Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes you may get it. While the Hays Code, which was instituted in 1930, was designed to censor the radical left, its repeal in 1968 did not lead to a new age of socialist realism or risque, but sophisticated romantic comedies. On the contrary, it was the radical right that took advantage of the new opportunity to make films that were both hyper-violent and sexually explicit. From Sam Peckinpah’s pro-rape abomination Straw Dogs to the quasi-fascist Dirty Harry to violent horror films like The Exorcist, nihilistic conservatives hammered away at what remained of the cinematic humanism of John Ford and Preston Sturges.
One of the most representative examples of the new Hollywood fascism was Death Wish, a 1974 film based on the novel by Brian Garfield, and directed by the British Thatcherite Michael Winner. Paul Kersey, Charles Bronson, is a successful Manhattan architect and civil engineer. Like most upper-middle-class Americans in the northeast, he’s mostly apolitical, but more liberal than conservative when pushed to take a position. When a colleague suggests building concentration camps as a way to fight the relentless New York City crime wave, he dismisses him with a shrug of his shoulders. Soon, disaster hits. Joanna, his wife, and Carol, his 20-something daughter, are followed to their apartment from a local D’Agostino’s by a trio of young punks led by a 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum. What follows is 10 minutes of violent, soft-core pornography, where Joanna has her brains bashed is, and Carol is stripped naked and gang-raped. Winner, like most conservatives, has a tabloid sensibility. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, to get off on the images of two women being raped and savagely beaten, and yet paint the three”’freaks” as depraved monsters (which indeed they are) who deserve a quick summary execution (which indeed they do).
That Joanna Kersey’s murderers are white is a clever narrative trick by Michael Winner. The menace to Manhattan’s bourgeoisie, he initially suggests, does not come from blacks or Hispanics, but from the youth culture. Death Wish, like the Exorcist or Dirty Harry, is a straightforward attack on the counterculture of the 1960s. Hippies have turned New York City into a war zone, where going back and forth to the subway or the supermarket is more dangerous than walking point in Vietnam. Paul Kersey goes on a business trip to Arizona, where his client, an open carry ideologue who thinks that no real American should leave the house without packing a hand gun, gives him the present of a 38 caliber revolver. Soon after he returns, the “mild-mannered” Paul Kersey is walking the streets of Manhattan, looking for muggers, which are never in short supply, to gun down in revenge for what happened to his wife.
When applied to Paul Kersey, the term “mild-mannered” should be taken with a grain of salt. Death Wish, like the current generation of Dark Knight films, is a superhero origin story. Charles Bronson may have been 53-years old in 1974, but he also had a cut, weightlifter’s body that would have put men half his age to shame, and a quick draw with a pistol that makes Dirty Harry look like an amateur. Again and again, Kersey manages to gun down would-be muggers in broad daylight, often on the subway, and escape as easily as if he had a cloaking device. Eventually, he comes to the attention of the NYPD, who begin a round the clock surveillance operation of the man the newspapers have dubbed “the Vigilante” and turned into a hero. After the police manage to gather enough evidence to convict Kersey, however, they decide they don’t want him. His murder spree, and by this time he’s more serial killer than crime fighter, has provoked an uprising of the people of New York against the criminals who, up until then, had maintained a reign of terror over their city. Instead of arresting him, they tell him to leave town, to request a transfer to another city. In the final scene we seem him arrive in Chicago, getting ready, no doubt, to begin another killing spree, and setting up the inevitable sequel. In New York, the legend of the vigilante lives on.
So why watch Death Wish?
While Death Wish is a vicious, pornographic, quasi-fascist movie, it’s also well-paced, and crisply written. To view Death Wish 40 years after is release it to realize just how stuck in the post-1960s right-wing backlash American cinema remains. Made for only 3 million dollars, Death Wish says exactly the same thing as the 200 million dollar Dark Knight Rises, and in a far more entertaining manner. To watch Death With is to realize that the 197 million dollar difference between it and Dark Knight Rises is spent, not only telling a story, but on cloaking a story underneath a deluge of hype and high-tech wizardry. Charles Bronson is far more convincing as a “dark avenger” with a subway token and a 38 caliber revolver than Christian Bale is with a million dollar car and a multi-million dollar bat cave. Michael Winner may have been a vicious right-wing supporter of Margaret Thatcher but, unlike Chris Nolan, he makes his intentions clear. If dreams came true, every American movie would look like Grapes of Wrath or Sullivan’s Travels. But if the choice is between honest, in your face fascism, and muddled, poorly-written fascism, I’ll take the former every time. Let’s strip the layers of obfuscation off the current generation of ponderous, hundred million dollar duds, and contemplate their real meaning.