Death Wish (1974)

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*. As with most (all?) rape-revenge movies, a matter of genre protocol has to be raised. Is this an exploitation film?
*. If it was, the label has, I think, mostly expired. This was a controversial film when it came out but now it seems tame. We have become used to cycles of bloody vengeance, and their pasted-on moral-political messages.
*. I don’t think it was as seminal a film as it has been made out to be (though it did go on to spawn a string of utterly worthless sequels). It was a film of its time, reflecting current anxieties.
*. Holy first appearances! Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Guest (not his debut, but still very early in his career), and Denzel Washington are all here in cameos.

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*. I like Charles Bronson well enough when he was given a little something to work with (which wasn’t often). I think he’s very good as Paul Kersey, but some of the other names that were considered for the part might have been really interesting. The list included Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, and Frank Sinatra.
*. In case you don’t watch a lot of movies from this period, New York City in the ’70s was a shithole. And even if you did know that, Michael Winner is determined to make the point right away with a jarring cut from a beautiful Hawaiian beach to a gridlocked “war zone.” Later in the film a trip to sunny Tucson will underline the same point. The only time you see “glittering New York” is on a postcard at the airport. You’re supposed to register this as a lie.
*. Despite its gritty urban look, the film is very close to being a fantasy. The depiction of the criminal justice system, for example, is nonsense. Ochoa has a hunch and so just breaks into Kersey’s apartment? And he doesn’t care who knows he’s doing it? Then the D.A. and Chief of Police both conspire to let Kersey go?
*. Christopher Sorrentino, in his excellent little book on the film, insists on this point. In his analysis Death Wish was never intended to be a realistic film: “Muggers didn’t operate that way, the police didn’t operate that way, psychosis doesn’t occur that way, and the theme of revenge is simply too interesting for a film to turn it into a second job the way this one does.”
*. On that final point, this is a very interesting revenge film in that Kersey never does get his revenge against any of the three perpetrators of the assault on his wife and daughter. I found this surprising. Is the movie making a point that the punks and hoods are all interchangeable anyway, and that if Kersey kills some of them it comes to the same thing?

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*. I don’t really buy the smoothness with which Bronson breaks bad. All of his stations of the cross seem scripted, and he takes to his new role as urban avenger too quickly.
*. Kersey’s vigilantism is understandable, but does it go too far? Did Winner want to show him as totally corrupted once he got a taste for blood? Note how by the end of the movie he has a compulsion to kill that literally forces him to take his gun to the streets instead of lying low for a while, even when he knows the police are on to him. Then when he does get in a gun fight he continues to hunt his prey until he physically collapses, when it would have made far more sense for him to try to get away.

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*. I think this may explain the otherwise baffling voiceover on the trailer: “Never make a death wish, because a death wish always comes true. And you get to love it.” Huh?
*. A right-wing attack on the “liberal media”? No, that would come later. Here the television news shows, magazines, and tabloid papers are vox populi.
*. There are a pair of scenes of partiers hitting the streets. In the second instance (the one with the costumed revellers) they serve some dramatic purpose (by allowing Kersey to escape his building unseen), but they aren’t really necessary. I wonder if Winner thought they had some thematic relevance. Probably not (the nuns, for example, were apparently just symbols of nothing in particular), but it makes you wonder. There’s an air of carnival to all the madness.

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