Death Wish

But who HASN’T been raped in the mouth?
Michael Winner
Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Hope Lange, Steven Keats, Stuart Margolin
The Setup: 
Man becomes vigilante after his wife and daughter are attacked.

I don’t know why I suddenly became interested in seeing this, which had lingered on my list forever, but I know it rose after having finally seen and really liked the first Dirty Harry. That film came out in 1971, and you really can’t mention this film without discussing it. Which we’ll do later.

We open on the beach in Hawaii, where Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson, and his wife Joanna, played by Hope Lange, are enjoying a vacation. He takes pictures of her and wants to do it on the beach, all shorthand for “they have a loving relationship.” This established, they get back on a plane and return to their apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, where they live. During the credits we note that the jazzy score is by Herbie Hancock.

Paul’s co-worker at the architecture firm apprises him, and us, that crime is rampant in the city, but that Paul is considered a “bleeding-heart liberal.”

Meanwhile, Paul’s wife and daughter, Carol, are grocery shopping when three goons come running through, wreaking general havoc and making trouble for the sheer fun of it. The goons include Jeff Goldblum, in his first role, and the checkout girl is Maria from Sesame Street. The goons get the address of Joanna from their grocery delivery slip, and break in, thinking they’re rich and must have money. They assault them both, knocking mom out and ripping Carol’s clothes off. While the women were being held, one of the thugs walked by and idly spray-painted the front of their crotches with bright red paint, which serves to up the implied violence considerably when the women are being sexually attacked.

The movie also ups the perceived violence of the rape by having the thugs SAY things such as “I’m gonna paint your face” and “She’s gonna swallow it” as they force her to fellatiate Goldblum. You’ll notice that Mom wakes up just long enough to see her daughter forced to go down on the guy, then falls unconscious again. The guys take off.

Before we go on, let’s consider that favorite question we ponder every time there’s a rape in film: Is it exploitative? In this case, yes. The way the camera watches the women be battered around, clothes ripped off, the incredibly violent effect of the red paint on the crotches, but the real kicker is the way the mother wakes up just in time to watch—and she does watch—her daughter be orally raped. So in a way it invites us to really get involved with how horrible it is—but since we’re watching a movie, there is some aspect of that, even as we tsk-tsk, that is enjoyable. Then again, the movie IS trying to rile us up, so we want to see those rotten criminals get what’s comin’ to ‘em!

So Paul is called to the hospital by his son-in-law Jack, who annoyingly calls him “Dad” throughout. Here is where you’re starting to think a lot of the stuff troweled on here to show us how violent and insane New York City life is just begins to seem SO quaint—especially to a person like me that currently resides here. First, Paul is appalled that there’s a guy wandering around the [shockingly calm and sparsely-populated] emergency room with a bloody cut on his head. Then he’s furious that a doctor hasn’t spoken to him the moment he arrived, prompting Jack to say “It’s only been two or three minutes!” which—not sure on this, but it sounds like we’re supposed to be appalled at how used Jack is to receiving awful treatment. The doctor them comes immediately, making it 3:30 that they had to wait at the most. And THIS is the big, bad, awful, impersonal New York City emergency room? Incredible—especially that NYC emergency rooms now, on an impossibly SLOW day, would never be as organized and responsive as this. So it turns out that Paul’s wife is DEAD and his daughter is catatonic! Which had me rolling my eyes a bit—okay, maybe his wife had an aneurism or something, but—and I know any unwanted sexual assault is a very difficult and traumatic thing—but come on, they only slapped her around a bit and made her suck some cock! If this girl is going to be catatonic for the rest of her life, well, maybe she was a little sheltered to begin with. This had me thinking to myself “God, by this point, who HASN’T been raped in the mouth?” and then devolving into evil snickers.

So Paul goes to see the cops and asks if there’s a chance the thugs might get caught, and is told there is “a chance.” The cop says to say more would be to give false hope, and that “in the city, that’s the way it is.” Carol is allowed to go home from the hospital, but remains catatonic and still goes crazy screaming when her husband tries to touch her in any way. Paul goes to the bank and gets two rolls of quarters and puts them in a sock, then stuffs it down his pants so it looks like he’s really hung. No, fool, he puts it in his pocket and brains the next mugger—the next inevitable mugger—that bothers him. Because in this movie, you cannot walk four feet down the street without being mugged. Now, I understand crime in NYC was bad back in the day, maybe it really WAS this bad, but again, it also seems like it’s being trumped up here in a way that can only make the movie seem a little silly now. Anyway, Paul goes home and swings the sock over his head in glee, then bashes it down on a chair in sheer delight, until it smashes open, spilling quarters everywhere. Bashing thugs feels good!

Paul’s boss thinks he’s a little stressed, so he sends him to a project to Tucson, Arizona that just happens to be highly designed to fantail neatly with this story’s themes! Funny how life works out that way sometimes! There he meets Ames Jainchill, this somewhat hot cowboy who wears red-tinted Bono sunglasses, and has a large amount of hilly land he wants to make into a nice subdivision. Paul, the evil city person, would bulldoze all the hills down and pack the units close together, but he’s got a thing or two to learn from the good ol’ country folk! Ames wants to leave the hills and space the units apart, leaving “space for life, space for people.” They watch an old west show in town where these people watch an enactment of a fight and then shootout, which gives Paul ideas about fighting back and gun violence, although what it made me think of was the way the audience applauds wildly for extreme violence as long as it’s “justified,” which is also relevant. Ames, continuing his thematically-relevant friendship [frankly, sometimes I have to wish my friends were a tad more thematically-relevant] takes Paul to a gun club. Ames speaks against gun control, and says that while they may all have guns in Tuscon, “Around here, we can walk around our streets and parks at night.” We discover that Paul is a crack shot, because of his time in the Korean war! Ames is happy with his design, and he slips a gift into Paul’s checked luggage, which we know will be a gun. This blew my mind to think that back then you could carry a gun through your checked luggage, then BLEW MY MIND [in all caps, this time] to think that you could carry a gun through your checked luggage as little as eight years ago! Wow. So now Paul obviously has a hankerin’ for a hunk’a killin’, and the weapon to do it with! Luckily, he sublimates all his violent urges into macramé!

