Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

All of which is prefatory to noting that in Death Wish, the director’s latest picture (and his fourth with Charles Bronson), he breaks out of the pattern in some propitious ways. That the mutations involve a forthrightly fascistic postulate is scarcely beside the point, but I prefer to dwell—because I don’t expect anyone else to—on the aesthetic issues. Locally Death Wish has been denounced, quite hysterically, as “cheap,” “insincere,” “a lynch film.” The charge of insincerity seems to be predicated on the fact that Winner is exploratorily ambivalent about the actions of his protagonist, a vigilante executioner of muggers, instead of either arranging to kill him off in accordance with the Hays Code or show him reading a copy of Mein Kampf. The word “cheap” suggests an insensitivity to one of the most exciting stylistic approaches a director can employ, a kind of comic-strip simplification of issues on a superficial level so that ambiguity may be not only treated but, more to the point, experienced in the kinds of subliminal shock that a Sam Fuller, and sometimes a Bernardo Bertolucci, and maybe now Michael Winner, can orchestrate to almost didactic purpose.

Early in his secret career as dispenser of a kind of justice the police and courts can’t provide, Bronson reflects on the evolution of modern society beyond the pioneer tradition and asks, “If we aren’t pioneers anymore, then what are we? What do you call a society that lives in a condition of fear and does nothing about it but cut and run?” His son-in-law (Steve Keats) responds with another question (and it is a question, not an authorial putdown by proxy): “Civilized?” Winner cuts to a line drawing of a thug lunging toward the camera; into position in front of this flat surface, precisely superimposing himself over the thug, steps the police inspector (Vincent Gardenia) assigned to head the search for the New York Vigilante: he says, “It’s as good a place as any to begin our investigation.” Now that‘s a kind of frontal assault on the complacency of an audience that is just as honorable for a putative fascist to employ as it is for a putative leftist like, obviously, Godard. And I submit that it’s a way in which a man is allowed to make movies.

Winner certainly stacks his deck: Bronson’s wife is kicked to death and his daughter raped into catatonia by three absolute animals (whose behavior is literally choreographed—a bit of an excess even for a caricaturist, but then we may have Stanley Kubrick to thank for it); they get clean away and are never seen again, but all the muggers that Bronson puts .32 slugs into are certified, habitual offenders, not out-of-work family men with rat-bitten babies; and Bronson is never placed in the situation of almost blasting an innocent man just because he reaches for his pipe on a dark street. Winner also uses types as types: Bronson is set up at the beginning as a “bleeding-heart liberal” (his friend uses the phrase) with cliché nice things to say about the underprivileged; William Redfield, his colleague in city planning, is a blatant white supremacist who delivers himself of all the standard fatuities; Stuart Margolin (the chief mercenary in The Stone Killer) is extremely subtle about the business of being unsubtle in the role of a gun freak in a ten-gallon hat who also refuses to have his new personally built community bollix up the New Mexico landscape.

At the same time, in the very fibre of the film, the minutiae of interpersonal transactions, the director makes clear that he knows it isn’t that easy: types aren’t The Truth, but it is true that people in the real world behave as though they were—and Winner sporadically isolates this sort of moral-ethical queasiness with a perceptiveness that verges on the radical. At least since the slick, vehemently confessional, autobiographical commercial Oliver Reed filmed in I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, using his medium to express contempt for his medium, and winning a prize for it at a commercial-film festival, Winner has manifested a devious—but nonetheless intriguing—selfconsciousness; and here, in observing a fake shootout staged in Old Tucson, and observe Bronson observe it, and observing western empire-builder Margolin observe Bronson observing it, Winner gets remarkably close to the sort of quicksilver mingling of subjectivities, the kind of why-haven’t-I-seen-it-that-way-before? epiphanies that we don’t even know we’ve had—we just start acting in accordance with our subtly altered conception of things.

Winner’s style has settled down enough to move some of the excitement of his filmmaking out of the twitchy technique-mongering on the screen and into that area behind our eyes. Death Wish is a brutal, scary, shocking movie, but it isn’t “a lynch film.” It might be, if it pretended to offer a prescription for the more violent afflictions of urban coexistence. But it doesn’t—it asks a question, with considerable force, and it has the power to disturb. Audiences can stand a little disturbing, just as the country has responded remarkably well to the supposedly mortal shock of impeachment and presidential resignation. Indeed, Death Wish just happened to be released at a moment in American history when the possibility of purgative action has been reborn in our collective consciousness, and the vicarious satisfaction it offers is less a harbinger of dreadful things to come than a handily symbolic analogy for what we’ve just gone through on a bloodless, elevated plane.

RTJ

DEATH WISH
Direction: Michael Winner. Screenplay: Wendell Mayes, after the novel by Brian Garfield. Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz. Editing: Bernard Gribble. Music: Herbie Hancock. Production: Winner, Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts.
The Players: Charles Bronson, Steven Keats, Vincent Gardenia, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Hope Lange, Kathleen Tolan [and Jeff Goldblum!].

Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson