When director Michael Winner’s film Death Wish was released in 1974, reaction to it was deeply polarized. Some viewers saw a reflection of the frustration Americans felt with the crime rate and the ineffectiveness—or even hostility—of law enforcement and the judicial system when it came to addressing the concerns of victims over the concerns of criminals. Others regarded it as crudely executed and dangerously reactionary; it was clearly the kind of movie that didn’t just celebrate violence, but encouraged it.
Who was “right” here? Who was “wrong”?
In the four decades since Charles Bronson‘s star-making film told the story of a liberal-minded husband and father who acquires a gun to dispense vigilante justice after street thugs rape his daughter and murder his wife, writers interested in movies and politics have treated Death Wish as a kind of “true north” destination to advance their theories about the liberal-conservative divide, gun rights, and the morality of movies and their impact on moviegoers. Writing about the film, in fact, can be thought of as assuming the persona of Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey—going out into the darkness and inviting trouble your way.
Maybe that’s unavoidable if I disclose here that what drew me back to the film wasn’t so much its 40th anniversary (and its welcome release on Blu-ray) but the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the discussion of “stand your ground” laws that advance the rights of gun-carrying citizens to use fatal violence in cases where they claim to believe themselves to be in mortal danger.
Between those tragic cases of private gun owners acting as “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” (to appropriate both a familiar cliché and the tagline used to sell Death Wish to audiences) and an extremely disturbing comment submitted to one of my previous posts (Good Times in a Movie Theater), where the commenter praised the retired Florida policeman who shot and killed a man for texting inside a multiplex theater, I decided it was a good time to revisit the controversial blockbuster for a look at how well it holds up artistically and how relevant it might continue to be.
(The comment I refer to that was left on my past post was one of the very few we, and by “we” I mean I, chose to delete from the comment stream. It was a lengthy block of text, and frankly it was not easy to tell if the writer was being wholly serious or engaging in a well-disguised act of trolling—but frankly in either case I am glad to stand by the decision of rejecting its publication. When you cheer on the murder of an innocent person, your comment gets the boot. Sorry. I mention it because the writer specifically celebrated the shooter as a modern-day Bronson, making a clear, enthused, and highly unfortunate connection between that murderer and the star of Death Wish.)
On a purely artistic level, I would suggest that director Michael Winner’s style—or, to perhaps pin it down a little more precisely, his decided lack of it—is what helps the picture remain so potent a watch today. What we do not see in the film are visual pyrotechnics, or the kind of overly musical editing that creates much pure aesthetic pleasure in the dramatization of the film’s violence. Winner’s techniques here are straightforward. It would be incorrect to say the movie is done in a documentary style, it’s not quite that, but it would be closer to the mark to say that Winner’s camera records the action more than it dramatizes it. This approach is aided in no small part by cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz, who shot Serpico the previous year in a similarly unaffected manner. Death Wish on the whole might not be a “realistic” film, but the image-making was very clearly meant to evoke the opposite kind of feeling you would get looking at frames designed by the likes of Bergman, Fellini, or Martin Scorsese, or filmmakers expert with film noir.
The brutality of the scene where Bronson’s wife and daughter are assaulted still feels disturbing and unsavory, and likely this sort of sequence would be realized by a mainstream filmmaker today with much more ecstatic audiovisual detail—rapid-fire cutting, extreme close-ups, exaggerated slow-motion, surreal coloring of the frame, overwhelming and immersive sound, that sort of thing—that could be rightfully said to eroticize the experience of the criminal act. Those sorts of directorial flourishes still wouldn’t serve as the legitimate basis to condemn a movie as far as I’m concerned, but any accusations that Winner is “getting off” on depicting the film’s violence are hard to sustain, unless one is of the position that any depiction of graphic violence or nudity is ipso facto worthy of condemnation.
To what should come as a surprise to exactly nobody, that very disapproval of graphic material on the movie screen, stylishly presented or not, is a conviction held by many, and it is one of the few things that can often unite the left and the right in self-righteous outrage—though in the case of Death Wish, most of the venom directed at the film came from liberals who saw it and the first Dirty Harry film as simple-minded fantasies that also served as “fascist” endorsements of extrajudicial violence.
Yes, the left is always mad about violence and the right is always mad about sex; what unites both factions in these cases is the certainty that movies are not “just” art and not “just” entertainment, and not “just” reflections of our cultural identity at any given time, but objects so hypnotic in their power as to predict, if not dictate, future antisocial behaviors from those exposed to them. This belief is not unique to movies, of course: Just as Death Wish was thought by some to be a dangerous inspiration to would-be vigilantes (and was much referenced in the wake of the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting of 1984), the Harry Potter series of novels was attacked for encouraging witchcraft, and the children’s television show “Teletubbies” scolded for causing gender confusion and endorsing homosexuality.
