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Ed Driscoll

Death Wish: Mr. Bronson’s Planet

July 25th, 2013 - 9:42 pm

From Bauhaus to Bronson’s House

During the process of adapting Garfield’s novel to the big screen, veteran screenwriter Wendell Mayes transformed its lead character from Paul Benjamin, CPA, to Paul Kersey, architect. And while Bronson looks almost as ill at ease behind a drafting board as Robert Reed in the Brady Bunch, the choice of liberal modernist architect is a telling one, whether Mayes intended it to be, or not.

As Tom Wolfe noted in From Bauhaus to Our House,  numerous Weimar-era modernist architects and other leftwing intellectuals fled Nazi Germany for America during the Depression and World War II, and were received by American academics as “The White Gods — come from the skies at last!,” Wolfe memorably wrote. Not all that surprisingly, American academia quickly became a latter-day enclave of the Weimer Republic, as Allan Bloom noted in 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind.

Beginning in the late-1960s, Manhattan in particular felt increasingly like an extension of Weimar before the lights went out. Reminiscing about Taxi Driver in 2003, James Lileks described the film as depicting ‘70s-era New York as “a sad and empty place — Weimar Germany without the energy to muster up the brownshirts, Rome that fell because it was grew bored waiting for the Huns.”

All films become inadvertent documentaries as they age. They reveal the mores and obsessions of the era in which they were crafted, and those films shot on location reveal how that era looked as well. Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant made North by Northwest in 1959, only a decade and a half before Winner and Bronson took on Death Wish, and both films featured extensive location photography in Manhattan. But they exist almost on separate planets, so great is the gulf between the New York of 1959 and 1974. Visually, that can be seen in the endless shots of graffiti in the 1974 Bronson movie. Which was the manifestation of the city’s seeming abandonment of fighting crime. Or at least, the worldviews of the elites who controlled the city; around the time that Death Wish was playing in theaters, Pat Moynihan wrote, “Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade.”

Hell: The Motion Picture

Ironically, one of the reasons why we have so many films depicting New York’s descent into hell in the 1970s is because of another change of heart amongst its liberal elites. As Miriam Greenberg wrote in her 2008 book Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World, in order to combat the growing loss of film production to Hollywood, in 1966, then-Mayor John Lindsey overhauled the city’s film agency in 1966, and streamlined the permit process for major motion pictures to be shot in New York. This brought much-needed revenues into the city, but the arrival of all of those additional film shoots, thanks to the change in policy by the perilously liberal Mayor Lindsey, documented the effects of all of the other changes in policy the Lindsey era was ushering in. The inadvertent result was a series of films documenting the horrors of the last years of Lindsey’s administration and its successors, Abe Beame and Ed Koch: The Panic in Needle Park, the Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Taxi Driver, and Death Wish among them. Needless to say, these films were not exactly calling cards inviting the rest of America to visit a once-great city.

“Audience Manipulation at its Zenith”

Once Bronson’s character was transformed from Bauhaus modernist to plain-clothes Batman roaming the streets of a nocturnal Manhattan, American audiences loved Death Wish, and moviegoers roared with approval as Bronson’s character gunned down mugger after mugger.  Naturally, their exuberance caused liberal critics to further despise American audiences. Leonard Maltin gave Death Wish three stars in his annual movie guide, but tut-tutted that the film was “Audience manipulation at its zenith…chilling but irresistible; a bastardization of the Brian Garfield novel, in which vigilantism as a deterrent to crime is not a solution, but another problem.”

But crime was a problem that New York’s liberal politicians didn’t seem all that interested in solving. While Ed Koch did much personally to improve New York’s image, it would take Rudy Giuliani’s actual policies to clean up the city’s streets. As Kyle Smith recently noted in the New York Post, “If you think the Travis Bickle era was the high point for the Gotham mayhem industry, you’re wrong. The fourth-worst year for murders in New York City was 1993, with 1,960 (Nos. 1-3 are 1990-1992, the other three years of the David Dinkins administration).”

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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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (28)
All Comments   (28)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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?
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
How many sequels were there? I lost track after the third.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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).
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
"New York wasn't killed by liberal ideas."
wrong.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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?
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The trick to enjoying the sequels is to appreciate them for what they are... comedies. That goes double for DW3.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
33 weeks ago
33 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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.)
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks 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.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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