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Ed Driscoll

Death Wish: Mr. Bronson’s Planet

July 25th, 2013 - 9:42 pm

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Is it possible for a veteran actor to star in a motion picture that makes him a legend, assures his cinematic immortality, and ensures that while he’s still alive, he’ll always find work, and yet be completely miscast? Actually, it’s happened at least twice. In the late 1970s, Stanley Kubrick cast Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining. The film made Nicholson a legend, but in a way, he’s very badly miscast — Nicholson’s character seems pretty darn bonkers right from the start of the film, long before his encounters with the demons lurking within the bowels of the Overlook Hotel.

But arguably, a far worse case of miscasting is Charles Bronson in Michael Winner’s 1974 film Death Wish. When novelist Brian Garfield wrote the 1972 book that inspired the movie, he was hoping that if Hollywood ever adapted his novel to the big screen, a milquetoast actor such as Jack Lemmon would star. And Lemmon would actually have been perfect, since his character’s transformation from bleeding heart liberal white collar professional to crazed vigilante would have been all the more shocking. Instead, we all know it’s only a matter of time before Charles Bronson reveals his legendary tough guy persona on the screen. Back around 2000, I remember reading Garfield’s notes on his book’s Amazon page, which was something along the lines of, “Would you want to mess with Charles Bronson?”

Currently the cinematic adaptation of Death Wish is available for home viewing in standard definition on DVD, and in high definition, via Amazon’s Instant Video format. And while the latter version is in sharp 1080p HD, the film could use a restoration from Paramount before it’s issued onto a Blu-Ray disc. The Amazon version has its share of scratches and dust on its print, though it’s certainly cleaner than the Manhattan it depicts on screen. I watched the Amazon HD version the other night, and I was reminded that Bronson’s casting dispenses with the film’s credibility almost as explosively as Bronson himself dispatches assailants onscreen. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and apparently, in 1974, almost as many muggers stupid enough to go up against Charles Bronson.

But otherwise, the timing of the film was absolutely perfect. As Power Line’s Steve Hayward noted in The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980, film critic Richard Grenier dubbed Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film Dirty Harry, “the first popular film to talk back to liberalism,” a movie made during the period that then-Governor Ronald Reagan  “liked to joke that a liberal’s idea of being tough on crime was to give longer suspended sentences,” Hayward added.

Which helped set the stage not just for Death Wish, but for the era of moral collapse in which it was filmed, and in which it too became a hit by talking back to liberalism.

Peter Biskind’s 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls documented Hollywood’s near-complete takeover by the left beginning in the late 1960s, but there were a few holdouts during that era: John Wayne was still making movies, Eastwood’s long career was beginning its ascendency, and British director Michael Winner was also a conservative himself.

But on the East Coast, in the early 1970s, New York had essentially collapsed. Saul Bellow was one of the first novelists to document the moral and increasingly physical carnage. As Myron Magnet of City Journal wrote in the spring of 2008, “Fear was a New Yorker’s constant companion in the 1970s and ’80s. … So to read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet when it came out in 1970 was like a jolt of electricity”:

The book was true, prophetically so. And now that we live in New York’s second golden age — the age of reborn neighborhoods in every borough, of safe streets bustling with tourists, of $40 million apartments, of filled-to-overflowing private schools and colleges, of urban glamour; the age when the New York Times runs stories that explain how once upon a time there was the age of the mugger and that ask, is New York losing its street smarts? — it’s important to recall that today’s peace and prosperity mustn’t be taken for granted. Hip young residents of the revived Lower East Side or Williamsburg need to know that it’s possible to kill a city, that the streets they walk daily were once no-go zones, that within living memory residents and companies were fleeing Gotham, that newsweeklies heralded the rotting of the Big Apple and movies like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy plausibly depicted New York as a nightmare peopled by freaks. That’s why it’s worth looking back at Mr. Sammler to understand why that decline occurred: we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

That was the milieu in which Bronson’s Paul Kersey character resided at the start of Death Wish. Flying back to New York after a relaxing Hawaiian vacation with his wife (played by veteran actress Hope Lange), Kersey’s wife is murdered and his daughter raped by home invaders led by a young Jeff Goldblum at the start of his acting career. (Near the end of the film, a pre-Spinal Tap Christopher Guest plays a nervous rookie NYPD cop). On a business trip out to Tucson, both to take his mind off the horrors that had befallen his family, and to get a real estate development project back on track, Bronson’s Kersey discovers that it’s possible to defend yourself against crime.

