Barack Brewster’s Millions

Who ya gonna call in November?

Films have often been vehicles for communicating complex ideas and philosophies in coded parables. The dreary films of Marxist filmmaker Ken Loach aren’t much more fun than ploughing through all three volumes of Das Kapital but they do, at least, take less time.

When, in The Shootist, John Wayne’s character, J B Books, says “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them”, he was saying roughly what it took Robert Nozick 300 pages to say in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

But I wasn’t expecting any such heft when I sat down to watch Brewster’s Millions at the weekend. As a child of the 1980s I might have seen this film around 20 times but this time I noticed something new in it; it is a parable for Keynesian economics.

It tells the story of washed up baseball player, Montgomery Brewster (Richard Pryor), who is left $300 million by an eccentric relative. There is one catch: first he has to spend $30 million in 30 days with absolutely nothing to show for it; “you’re not allowed to own any assets. No houses, no cars, no jewelry. Nothing but the clothes on your back!”

Brewster uses a raft of tricks to spend this money, some of which will be oddly familiar to anyone who has been watching economic policy making over the last few years.

Brewster’s first act is to go on a hiring spree offering vastly inflated wages. No, not public sector employees, but a team of security guards. Later he gets into his very own crackpot environmental, or ‘green tech’, scheme when he buys an iceberg with the aim of floating it to the Middle East to bring relief to supposedly drought stricken Arabian farmers.

“What thirsty Arab farmers?” his friend Spike (John Candy) asks, “There aren’t any, because there aren’t any farmers in the desert!” If only John Candy had been on hand before Barack Obama blew $535 million on Solyndra.

Finally he hosts an expensive exhibition game between his old team, the Hackensack Bulls, and the New York Yankees. The Bulls are kitted out in new uniforms and flown in by helicopter. Brewster should, of course, have re-designated some of the major roads in New York as special lanes for his game; then he could have wasted as much money as the London Olympics.

If it sounds fanciful to see any economics in this flurry of pointless spending, consider the words of John Maynard Keynes himself:

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is”

A different attitude to wealth creation is on display in one of the classics of 1980s cinema, Ghostbusters.

Three government employees spend their days trying to seduce their students with phony experiments and running away from ghosts. When this dismal level of productivity proves too low even for the public sector they are sacked and go private, though not without misgivings.

As Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) warns Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”

Spotting a gap in the market (“We are on the threshold of establishing the indispensable defense science of the next decade. Professional paranormal investigations and eliminations. The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams”) the three borrow some money and set up the Ghostbusters.

Soon they are raking in $5,000 a night, getting coverage from Larry King and Time magazine, and taking on a black member of staff, no affirmative action needed.

Then up pops Walter Peck of the Environmental Protection Agency. “I want to know more about what you do here” he demands. “Frankly, there have been a lot of wild stories in the media and we want to assess for any possible environmental impact from your operation, for instance, the presence of noxious, possibly hazardous waste chemicals in your basement. Now you either show me what’s down there or I come back with a court order!”

With Venkman an unlikely John Galt the government steps in, shuts down the thriving private sector enterprise, and the town is flooded with ghosts.

Where Brewster’s Millions is an object lesson in the wasteful uselessness of Keynesian economics, Ghostbusters is one of the most pro free market films ever made, a hymn to the genius of capitalism and the clumsy damage wrought by government.

Or, to quote another economist, Milton Friedman, “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand”

These differing attitudes are on display in the US Presidential election. With the American economy slowing to stall speedthe question each of the candidates must answer is “Where is the growth going to come from?”

With his background in law and ‘community organising’ it’s no surprise that Barack ‘Brewster’ Obama doesn’t know, pinning his hopes on ever more government spending of the Solyndra sort.

Mitt ‘Venkman’ Romney, by contrast, is at least paying lip service to private sector led growth of the Bain Capital sort. The difference is that Bain made money and Solyndra went bust. Do Americans want their economy run by Monty Brewster or the Ghostbusters? That will be the question this November

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The late, occasionally great, Ken Russell

Ken Russell, 1927 – 2011

The 1960s ‘Harry Palmer’ spy films starring Michael Caine were intended as the antithesis of James Bond. They were downbeat, gritty, and realistic. The first in the series, ‘The Ipcress File’ (1965), opened with Palmer fumbling for his horn rimmed specs and sleepily making coffee. Then Ken Russell, who died yesterday aged 84, was hired to direct the third instalment, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ (1967).

