Friday, March 20, 2009
Since I love being embarrassed by things in life, I should mention that until just the other day I had never actually seen DEATH WISH. That’s right, Michael Winner’s DEATH WISH. The original. How did I ever miss this one? I know, I’ve got work to do on Charles Bronson post-1970 but I guess the title always seemed so ubiquitous that it was almost as if I’d seen it already. Maybe it was a long-ago exposure to the Mad Magazine parody. I’d love to read that again. Finally, I realized that I could not continue with this horrendous lie any longer. So the deed has been done. I was expecting a piece of early 70s hackwork with lots of New York grime and sleaze but with a certain primal power. That’s pretty much what I got.
Charles Bronson IS Paul Kersey, mild-mannered, bleeding-heart liberal architect who returns from a Hawaiian vacation with wife Joanna (Hope Lange) to their apartment on the upper west side of the early 70s cesspool of New York. Just as they are settling back in to their routine, Joanna and their married daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are returning home one afternoon from shopping at D’Agostino’s when unbeknownst to them they are followed by three ultra-nasty hoodlums (including Jeff Goldblum in his film debut) who break in looking for money but when they are unsatisfied with the take proceed to terrorize the women, raping Carol and ultimately killing Joanna. As it becomes clear that the ordeal has left Carol irrevocably traumatized, Paul feels absolutely helpless about what has happened, even to the point of confronting a mugger with a few well-placed rolls of quarters one night. Soon after he takes some time away from the city to go to Tucson to work on a project with real estate developer Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) where he eventually becomes reacquainted with firing a gun, something he hasn’t done since the Korean War when he served as a conscientious objector. When the job is done Paul returns to New York where, after learning his daughter’s condition has worsened, he soon discovers a revolver that Jainchill left as a present in his suitcase. Kersey takes the gun, puts it in his pocket and heads out to the park late at night to take a little walk…
The attack on the wife and daughter—particularly nasty for a mainstream film but of course designed to get the anger flowing at maximum--followed by the wife’s subsequent funeral seems to occur so quickly after the opening credits that I was willing to give the movie credit for assuming a sort of nightmare logic, with things becoming so bad so fast that there’s barely any time to process it. I’m not really sure that’s the case though, since this pace continues pretty much the whole way through, feeling like the film was just slammed together in the cutting. For whatever reason, it’s cut as if editor Bernard Gribble (who, among other films, also cut THE SENTINEL and I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S ‘IS NAME for Winner) simply wanted to keep things moving at a (for then) breakneck speed, leaving no time for anyone to ask how all this would happen in the real world. I found myself admiring this about DEATH WISH and I liked that primal power that I was kind of expecting, as well as the very adult tone that even films l ike this were able to have way back then. It really does succeed in making New York seem like the most terrifying place imaginable. Who in 1974 would ever want to go anywhere near the place after seeing this? But it is pretty much hackery, with lots of stuff tossed around throughout that never really goes anywhere. Kersey goes home and pukes after killing his first mugger but it doesn’t affect anything he does. Later on he appears in a good mood, his apartment painted in brighter colors and with bouncy music blaring (this actually seems more like an interesting idea) but that doesn’t really affect anything either. If this is all supposed to be nuanced character development, it doesn’t come across. Thinking about the screen persona of Bronson, the very idea of DEATH WISH seems both perfectly tailored to him and at the same time a little too obvious. What if the role had been played by somebody we could really believe as a “bleeding-heart liberal”? What if it were, say, Gregory Peck? Jack Lemmon? Tony Randall? I did find myself interested in how the three men who break into his apartment (“Freak #1” is Goldblum’s credit) are never seen or heard from again;it seems slightly realistic that they would never be caught but this depersonalized sort of vengeance feels different from how this sort of plot would be handled today—didn’t THE BRAVE ONE with Jodie Foster make it all personal? Never seeing the freaks again makes it feel like there’s nothing to really build to in the climax and I wondered about a possible ending tinged with irony that could have involved them without Kersey even realizing. Of course, that wasn’t the movie Michael Winner was making—he just wanted to send Charlie after all the bad guys on the streets (some black, some not) and make the whole thing one big catharsis for everyone watching. I’m not sure that I blame him. One of the surprising things is that for all the fireworks some of the stand-offs Bronson has with his various attackers has the least amount of punch of anything in the movie. It’s the moments of dread and building waves of anger that the movie makes you feel building up to the chunks of action that really have an effect. I’ll bet that in the theater this didn’t really matter –people were probably just so swept up in everything that all they cared about was that Bronson gunned all that scum down. It’s a graceless piece of work but damn, the thing moves.
