Monday, July 7, 2008

Vigilante, City Style

Anybody interested in the psychology that has led to an exodus in America of middle and upper class residents out of the cities and into suburbia, starting from the 1970's and through the present day, can catch a glimpse of and sympathetic ear to those very sentiments in Death Wish (1974, Michael Winner). Hell, one needs only look at the film's opening sequences: we open on a picturesque Hawaiian beach where mild-mannered middle aged architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife (Hope Lange) are on holiday, it's nearing the conclusion of their trip and they lament the end of their visit to paradise CUT TO: New York, rush hour, smog shrouds the city, cars stalled on highways in bumper to bumper traffic and FREEZE FRAME on the title...DEATH WISH.

Director Michael Winner paints New York circa mid-70's as nothing less than hell on earth. Even something as innocuous as a trip to the grocery store results in an accosting by some unruly punks. Those same punks, led by none other than a young Jeff Goldblum, follow Mrs. Kersey and her daughter home where they attack, rape and taunt the women by repeatedly calling them "rich cunts" before committing the ultimate indignity, uh, spray painting their asses(!?!). This attack, which per Winner's directorial deftness is not nearly as harrowing as described, results in the death of the mother and sends the daughter into a catatonic state she will remain throughout the film, thus shaking the very emotional foundation of Kersey, the architect, (hey, symbolism!). See, beforehand, Paul Kersey was a bleeding heart liberal. We know this because of a clever bit of foreshadowing dialogue early that, in the subtle nature of the film, informs the viewer of his character's politics. When a co-worker bitches about the poor and tells Kersey that the underprivileged should be sent to concentration camps, Kersey actually britches at this suggestion! The co-worker says, and I quote: "You're such a bleeding heart liberal!" See, this film isn't totally against poor urban dwellers, the idea of placing the lower class in concentration camp is clearly meant to be seen as a negative thing. Totally fair and balanced.

Of course, the police are of no help. And unfortunately for Kersey he doesn't live in San Francisco where surely Detective Harry Callahan would have this case solved within an hour and forty-five minute running time, so instead Kersey is sent by his employer to oversee a housing development in Arizona where he befriends a businessman who extols the virtues of handguns and an old west philosophy of justice which is literally represented in a Ghost Town Old West shootout reenactment. It's worthy of note that the development they are discussing is a community placed in the midst of undeveloped desert that the businessman insist will bring the working class out of the city.

The businessman leaves Kersey a handgun as a going away present. Returning to urban living after a sojourn in the peaceful desert causes Kersey to have an emotional breakdown. He goes out at night, easily tempting hoods by flashing some green, then leading them to a remote location where he turns the table and using that very handgun, blows them away. His vigilantism provides the first satisfaction he's had since the death of his wife, and results in his becoming an instant mysterious celebrity in the city who inspires the other "good citizens" to fight back from the oppressive criminal elements lurking in every alley and subway.

Interestingly he never really attempts to track down the actual three perps responsible for the attack on his family, perhaps this was in fidelity to the source material, the Brian Garfield novel of the same name. If so, it would seem as if it was one of a very few things. Garfield was mortified and felt the adaptation misrepresented ideas in the work, mainly making Kersey into a folk hero. He wrote a follow-up novel to address his concern, Death Sentence (which was itself turned into a film last year starring Kevin Bacon and helmed by Saw director James Wan, that I assume-haven't seen it yet-probably didn't satiate him). Garfield is correct in his assessment, although in fairness I get the distinct sense that screenwriter Wendell Mayes and director Winner tried to bring into question Kersey's motives and sanity, but just didn't posses either the skills or fortitude to pull it off. Conversely, even if you find Dirty Harry "fascist" as Pauline Kael's famous review claimed, you can't question director Don Siegel visual command, the quality of his rhythmic editing style and an embued sense of humor that leaves the film's intent (same goes for his sci-fi/horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers) ambiguous and open for a multitude of social and political interpretations. Michael Winner, however, is a flat director, so dismissing subtext for formal skill is not possible. He cannot even manage any tension at Kersey's first, or for that matter any subsequent, urban retaliations. In the third act, when he attempts to paint Kersey as a deluded man who believes he's living in and by the rules of the old west, most notably in a scene at a hospital after being shot and caught by Detective Ochoa (Vicnet Gardenia) who has been tracking him and instructed to handle the situation with minimal possibility for Kersey's martyrdom, requests his leaving town, to which Kersey replies "by sundown?", it's too abrupt and Winner too non-committal to the task to have any effect.

Ultimately, Kersey does leave New York City for the apparently safer confines of Chicago. However, in the ironic denouement it's shown that punks have infested every facet of modern urbania. In the final shot (both literally and metaphorically) Kersey points his finger, aimed as a gun directly at some hooligans in the bus terminal, and by extension of the shot selection, directly at us, the viewer. Inferring our responsibility (for allowing the ascension of crime? Hey, you can't blame me, I was negative two years old!) and heeding a warning...his work has just begun. Cue Death Wish 2! One does wonder if perhaps a better place for his mandatory relocation would be somewhere more fitting of the thematic crux of the film, I don't know, like an Orange County gated community, or if Winner was one for dramatic arcs, perhaps the very Arizona development that he oversaw?

Death Wish, like the Friday the 13th series is junk, but I find it to be fascinating and even enjoyable junk . Feel free to psycho-analyze me, registered Green Party, in the comment section. Originally, the producers wanted Clint Eastwood (other casting probabilities included Steve McQueen and Mr Hardass himself, Jack Lemmon), for the role of Kersey. He wisely turned down the role. In a bit of karmic payback Bronson, who was Sergio Leone's first choice to play The Man With No Name in the Dollars Trilogy that launched Eastwood's career (Bronson and Leone would later work together when he played "The Man with the Harmonica" in Once Upon a Time in the West a role in which Bronson, if you allow me to speak in the nomenclature of a cineaste "kicked ten kinds off ass"), nabbed the part that kept him working (albeit on lower and lower budgets) until a hip replacement in 1998 led to his retirement (he died in 2003). The idea of Eastwood, a tall menacing white Protestant, blowing away the underclass and in turn, minorities, of 1970's New York just feels like too much to an already stacked deck and harder to swallow sociologically. Bronson, of Lithuanian descent, but having played in his career ethnicities as disparate as Polish, Native American, Italian and even Japanese, is more of a cultural chameleon, and coupled with his age at the time (he was in his fifties), the fact that he has less of a foreboding stature as Clint and his history of playing troubled and/or emotionally stunted characters makes his breaking point a bit more understandable, even if it's cinematically fumbled by his director.

The fact is that Bronson truly believed in Kersey's brand of justice. The famous story goes that upon being offered the role, the following conversation took place between Bronson and Michael Winner (source IMDB):


Bronson: What should we do next? (Death Wish being their fourth collaboration)
Winner: The best script I've got is Death Wish, it's about a guy whose wife and
daughter are mugged. And he goes out and shoots muggers.
Bronson: I'd like to do that.
Winner: The film?
Bronson: No...shoot muggers.


His tune changed slightly in 1984 when he spoke out against real-life NYC subway shooter Berhnard Goetz, although it didn't keep him away from starring in three more sequels after that!

In a bit of synergistic irony, I viewed Death Wish on the very day that the Supreme Court upheld a motion of gun ownership in cases of self-defense as being covered by the Second Amendment, thus possibly keeping the streets legally safe for the real life Kerseys of the world, or at least those who have yet to move out of the jungles of city living!

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