Perhaps the producers were attracted by Russell’s intellectual cache and documentary film background. He made his name with a string of films he produced in the 1960s for ‘Monitor’, the BBC’s arts show. In themes he would return to in his films Russell’s finest television work focused on artists. His documentary on Edward Elgar (1962) was more than a simple biography with some musical clips. By setting up shots and scenes and using Elgar’s symphonies almost as incidental music Russell placed the composer squarely in his time and setting. It was as much an evocation of the high noon of Imperial Britain as a documentary about Elgar.

Russell took these techniques further in his film on the life of Claude Debussy (1965), which interspersed more conventional documentary film with dramatised scenes from his life. Oliver Reed gave a stunning performance as Debussy, powerful and passionate, and launched his career, a career he spent the rest of his life merrily trying to destroy.

So Ken Russell might have been the ideal director for the hyperrealism of Harry Palmer. Instead, where the ‘The Ipcress File’ had utilised no location more exotic than Balham and climaxed with a strung out Palmer in a disused warehouse, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ went to the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle and culminated with a right wing madman’s private army crashing through the Baltic ice on its way to invade the Soviet Union and trigger World War Three. The world had seen a sneak peak of Ken Russell, movie director.

‘Flamboyant’ and ‘outrageous’ are just two of the adjectives applied equally to Ken Russell and his films. Movies like ‘Tommy’, ‘Lisztomania’ (both 1975), and ‘Crimes of Passion’ (1984) are less coherent films than sensory assaults. There seemed to be no idea so loopy that Russell wouldn’t include it. ‘Lisztomania’, for example, a film ostensibly about the life of the composer Franz Liszt, featured Rick Wakeman of prog rockers Yes as Thor, God of Thunder (and Ringo Starr as the Pope), and a plot that saw a musical battle between Liszt and Richard Wagner over the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. His films became bywords for extravagance.

They also became synonymous with controversy. Most famously Russell’s film of ‘Women in Love’ (1969) became the first mainstream film to show frontal male nudity when its two stars, Reed and Alan Bates, wrestled in the buff in front of a fireplace. ‘The Devils’ (1971) with its horde of naked, masturbating nuns remains unreleased in its original form to this day. “Monstrously indecent” said one critic, a “grand fiesta for sadists and perverts” said another.

Russell appeared to shelter from some of the controversy behind a shield of silliness, something he only encouraged by saying he was writing a series of books on the sex lives of great composers with titles like ‘Brahms Gets Laid’. When he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2007 warbling Singin’ in the Rain Russell appeared to be revelling in his role of eccentric. He’d have been called an enfant terrible if he hadn’t been over 80.

Sadly all this this often obscured a ferociously intelligent man, one who thought deeply about religion (he converted to Catholicism late in life) and about the creative process and was capable of producing scintillating cinema.

‘The Devils’, for example, is a stunning exercise in cinematic expressionism; Russell cited Fritz Lang and Jean Cocteau and early influences. Though based on a true story from 17th century France the screen is full of billowing, anachronistic black flags. The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are similarly dissonant; the cells in the convent where the nuns are interrogated have smooth, white tiled walls evoking a modern day psychiatric institution. Russell is signalling the timelessness of the story.

Russell’s film is about the perversion of ideology, in this case religion in the form of the Catholic Church. The film shows a desiccated Church, become simply an instrument in repression, prostituting itself to the temporal power of the French King.

Oliver Reed’s Father Urban Grandier defies an edict from the King to demolish the walls of his town. Meanwhile Sister Jeanne, a crippled nun played by Vanessa Redgrave, becomes sexually obsessed with Grandier. When she hears of his secret marriage and tells the King’s agents they co-opt the full power of the Church to destroy Grandier and the walls of Loudon by accusing him of sexual deviancy.

The town erupts in an orgy of grotesque sexuality as repression is cast asunder and is proved to have perverted desire so long denied. This includes the now infamous ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence where the nuns descend on a statue of Jesus and pleasure themselves. This was cut from the released film and was the core of the outrage but it is absolutely integral to the movie, a vicious visual of the defilement of faith. Throughout the film scenes of the private, more personal, spiritual rites of Grandier and his wife are shown for contrast.

Along with ‘Tommy’ ‘The Devils’ was a rare case of Russell’s subject matter being matched to his incredible capacity for cinematic imagination. The late medieval Church which Russell depicts was rotten to its core, stinking and corrupt, and he captures it perfectly. Rarely has a film set out to depict such horror and succeeded so well.

