Ed Driscoll

Death Wish: Mr. Bronson's Planet


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.

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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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.”