Home, Home and Deranged
Death Wish directed by Michael Winner at the Circle Theatre
NEW YORK is an urban wilderness. A forest of skyscrapers supports a canopy of smog, the streets are a desolate and forbidding territory, human artifices like subway tunnels and telephone booths are derelict endeavors slowly returning to the soil, while primitive creatures roam about. Yes sir, this is the new frontier, and Charlie Bronson is its trailblazing pioneer in Death Wish.
Bronson plays Paul Kersey, who we are supposed to think is a liberal because he was a Conscientious Objector during the Korean War and because he has refused to leave the city, staking his claim on Riverside Drive. Before long, of course, the wild ones invade Paul's domestic bastion and violate his wife and daughter, and then of course the wife dies and the daughter's brain turns to mush and she must go to a convent for the rest of her days.
Now Paul works for a developing firm and his boss promptly shoos him to New Mexico on an assignment so that he will forget his little urban nightmare. And New Mexico is just the place to be, baby, as space and time are not the perverted dimensions they are in the city. Here too is developer Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), who upholds the image of settler, who scoffs at Paul's C.O. status and who leaves Paul a shiny .32 to remind him of the American legacy. Paul comes back to New York with the heater in one hand and brilliant and revolutionary planning designs in the other, but his feverish little mind is burning with a much grander scheme. Paul decides to kill muggers, and he murders a dozen of them before the police finally snag him. The cops know, however, that to announce his arrest and put him on trial would be to make a martyr of him, so they give him till sunset to get out of town.
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Digression: A parallel presents itself. Seven years ago for a period of a month and a half, a certain unknown freshman mounted a certain unknown pinnacle in the Yard each evening at 5:20 p.m. to bellow the finest Tarzan yell this side of the Equator. W.C. Burriss Young '55, then associate dean of freshmen, soon perceived that something had to be done, as each evening multitudes of freshmen abandoned their studies to hark to the mystery wail. Grade-point averages were dipping dangerously. Young pursued the lonely caterwauler with the dogged persistence of an insecure gum-shoe, and one cold morning at 3:30 a.m., confronted the youth in his Matthews Hall digs. "I would like to discipline you," Young asserted coolly, "but to do so would be to risk publicizing this case; thousands would flock to your defense, and you would only lose your anonymity." The startled undergraduate thought for a moment, then declared simply, "I will stop."
The next evening at 5:20 p.m., swarms of undergraduates besieged the Yard to attend the Gabriellesque shriek. None was forthcoming, and perched on a Wigglesworth stoop, Young smiled and grunted his satisfaction. By next week, however, Young's plan was torpedoed by hordes of freshman imitators who clambered up among the gargoyles at the appointed hour, to wreak their own vocal havoc. Another crisis was at hand, as the oral abominations of the mimics were now desolating the Yard and the tell-tale grade-point average was dipping again. On a cold night, again at 3:30 a.m., Young once more confronted the erstwhile howler and appealed to him to resume his daily yelp, but the young man refused to be compromised as an artist, and went on to lead a fulfilling life as an urban planner. This story is not really pertinent, but it is a word of warning to freshmen.
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THERE are lessons to be gained from this film. That the city is a barbaric place, that we are all hostage to a population of capricious adventurists, and that the random slaying of muggers by a "vigilante" will drastically reduce the rate of assaults (in this case, from over 900, to 470 a week). And this movie is tremendously powerful, for it clumsily taps a vein of paranoia in its audience so that its audience accepts those reactionary premises and explodes with applause every time Paul fires his gun.
Death Wish is ugly not only because of its contentions but because it has the utter gracelessness of a polemic. Director Michael Winner presents what one can only surmise is his neurotic view, and his facile efforts to render the film in an "artistic" way only make it uglier. Charles Bronson and Hope Lange as husband and wife are meant to conjure up domestic felicity, but their relationship is as superficial as the Instamatic photos he takes of her. Bronson, who is supposed to be attractive, has the film presence of a slab of ham. And thus his acts emerge not as the brave and pragmatic doings of the frontiersman, but as the petty and snivelling expression of a tiny mind.
Similarly, the attempt to make Paul's western apocalypse seem beautiful fails; it is as dull as the desert sand. Yet Winner depends exclusively on glib celluloid statements to establish points. The Kerseys are in love--because a golden sundown silhouettes them when they embrace.
Ultimately, though, it is the depravity of the film's theme and its manipulation of its audience that stuns an observer. That the tyranny of an individual who takes justice into his own hand excites such delirious approval from moviegoers has led some liberal critics to suggest that the film be banned because people are not responsible enough to reject its analysis. However, the movie seems to stand less as an incitement to copy Kersey than as a cathartic experience and any individual's presumption to censor the film would amount to a tyranny analagous to Kersey's.
Nonetheless, Death Wish is dangerous, because it exploits what might even be considered a legitimate fear of assault while conveniently perpetrating an unintelligent fallacy. And this fallacy is uglier than the stupid assumptions that the city is a hellish place or that killing muggers cuts the assault rate. This is the film's failure to perceive muggers as anything other than adventuristic hedonists. Nowhere in the film is there indication that these people attack others because they need money or because they are downtrodden. Even when in one scene, a group of assailants might be accused of harboring sexual motive, they stop short of getting their rocks off, and the observer is left to conclude that their crime was "just one of those fabulous flings." The casting-director's muggers are an antiseptic lot; there is no attempt to make them even seem poor. Most all of them wear nice clothes, not one boasts missing teeth or a ragged countenance, and they all say "motherfucker" with the decided precision of speech therapists.
SO WHAT IS at last missing from this movie is any recognition of the terrible condition of poverty that justifies the effort to escape it. The camera just never strays from Kersey's rancid westside stomping-ground to acknowledge the New York ghettoes, or any other aspect of disequality in society. One is to believe that muggers have simply sprung from the same cultivated turf as Kersey--yet rejected urban planning so they can beat up old men and spray red paint on a rich girl's ass.
Bernard Shaw wrote nearly 70 years ago that when people have failed to rise from poverty but have indulged the patronage of the rich too long, "we should, with many apologies and expressions of sympathy, and some generosity in complying with their last wishes, place them in the lethal chamber and get rid of them." Paul Kersey in Death Wish is Shaw's willing champion, but somewhere he has missed the message.