was safe - you and your decent, God-fearing neighborhoods would be swarmed by cackling, filthy brutes. There wasn't just more crime, there was worse crime. Whatever it is as a film, Death Wish clearly doesn't disagree with this idea.

That the New Crime narrative emerged in the wake of desegregation can't be overlooked: the not-so subtle subtext being that blacks and Latinos were now gonna come getcha! Come getcha where you live! These subhuman beasties who aren't like you and me, dear magazine reader, dear Death Wish viewer, these animals are going to come into your Upper Westside neighborhood and there are no longer any institutional protections, no seperate bathrooms or schools or movie-theater sections to keep these over-sexed monsters out of sight and out of mind. The fact, then as now, is that the increase in crime and especially the increase in violent crime occurred in areas of poverty and, at its worst, spilled over occasionally into middle-class neighborhoods.

Then as now, violent crime is the urban poor preying on the urban poor - and as urban poverty tends to be inflicted on minority populations, minorities fighting minorities. (And it should be noted, the systemic indifference to their suffering is as much at the root of the problem as the poverty itself.) There was a boom in crime in NYC in the 70's, but the bomb was going off in Bed-Stuy and Jamaica Bay, not Paul Kersey's Upper Westside. The mass media and Death Wish elide this crucial fact in favor of stoking dubious fears about how everyone is in danger at all times. Crimes like the one suffered by Kersey's wife and daughter did happen (they always happen and are in fact eternal), but they were a drop in the bucket compared to the everyday convenience store shootings and drug deals gone south that constituted the bulk of the crime spike (not to mention the popular savagery inflicted by predators on the gay population in NYC while the police turned a blind eye.)

Crime was rampant in NYC in those days, but Paul Kersey and his family were hardly its most likely victims. Getting your wallet stolen at knife-point sucks, but let's not compare that to a hopeless decade of fear and debasement in the Marcy projects. Let's not compare that to risking your life by existing, which was the reality for the poor, black, Latino and otherwise disenfranchised folks in NYC. Plus, if a crime like the one in the film did befall an Upper Westisde architect's family, the chances of it being treated with indfference by police (i.e. the response they would have if it happened in an impoverished community) are zilch.

To know Death Wish is disconnected from reality, just look at its depiction of criminals: it's absurd, increasingly absurd in Parts II and III. Even in the markedly more sober first film, the criminals don't act like human beings. Perhaps taking a cue from Andy Robinson's nasally, neurotic dork Scorpio in Dirty Harry, the criminals in Death Wish are giggling, hyperactive rainbow gangs with no clear racial or gang affiliations. They're not so much people as collections of tics draped in sweaty bandanas. Jeff Goldblum plays one of the principal assailants for God's sake - the film is jam-packed with dubious, even cartoonish, depictions of "the average street thug" (to say the least.) Winner and Bronson are undoubtedly sensitive to avoiding charges of racism, so the multi-ethnic rape squad has an air of calculation about it: a Jewish guy made to look racially indeterminate (I guess that's why he's cool with his buddy spray painting a swastika on the apartment wall), a vaguely Latino shaggy dude in a denim vest and a lurching bald guy. "Hey we got all types, no racial animosity being stoked here. In fact, they painted a swastika on the wall - they're the racists!"

These guys leap and stalk, lick their lips and squirm and wiggle around like background characters in a Ralph Bakshi movie. And it's not just the criminals themselves that are cartoonish, the crime is so prevalent, so easy for Bronson to stumble upon, so consistently ugly, that one wonders how everyone in the entire city wasn't stabbed to death in 1973. The home invaders dance around and cackle, spray paint little squiggles on the wall of the apartment and talk in exaggerated, square-sounding slang that sounds like was written by a foppish British dandy.

In other words, Death Wish goes out of its way to portray crime not as it is. It never veers into outright impossibility, but plays off of false impressions about the nature of the New Crime, its victims and its prevalence. I asked my boss, Brian Ackerman, who  in the 1970's lived in the same neighborhood as Bronson's character, about the actual level of violence at the time and he said neither he nor his wife had ever been mugged nor felt particularly threatened but that cars were broken into on an epidemic scale. He said he didn't bother to locks his car doors because giving free reign for someone to rummage through his car was preferable to having to repair a smashed window every couple months. There you have it: the mugger Bronson executed in Riverside park probably stole a few wallets and broke into my boss' car. An epidemic of car robberies sounds like a problem. I'm not sure that a solution involves capriciously rendered death sentences.