Ken Russell’s imagination was capable of producing utter confusion. It was also, as in the case of ‘Altered States (1980), capable of making ordinary material watchable. And, given the right subject matter, it was able to create unforgettable cinema. Ken Russell made some bad films but he never made a boring one.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

Dirty Hari

“Uh huh, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking does this article contain six lies or only five?”

Drowned out by Hackgate this summer was another spectacular story of media self-immolation. Johann Hari, columnist at the Independent, winner of the prestigious Orwell Prize, regular on Newsnight Review, and darling of the left was caught stuffing his columns with lies.

It began in June when a blogger noticed that some of the quotes given by Hari’s interviewees were identical to quotes which had previously appeared in those interviewees published works. Hari defended the charge, saying that “When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn’t their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible” He called any allegation of plagiarism “totally false”

But, ironically for a man who praised the power of social media, Hari was about to be hoist on his own digital petard. Twitter exploded with tweeters jumping on a bandwagon bearing the hashtag ‘#interviewswithhari’ which presented the hack as some sort of journalistic Zelig.

“‘Stop!’ he cried, pointing to the brass-framed clock above his desk, ‘Hammertime’” read one tweet. “After discussing my evidence with him. he stroked his thick beard, looked up, and then loudly exclaimed ‘GORDON’S ALIVE’?” read another. “He sensed my malaise” read a third “‘Young man’, he murmured, fingering his leather jacket ruminatively, ‘there’s no need to feel down’”.

A left wing journalist can survive many things. You can survive being caught lying in the service of a greater truth,as Hari tried to make out he was. But one thing you cannot survive when your entire shtick is seriousness is having the piss ripped out of you. As soon as he became a joke Hari was finished.

The story rumbled on from there getting worse at every turn. It took a weird turn when it emerged Hari had been posting lies about his opponents on their Wikipedia pages under an alias. It took an unsavoury turn when it emerged that the same alias had been used for other purposes. The outcome was that, on September 15th, Hari published a second apology covering lots of things he’d denied in his first one, handed his Orwell Prize back before it could be embarrassingly stripped from him, and went on four months leave from the Indy to get some training in journalism, a job he’s been doing for ten years.

Hari’s behaviour has been outrageous even by the standards of the newspaper trade. But it can’t have come as a surprise. Particularly not if, like me, you are a fan of Clint Eastwood and had read Hari’s 2009 article for the Independent titled ‘Clint Eastwood shows how America is changing’

Reviewing his 2009 classic ‘Gran Torino’ Hari looked back over Eastwood’s career. According to Hari Eastwood “caught the tail-end of the uncomplicated Us vs Them cowboy flicks where the Indians were evil, scalping savages who had to be destroyed by the white heroes. The films were gorgeous, romantic accounts of a genocide, told adoringly from the perspective of the genocidaires”

I’d love to know which film Hari is talking about here, he doesn’t tell us. Eastwood’s first big screen westerns were the ‘Dollars’ trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns made in Italy by Sergio Leone. In these films Eastwood played the famous Man With No Name who was only out for himself and whose occasional acts of kindness were few and often executed grudgingly or with an ulterior motive. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964), ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965) and the epic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966) were all about grubby scrambles for cash by grubby men in grubby settings. They were utterly amoral films and Native Americans didn’t feature in the trilogy once.

Hari somehow conflates these carnivals of moral ambivalence with the films of John Wayne, writing “The attitude of the genre was typified by John Wayne’s jeer…” Absolutely nothing about Eastwood’s westerns can be typified by anything from John Wayne whose westerns were totally different. For example, Wayne turned down the role Gary Cooper played in ‘High Noon’ (1952) because he disliked that the townspeople abandoned the Sheriff and that he threw his badge away in disgust at the end. When the movie became a hit Wayne responded by making ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959) where the townspeople come to the Sheriff’s aid.

Compare this to Eastwood’s movies. The inhabitants of Lago in ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973) are such a craven bunch that they stood by and watched the town’s old Sheriff brutally whipped to death. When Eastwood’s mysterious stranger arrives in the town and wreaks havoc it is presented as a richly deserved comeuppance. And at the end of Eastwood’s most famous movie, ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971), the disgruntled policeman ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan throws his badge away in disgust. John Wayne turned down that role too.

Sure, all art including film is subjective and some will hate what another loves. But this is not a difference of interpretation but an error of content. It is quite simply impossible to characterise the westerns of Clint Eastwood in the way that Hari does. So Hari either has seen them and is misrepresenting them, or he hasn’t seen them in which case why is he pontificating about them?

