When Michael Winner asked the late Charles Bronson if he’d like to star in his new movie Death Wish, about a mild-mannered chap who goes on a rampage shooting scumbags when his family is attacked, Bronson replied “Id like to do that”. “The movie?” Winner enquired, “No”, responded Bronson, “Shoot some scumbags”.
When it was released in 1974 Death Wish stirred up enormous controversy. With its violent rape scene and apparent condoning of Paul Kersey’s vigilante activities, Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “one of the sickest movies ever made”, claiming that it “raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers”.
The films message in enunciated best by Kersey in conversation with his wet blanket of a son-in-law; “What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition of fear, run away?”. His son sheepishly asks “Civilised?”. In the west, society works on the understanding that when members of the public are done wrong, the State, which holds the monopoly on legitimate violence, takes people’s rights of revenge and retribution on itself. With this comes the caveat that the State is duty bound to exercise this right of revenge and retribution. But, as this film poses, what are we supposed to do when the authorities rescind this right, and by definition the rights of victims and the public, in the face of left wing/liberal notions of fairness for crooks? When the police don’t protect us, who does?
For those who think this film silly, just look at the case of British farmer Tony Martin. Repeatedly burgled and repeatedly told by the police that they were powerless to act, Martin shot one burglar dead and wounded another when his home was broken into again. Unlike the burglars, Martin was arrested and sent to jail. The burglar who escaped was subsequently given legal aid to sue Martin. In Death Wish the police spend considerably more time trying to apprehend Kersey than the scum he is after. This is provocative political film making of the highest calibre, not far behind Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and Costa Gavras’ Z.
Some criticise the film for the ease with which Bronson finds muggers. As Mark Steyn wrote, “To be sure, he sort of goes looking for trouble. But in 1970’s New York you didn’t have to look far: just go to the park, ride the subway, take an evening stroll”. This great movie loses one star only because it is not quite as good as the similarly themed Dirty Harry.
There are a couple of problems with this movie. Charles Bronson is too macho an actor for the role of “bleeding heart liberal” turned vigilante Paul Kersey. He looks like a killer from frame one, and as a result his transformation is a little hard to swallow. A more normal looking actor might have been more believable, as Dustin Hoffmann demonstrates in Straw Dogs*. It also suffers in comparison to the book. The back story about a gun fighting father, introduced in the movie, is plain daft, and the police investigation in the film, which tracks Kersey down in pretty short order, feels tacked on and ill thought out. The ending of the book is better also. Called Paul Benjamin in the book, the Bronson character is caught red-handed by a police officer. The officer removes his hat, turns his back and allows the Vigilante to escape. Oochoa gets nowhere near him in the book.
Ask yourself the question posed on the back of the paperback version of the book; “What do you do when your life lies in ruins and fear clutches at your heart? Do you shun the city and flee from its violence? Or do you do what Paul did – get a gun, learn to use it and start fighting back?”
* Apparently the movie was originally slated to be directed by Sidney Lumet and star Jack Lemmon. That would have been some movie.