So Paul takes a walk down by the river at night, and of course is robbed within a few seconds, and shoots the guy. The cops are brought in, and we’re introduced to the lead inspector, Frank Ochoa [we’ll just call him Frank], and some other guy that looks like Lurch with a mustache—and by that I am NOT trying to say he’s unattractive. Around now we’ve judged that the score is nice and jazzy, but obtrusive. A few days later Paul catches three black guys beating one white fellow, and shoots all three blacks. The white guy later lies to the police and says that he didn’t catch sight of the killer. By the time he shoots two people on the subway, one of whom is played by Saul Rubinek [by the way, Christopher Guest is also briefly seen as a cop]. He has now come to be known in newspapers across the city as “the vigilante.”

Soon he is a media sensation, and we see Paul smiling as Frank gives a news conference, obviously hedging around the fact that muggings are down in the city since the vigilante is stalking the place. Paul goes home, where we see that he has inspired stories on vigilantism in New York Magazine, Harpers and Newsweek, and there are stories on the news about how he has inspired citizens to start fighting back, like this old black woman who fought off three muggers with a hairpin [or something]. Nevertheless, by now Paul has appeared on a cross-referenced list the police have, and they’re closing in.

At a certain point, Paul goes to a party, where we hear a man telling a woman that the vigilante is racist, because he kills more blacks than whites. The woman counters that there are more black muggers than white, and what does he want, more white muggers? So the whole idea of how the poor economy of the time might be harder on one ethnic group—in fact, there’s no discussion of the poor economy of the time and how it affects the crime rate at all.

So Frank is slowly closing in, when the DA calls him in and tells him he is NOT to catch the vigilante—crime is down too much because of him, and the police would look like they’re getting rid of the one thing that has ever done anything about it. Frank still wants to get him, but settles for “scaring” him. They have Paul’s apartment under surveillance, but he sneaks out the back way, and escapes when a bunch of people in Wizard of Oz costumes spontaneously, for no given reason whatsoever, burst out of his apartment building. Of course, who reads a reason for a costume party! New York really was different in the 70s.

So Paul goes to work, where he keeps his gun, and goes out a’stalkin’. He ends up in a reasonably long gunfight, during which he is shot, literally goes cross-eyed, and collapses. He is taken to the hospital. A lowly cop gives Frank the gun on the side, specifically not entering it into evidence, and Frank promises to look out for him. Frank goes to the hospital to see Paul, points the gun right at him, and tells Paul that if he leaves town quietly, the gun will end up in the river and no one will be the wiser. The last thing we see is Paul arriving in Chicago. Some thugs accost some woman in the station, and he looks at them and gives the ol’ finger gun.

Like Dirty Harry, this only works as a movie because it is a one-sided argument. Paul just happens to be a crack shot, therefore he rarely just wounds someone that might seek revenge or identify him to the police. As I mentioned, the poor economy of the time is never mentioned, the better to cast criminals as people who are just scum with no care for the fabric of society. This is why the three thugs that commit the original crime are such wild, anarchistic freaks—they’re just like that! This also casts the wealthy people of the time as the ones who DO care about society, have morals and want to protect people. But you see, it has NOTHING to do with whether they have jobs or not—if they were a good person, they would have a job, it’s as simple as that.

The other thing about this movie in relation to Dirty Harry is that while Harry is explicitly made out as a maverick that is unlike anyone else, Paul here is cast as an everyman, just like you or me, who finally decides to stand up and not take it anymore. You can see this in the way he inspires the public to take up arms. Of course, he’s just a civilian, and the whole thing about Dirty Harry is that he’s a cop.

We’ve already mentioned how the crime in the city is jacked up for this movie, although it’s interesting to think that this movie might chronicle a time when American urban society was just dealing with serious, rampant amoral crime for the first time, after coming out of the 50s and 60s, where [it seems in retrospect] crime was somehow more innocent and big crimes were rare and special. This gives certain scenes an unbelievability—you literally cannot walk down the street at night without getting mugged—and sense of quaintness, when people get all a-twitter over inefficient emergency rooms or be rendered enduringly catatonic over what might now seem like a quite minor sexual assault. Wow, I guess things have just gotten so much worse, we don’t care anymore!

The best thing about this movie, and what sets it apart, is the way Paul really gets off on killing criminals. His enjoyment, morally complicated as it is, gets you involved in the movie and taps into that feeling os wanting to vicariously blow people away, which accounts for why people were standing up and cheering the deaths when this movie came out. The movie is very good at riling its audience up, and that excitement has to count for something, if only accounting for this movie as a touchstone of the time and explaining its four sequels.

Ultimately mostly interesting as a period piece, but the story is involving and Paul’s arc from concerned “bleeding-heart liberal” to murderous avenger is interesting and involving, even if the story is rather straightforward and ends in an anticlimactic way. Amusing enough, but Dirty Harry is a far better film.

Should you watch it: 

If you like. It’s very pulpy.

DIRTY HARRY is the other vigilante film of the era, and is a much better-crafted film that is more aware of its moral ambiguities.