Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Death Wish

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is an architect, enjoying a day at the beach with his lovely wife,Joanna (Hope Lange) She isn't thrilled to be going home from vacation, and we soon discover that home is in the city. They get back into their life quick enough appearing to have a quiet and peaceful existence.
Once Paul gets back to work, he's greeted by news of crime rates by his co- workers. He discusses the situation calmly, making his position known.

Sam Kreutzer: You know, decent people are going to have to work here and live somewhere else.
Paul Kersey: By "decent people," you mean people who can afford to live somewhere else.
Sam Kreutzer: Oh Christ, you are such a bleeding-heart liberal, Paul.
Paul Kersey: My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged, yes.
Sam Kreutzer: The underprivileged are beating our goddamned brains out. You know what I say? Stick them in concentration camps, that's what I say.

Joanna however, is not so lucky, and faces the crime problem much more personally when three young thugs, (including Jeff Goldblum) discreetly follow her home from the grocery store where she's spending time with her daughter, Carol Toby (Kathleen Tolan) Carol answers a knock at the door,and the thugs claim they have a grocery delivery, which she believes. They force themselves in as soon as the door opens and demand money. The two women are terrified and Joanna offers them Carol's purse. Angry that she only has four dollars, they start beating on Joanna, and sexually abusing Carol. They have no mercy at all, even spray painting Carol when they're done, then beating Joanna further. Carol calls her husband, Jack Toby (Steven Keats) when the thugs run off and he calls Paul at the office.

Paul and Jack meet at the hospital, the doctors tell them that Carol will be Okay, but they have her sedated. Paul isn't as lucky as they tell him Joanna has died. We find them next at the funeral, which happens during a snowstorm. Paul indicates he hasn't been home, and Carol seems to be barely aware of anything going on around her. Jack tries to talk him into staying with them, but Paul insists that it's time for him to go home. Paul stops at the police station and asks for the officer working on his case. They bring him to Lt. Briggs, who tells him what they know, asking if he can get his daughter to look at mug shots. He asks the Lt. about the chances.
Paul Kersey: Any chance of catching these men?
Lt. Briggs: There's a chance, sure.
Paul Kersey: Just a chance?
Lt. Briggs: I'd be less than honest if I gave you more hope, Mr. Kersey. In the city, that's the way it is.

Carol is still severely traumatized, shrieking in terror when Jack barely touches her. Paul looks out the window and sees some criminals running and seems to have an idea. He gets two rolls of quarters the next morning. At work, his boss offers to send him on an assignment to Arizona, for the change of scenery. Paul explains that he doesn't want to leave New York for a week or so. Paul visits Jack and Carol (who is constantly sedated and sleeping) He expresses concern to Jack that she's sleeping too much. Jack says they're following doctor's orders. and he has to take her for a change of scenery, which Paul can't be a part of, as he might remind her of her mother.

Paul starts walking the streets alone at night, looking for criminals. When a mugger attempts to rob him, Paul smacks the mugger with the quarters in a sock, sending him running away. He experiments with the quarters in the sock later and finds the sock breaks open easily. He then heads for Arizona, where he meets Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) who brings him to see a fake gunfight at a fake western town in Tucson. often used for movies.  Paul gets along well with Aimes as they work on the building project together. Paul throws himself into the project staying until midnight, prompting Aimes to check on him. Aimes invites him to go to dinner at a gun club. Paul tells Aimes that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, which amuses Aimes.
Ames Jainchill: You're probably one of them knee-jerk liberals that thinks us gun boys would shoot our guns because it's an extension of our penises.
Paul Kersey: Never thought about it that way. It could be true.
Ames Jainchill: Well, maybe it is. But this is gun country.
Paul takes to the gun immediately, shooting a bulls eye dead center on his first try. He explains that he grew up with guns but hasn't touched one since his father died in a hunting accident years ago. Aimes is very pleased that Paul has respected his wishes while drawing up the project and he slips a present into Paul's bag which he's checking for the flight.

Jack meets him at the airport, and reveals that Carol has not gotten better and is now hospitalized and practically a vegetable. Paul blames Jack for handling it wrong, but Jack insists there's nothing else he can do. Paul starts going out for walks at night right away. He gets followed by a mugger with a gun and shoots him rather than give him money. He runs home and panics, throwing up in reaction.

The cops find the mugger dead and it reaches the newspapers. Paul's boss is happy with the project, but Paul's main interest is getting back out on the streets. He runs into a group of three criminals next, but one of them lives. He doesn't have any interest in giving the cops a description though. Visiting with Jack, Paul gets into a discussion prompted by Jack's resignation to being helpless.
Paul Kersey: Nothing to do but cut and run, huh? What else? What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don't defense us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.

Jack Toby: We're not pioneers anymore, Dad.
Paul Kersey: What are we, Jack?
Jack Toby: What do you mean?
Paul Kersey: I mean, if we're not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?
Jack Toby: Civilized?
Paul Kersey: No.

The police start making the vigilante their top priority, Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the efforts, directing them to search for people who've lost family members to muggers. and decided to tell the press they have leads, when they don't. Paul resumes his nightly strolls, trying the subway next and killing two more muggers who pull knives on him. He barely eludes the police who discover the bodies in the subway when people start screaming. Paul smiles, listening to a police press conference, begging the vigilante to turn himself in. The police deny a reporter's claim that mugging has gone down since the vigilante started working.