The businessman that Kersey meets during the film’s Tucson scenes, played by character actor Stuart Margolin, is a staunch Second Amendment supporter who invites Kersey to a gun range, and asks him,“Paul, which war was yours?” That was a common question among middle-aged men during the latter half of the 20th century. Kersey admits he was a “C.O. in a M*A*S*H unit” in Korea.

“Oh, Commanding Officer, eh?” Margolin’s Good Ol’ Businessman approvingly asks.

“Conscientious Objector,” Bronson’s Kersey drolly replies as Margolin rolls his eyes in disgust.

Kersey explains that he became one as a teenager, after his father was shot and killed in a hunting accident, quickly fleshing out his character’s backstory. Evidently, Kersey’s own skills as a hunter haven’t degraded much over the years, since he then aims and fires the pistol that Margolin’s character had handed him, splitting the paper target at the gun range dead center.

And away we go.

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Top Rated Comments   
I grew up in NYC in the 70s and I'm always telling people that "Death Wish" was practically a documentary.

Few things make me angrier than hearing people wax nostalgic about the NYC of that time and lament the "Disneyfication" of places like Times Square. There's nothing romantic about being assaulted, robbed, raped or murdered and the idea that New York was somehow more authentic when these were common occurances is simply insane.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (28)
All Comments   (28)
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Something happened in NYC and the bouroughs between 1955 and 1970.
What could it have been, I wonder?
The Dodgers left for two reasons. The first was that the kind of fan they attracted in Brooklyn in 1956-57 tended to throw beer bottles at the outfielders. The second was because NY unelected government (Robert Moses, to be precise), decided that Walter O'Malley would never be allowed to build a new stadium in his domain.

New York is not yet Detroit simply because the Wall Street pockets are deeper, or at least they were deeper. Give Bloomy and Andy time, though. They'll run out of everyone's money soon enough.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Bloomy is smarter than that.
He knows that by keeping the city as a major tourist hub, he's got a whole world of money to run out of.
Have you seen the crowds in Time Square?
Have you seen the hotel rates here?
This is Disneyworld, as a city.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I never liked "Death Wish" even though I love pictures of that type. Bronson was the reason. He was much too grizzled to portray an average guy who is supposedly a pacifist. I am not sure Jack Lemmon would have been a great choice either but Bronson was wrong for the part.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So the left, and the artists, pine for the gritty lawlessness and fecundity of New York of the 70's?
Why don't they just move to Detroit? The lawlessness and grit are in abundance. The muse wears a hoodie and carries an EBT card, along with a 9mm. Talk about romantic?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I can't agree about Bronson being miscast. The man is not the character, with the possible exception of Stirling Hayden. So seeing Charles Bronson as a pacifist...it was odd but he was actually convincing, I thought. And, of course, he's a very appealing protagonist when the gloves do come off in the second and third act. I think Jack Lemmon would have done a good job but it would have been a very different movie and I'm not convinced he could pull off the transformation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How many sequels were there? I lost track after the third.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Anyone who'd like to see a Death Wish sort of movie with a lead character who's more Jack Lemmon than Charles Bronson might want to see Harry Brown, the 2009 movie with Michael Caine.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Harry Brown" was an interesting take on "Death Wish" since it was set in England. That England has been well described the Theodore Dalrymple in his books, particularly "Life at the Bottom." It makes one wonder at the sanity of the people at the top who create such a world and deem it perfect. The social commentary of "Harry Brown" by the characters was excellent.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
New York wasn't killed by liberal ideas. Rather cities were on the losing side of history. They lost as people decided they wanted suburban houses and automobiles. When the jobs left as well it created a vacuum that breathed in poverty crime and drug use.

This caused the last of those with the economic means to be expelled out to Coop city or the burbs.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If that's the case, then why didn't the same thing happen in Canadian cities? Toronto and Montreal were never like that through the 70's and 80's, despite highly comparable economic trends. I lived in Toronto from 1988 through the 1990's, and its worst neighborhoods (Jane and Finch, for example) never got close to New York at its depths. It was a common trope among Canadians to express pride in their cities while "Hill Street Blues" convinced them that American cities were all hellholes. (It didn't help that for most Canadians, their first glimpse of American cities up close were Buffalo and Detroit.)

Trying to explain the American flight to the suburbs as being driven by history is undercut by the dissimilar Canadian experience amid otherwise similar economic circumstances. It dodges the key question of what exactly were people fleeing from in American urban cores, that were not present in Canadian cities to any significant degree, and have since been ameliorated (or temporarily abated).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"New York wasn't killed by liberal ideas."
wrong.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The later DW movies, like DW2 and DW4, are more about the idea of Kersey being condemned to be a vigilante and the cost it takes from him.

