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Ed Driscoll

Death Wish: Mr. Bronson’s Planet

July 25th, 2013 - 9:42 pm

Bobos and Blowup

Just to get back to the underlying motion picture for a moment, it’s worth noting that Herbie Hancock’s score adds tremendous atmosphere to Death Wish; his haunting Fender Rhodes improvisations and early string synthesizer harmonies set the tone for the film, beginning with the first scenes depicted in New York. Hancock’s previous movie score was for a very different and even more atmospheric cinematic depiction of a metropolis being transformed by “progressivism.” He had been hired, while still with the Miles Davis Quintet, by Michelangelo Antonioni to score his groundbreaking 1966 movie Blowup, which featured a cameo appearance by the Yardbirds, during their brief period in which Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page shared lead guitar duties. Perhaps entirely coincidentally, in the early 1980s, after Winner had chosen to make the first of a long line of (inferior) sequels to the original Death Wish, he discovered that Page was his neighbor in suburban England, and invited him to score Death Wish II, which would be Page’s first project after the breakup of his Led Zeppelin in the early 1980s. Many diehard Page fans would likely argue that Page’s score is the best element of the second Death Wish movie, and for Bronson and Winner, sadly, it was all downhill from there.

In contrast, New York has improved immensely since the period depicted in the original 1974 Death Wish. Naturally, New York’s bourgeois-bohemians, as David Brooks would call them, would welcome a chance to return to the hell of Manhattan in the ‘70s, as Daniel Henninger noted in a 2005 Wall Street Journal article:

The actor John Leguizamo: New York in the ’70s “was funky and gritty and showed the world how a metropolis could be dark and apocalyptic and yet fecund.” Fran Lebowitz, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair: The city “was a wreck; it was going bankrupt. And it was pretty lawless; everything was illegal, but no laws were enforced. It was a city for city-dwellers, not tourists, the way it is now.” Laurie Anderson, a well-known New York artist and performer, admits the ’70s were considered “the dark ages” but “there was great music and everyone was broke.”

* * * * * * *

New York is famous for many things, and the reason the whole world knows this is because New York is a city of artists and writers. Though genius may find its muse anywhere, the Times’ commentators are correctly saying that most artists need to have personal flint chipping at social steel to spark the furnace within. But could it be that New York’s great weakness–beyond the public employee unions, beyond the economic obtuseness–is that its leadership elites are fatally enthralled by a reputation for creative fecundity that has been conjured and kept afloat by the city’s artists and writers? At the center of this New York myth is the belief that everyone here is clever, and so “anything is possible.”

But it isn’t. Everyone here isn’t clever.

Over eight years in the 1970s, New York lost more than a half-million private-sector jobs, according to E.J. McMahon and Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute, whose essential travel guide to these years and their aftermath may be found in the current Winter issue of the Public Interest. During the 1970s the real New York nightmare wasn’t lived in the SoHo funkytown, but in the funkless outer boroughs.

Many of the city’s most creative people in the 1970s (as now) were high IQ boys and girls from Smalltown who fled to the Apple and had the smarts to survive and thrive in a city beset with drugs, welfare dependency and housing stock distorted by World War II rent controls. Hell has always seized over-developed imaginations. But what attractions hath hell for average Joes who can’t cop a “life” in SoHo or Williamsburg? Then as now, they just took hell’s hits in the neck, or left. In economic terms, much of creative Manhattan simply “free-rides” on the backs of the workers whose tax payments constrain the bankruptcy sheriff.

As Kyle Smith wrote this month, today he and fellow New Yorkers “grouse about soda bans and Citi Bikes. Twenty years ago, we worried about being mugged or murdered. Electing a Democrat who demonizes the police would ignore the luxury provided by two decades of safety.”

Who knows — the residents of Manhattan in the post-Bloomberg-era might well be saying to themselves, “Mister, we could use a man like Paul Kersey again.”

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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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks 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.
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.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
How many sequels were there? I lost track after the third.
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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?
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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.)
37 weeks ago
37 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.
37 weeks ago
37 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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