August 24, 2009, - 3:37 pm
It was repeatedly panned by the critics. But movie-goers loved it. And thirty-five years later, it remains a cult classic.
“Death Wish” celebrates 35 years, this summer. It was released in theaters on July 24, 1974, and was directed by Michael Winner and produced by the Dino De Laurentiis Company
I watched it again over the weekend, and it stands the test of time (thought it’s funny to take Jeff Goldblum seriously as a murderous gang thug). In fact, now in the Obama administration–with police called “stupid” and impliedly racist by the President and our Second Amendment gun rights under attack–the movie is more relevant than ever.
Liberals hated “Death Wish,” because of its message that vengeance and vigilantism works. They hated that the hero of the movie is a liberal pacifist who realizes his way is the wrong way. And they hated Charles Bronson for the rest of his life–the rest of his acting career–for playing Paul Kersey, “Death Wish’s” sly, silent, and clever protagonist who shoots criminals after his wife is murdered and his daughter raped into a state of catatonia. They never forgave him for it. (Ironically, the role was meant for Steve McQueen, but he turned it down.) And Hollywood never forgave him, giving him few good roles after the fact (his role in the TV movie, “Raid on Entebbe” comes to mind as one of the good ones).
Watch the “Death Wish” Trailer:
I first learned about “Death Wish,” from my father, who really liked the movie. It was 1984, I was in senior high, and, in New York, Bernhard Goetz had just shot violent subway thugs trying to rob him (and who were about to stab him with sharpened screwdrivers they had on them). My dad told me about the “Death Wish” movie (of which the Goetz story reminded him) and how the liberals hated that movie. It made my father–a liberal who became conservative when he served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam–a life-long Charles Bronson fan. And I became a Charles Bronson fan, too.
They say that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. And “Death Wish’s” Paul Kersey was exactly that. A liberal, upper class New York City architect, Kersey goes to fancy parties, and he wants to make affordable housing for poor in prime New York real estate. He was a conscientious objector in the Korean War because he’s against guns like his mother was. He wants to have sex with his wife on the Maui beach out in the open in the middle of the day (instead of their hotel room), but the wife tells him they’re too civilized. When he returns from Hawaii and his colleague at work tells him about the acceleration of the New York City murder rate, he responds,
My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged.
But then–once his loved ones become victims and casualties of violent crime–he changes. And he changes the world in which he lives.
Once Paul Kersey starts attacking muggers, the mugging rate in the City is reduced by more than half. He inspires others to respond with vigor to would-be attackers. An old Black woman attacks muggers with a hat pin, and they run away. Men on a construction site beat a thug senseless. The district attorney doesn’t want Kersey arrested because he knows that prosecuting this folk hero won’t go over well.
Even some of the liberals at the fancy Manhattan penthouse parties that Kersey attends adjust their attitudes. It’s there that my favorite dialogue in the movie takes place:
Man: I’ll tell you one thing: the guy’s a racist. You notice he kills more Blacks than Whites.
Woman: Oh, for Pete’s sake, Harry. More Blacks are muggers than Whites. What do you want to do–increase the proportion of White muggers, so we’ll have racial equality among muggers?
And the movie pointedly exposes the problems with New York’s gun control laws (Bronson sneaks his gun, a gift from a client in Tucson). 35 years later, sadly, those laws haven’t changed.
The only part of “Death Wish” I didn’t like is the rape and beating scene at the beginning of the movie, in which the thugs attack Paul Kersey’s wife and daughter in Kersey’s apartment. That scene was brutal and disturbing, and it remains so today. But it was necessary to set the tone of the rest of the movie, and why criminals needed to be shot and killed.
Some of “Death Wish” would be different, given today’s technology. There were no cellphones then, universal video cameras all over the place, and DNA tests that could quickly match Kersey’s blood.
But the message is still evergreen. The police won’t be able to protect you from crime in most cases. Not being seers, they can’t. They’re reactive and arrive just ahead of the body bags. The only person who can protect you is yourself–along with a cold, gleaming gun, loaded and ready.
And sometimes vengeance and retribution is not just warranted. It’s desperately necessary.
My favorite scene in the movie is the ending, shown in the trailer above, when Kersey, forced by police to move to Chicago, mimes a gun shooting at criminals he sees there. The vigilante hasn’t stopped his crime-fighting. He’s just moved it to a new locale.
Sadly, Charles Bronson isn’t around anymore. But I’ll bet he’s in Heaven, thinking as I am:
Happy 35th, “Death Wish.” It’s not about bloodlust. It’s about justice.
“Death Wish” is being remade for a 2011 release. But while there have been many Death Wish imitations (like 2007’s “Death Sentence”–read my review), there will never be any like the Charles Bronson original.
Tags: 35 years, 35th anniversary of Death Wish, anti-Obama flick, Bernhard Goetz, Charles Bronson, Crime, Death Wish, Dino De Laurentiis, great movies, important movies, Jeff Goldblum, July 24 1974, liberals, Michael Winner, Movie Reviews, Movies I love, Paul Kersey, Steve McQueen, thirty-fifth anniversary of "Death Wish", thirty-five, Vengeance, vigilantes, vigilantism