Paul goes out again. Killing another mugger, and wounding another, who manages to cut him. He escapes the police. The wounded mugger dies at the hospital but reveals that he cut the man who shot him. The news starts covering people who are standing up to muggers inspired by the vigilante. The police try to narrow down their list of suspects to a local area. Paul turns up on the list of suspects, but his status as a former conscientious objector makes them skeptical. Ochoa, even breaks into Paul's apartment while he's out for a walk and discovers a collection of articles and magazines on the vigilante case, as well as a bloody tissue.  He takes the tissue, to match against the knife taken from the mugger. Before he can take things further, the District Attorney summons him for a meeting, informing Ochoa that they don't want him arrested or killed but they want him to stop. They reveal that mugging has gone down to an impossibly low level, which they can't reveal for fear of other vigilantes turning up. Ochoa is instructed to scare him off.

Ochoa calls Paul at the office and informs him that he's under surveillance. Ochoa directs a group of officers to stop and frisk him, while Ochoa is visible parked behind them. Paul sneaks out of the house, while the police are watching. and sneaks past Ochoa in the street, by hiding behind a group of people in Halloween costumes. Ocoa soon realizes Paul is gone and heads out to look for him. Paul heads back to the office to get his gun leaving just before Ochoa arrives. Paul hits the streets.

Paul soon ends up trapped on a stairway by a group of muggers. He shoots two of them and then chases the other two, shooting one and getting shot himself by the other. He continues chasing the last mugger, and when he catches up, points the gun at him and makes a John Wayne reference, saying "Fill your hand." The mugger doesn't get the reference, so Paul says "Draw" The mugger just looks confused, and Paul passes out before he can shoot the mugger. Police find him quickly, getting him into an ambulance. Ochoa takes Paul's gun and tells the responding officer to forget he saw it. Ochoa confronts Paul at the hospital and tells him that if he'll have the company transfer him to an office in another city, he'll drop the gun in the river. Paul responds,
"By sundown?"

Paul makes good on the agreement, arriving in Chicago, greeted by his new boss. He notices some punks hassling a woman and helps her pick up her bags that they knocked all over. He looks at the group smiles, while simulating, firing a gun with his thumb and pointer finger.

Death Wish is a movie which is definitely marked by the times it was made in. It's one of the first major films to show an average guy in a modern setting fighting back against violent criminals. It produced a good deal of debate, as rampant crime was a big concern in 1974 when it was released. The New York that Winner constructs here, is certainly exaggerated though. It's presented as inevitable that if someone walks along minding his business, a mugger will show up quickly. These circumstances that make it almost understandable to walk around armed and waiting to shoot. Paul Kersey, however, is excused even further, as he's cleaning up the streets out of revenge. I find it interesting that he never catches the thugs that killed his wife. Perhaps it's a dose of realism, or a statement that killing one mugger is as good as killing another.

This is the movie that made Charles Bronson a household name. The real pleasure is watching him proceed stoically in his long coat, rarely changing expression. He doesn't throw out snappy one liners, just waits for the crime and executes. He's efficient, and once he commits, unyielding, eventually you could say he's addicted to the killing, as he couldn't stop himself from going out even under surveillance. He's not flashy, but he is believable as a character who could turn from a "bleeding heart liberal" to a merciless vigilante simply by changing his mind. All of the decisions occur in his head. He doesn't need to explain them, he's a man who trusts in his own authority. The saying "you've got to look out for the quiet ones" could have been made with Bronson in mind. The whole story is told in those impossibly resolute eyes.

Death Wish has certainly had a major impact on movies since. The "man who's pushed too far" is a regular staple now, but it all started here, at least in a non Western setting. Winner directs efficiently, getting us into the story as quickly as possible. I believe Kersey's wife is killed within the first ten minutes. We get right to where we're going. He does a good job showing just the right amount of information, so that we never feel that Kersey is a mad dog. Each time we watch the crime, the revenge, and Kersey walking away. The score is terrific as well, which is a result of having Herbie Hancock do it. It fits well in the movie, enhancing but never overpowering. With everything that happens to Kersey, you might think that this is a movie about sadness, but it isn't, although the sadness is there, it's all about action. Kersey knows he'll never find the right muggers, but he has to do something. He thinks like an architect, not a hit man. I can find a lot of holes in the film's message, but I personally view the message as purely a reason to get Charles Bronson where he needs to be. In this world I'll cheer for the vigilante, but Death Wish a long way from the real world.


POB said...

I think Bernard Goetz is a strong argument against the crime in NYC is exaggerated meme. But that being said, these old movies are exactly what is missing from contemporary flicks - movies no longer have any kind of social significance anymore. It's all just so much steaming pile nonsense.

Bronson & Eastwood's movies always had some kind of social ill it addressed. Today? Not so much.

INDBrent said...

Good points Peyton! I don't think they were as exaggerated then, as they are now. I just saw Goetz on William Shatner's "Aftermath" show. And his episode certainly does point to the social relevance of the Bronson & Eastwood Movies!

I do appreciate that, exaggeration or no, viable solution or no, the movies did in some way address the concerns of the times. People were legitimately terrified over predictions of an unstoppable generation of criminals. (which didn't happen, but the why not is another topic)

Topical and socially relevant movies have been relegated to the low budget, independent market. Once in a while something breaks through, but so watered down it never makes a statement of any kind.

Anonymous said...

You are a hell of a writer! If you don't do this professionally you should!

INDBrent said...

Thanks for the kind words!