DW3 is a movie about counter-insurgency. It's about breaking the power of a gang and returning power to the police and citizens. I mean, they have people using actual machine guns in an out and out urban war. It has more to do with Fallujah than New York.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
just saw "death wish" a couple weeks ago on cable
it was one of the marathons showing dw1-5-- still love the original and still cannot watch the sequels

agree with the awesome soundtrack without which the movie could not have been as effective - for me, the score gives some credibility/flavor to the otherwise carnival caricatures of the "muggers" (the score of "the warriors" has much the same effect for me)

in today's environment, however -with the glorification of criminality compounded with the overall wussification of the populace, how would the characters of the d.a. and the detective behave today? i cant see any blue city d.a. or police chief wanting a vigilante single handedly lowering the crime rate as well as encouraging other citizens to stand up for themselves - way too much power to the individual for their comfort

are americans even ready to side once again with the likes of kersey or dirty harry? or are we currently too scared of the notion of self-defense?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"in today's environment, however -with the glorification of criminality compounded with the overall wussification of the populace, how would the characters of the d.a. and the detective behave today?"

I assume you're talking about Blue America. You can see how they behave -- just look at their reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

Attitudes are much better in the Red States. While Giuliana and Bloomberg cleaned up NYC, and while other cities such as Chicago and L.A. have continued their descent, the Red States have become more like the Arizona "Death Wish"'s Paul Kersey visited.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The trick to enjoying the sequels is to appreciate them for what they are... comedies. That goes double for DW3.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I grew up in NYC in the 70s and I'm always telling people that "Death Wish" was practically a documentary.

Few things make me angrier than hearing people wax nostalgic about the NYC of that time and lament the "Disneyfication" of places like Times Square. There's nothing romantic about being assaulted, robbed, raped or murdered and the idea that New York was somehow more authentic when these were common occurances is simply insane.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
For a movie which rolled around in the filth and danger but grooved on the hipster vibe I'd recommend 1980's "Times Square" with Trini Alvarado and Robin Johnson as two troubled teens of wildly different backgrounds who cross paths in the funny farm (think a grittier "Girl Interrupted") who escape and hide out in Time Square and accidentally (with the help of Tim Curry as a rebel DJ) start a grrl-power music and fashion craze. The two-album soundtrack was a Punk/New Wave classic for the ages.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
You'd be surprised at how many Americans in fly-over country find the idea of New Yorkers being assaulted, robbed, raped, or murdered quite satisfying, if not quite romantic. Romantic is watching Hollywood go up in a mushroom cloud.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Schadenfreude would be more accurate, tempered with confusion as to why they think such a system is superior to comparatively crime free small towns (save for those close enough to big cities to be infected by them) and disgust that the elites want to turn all of the country into NYC and Detroit, if not Mogadishu.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Most of those making those complaints back in the 90s when the turnaround began were liberals who either were safely ensconced in the few remaining safe havens in New York, or who had the money to live in security-monitored buildings and could take cabs, limos or private cars to and from places, and never had to deal with the horrors of the 1970s-80s subways on a daily basis.

(One piece of future irony about "Death Wish" -- the building Paul Kersey was shown to be working in, at Park Avenue and 32nd Street, was at that time also housing offices of Newsweek, a publication whose liberal dementia seemed to get stronger and stronger the safer and safer New York became over the past 20 years. The madness was more directed at conservatives in Washington than in New York, but there's still a core of NYC liberals out there who will tell you in a heartbeat that Rudy Giuliani and William Bratton had absolutely nothing to do with the drop in crime in the 1990s, and aging Baby Boomer demographics would have solved the problem if David Dinkins had been re-elected.)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It is my understanding that a great many limousine liberals finally consented to the establishment of Law and Order when an old rich leftist lady living in the Upper West Side was murdered by a mugger during the very short walk between the cab and the front door of her security apartment.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Naw, I'm convinced it was an article in 1992 in (I think the "Talk of the Town" section) in which the author bemoans the then-current habit of New Yorkers who owned cars and parked them on the street to slip a "No Radio Inside" sign in their windshields, basically begging the lowlifes not to smash their car windows as there was nothing inside worth stealing.

He referred to it as a humiliating white flag of surrender to urban disorder. I know it sure stuck in my head and after the years of Mayor Dinkins indulgence of criminality culminating in the 1989 "wilding" incident and the Crown Heights Pogrom I'd say even the hipsters were ready for a change.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
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