Death Wish (1974 USA)

Few motion pictures have the notoriety of Death Wish: short sharp slabs of repulsive, sadistic violence that linger in the memory along with a theme–if you like the film then you must be an advocate of fascist exploitation cinema, or if you don’t like it then you are a bleeding heart liberal. Critics of the time hated the picture, calling it irresponsible for advocating vigilantism. What the critics of the time failed to see, as the film became a huge commercial success, was that they had the luxury to sit in their comfy secure high rise apartments as the people of the streets lived in fear of stepping outside their homes. At least in large cities like New York.

Every good revenge film needs a powerful motivating event, and Death Wish certainly delivers on that front. The sexual assault scene, in which Bronson’s wife and daughter are unspeakably brutalized, remains a shocking and haunting bit of degradation that is graphic enough to be a vividly displayed and truly horrifying set-piece, yet doesn’t play out as gratuitous. What happens in that apartment is an abomination, and it is more than sufficient visual stimulation for us to then root for Bronson as he wages his one-man war on crime. However, the savages who ultimately murder Bronson’s wife and render his daughter a basket case disappear from the film after this shocking violation, so in the end we are not offered pathos for the despicable act. Perhaps it would be skirting our credibility if Mr Bronson somehow tracked down the impetuses for his killing spree amidst a city of millions.

But since we are forced to suspend our disbelief for much of the ensuing occurrences, it seems strange that the film-makers didn’t want to fulfill the implied promise of Bronson bringing his family’s tormentors to justice. Instead, we see architect Paul Kersey (Bronson) enact his wrath upon a series of interchangeable stand-in muggers and thugs, which, while this suitably climaxes the dramatic arc of his character, renders the series of shootouts he ultimately embroils himself in rather meaningless.  If you are street scum, and get in his way, he will knock you over with a revolver or a sock full of quarters. He is an equal opportunity vigilante with no prejudice against any race, creed or colour. In fact, he used to be a pacifist who avoided the Korean War. Our hero goes from paradise to New York and then out West (Tucson, Arizona) where men solved their own problems without any law intervening.

Though Michael Winner doesn’t have it in him to make a really great movie this is certainly entertaining and allows people like myself–physical cowards with barely the ability to make it to the local grocery store because of fear–live vicariously through Charles Bronson clearing up the streets as we would if only…. But what makes me truly excited here is how Herbie Hancock handles the music. This is someone who bridged spacial moody jazz from Miles Davis to our time, pushing some sound and improvisation boundaries even further. He also does this with film music. He bases his music on a notion that it’s about environment. You can pick up the mood and use music to build it, or you can pick up the specific emotions of the plot points, and enhance them through music. Here he does both via suspense and New York. The main character, (whom we endlessly follow) being an architect, is someone who bends the environment through buildings while Herbie Hancock bends it through sound.

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Comments

  1. “This is certainly entertaining and allows people like myself – physical cowards with barely the ability to make it to the local grocery store because of fear – live vicariously through Charles Bronson clearing up the streets as we would if only…” This is exactly my life ha ha! Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

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