Various elements that seem potentially intriguing keep popping up but not much is ever really done with them. We get a glimpse of media coverage as seen on headlines of newspapers and magazines (some are fakes) in a pretty lame sequence as Bronson picks up one after the other but I kept wishing that Paul Kersey would turn on The Dick Cavett Show to see what he had to say about this vigilante. Again, that’s not the movie they were making. I’m also a bit hazy on the meaning of how much it harps on Stuart Margolin’s reluctance to tamper with the natural landscape around his development, espousing an ideal of ‘space for life’ that ‘conforms to the land’. Maybe it’s simply that the character of Paul Kersey has to go back to the earth out in the heartland to gather the strength and knowledge for how to handle things back in the big city, but I’ll admit that sounds like a reach. There’s not always the best attention to detail— Kersey repeatedly gives his address as being “33 Riverside” but it’s clearly on a cross-street, something that was nagging at me the whole movie. Apparently it was actually West 75th Street and it looks like practically half the movie was shot there, including a news report seen on TV featuring Helen Martin, recognizable from 227 and many other sitcoms. For that matter, it’s surprising that real supermarket chain D’Agostino would willingly go along with the plot point that the wife and daughter’s brutalization occurs because these crooks are able to easily read a delivery slip visible in their store. I wonder if that kind of plot point could fly today. Like other films from this period New York is seen in the worst light imaginable but every scene in a subway car looks bright and sparkly, not an inch of graffiti in sight. In one scene where a blizzard is supposedly occurring we can see bright sunlight coming through a window and the final moment, set in Chicago’s Union Station, will be easily recognizable to any New Yorker as having been shot on the second level of Grand Central Station (that aside, it’s a pretty cool ending, going out on just the right beat).
It’s pretty much his signature role and maybe it did turn into a joke in the later films, but Bronson is pretty damn good here, using his screen presence to bring a lot of weight to what the character is going through, even if the script seems erratic or underwritten. Vincent Gardenia is pretty terrific as the police detective investigating the vigilante shooting, playing a character that is wisely written as much sharper than these types usually are (but why is he on the cover of People Magazine?). The actor is particularly good in a long one-take sequence as he gives a speech to his department telling them how they have to track down this guy and makes me wonder how Gardenia would have handled the role of Lt. Kinderman in THE EXORCIST. I was particularly surprised by Stuart Margolin, who I didn’t even recognize at first, as the Tucson real estate guy who puts a gun into Kersey’s hand, fully aware of the “extension of our penises” stereotype. He brings a surprising directness to his relatively brief screen time, making his character part angel (sorry), part devil and part audience surrogate as he hands over that penis extension to Charles Bronson, as if goading him to start doing what we all came to see him do. Other vaguely familiar faces turn up throughout, a reminder of how well cast even movies like this once were, including Stephen Elliott (“Why don’t you forget the moose for a moment!” in ARTHUR), Jack Wallace (young Alvy Singer’s doctor at the beginning of ANNIE HALL), Eric Laneuville (THE OMEGA MAN, but later on ST. ELSEWHERE), Paul Dooley and Christopher Guest seen separately as cops and Olympia Dukakis, sharing the frame with Vincent Gardenia thirteen years before MOONSTRUCK. The score by Herbie Hancock avoids the trappings of being cool in a 70s way but never tries to make the film more respectable than it is. Getting a jazz musician for this was probably influenced by Don Ellis’s score for THE FRENCH CONNECTION but this music seems laid out in a more traditional way and it’s not particularly well done, though it does help in adding to the feel of unease that we should have.
So that’s my first look at DEATH WISH, a nasty piece of button-pushing exploitation as delivered by Charles Bronson, Michael Winner and Dino De Laurentiis that I couldn’t stop watching. It made me grateful that I never have to made my way down those early 70s New York streets where according to this movie I would surely be mugged or worse. I also wonder how I survived walking the late 80s-early 90s New York streets that I did go down and some of those were pretty dimly lit. But more than anything, I think the film will make me forever wonder what liver and spaghetti as prepared by Charles Bronson would taste like. Now I suppose I’m going to have to check out the sequels.