It’s fun to ridicule some of those extreme examples, but equally valid to point out that few who champion artistic liberty are terribly consistent with these beliefs. You ask a person inclined to support movies and artistic license whether or not they believe Martin Scorsese is responsible in any way for the acts of John Hinckley, Jr., and you get one answer, and that answer might be very different from the one you’d get if they were asked if they believe Death Wish could inspire would-be vigilantes to commit acts of violence.
In his very, very rewarding 2010 short book about the film (part of the Deep Focus series from Soft Skull Press), writer Christopher Sorrentino rejects critic Vincent Canby’s much-discussed condemnation of the movie upon its release, as well as Canby’s labeling of Death Wish as one of New York’s newest “problems,” with an unusual argument of his own. Sorrentino asks:
If New York’s “problems” are different today, is Death Wish itself still a problem? Does a film’s value mutate along with the reality to which we seek to compare it? Is that what we mean by “period piece”? Death Wish is a frozen pose, a piece of popular art, one that reveals a bygone zeitgeist without in any true way reflecting the society that sustained it.
Here, Sorrentino is asking questions not just about Death Wish but about the nature of cinema—questions that have obvious answers to me, but of course might be highly debatable to others.
Does a film’s value mutate along with the reality to which we seek to compare it?
Of course it does. The evidence for that is abundant, but here is the representative example that springs to mind from my direct experience:
A few years back, I attended a revival screening of The Exorcist, which as most of us know, utterly shocked and repulsed and terrified moviegoers en masse in 1973; today, among the same kind of modern-day audiences, it provokes considerable laughter. That’s not the movie’s “fault”—because Sorrentino is correct at a certain level when he refers to a movie as a “frozen pose”—but its evolving impact is an observable, and indeed continuously evolving, fact of culture.
As “frozen” as any movie is, what distinguishes cinema from, say, live theatre performances—which really are frozen in time because in their purest form they cannot be carried forward into the future except by our subjective memories—is the very fact that, just as with books, and paintings, and sculpture, and any other works of physically crafted art that exist as enduring objects, a film’s meaning to future observers who interact with it changes because culture doesn’t stand utterly still, allowing movies to have a fresh, if vitally different effect even though the film itself has not changed. And, if we’re to be honest with ourselves, the meaning of individual movies evolves for us, too. The films you saw as great when you first saw them, even if they remain great to you now, are great in a different way.
That seems to me like it’s a terribly self-evident point, but at the same time, it seems necessary to also illustrate the simple proof of that: The classic movies you saw decades ago and loved? The ones you revere now because “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”? You weren’t thinking “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” when you first saw, and loved, those movies. The greatness of those movies exists differently for you now. Your relationship to them has changed.
At the same time, when we look back at Death Wish now, forty years from its original theatrical run, there is something striking about its most politically charged dialogue. Whether we are being asked to shape our attitudes about gun laws based on the argument that a gun is just a tool, like a hammer or an axe, or we are challenged to regard as a tautology of justice that more black men are in prison and/or dead because more criminals are black men (this is what we overhear as the “commonsense” response given to a hilariously brainless lefty partygoer who accuses Paul Kersey of being racist because he’s killing more black muggers than white ones)—what stands out about the rhetoric in the film is that so many of these heated postures have not evolved or budged one inch. Today, we still hear almost exactly the same arguments being made from both “sides” of the gun issue, whether crime rates are rising or falling. The statistics that can be marshaled by either party to advance their agendas tend to effectively zero out anyone’s ability to reach a consensus on what constitutes reality, and therefore a solid ground on which to effectively make law.
So, is Death Wish still relevant today, or have its themes and original meaning evolved out of recognition because Times Square looks more like Disneyland than the mean streets once prowled by Charles Bronson? You tell me. To my way of thinking, Michael Winner’s movie hasn’t dated a jot when it comes to holding up a mirror to our capacity to be both traumatized by violence and seduced by it. The film’s politics are not nearly as diffuse or complicated as its defenders ache to suggest, nor does it exist somehow beyond the boundaries of artistic expression as some kind of public threat in and of itself. But it has roiled conversations about guns, justice, and cinema for nearly half a century—and that makes it one hell of a movie.
There’s probably one important and very basic difference to note, too, with respect to using Death Wish as a touchstone for discussing “Stand Your Ground” and the Martin/Davis cases: the people Paul Kersey gunned down were, in the story, all criminals who were actually armed with knives or guns. The conversation today has shifted, to some degree, to the defense of using lethal force in response to threats that are imagined by the gun owner as well as in response to the threats that are real. That position is scarier, and more offensive, than anything to be found in all five Death Wish films.