This brings us to the crux of Hari’s argument; he hates ‘Dirty Harry’. “Dirty Harry is an old-style cop, fond of beating and torturing confessions out of suspects” Hari says before, entirely predictably, quoting Pauline Kael’s old charge that the film is “fascist”, something she said about all Eastwood’s movies and ‘Straw Dogs’ the same year.

Hari summarises the film thus; “He sets out to catch the killer – but at every turn he is emasculated by insane liberal regulations. The new laws prevent him from breaking into homes without a warrant, committing torture, or harassing suspects. Appalled, Harry spits: ‘That man has rights? The law is crazy!’”

Except he doesn’t say that anywhere in the movie. But he does say something similar.

The set-up is that a 14 year old girl, Ann Mary Deacon, has been kidnapped, raped, and buried alive with a few hours oxygen. The Police receive the ransom note accompanied by a tooth pulled out with a pair of pliers. Callahan agrees to take the ransom to the kidnapper, a serial killer named Scorpio who has already shot three people.

When Callahan reaches the ransom drop he learns that Scorpio is going to kill him, take the money, and leave the girl to die. Luckily Callahan’s partner shows up. In the ensuing shootout Scorpio escapes but not before Callahan has plunged a knife into his leg.

The chase is now on as Callahan tries to find the girl before her oxygen runs out. Callahan tracks Scorpio to his flat and finds the rifle used in the previous murders. He finds the fleeing Scorpio and stops him with a bullet in the leg. Scorpio refuses to tell Callahan where the girl is buried, demanding his lawyer instead. With time running out Callahan grinds his boot into the gunshot wound and gets the information. When the girl is found she is already dead.

That’s the context, now the quote. The following day Callahan is summoned by the DA.

District Attorney: I’ve just been looking over your arrest report. A very unusual piece of Police work. Really amazing

Callahan: Yeah, well I had some luck

DA: You’re lucky I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder

Callahan: What?

DA: Where the hell does it say you’ve got a right to kick down doors? Torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the Fourth Amendment? What I’m saying is that man had rights.

Callahan: Well I’m all broken up about that man’s rights

DA: You should be. I’ve got news for you Callahan; as soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital he walks

Callahan: What are you talking about?

DA: He’s free

Callahan: You mean you’re letting him go?

DA: We have to, we can’t try him

Callahan: And why’s that?

DA: Because I’m not wasting a half a million dollars of the taxpayers money on a trial we can’t possibly win. The problem is we don’t have any evidence

Callahan: (Indicating the recovered rifle) Evidence? What the hell do you call that?

DA: I call it nothing, zero.

Callahan: Are trying to tell me that ballistics can’t match the bullet up to this rifle?

DA: It does not matter what ballistics can do. This rifle might make a nice souvenir, but it’s inadmissible as evidence

Callahan: Who says that?

DA: It’s the law

Callahan: Well then the law’s crazy

Again, in a subjective art form you can make the argument that ‘Dirty Harry’ is fascist. But there is nothing subjective about making up quotes to bolster the argument. You come back to Hari’s apology. To Hari it is self-evident that the movie is fascist but Callahan doesn’t quite say anything fascist enough in the movie to make the case as clearly as Hari would want. So he “substituted a passage”, or quote, he had made up himself. This was Hari’s downfall. He got caught out doing it with Gideon Levy and Hugo Chavez and he did it with Dirty Harry.

I have no better idea whether Hari saw the first ‘Dirty Harry’ sequel ‘Magnum Force’ than I do whether he saw any of the Leone westerns. If he did he might have taken a little advice from Dirty Harry Callahan; “A man’s got to know his limitations”

This article first appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

Sam Peckinpah

When ‘The Wild Bunch’ was released in 1969 there were reports of people being stretchered out of cinemas after fainting during the prolonged, slow motion machine gun massacre which closes the film. The ambiguous rape scene in ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971) saw that film banned in Britain for 18 years. The title character of ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) was a severed head roasting in the Mexican sun.

But it wasn’t just in his films that Sam Peckinpah, director of these movies, shocked. His behaviour on the set of ‘Major Dundee’ (1965) caused Charlton Heston to charge at him with a sabre. On his first day on the set of ‘Pat Garret & Billy the Kid’ (1973) a stunned Bob Dylan watched Peckinpah urinate on a screen to show his disapproval of the footage shot that day. He was thrown out of a tribute to Jimmy Cagney for fighting a waiter.

