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.