The Curator of Schlock #4 by Jeffrey Shuster
Death Wish (Fill Your Hand)
AMC had a Death Wish marathon a few weeks back. I don’t know if the movies AMC airs these days are true classics or what classic even means these days when it comes to cinema. Maybe it’s the influence a movie has over the larger culture that makes it classic and Death Wish certainly had influence. The movie helped give rise to the vigilante genre for better or for worse. Mostly worse.
In Death Wish, Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a “bleeding heart liberal” that sympathizes with the underprivileged. What Paul Kersey doesn’t know is that the underprivileged HATE bleeding heart liberals, especially wealthy architects like him. A gang of these underprivileged (led, obviously, by a young Jeff Goldblum) decide to break into Kersey’s apartment where they beat his wife and rape his daughter. The assault leaves his wife dead and his daughter a mental vegetable. The police seem to have better things to do than to catch the men responsible.
While visiting Tuscon on business, Kersey learns that Arizonians just shoot and kill the underprivileged. When he arrives back in New York City, Kersey discovers that one of his Arizona friends snuck a gun in his suitcase. Kersey decides to start taking midnight strolls in dangerous parts of the city and when one of the underprivileged tries to mug him-BAM! He’s dead! Kersey makes front-page news every time. Apparently, the police don’t like this “vigilante activity” as they call it and when the lead detective catches up to Kersey, they request that he leave New York.
I honestly don’t understand the police in this movie. In an earlier scene, the lead detective of the vigilante case has a meeting with the police commissioner and the district attorney. While sharing in bowl of hard candy, they discuss what do about their prime suspect, Paul Kersey. The commissioner and district attorney state how new statistics show that muggings have decreased significantly since the vigilante started killing muggers. They don’t want this statistic getting out because they fear the streets will be filled with vigilantes killing muggers as opposed to the streets being filled with muggers killing decent citizens. The lead detective offers to arrest Paul Kersey, but the district attorney doesn’t want to turn Kersey into a martyr. So we see that that the NYPD has no interest in lowering the crime rates or upholding the law. I’m sure this all meant to be topical, to show the audience how our institutions are failing us, but it makes no sense. They would either let Kersey continue his vigilante activities unabated or they would arrest him and make an example out him.
What’s the character arc here? We see Kersey start out as a pacifist, a man who hates guns because his father was killed in a hunting accident, a conscientious objector who served in a medical unit during the Korean War. Yet, he switches over to killer vigilante as soon as he unwraps that gun his Tuscon friend gave him. Maybe he’s tired of being afraid. Maybe he thinks he’s a modern day cowboy. I can’t tell. Kersey still acts the same around friends and colleagues, still comes off as the same nice guy, bleeding heart liberal. It’s that persona that makes us love Paul Kersey. This is a man we’d invite over for dinner. Or maybe we just want to invite Charles Bronson over for dinner because he’s just so damn pleasant. There’s no creep factor like there is with real world vigilantes such as Bernhard Goetz or George Zimmerman.
Death Wish is well made. There’s no denying that. We may have lost Technicolor beauty in the 1970s, but the cheap film stock adds much to the ugly mood of the picture. Director Michael Winner shows us a decaying New York that audiences first got a glimpse of in Midnight Cowboy. The musical score by jazz musician Herbie Hancock complements the action on screen. The fusion of traditional instruments and electronic synthesizers creates a haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the credits have stopped rolling.
The final scene in the movie has Paul Kersey landing in Chicago. As he walks through the airport, he sees a multi-racial gang harassing a woman, knocking her luggage out of her hands. Kersey goes over to help her, the gang making obscene gestures in his general direction. Kersey forms his hand into a pretend gun and fires.
We wouldn’t get a sequel to Death Wish until 1982, but the wait would prove to be well worth it. The Death Wish sequels are the epitome of schlock, but that’s a subject for another day.
Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47) is an MFA candidate and instructor at the University of Central Florida.