Less than a week after The New York Times’s Vincent Canby reluctantly went to see Death Wish a second time 40 summers ago, President Richard Nixon resigned from office.
On the surface of things, the two incidents weren’t connected. But on a subterranean level, they were. Not only was the “hero” of Death Wish, a liberally inclined Manhattan architect (53-year-old Charles Bronson) who creates a civic sensation when he picks up a gun and starts blowing away muggers – the end-point embodiment of Nixon’s zero-tolerance war-on-crime ethos – the movie’s runaway success, combined with the disgraced Chief’s exit, betokened a country drunk on payback and off the rails.
A second helping, prompted by the fact that everybody seemed to be going to see it, didn’t make Death Wish any more palatable to the Times’s esteemed movie man. If anything, it intensified the nausea: “It’s a despicable movie,” Canby sneered in his original review, “one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” That people might enjoy those answers was surely a sign of lumpen devolution. “If you allow your wits to take flight, it’s difficult not to respond with the kind of lunatic cheers that rocked the Loew’s Astor Plaza when I was there the other evening. At one point a man behind me shouted with delight: ‘That’ll teach the mothers!’”
A blunt wedge driven between the middle and lower brows, Death Wish was obviously one of those movies critics couldn’t stop. If there was any “teaching” to be done, it was left to Bronson and his movie, and not Canby and his exasperated critical cohort. Despite widespread admonition that the movie was whipping up a Stone Age blood-lust across an anxious America, the tongue-clucking simply couldn’t compete with the cheering, and by year’s end Death Wish was firmly lodged in the year’s top 20 money-makers, and to date the $3-million vigilante fantasy has earned $22-million in the United States alone.
Watched 40 years on, when both the rate and explicitness with which bodies in movies are dispatched makes Death Wish (final score: Bronson 11, muggers 0) seem about as bloody as an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, the movie nevertheless retains a certain and undeniable pulp power. It may not be good, and it may not be graceful, or remotely “realistic” – on his inaugural stalk, Bronson’s confronted by a mugger in less than 30 seconds – or even all that coherent, but it works. Like the vintage handgun he keeps inside his tailored overcoat, and like the stonily inexpressive but forcefully present Bronson himself, Death Wish is a blunt tool that gets the job done.
If vengeance is the essence of action movies – and the western, which Death Wish evokes both explicitly by sending Bronson to Tucson for motivational training and functioning as an urban variant on, is unthinkable without it – then this is action at ground zero. Your wife is killed and your daughter raped literally senseless, and you’ve earned both your licence to kill and our endorsement of the campaign. Besides, Death Wish didn’t spring from nowhere. It had forerunners in decades of westerns – the genre which boosted Bronson’s stardom in the first place – and in such rogue vigilante fantasies as Dirty Harry and Walking Tall, and it generated its own responses and mutant variations: In the following years, Taxi Driver would invert its premise to explicitly psychopathological terms, I Spit on Your Grave would re-cast it as feminist slasher wish-fulfillment, Vigilante would recruit an entire private citizens’ militia, and a man by the name of Bernhard Goetz would be dubbed “the Death Wish Killer” after he shot four unarmed black teenagers on a Manhattan subway 10 years after the movie was released. That the incident virtually replayed one of the Bronson movie’s key scenes, and that Death Wish featured a disproportionately high number of black mugger-victims compared to white, was lost on no one.
While the seventies were an especially fertile time for pop ruminations on freelance justice, and it was a time when New York functioned as a global symbol of urban hell, the questions most potently raised by Death Wish have proved more persistent, profound and lingering than those Vincent Canby once condemned the movie for so “frivolously” exploiting. As incidents of gun-related mass murder have attained an almost ritual regularity in American life especially, and as it becomes only too easy to imagine the sense of twisted frontier entitlement that must at least partly drive the carnage, it’s impossible to look at Death Wish and not shudder just a little. The point isn’t that Death Wish caused some real-life shootings, although the Goetz incident certainly compels consideration that it might have, but that it did something movies have a singular and visceral power to do: make violence not only a reasonable course of action, but a just and even necessary one. Like the movie itself, it works.