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Sidney Lumet

Juror number 8, Joe Roberts, Frank Johnson, Frank Serpico and Sonny Wortzik were very different men. Number 8 was a middle class architect. Sergeant Major Roberts was a soldier. Frank Johnson and Frank Serpico were detectives. Sonny Wortzik was a bank robber. But in the hands of director Sidney Lumet, who died last month, all these men would have recognised each other’s dilemmas.

In Lumet’s first film ‘12 Angry Men’ (1957) number 8, played by Henry Fonda, retires on a sweltering summer’s day in New York to deliberate over the murder of a man by his teenage son. It’s a seemingly open and shut case; the boy has a criminal record and there are witnesses to the murder identifying him. A vote is held and the hands go up for guilty; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 but not 8.

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Joyeux Noel

On Christmas Eve 1914 German soldiers around Ypres, trying desperately to recreate something of their distant homes, were decorating their trenches with candles and singing carols. A few hundred yards away in the British trenches similarly homesick and weary men joined in the singing.

“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours”, recalled Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, “when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war”

Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment rememberedI shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously!”

“We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years” wrote John Ferguson of the Second Seaforth Highlanders.We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators…What a sight – little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs”

100,000 men from the British, French and German armies took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914. The truce lasted into the following day when joint memorial services were held for the dead and football matches were played in no mans land.

Christian Carion’s powerful 2005 film ‘Joyeux Noel’ captures something of this moment. Carion depicts the truce as the last fleeting prospect that the horror of the next four years could be avoided. By this fourth month of the war the economies and societies of Europe, with the exception of Germany, had not yet given themselves over to total war, the mobilisation of all the states resources toward conflict. The historian Herbert Butterfield had written “(total war) heralds Armageddon, the giant conflict for justice and right between angered populations, each of which thinks it is the righteous one. So a new kind of warfare is born – the modern counter part of the old conflicts of religion” To mobilise a whole population the aims of total war must be millennial, the enemy must be dehumanised. Playing football or praying with him jeopardises that.

But the real tragedy of ‘Joyeux Noel’ and the truce itself is that even by this early stage it was probably too late. Contrary to AJP Taylor’s ‘war by timetable’ thesis World War One was not an accident but the predictable result of two decades of the aggressive and incompetent foreign policy of the idiotic Kaiser. This had hardened attitudes even before 1914. A British soldier, Bruce Bairnsfather, wrote “on our side, not for a moment was the will to win the war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match”. Robert Graves asserted that the truce was “no emotional hiatus, this, but a commonplace of military tradition—an exchange of courtesies between officers of opposing armies”

‘Joyeux Noel’ has faults. The presence of a Danish opera star (Diane Kruger) in the trenches stretches credulity and towards the end the film works too hard to build a narrative out of these spontaneous events. But it does invite you to share what an unknown British soldier described in his a letter to his mother as “the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend”

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

Why, oh why?

The kids from Fame gone bad

Like the Rambo films, this drivel is a prime example of why NOT to make a sequel to perfectly good original.

The plot of Death Wish II is identical to Death Wish, the twist is that it’s set in a different city. A bunch of crooks attack Bronson’s family again. The difference is that whereas in the original the rape scene was a not too graphic short sharp shock, in this film it is leeringly drawn out. Is this to show how vile crime and criminals are? Perhaps. Does it feel shoehorned in for pervs? Certainly.

After this Kersey goes on the rampage again, and this is where the film gets really silly. Part of the strength of the original Death Wish film is that Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) never actually tracks down the crooks who attack his family. Whilst condoning vigilantism, it still feels a little hollow that those guys got away.

Here, Kersey is trawling Los Angeles looking for targets. Now I haven’t been to L.A., but I imagine it’s pretty big. You know, you’re not too likely to keep bumping into the same people at random. Well, you’re not Charles Bronson. While out one night, Kersey stumbles across the same hoodlums who attacked him earlier in the film! Fancy that. As if this stroke of luck was not enough, later on he’s strolling around when he hears a scream. He goes to investigate and, in the peculiar haze of sexual violence in which this film operates (there is one gang rape, one rape and another attempted rape), he comes across a rape. But, get this, the rapists are some of the gang who attacked him earlier! Now how’s that for luck!

It gets one mark for two reasons. First, the hilarious bit when Laurence Fishburne tries to shelter from machine gun fire behind his ghetto blaster (it doesn’t work), and second, I cant give it less.

Vigilante Man

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.