Back to the Past : Death Wish


Came Out : 1974
Directed by : Michael Winner
Starred : Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Jack Wallace

Some films just aren’t holiday fare. In fact, the closest ”Death Wish” should come is mid-May, when the holly-jolly thing has been fully bled out.

We start in familiar territory for the revenge drama, the happy contrast. Paul Kersey (Bronson) snaps pictures of his picturesque wife on a secluded Hawaiian beach. Life is grand, the two are as in love as any couple could be, and they flirt with the idea of making love on the sand. “We’re too civilized,” says Joanna (Hope Lange), which is a marker flag for worse things to come.

The couple returns to New York accompanied by another actor, Herbie Hancock’s moody sometimes suspicious urban score, and they settle back into city life. Paul is a development engineer, running feasibility studies for building projects and the like. His wife is a homemaker from what we can guess. Her presence on screen is brief. On what could even be their first day back, Joanna and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are brutalized in their home by hoods claiming to be grocery delivery boys. The attack is quick and savage and without gimmicks and camera tricks, all the more disturbing. Joanna dies from her injuries. Carol is sexually assaulted and survives but slips deeper and deeper into a vegetable-like state.

Now there’s something to avenge, but even without the star billing, it’s clear who’s job it’ll be, who’ll have the death wish. It won’t be Paul’s son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats). He’s a nervous mess. For him, there is no fighting back, not in a civilized world. “There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Nothing but cut and run.” But Paul doesn’t run and continues to pay the price on the street. The city is portrayed as a rat’s nest of muggers, especially in parks and subways, and like anyone touched by violence, Paul is more conscious of it than ever. But the leap from left-leaning liberal to a man who metes out justice like he’s scooping ice cream takes time. Paul has to work up to his first kill, then develop a taste for it. Which he does, first with a sock weighted with rolls of quarters, then with a .32 caliber revolver he’s given as a gift.

In the 10 years leading up to the film’s 1974 release, the violent crime rate in the state of New York had more than doubled, with little change in population. By some accounts, audience members even cheered as Paul gunned down each perp. But ”Death Wish” was also panned by many critics as an endorsement of vigilantism. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrapped his original review by calling it “a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” What the film doesn’t offer is a winning scenario for any of its characters. Paul gets more brazen as time passes. What begins as a way of filling his loss turns into a compulsion, with each kill reassuring him that urban cowboy is a role he has to play, even when being tailed by police inspector Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia). By the end he’s even taken on the lines and mannerisms of his Magnificent Seven comrades. “Draw,” he tells his last potential target. It’s uncertain how far Paul has disappeared inside his habit.

”The Brave One” follows a similar pattern, with Jodie Foster taking on the role of both victim (she is beaten) and avenger (her fiance’s life is taken by a violent crime). Foster does the more powerful job externalizing the emotions that Bronson plays cool – anguish, fear and eventually his newfound impulse to kick some – but the presentation is overcooked. Between the Travis Bicklesque voice overs and a droning soundtrack that comes far too close to ”Taxi Driver”’s, the point is made and then made again. There are enough Dutch tilts in this one for a dozen ”Lady of Shanghai” remakes. But both films make like statements about the limitations of law enforcement, the availability of crime, and something most of us suspect but would rather not put to the test: for the victim, there’s no going back.

Have a safe holiday.

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