Charles Bronson Strikes a Nerve
Topic: The Box Office
There are times when a book or movie—not necessarily great in itself—captures the mood of the moment, reflecting and magnifying society's attitudes, tastes, prejudices, fears or anxieties. Such a movie is Death Wish, a workmanlike Charles Bronson vehicle, directed by Michael Winner, that caused a nationwide sensation and became a smash hit when it was released in 1974.
Death Wish, based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, tells the story of Paul Kersey, a successful New York architect whose life is torn apart when his wife and daughter fall victim to a home invasion. The wife (Hope Lange) is kicked to death by the trio of thugs (one played by a young Jeff Goldblum) who’ve forced their way into the Kersey apartment. The daughter is raped and beaten. She survives only to lapse into a state of catatonia. The grieving husband soon discovers that there’s little that the police can do to identify and arrest those responsible.
In the mid-Seventies, violent crime was a major social and political issue. The streets and public parks of big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were infested by vicious street criminals; assault, armed robbery, rape and murder were depressingly common occurances. The mugger was the iconic figure of the age and such outrages as the vicious attack on Paul Kersey’s family were only too common.
Thus Death Wish zeroed in on a widely experienced state of anxiety, fear—and anger. The pain and suffering inflicted by violent crime were bad enough, but worse perhaps was the pervasive sense of helplessness produced by life in a lawless society. It was obvious to the average citizen that the police could not protect him. If he fell victim to a mugging or assault, the cops would probably not catch those responsible. And if they were caught, it was very unlikely that the courts would give them much more than a slap on the wrist. Things were not quite that black and white, of course, but that’s the way people perceived the situation in 1974.
All this explains why audiences cheered and applauded when Paul Kersey, instead of resigning himself to life as a victim, took up the gun and started shooting street criminals.
Death Wish isn’t exactly a revenge movie, for Kersey doesn’t go looking for the thugs who destroyed his family. Rather, he becomes a vigilante. His mission: to fight violent crime. His method: simplicity itself. Kersey merely slips a pistol into his pocket and takes a stroll in a dangerous neighborhood or park. Inevitably, he’s accosted by violent street criminals, whereupon he produces his pistol and opens fire. Needless to say, after gunning down three or four muggers, the Vigilante becomes a folk hero to the long-suffering citizens of New York. (Cue loud and prolonged audience applause.)
Why this enthusiastic and somewhat disconcerting audience reaction? It derived, I think, from the fact that Kersey, as played by Bronson, is presented not as an action hero but as Everyman. He’s not a violent guy by nature; indeed, he served in the Korean War in the Medical Corps as a contentious objector. He could be your next-door neighbor, your dentist, your brother, your uncle, your father. But the traumatic shock of the assault on his family turns him into the Vigilante. It’s intimated in the film that Kersey is a bit deranged. Well, who wouldn’t be, after what he’d gone through?
In Death Wish, the movie and the moment met with a bang. A number of similar films have been made since then (including four highly inferior Death Wish sequels) but none of them resonated with mainstream America as this one did. (Incidentally, the critics of the time hated Death Wish for all the usual left-liberal reasons. A lot they knew!) It’s not a great film, but it’s a good one and it has held up well—thanks in part to Bronson’s excellent performance, which was possibly the best of his career. If you’ve never seen Death Wish, it’s currently available on Netflix. (I watched it last night.) If you have seen it, now is the time for a second look. Death Wish is one on the most politically incorrect movies ever made—and I mean that as the most heartfelt of compliments.
Posted by tmg110
at 11:46 AM EST
Updated: Friday, 3 February 2012 11:27 AM EST