Anecdotal evidence? Sure.But Death Wish doesn't even have anecdotes to back it up. It has Jeff Goldblum in a Jughead hat sneaking into a doorman building in broad daylight to rape and murder at a leisurely pace at top volume without leaving any evidence to the total disinterest of the investigating detectives. Don't tell me his crime wouldn't have been a citywide, if not country-wide, outrage. Death Wish's paranoia stems from a changing world in which entitled white men like Paul Kersey no longer ruled isolated kingdoms, their serfs (and their hardships) toiling out of sight and out of mind. The growing dissolution of segrated comfort combined with (discredited) scare stories like the public indifference to Kitty Genovese's murder to create a lot of paranoid minds anxiously grappling with societal change.

In that context, Death Wish as a social issue film presents an argument about nothing - it works from a faulty premise, one it doesn't consider judicously. It's another piece in a long line of "middle-class people... are you next?!" scare pieces that stoke the popular paranoias of populations losing their privileged positions.**** ***

Films like Death Wish contributed to a prominet delusion that caused whites to take flight in droves from the cities and leave urban centers as crumbling husks in the 80's. The middle-class in NYC was in more danger in the 70's than say the 50's, but never in the throes of the kind mass-scale impunity for creeps to wreak havoc as depicted in Death Wish. In some ways, I don't think this undermines a film which is ultimately about one man's descent in a fantasy realm, his twisted embrace of a gunslinger-dominated Old West mythology, a legendary West that also never existed in reality. The film works best as a skeptical examination of one man's sick soul and a deadening pain that can only be placated by annihilation, self-annihilation. It's a fascinating, compelling film if you separate it from the on-going cultural debate about "what are all us decent folks supposed to do about these street criminals?" It's not about reality, but about a dubious perspective on reality; or rather, one grieving man's reaction to that specific and dubious theory of the New Crime. Death Wish is ultimately a film divorced from reality about a man divorced from reality; a mass media spectacle that struck a chord with audiences in 1974 who feared the New Crime by exploiting the mass media's exploitation of audiences afraid of the New Crime. That's Hollywood for you, I guess. Death Wish is good enough that you can't accuse it of the simple-mindedness that would characterize Bronson's later career, but if you can make coherent sense of it, you're welcome to it.

~ NOVEMBER 30, 2012 ~
* Played by the great Ed Lauter {LINK}.
** Although, really being technical about, 10 to Midnight rips off William Lustig's Vigilante more than it rips off either of the Death Wish films. Of course, Vigilante is pretty explicitly a Death Wish rip-off, so 10 to Midnight is a rip-off of a rip-off finding Bronson stealing from an imitation of his own original - some wonder 10 to Midnight is such an artless affair. All of the films in question are, of course, also aping Dirty Harry to a certain extent. Bronson is one of the few stars to have had a career based on another guy's hit movie. I guess he eventually teamed with J. Lee Thompson, the guy who directed the grand-daddy of the genre Cape Fear, so that's something. Bronson's roots in the "creep who acts with impunity and makes a mockery of justice by exploiting legal technicalities" genre are deep and multifarious.
*** It was a young Jeff Goldblum. Somehow, seeing a scenery-chewing Seth Brundle commit a rape/murder makes the scene both goofier and more disturbing.
** ** For me it did, anyway. Your mileage might vary - there are after all four sequels to the film where just about the only thing Kersey does is slaughter criminals.
*** ** The film is called An Act of Vengeance which (like Messenger of Death) shows just difficult it was for studios and producers to resist titling every film Bronson did post-1982 as though it is yet another Death Wish rip-off.
*** *** Keanu Reeves plays one of the hired killers! Imagine that: a movie in which Keanu Reeves is sent to kill Charles fucking Bronson!
**** *** Not to get too far off track, but it's important to remember that it is the middle class (even the upper middle-class to which an architect like Paul Kersey would belong) becoming vulnerable due to change - it's a specifically middle-class paranoia. The ruling classes are rarely directly threatened by the societal changes (and even then frequently it takes decadents for any instability to trickle upwards.) What I'm saying is: these films are never about gangs giggling and prancing around yacht clubs as they menace blue-bloods or biker gangs taking over Sausalito - it's a middle-class anxiety being stoked because that's the class losing its privilege (or at least tasting the danger of losing it), not the truly privileged ruling class. Guys with butlers only become vigilantes in comic books. Whatever Death Wish is, it's one level closer to reality than Batman.